Mike Gallegos for NPR
In 1931, Universal Studios shot its classic horror film Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi as the bloodsucking count from Transylvania. But after production wrapped for the day, an entirely new cast and crew arrived at night to redo all the scenes in Spanish.
This version of Dracula en Español starred Carlos Villarías as the caped vampire out for blood. He had been a stage actor in Spain and his resemblance to Bela Lugosi was uncanny, said the late actress Lupita Tovar, who played the lovely Eva.
“There were so much alike, but the main difference was their hands,” she said in a video for the complete legacy collection of Dracula. “Lugosi had long, long fingers, you know, and Carlos Villarías has got shorter fingers.”
Tovar reminisced about working the graveyard shift. “We shot all night long till next morning because we used exactly the same sets. As matter of fact, we had the same marks the English cast got, we stepped in the same place.”
She remembered the creepy scenery and its dark shadows, lit candles and cobwebs.
“Once you went into that set, it was a different world. You became under the spell of Dracula,” she said. “You know, if anybody will touch me, I think I would scream. I was frightened. I really felt scared of Dracula, you know?”
The actors were from different Spanish-speaking countries, but director George Melford didn’t speak the language. His directions were translated for the cast and crew.
“We wanted our version to be the best,” Tovar said. “And according to the critics, I think it was.”
By all accounts, that’s true. This version of Dracula was 29 minutes longer than the English version.
Tovar’s son, Pancho Kohner, said Melford and Villarías would watch scenes shot during the day and make improvements. They were able to set up better camera angles and add more exciting elements.
“They didn’t have to contend with the Hays Office, the censorship,” Kohner said from his home in LA’s Pacific Palisades neighborhood. “My mother wore a low-cut negligee and it was very sexy. My father, who was in love with my mother, he was on the set. He was producing it, made sure that it was a better film.”
Kohner, who became a producer like his father, helped his mother write her memoirs before she died in 2016, at age 106. He says she was a high school student in Oaxaca when Robert J. Flaherty, the director of the film Nanook of the North, discovered her. Fox Studios had sent him to find the most beautiful girl in Mexico.
“My mother came down to Hollywood with her Irish grandmother as her chaperone,” Kohner said. Tovar spent a year at Fox Studios doing small bits, but she didn’t speak English. “When talkies came in, they weren’t going to renew her contract.”
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Someone at Fox recommended her to Universal Studios, where she met the head of dubbing, Paul Kohner, “who instantly fell in love with her,” according to their son.
Tovar was reluctantly getting ready to head back to Mexico, but getting her signed on to do Dracula in Spanish was part of Kohner’s plan, said Chris Weitz, the grandson of Tovar and Kohner, who were married for more than 50 years.
Weitz is now a well-known film director. So is his brother, Paul. Together, the Weitz brothers are writing a script for a movie about the making of Spanish Dracula. Pancho Kohner, their uncle, will produce it.
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“It is a love story between two immigrants,” explained Paul Kohner. “Our grandfather was from what would now be the Czech Republic. So he was part of the European Jewish émigré community. And then our grandma was from a completely different immigrant community.”
Chris Weitz said Spanish Dracula could also be seen as an immigrant story: “Dracula comes over from Transylvania to England and is generally considered bad news. He’s a bloodsucker He’s a parasite. This is a kind of view of immigrants, as opposed to what we really believe about the role of immigrants in this country, which is they’re the lifeblood of how the country works.”
For a time, in the 1930s, hundreds of movies were reshot not only in Spanish but French, German and Italian. It was a mini-boom in Hollywood, before the film industries in other countries geared up, and before dubbing or subtitles came into vogue.
And now, in addition to Spanish Dracula the movie, there will soon be a TV series on Vix+, the new streaming service by TelevisaUnivision.
“It’s a single cam workplace comedy,” said producer Ben Odell. “It starts with the gathering of the cast, sort of like an Ocean’s Eleven. Once we set it up, it’s about this kind of cast of quirky characters trying to make this thing, which ends up being great.”
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Odell said this production will be shot in Mexico, with actor Eugenio Derbez directing and starring as Dracula. Odell said in their version, that the actor who plays Dracula is a ham. “He loves the attention, he loves the applause. He’s a theater actor, so he’s disgusted by the movie business. When he’s offered this movie role, he turns it down at first. He’s like, ‘don’t they know who I am?'”
The Lupita Tovar character is based on stories from her memoir. “Lupita was very afraid of her father, who was an alcoholic, and was abusive. So it’s this idea there’s this monster at home,” said Odell. “She doesn’t want to go back to Mexico. With the silent era ending. She thinks she may be forced to go back.”
Odell explained that the cast and crew of the original Spanish Dracula worked under the worst circumstances.
“They had to come in at night and work crappy hours and they had a lower budget, but they ended up making a better movie,” he said. “That’s such a great American immigrant story and such a great Latino story because oftentime coming to this country, you have to work harder, you have less support, less opportunities, and you still have to try to deliver. And they overdeliver it, as often is the case. So it just it was a beautiful kind of underdog immigrant story.”
This story is part of our five-part Latinos in Hollywood series, which pays tribute to some of the legends and pioneers in the film industry and examines how some Latinx actors, film composers and directors are getting or creating more opportunities.