Dracula (1931) Analysis, Part 6

A heatwave moved right into town last week/she came from the island of Martinique/the can can she dances will make you fry/the can can is really the reason why/we’re having a heat wave/a tropical heatwave/the temperature’s rising/it isn’t surprising…

Okay, that had nothing to do with Dracula (1931) or Dr. Abraham van Helsing. It does, however, have everything to do with the fact that it’s finally hot enough to continue writing in this Godzilla-forsaken place!

So join me under the cut for the most famous doctor in all of vampire-dom!

Dr. Abraham van Helsing

If there’s one character, aside from Drac himself, who has really broken out amongst the general audience it’s Dr. Abraham van Helsing. Though, admittedly, he does tend to get the same kinds of weird interpretations that the rest of the cast get, too.

Why is this funny Dutch doctor so popular? Is it because he’s the Funny Foreigner played straight? Is it because he’s an eccentric, kooky mentor in the lines of other breakout characters like Albus Dumbledore, Yoda, and Gandalf? Is it because of his implied history, with the locked up wife and earlier conflicts with the bloodsucking undead?

It’s probably a combination of all of those things. And, I’ll argue, this movie had a great deal to do with the good doctor’s on-going popularity.

We’re first introduced to the good doctor in a scene that is oddly prescient to his introduction in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). In that film, van Helsing is introduced showing off to his students at a university class, displaying both his scientific acumen (although his description of syphilis and history is inaccurate), his eccentricities, the love his students have for him and his willingness to just abandon ship to aid another form student in the form of Jack Seward.

In Dracula (1931), Van Helsing’s introduction is different, much more subdued, but no less effective. His very first lines are ‘read, dummkopf, where I have marked.’ And again, we instantly have this version of Van Helsing’s character: tough, rude, foreign. That he says this just after looking up from a microscope establishes his scientific credentials. The passage that our unfortunate dummkopf reads gives us van Helsing’s vampire hunting expertise. And the respect, nay, awe that the other doctors at the sanitorium have when talking to van Helsing, even when they’re questioning him, shows us just how brilliant the good doctor is. Sort of like the insane list of titles after his name in the book (which is honestly impossible; dude has like fourteen doctorates!), but in visual and audio form.

I have a confession to make: this, along with Anthony Hopkins’ version of the character in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is my favourite adaptations of the character. While Anthony Hopkins’ version captures the character’s funnier aspects, like his weird sense of humour and general excitability, Edward Van Sloan (who, incidentally, actually is Dutch) gives van Helsing a much tougher edge. This is an experienced doctor, one who has dealt for too long with human stupidity and death, and is heavily implied to have fought vampires off before. It’s a different take, and one that I don’t find matches up all that well with literary!van Helsing, but I still think it’s fantastic.

And a lot of that is due to Edward van Sloan’s acting. Edward makes van Helsing almost as menacing as Drac himself, flipping between blunt rudeness and icy, obviously fake politeness. There’s his physical acting, too, with his stiff hands lending a sort of creepiness to his gesticulations.

And then, most importantly, there are his scenes with Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Mel Brooks, by the way, does a hilarious send-up of this; where both he (Brooks) and Dracula (played by Canadian Leslie Nielson) constantly try to get in the last word.

And honestly? It’s not that far from what goes on in this film. van Helsing and Dracula are constantly trying to one-up the other. From van Helsing’s tricks (like the mirrored music box) to try and out Dracula, to Dracula flat out hypnotising (!) van Helsing. Fortunately for our heroes, van Helsing manages to shake Drac off.

But it’s this really intense game of one-upmanship, powered by respectful, frozen malice. Drac, you can tell, respects and even admires van Helsing. At least as much as an inhuman monster can. Van Helsing, on the other, very clearly does not return the sentiment. Dracula, insofar as van Helsing is concerned, is nothing more than a dangerous pest to be eradicated. Van Helsing is respectful because he comes from that same old school world of absolute politeness and noblesse oblige, but not because he gives one shit about Dracula. And that really comes across in Edward van Sloan’s acting: he’s condescending as he confronts Dracula, lecturing the old monster on just how he’ll beat him. It needs to be seen to be really understood, but trust me: the scenes between van Helsing and Drac are, hands down, the best in the movie.

That’s it for today, folks. I hope to see you tomorrow!

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