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Schultz reviews: ‘The War with Grandpa' and 'Dracula'

Schultz reviews: ‘The War with Grandpa' and 'Dracula'

Carl Schultz

 

 

“The War with Grandpa”   Distributed by 101 Studios, 94 Minutes, Rated PG, Released October 09, 2020:

In “The War with Grandpa,” after one too many ‘senior moments’ a retired builder still mourning the death of his beloved wife is compelled by his adult daughter to move in with her and her family...displacing his 12-year-old grandson, who’s consigned to the attic.  The grandson declares war on Grandpa in an effort to reclaim his room, but needs to rethink his strategy when the conflict turns into a war of attrition...with his grandfather winning.

Audiences fearing a rehash of the execrable “Dirty Grandpa” from 2016 will be relieved:  “The War with Grandpa” turns out to be a fairly engaging family comedy resembling a classic Road Runner cartoon blended with a 1960s-era Disney comedy--the kind of guilty pleasure you might hate yourself for liking, but will find yourself chuckling over for days afterward.  Alternately puerile, sophomoric and simplistic, you just can’t deny the movie is frequently laugh out loud funny.  The best part--a sweetly inclusive message about the futility of war...and the importance of family.

Adapted by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember from Robert Kimmel Smith’s classic 1984 children’s book and directed by former animator Tim Hill (“SpongeBob SquarePants,” “Muppets from Space”), “The War with Grandpa” is anchored by a nicely-realized late career performance from 77-year-old Robert DeNiro as the widower who finds himself distracted from his cocoon of depression by a tit-for-tat conflict with his wily grandson.  There’s a real sense of warmth to the scenes between DeNiro and the kids in the picture...who presumably never saw “Taxi Driver.”

If “The War with Grandpa” has a problem, it’s in filling even its minor roles with top-drawer talent--an issue which becomes apparent when Jane Seymour turns up as a comely middle-aged clerk in the local department store.  Still, it’s all in fun...although the customarily spooky Christopher Walken in his first big screen reunion with DeNiro since the Academy Award-winning 1978 war epic “The Deer Hunter” works a little too hard to score laughs as the widower’s gung ho buddy.  

No less than five production companies and thirty-one producers (including Guy Fieri, of all people) contributed to this little winner.  Also featuring deft performances from Rob Riggle, Cheech Marin, a very funny Uma Thurman as DeNiro’s left-holding-the-bag daughter, pop singer Laura Marano as his granddaughter, and a shrewd and clever 15-year-old Oakes Fegley as the grandson who’s the catalyst for the title conflict, “The War with Grandpa” is rated PG for rude humor, cartoonish slapstick violence, thematic elements, and some language concerns.

“Dracula”   Distributed by Universal Pictures, 75 Minutes, Not Rated, Released February 14, 1931:

The movie that saved Universal Pictures from financial ruin and created an almost exclusive lock on a motion picture genre which remains a major source of income for the studio to this day, 1931’s “Dracula” nearly 90 years after its troubled production retains its peculiar power to envelope and mesmerize audiences.  The central performance by Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in the title role cemented in the minds of generations of movie fans an indelible image of the undying vampire king from Transylvania which persists to this day.

Released not on Halloween but on Valentine’s Day of 1931, “Dracula” ironically wasn’t originally intended as a horror masterpiece.  Advertised during its 1931 release as “The Story of the Strangest Passion the World Has Even Known,” the first vampire tale of the motion pictures talking revolution was originally planned as a tragic love story similar to the “Twilight” pictures 75 years later...starring an exotic European personality the studio hoped would become a box office sensation to replace the recently deceased matinee idol Rudolph Valentino.

In “Dracula,” after ruling for centuries over his remote Transylvanian domain, a vampire king travels from his ancestral homeland to London in search of new victims...and possibly a bride.  But in the 1931 version of “Dracula,” the atmosphere takes precedence over the lurid plot:  The impressionistic photography by Karl Freund and the hypnotically charismatic performance by its star catapult the picture into the horror stratosphere...which almost makes the viewer wish it were a better picture.

Based on Irish author Bram Stoker’s famed 1897 novel, “Dracula” had been adapted by writer Hamilton Deane and then revised by John L. Balderson into a popular play, the first live reenactment of Stoker’s novel to be officially approved by the late author’s protective and exacting widow.  A silent 1922 German film version of the tale by filmmaker F.W. Murnau had been opposed by the Stoker estate, so the director had simply changed the title character’s name to Orlock and retitled his film “Nosferatu,” resulting in international copyright litigation which lasted years. 

Debuting at London’s Little Theater in 1927, the Stoker-approved version of the play was attended by visiting American producer Horace Liveright, who asked co-author Balderson to revise the play again for a Broadway production.  The American stage version of “Dracula” opened later that year at New York’s Fulton Theater with the Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in the title role, and ran for 261 performances before touring the United States throughout 1928 and 1929.  When the play closed its West Coast production, Lugosi elected to remain in Hollywood to pursue a career in motion pictures.  But while the success of “Dracula” onstage interested the financially ailing Universal Pictures, the studio had other ideas about casting the title role.

Bela Lugosi’s characterization in the title role of Universal’s “Dracula” is so firmly established in popular culture that every other actor who’s ever attempted the role, from Christopher Lee to Frank Langella to Gerard Butler, is inevitably and necessarily compared with Lugosi.  Born in 1882 in present day Romania, in the foothills of Europe’s Carpathian Mountains not far from Dracula’s own Transylvanian homeland, Lugosi’s image is instantly and automatically summoned when we hear or read the name of Dracula...a fact which haunted the actor forevermore.

Surprisingly, Bela Lugosi wasn’t Universal’s first choice for the role--in fact, the studio never sought the actor’s services so much as settled for them.  While Lugosi, eager to establish himself as a motion picture actor in the United States, was the only performer to actively pursue the role of Dracula, other popular actors considered over Lugosi for the part included Ian Keith, Joseph Schildkraut, Chester Morris, Conrad Veidt, and Paul Muni.  Most rejected the role outright--the distinguished Muni insisted in the trade papers that he had no interest in “enacting grotesques.”

One actor skilled in “enacting grotesques” and for years rumored to have been the leading contender for the role of Dracula was Lon Chaney, the fabled Man of a Thousand Faces--the era’s top character actor and a leading attraction at the nation’s box office.  While Chaney’s name was briefly associated with the role of Dracula, his casting never went beyond the stage of a rumor.  Contracted at the time to the Hollywood powerhouse MGM, Chaney was earning $3750 per week for his services.  In order to “borrow” the actor for the role, Universal would’ve needed to guarantee Chaney’s weekly salary and assure a profit for MGM.  Very simply, the cash-strapped Universal couldn’t afford Lon Chaney.

Lugosi was so eager to repeat his signature Broadway role for the screen that he compromised his professional dignity to be cast, even carrying a copy of the picture’s script to London to secure the all-important stamp of approval from Florence Stoker, the widow of the novel's author.  Lugosi was eventually cast in the role...for the bargain basement salary of $500 per week, or a total of $3500 for nearly two months’ work--less than the studio would’ve paid the superstar Chaney for just one week.  Word of Lugosi’s desperation circulated around Hollywood, and as a result the actor’s movie career never gained serious momentum with the studios.

Universal Pictures, and Lugosi, hoped “Dracula” would catapult the actor to the top tier of motion picture celebrities, possibly even as a replacement for the exotic European superstar Rudolph Valentino, whose sudden 1926 death was still fresh in the nation’s memory.  Instead, while the success of the 1931 film rescued Universal from financial ruin, the picture established Lugosi as a movie monster, period...a fact never quite grasped by Lugosi himself, whose command of the English language remained tenuous.  The actor mulishly rejected the role of the monster in Universal’s “Frankenstein,” insisting “I did not come to this country to be a scarecrow.”  When “Frankenstein” became a sensation and made a star of Boris Karloff, Lugosi was crushed.

Still, the actor declined Universal’s offer of a long-term movie contract.  In retaliation, the studio never allowed the actor to repeat the role of Dracula in any of the movie’s four sequels, permitting Lugosi to inhabit his signature characterization again only in the comedy “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” seventeen years later, in 1948.  But by then the Universal cycle of classic horror films was over.  From then on, Lugosi was offered little but low budget productions such as 1952’s “Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla,” and the notorious pictures of zero-budget auteur Ed Wood.  When Bela Lugosi died in 1956, he was buried in his “Dracula” costume.

Almost as vivid as Lugosi in popular culture is character actor Dwight Frye in his wonderfully unhinged performance as Renfield, Dracula’s spider-munching disciple. Frye’s iconic characterization as Renfield, coupled with his performance as the sadistic laboratory assistant Fritz in “Frankenstein” later that same year, likewise derailed his movie career.  By World War II Frye was working on an assembly line in a munitions factory.  Attempting a professional comeback, Frye was cast as Secretary of War Newton Baker in the big budget 1944 biographical picture “Wilson,” but died of a sudden heart attack prior to the film’s production.

A former carnival barker who’d travelled extensively with circuses and sideshows and was obsessed with the oddities on the periphery of society, director Tod Browning had established himself as a major force in silent films...many in collaboration with actor Lon Chaney, with whom Browning made ten pictures.  But alcoholism and depression had led to a strain between Browning and his employers at MGM, as well as between the director and his star.  When Chaney remade their 1925 silent hit “The Unholy Three” in 1930 as his first (and only) talking picture, he declined to have Browning return as the director.  MGM released Browning from his contract shortly afterward.

The opportunity to direct the high-profile “Dracula” for Universal was a godsend for Tod Browning...and likely one source of the rumors associating Chaney with the picture.  While Browning had worked at Universal earlier in his career, his usually meticulous attention to production details had begun to erode by the time of the 1931 film.  Reportedly the filming of “Dracula” was a disorganized mess, with Browning allowing cinematographer Karl Freund to take over filmmaking duties for much of the production.  As a result, “Dracula” is vividly photographed, especially during the opening Transylvanian sequence...but almost empty dramatically and emotionally  

“Dracula” often moves like a photographed record of the stage production, alternating with scenes which seem as stagey as a silent film.  Even with a running time of only 75 minutes, the picture seems much, much longer.  The absence of a music score in the background, by 1931 a motion picture staple, is glaringly obvious.  For its 1999 re-release on home video, Universal Pictures commissioned influential minimalist composer Philip Glass to write and record a music score for “Dracula” and the improvement is palpable.  Performed by a string quartet, the music score turns “Dracula” into a different picture. 

An alternate Spanish-language version of “Dracula” directed by George Melford and starring Spanish actor Carlos Villarias was produced on the same sets simultaneous to the 1931 production during the nights after the Browning/Lugosi version had completed filming for the day.  Except for the signature performances from Lugosi and Frye, the Spanish version of “Dracula” is actually superior to the more familiar English version, with better production values, smoother pacing, and a longer running time of 104 minutes.

"Dracula" originally contained a brief epilogue in which actor Edward Van Sloan in his film persona as vampire hunter Professor Van Helsing seemingly emerged from behind the screen and delivered a short and very Halloween-worthy curtain speech which concluded with the words, "Remember...there are such things as vampires."  The scene was ordered removed by the party poopers enforcing the Motion Picture Production Code during the picture's 1936 re-release and has never been restored, although the footage appears in a few documentaries.

Also starring Helen Chandler and David Manners, "Dracula" is not rated but is PG in nature for scenes of implied violence and thematic elements.

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