The early sound period has always fascinated me, especially in how studios suddenly needed to find ways to release films in different markets with different languages when changing out intertitles had been enough since the advent of the medium. One thing they did was simply film multiple versions of a movie. This is probably the most famous example of the practice, but even Hitchcock did it with the English language version of Murder! and the German language version Mary. Using the same script and sets, the only difference was most of the cast and crew. The English language version was directed by Tod Browning and this Spanish version was directed by George Melford, who didn’t speak Spanish.
The Spanish language version is often held up as the superior version of the two, and I definitely see a reason for that. I think the Spanish language version is better edited and maybe even better filmed. It takes a very good looking original film and makes it look better. I think the editing issues may have something to do with the Hays Code cuts to the English language version (that’s a guess), but one such example is the introduction of Dracula (Carlos Villarías) in both. In the English version, we actually end up seeing one of Dracula’s brides before we see him after the eponymous vampire rises from his casket. In the Spanish language one, we see Dracula first before we see all three of the brides in one wide shot. It simply makes more sense in the Spanish version. There’s also a moment late in the English version where Mina describes the fear of Dracula at the sight of the sun, but we never saw it. In the Spanish language one, Eva (Lupita Tovar) is actually shown with Dracula in that key moment when the sun begins to rise. It’s a small hole in the English language version that gets papered over with the dialogue, but it’s fully present in the Spanish language version. I could imagine the Hays Office forcing the cutting of the bit because Dracula was too close to Mina, or something. I have no evidence of that, but the Hays Office could be weird about things along those lines.
I also like the voyage on the Vesta in the Spanish language version more. In the English language version, it’s just a big storm with Dracula and Renfield in the hold with Dracula popping up once to just look around. In the Spanish language version, it’s obvious that Dracula is feeding on the men. I’ve read that the Hays Office wouldn’t allow it to be shown Dracula attacking men, only women (though, curiously, Dracula attacks Renfield in the English language version but the brides attack Renfield in the Spanish language version), so this could also be a cut from the Hays Office.
Once the action gets to England, though, the films follow pretty exactly the same path, and this is where the film begins to lose me. It’s mostly that I don’t really find Villarías all that threatening as Dracula. He’s got big eyes and a large overbite, so he ends up looking goofy rather than scary. I also don’t like Pablo Álvarez as much as I liked Dwight Frye as Renfield. Álvarez feels more thinly mad than Frye did. There seems to be less character behind Renfield in the Spanish language version, and he ends up less interesting, robbing the film of the one thing I latched onto emotionally in the original. Also, we do get that missing scene dealing with Lucia (Carmen Guerrero) and her vampirism, but it’s just a single shot of Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) and Juan Harker (Barry Norton) leaving the cemetery, talking about having dealt with her. In addition, I also don’t really like Arozamena as Van Helsing. He’s flatter, and less interesting than Edward Van Sloan had been.
There are other small differences. In the English language version, Dracula mind controls Mina down a set of stairs, while in the Spanish language version he simply carries her. I like the image of the Spanish version better, but there’s an awkward moment where Dracula has to put her down to interact with Renfield that breaks the tension because it seems so silly.
So, the differences overall are something of a mixed bag. Visually and in terms of editing, it’s more cohesive and smoother. That may or may not have something to do with the Hays Office taking scissors to the English version, but all we have is the end result and the Spanish version wins. However, it seems as though Melford’s inability to communicate directly with his cast (using an interpreter according to Tovar) limited his ability to help craft their performances. He’d been working just as long as Browning had, having credits dating back to 1914 (coincidentally enough, both of their final directing credits are in the late 30s), but I would imagine the language barrier hindered things.
I can see why some people who hold up this version as the superior one, and I was leaning that way for the first twenty minutes or so. However, I think it ends up faltering just enough to bring it down below the English version.