First time theatrical viewing for both versions, and first ever for the Spanish.
-When you watch this on TV, the first thing you're losing is the incredible size and detail of the castle sets along with Renfield being pulled into environments consisting of nothing but black or grey. There is a reason there are so many slow, distant shots of Dracula and Renfield at the beginning after the conventional shooting of the coach ride and village stopover--Renfield begins being dominated and controlled by the history of Dracula and his previous victims even before he can get to the castle and he stays that way through his corruption. When the film begins returning to 'normal' after the terrifying journey to England in the doomed cargo ship (as new viewers can see in the theatrical screenings this week, this scene is not in the Spanish version, only the aftermath), Lugosi's characterization has been extremely well set up in its ominous, darkly enveloping grasp.
-There is no way of continuing my impressions without communicating an incredible debt to Lugosi. The washed-out, stunningly grainy prints that were provided for infinite numbers of TV broadcasts for decades did an incredible wrong to his attempt to imbue virility, charm, and morbid focus to his interpretation (when he bends over just slightly during his first visit to the Seward household the rigid yet graceful motion and stretch of his torso and muscles indicate a fully grown man who can hold his own). Each closeup of his ghostly, icy face (which recede in number as the film proceeds) and the way they're interspersed in the editing is much more conducive to the mood and propulsion of a full theatrical presentation, and not on the shrunk, telescoped manner of a home TV monitor (the film gets more 'comfortable' and balanced--one might even say predictable--in its staging as it gets to the second half, and becomes more dependent on the 19th Century-type John Balderston narrative.)
There was criticism for decades though for some of the support cast (David Manners as John Harker was the particular target of some completely unfair opinions) and, again, an objective big-screen evaluation should rectify most if not all of that. The story though is and always will be Dracula's--the other characters have to react to him in order to convey actual human fear or dread of mortality. I have to admit for instance that I can finally understand Helen Mack's attractiveness as Mina (although I believe it was deliberately downplayed more than it could have been; the Spanish version for instance has no hesitation about even exploiting it); a correctly timed print or transfer brings out her softer and fetching physical appeal--I'm sure it was one of the reasons why she was cast--and the actress along with her sidekick Frances Dade as Lucy (for whatever reason, I figure it was director Tod Browning's influence) underplay the character's understanding of their predicaments without violating them (some audience members may actually prefer this approach to the occasional female hysteria and violence imbued in, say, the Hammer Films productions 2-4 decades later). Additionally, the problem David Manners faced was completely new for its time: how does the male romantic lead in a film gather useful information or inspire action when his lover is supposed to be dying and he has nothing central to do with its solution? My feeling based on this viewing was either himself or Tod Browning kept him--when he wasn't comforting Mina--staged as often as reasonable directly next to medical investigator Prof. Van Helsing (a marvelously pointillist performance by Edward Van Sloane, with whose parched look and edifying conclusions make him never seem outwitted by Dracula). Harker is genuinely committed to Mina throughout the runtime of the film (the formalism of the times then makes 'love' not quite the right word) and Manners serves the character in a quiet but still perceptive and masculine way, nowhere near the 'Heathcliff' approach that dates a lot of films from the thirties (in fact this is so close to 1929 that one could almost legitimately place the film in the Twenties).
-In comparison to the Spanish version directed--one might say 'assembled'--by George Melford, this viewer will always give Browning's the prize. Melford at first seems like he indeed is directing the 'real' Dracula movie instead of the English version, and at first the brighter shots, additional extras, and dedicated views of the characters walking within the sets make one genuinely excited at a new rare find, like Tutkanhamen's Tomb or Welles' original preview cut of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS. But within minutes, a sad but agreeable, muddling realization is forming. Certainly, the Spanish Dracula deserves at least one viewing in life for such an admirable acknowledgment of the growing Spanish market, and such actors as Carlos Villarias as Dracula, Lupita Tovar as Eva nee' Mina, and the beefy Eduardo Arozamena as Van Helsing seems like they will soon coalesce like the Browning version into the tightly-grouped, charismatic ensemble contained in its English-language counterpart. Instead, it almost feels like Melford was auditioning to work at MGM with a horror film that Irving Thalberg would like. The film doesn't seem at all to relate in a witty or horribly frightening way to Stoker, although it tries to be 'well-staged' and sexually compelling in a way American films could not have equalled. Villarias' vampire (one has to admit there were almost no screen vampires of the time to work beyond) seems more comparable to a crazed mummers' theatrical idea of the character, more comparable to the chillingly-grinning visage of Conrad Veidt in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS than an emissary from the underworld.
-Finally, the audience I viewed this film with--and one has to understand live theatrical stage concepts being introduced into sound horror films--was quietly accepting and non-critical of either film, and it was great to see both much more the way they were intended.
Good comments, "Southbase". However, Mina is played by Helen Chandler and not Helen Mack (she's in Son of Kong).
Thank you for the correction; I should also note my admiration of a biographical article I have from several years ago on Ms. Chandler from the magazine "Cult Movies."