Dracula and the Fair Housing Act of 1968
Today we remember the 75th anniversary of the original release of the Tod Browning film classic, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. This commemoration, of course, inevitably leads me to contemplate the enactment of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Huh? What, you say, does a movie about vampires have to do with a piece of federal legislation designed to prohibit discrimination in sales and rentals of housing based on race, religion, sex, national origin or disability?
Well, Dracula may have looked like a movie about vampires, but I would argue that Dracula was actually a film about the nexus between immigration, bigotry and real estate – in effect, about housing discrimination.
Movies are undoubtedly products of their time -- and although this film was based upon a play that was based upon Bram Stoker’s turn-of-the-century novel, and although the setting of the film is largely in Yorkshire and London, the movie was made in Hollywood, and rather obviously reflected then-current American concerns.
In 1931, America was gripped by the Depression – a period marked by poverty and high unemployment rates. Not unlike today, when politicians like Tom Tancredo and commentators such as Lou Dobbs draw connections between a soft job market and the influx of new immigrants, the height of the Depression was also a height of American anti-immigrant sentiment. During the 1920s, American immigration policy permitted an average of 400,000 legal immigrants per year into the U.S. – many of them coming, during the most recent wave of immigration, as refugees from Central European conflicts. After the Stock Market Crash of 1929, both President Hoover and President Roosevelt clamped down on legal immigration, to the point that by the end of the 1930s, legal immigration to the U.S. was down to about 50,000 people per year – all this amid a deep distrust of Central European immigrants that mirrored the distrust of Western European immigrants at the end of the 19th century. Concomitantly, banks, insurance companies and even the Federal Housing Administration actively engaged in ethnic clustering of neighborhoods, discouraging or refusing to grant mortgages to social climbing ethnic families who wished to settle down in WASP-y neighborhoods.
All of which, of course, brings us back to Dracula. The movie begins with a real estate agent named Renfield, played by Dwight Frye, traveling through the Transylvanian countryside (located, conveniently, in Central Europe) to meet with a client, Count Dracula. As Karl Freund’s tracking shots take us through Dracula’s eerie crypt, we have no doubt that the Transylvanian is one scary, evil dude. This is moments later subtly confirmed as we discover the Count has three “wives.” Tsk, tsk -- these Central Europeans have no morals.
At any rate, the heavily-accented, sharp-featured Count -- played by Bela Lugosi, himself a circa-1920s Hungarian immigrant to the U.S. – has called upon Renfield to arrange for a lease of Carfax Abbey in Yorkshire, subject to the strictest confidentiality. “I trust you have kept your coming here . . . a secret?” the Count asks pointedly. Better, after all, to ambush the WASPs then give them enough warning to put up barriers to his entry.
Representing a style of classic old-school open-borders liberal, Renfield gives the future immigrant the benefit of the doubt and indulges the Count’s requests. A lease is signed, and they set sail for Whitby. By the time they arrive in England, however, Renfield is more than compliant – he is now completely under the spell of the Central European and his strange customs, driven to madness and deposited in a local sanitarium.
Once in England, Dracula wastes no time in going after what he really wants – English women. This, of course, is the unspoken fear of every xenophobe – not that the foreigner will take my job, but that he’ll take my daughter. A Soho flower girl meets her end without ceremony, and as suspicions mount, Dracula meets Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston), the head of the sanitarium and his new neighbor, at a concert. Seward and his future son-in-law, John Harker (David Manners -- a Canadian actor playing a British gent as though he were an upper-middle class American) are immediately unnerved by the Count’s success with the women in their party, Dr. Seward’s daughter Mina (blonde, ivory-complexioned Helen Chandler) and her friend Lucy (Frances Dade, also blonde and fair). But when Dr. Seward mentions to the assembly that Dracula has rented Carfax Abbey, Harker momentarily takes on a hopeful note:
HARKER: The abbey could be very attractive, but I should imagine it will need quite extensive repair.Oh, great, Harker thinks – the foreigner is moving in next door, and his junky place is going to drive down our property values.
DRACULA: I shall do very little repairing. It reminds me of the broken battlements of my own castle . . . in Transylvania.
When Lucy succumbs (literally) to the Count’s seductive power, Dr. Seward calls in Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) – an educated, erudite Western European immigrant, which makes him okay – to help solve the case. Van Helsing immediately suspects the Count of deviant behavior, and proves the point by revealing that the Count has no reflection in a mirror. Why doesn’t the Count have a reflection? Heck, do we think Dr. Seward would actually permit the likeness of a foreigner to be framed in his house? It is the collective preference of Seward and his WASP-y friends that the Count should be invisible. The crafty Count, however, tries his best to dismiss the Professor even as he compliments him, noting upon his introduction to the Professor that he is “a most distinguished scientist whose name we know . . . even in the wilds of Transylvania.” [Emphasis on “the wilds,” you know.]
But even as the Count begins to work his fatal charm on Mina, the Professor closes his net on the Count. In a classic confrontation between the good immigrant and the bad immigrant, the Count tries to intimidate the Professor:
DRACULA: Van Helsing! Now that you have learned what you have learned, it would be well for you to return to your own country.How presumptuous of this Central European to be laying claim to this country. Has he no shame?
HELSING: I prefer to remain and protect those whom you would destroy.
DRACULA: You are too late. My blood now flows through her veins.
Such innuendo – this pointy-eared foreigner shouldn’t talk that way about our blonde heroine!
HELSING: . . . I will have Carfax Abbey torn down stone by stone, excavated a mile around. I will find your earth box and drive that stake through your heart.
In effect -- I will remove all evidence of your immigrant hide, my friend.
In a last ditch effort to turn Mina into “the foul thing of the night that he is” (the Professor’s words), the Count kidnaps Mina and takes her to Carfax Abbey. Harker and the Professor take off after them in pursuit, culminating in the Professor driving a wooden stake through the heart of the Count.
MINA: Oh, John! John, darling! I heard you calling, but I couldn't say anything.And the movie abruptly ends. Either the Professor is already beginning to dismantle Carfax Abbey, or he’s preparing to rent it for himself.
HARKER: We thought he'd killed you, dear.
MINA: The daylight stopped him. Oh, if you could have seen the look on his face!
HELSING: There's nothing more to fear, Miss Mina. Dracula is dead forever. No, no, no! You must go.
MINA: But aren't you coming with us?
HELSING: Not yet. Presently.
As I said, movies are undoubtedly products of their times. A mere 37 years later, Congress’ passage of the Fair Housing Act would signal a change of attitude toward ethnic-based housing discrimination – and would certainly have given the Count the right to live in a WASP-y neighborhood without the fear of getting a stake driven through his heart.
Or maybe not. In today’s political climate, would it surprise me to see the release of a remake of Dracula, featuring a Spanish-speaking, Asian or Arabic vampire? Fair Housing Act or no Fair Housing Act -- no, it would not surprise me in the least.
[Dracula, which was originally released without a musical score, has since become available on DVD with an optional score by Philip Glass -- a composer whom many of my friends view to be as terrifying as Dracula himself. Nonetheless, it is a splendid treatment, and highly recommended.]