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Friday, September 7, 2012

Nosferatu at 90: Florence Stoker, Vampire Hunter

The year is 1912. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, has passed away. Some attribute the cause to syphilis. Left behind is his beautiful wife, Florence Anne Lemon Stoker, née Balcombe, a demure and striking stage actress when she married the Irish theatrical agent in 1878 at the age of 20. Now a widow in her 50s, with one grown son starting a family of his own, Florence finds herself struggling financially--a sad burden compounded no doubt by the rumors surrounding her husband's death. Ironically, the one thing that remained to her as far as financial means was the copyright to her late husband's famous vampire novel.

Fast forward a decade. A relatively new entertainment medium, cinema, is finally hitting its full stride and one of the epicenters of the explosion is Germany, where an Expressionist movement is taking the country by storm. A small art collective known as Prana Films, spearheaded by artist and spiritualist Albin Grau, produces a vampire film called Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie des Grauens, whose screenplay, penned by Henrik Galeen, has taken for its direct inspiration Stoker's Dracula. However, to avoid having to pay anything for intellectual rights, Prana Films never seeks permission from Florence Stoker, still alive and well in Britain. The names and places in the silent film are all changed from the novel in a naive attempt to avoid infringement. Count Dracula becomes Count Orlock.

Florence Balcombe, sketched by her former
love interest, Oscar Wilde.

On March 4, 1922, Nosferatu enjoys a lavish premiere at Marble Hall of the Berlin Zoological Gardens, complete with live musical accompaniment and sound effects. The following month, Florence Stoker receives an anonymous letter from Berlin, containing a program from the premiere. The program directly states that Nosferatu has been "freely adapted from Bram Stoker's Dracula". Having received no permission requests, nor even being aware of the film's existence up to this point, the 62-year-old widow, still depending on whatever income she can get from the novel's copyright, is outraged.

What follows is a one-woman crusade the likes of which has never been seen in film history, before or since. Represented by the British Incorporated Society of Authors, Florence Stoker, as literary executor for the estate of her late husband, files a sweeping lawsuit against Prana Films which calls not only for financial compensation for the use of her intellectual property, but also the complete and total destruction of the film itself.

The legal battle would rage for over three years. Prana Films declared bankruptcy due to legal costs, and also in an attempt to avoid making payments to Mrs. Stoker.  Meanwhile, the company's lone production, Nosferatu, continued to play throughout Germany and Hungary, but nowhere else, its international distribution halted by the litigious ruckus. Ironically, the success of the film in its homeland had made Stoker's copyright even more valuable than before. Prana would even try to make a deal with her, offering to cut her in on the film's profits if she would allow them to expand the release and use the Dracula name. She refused, insisting again on the torching of the film.

Hamilton Deane
While the suit took its course, Stoker was simultaneously negotiating with producer and Dublin neighbor Hamilton Deane, who sought to bring the novel to the stage. His officially licensed theatrical production of Dracula would premiere in Derby in 1924. It was an immediate hit, and its success helped boost the fortunes of Florence Stoker, who was also on the verge of winning her lawsuit with the doomed Prana Films.

In July 1925, the court ruled that Prana Films was in direct copyright infringement of the intellectual property of Florence Stoker. Financial reparations were ordered, but the failed company was unable to pay. The court also ordered that the negative of Nosferatu, as well as all known prints, be rounded up and promptly destroyed--the only known case of a "capital punishment" ruling on a major motion picture. It would be the only movie ever made by Prana, and had not been seen by anyone outside of Germany and Hungary--including Florence Stoker.

With Nosferatu seemingly destroyed, Stoker continued to reap the rewards of Deane's official stage adaptation. In fact, she granted the American stage rights to producer Horace Liveright in 1927 and Liveright hired John L. Balderston to adapt the play for U.S. audiences. It premiered on Broadway with virtually unknown Hungarian actor (had he seen Nosferatu during its release?) Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, and ran for a year on Broadway and two more on tour. However, in another case of intellectual property shenanigans, it turned out that Bram Stoker had never properly seen to the U.S. rights for his novel, and so it was in the public domain. This meant that Florence Stoker never received her full payment for the American production from Liveright, who was no longer even alive by the end of the play's run.

Meanwhile, it turned out that much like a vampire itself, Nosferatu the film was not exactly dead. Somehow, there were prints that survived the court-ordered obliteration. One of these made it to America in 1929, and it was then that the film finally made its US debut, against Stoker's direct wishes, screening in New York and Detroit. And when budding Hollywood movie studio Universal, nearly a decade after the film's release, sought to make their own talkie adaptation of Dracula based on the stage play, they also studied Nosferatu closely, and the influence can be seen in their 1931 film version, also starring Lugosi.

Florence Anne Lemon Balcombe Stoker died in London on May 25, 1937 at the age of 78, survived by her son Irving Noel, granddaughter Ann Elizabeth, and newborn great-grandson Richard Noel. In her later years, she no doubt enjoyed greater financial prosperity thanks to the stage production of Dracula, as well as other licensed properties like Universal's film and it's 1936 sequel, Dracula's Daughter. It's unknown whether she was aware of Nosferatu's survival, or how she felt about it if she did know.

The film remained an obscurity for decades, playing here and there, but never being fully embraced by audiences. It finally reached a wider audience in the 1960s, when it found its way to late-night television, along with whatever other public domain films were available at the time. Renewed interest in the film finally led to the resurfacing in 1984 of a complete print--the first found since its attempted destruction nearly 60 years prior. The uncut version played at Berlin's Film Festival that year, a stone's throw from where it had debuted in 1922. Free at last from the shadow of Florence Stoker's wrath, Nosferatu took its rightful place as the seminal vampire film that it is. It was released to home video for the first time in 1992, and the 2007 DVD release is the very first home video version to include the original music, all original scenes, plus the original color film tints.

Florence Stoker and son Noel,
circa 1882.
Whatever its merits, justification, or lack thereof, Florence Stoker's crusade had failed in the end. Nosferatu the film, in true Dracula fashion, could not be completely destroyed. And it's thankful for us that it wasn't--for as horror scholar David J. Skal wrote in his 1990 book Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, "Nosferatu mined Dracula's metaphors and focused its meaning into visual poetry. It had achieved for the material what Florence Stoker herself would never achieve: artistic legitimacy."

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