Lost in a dream sometimes

Chances are if you’re familiar with the name Helen Chandler it’s due to her appearance in Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931), as imperilled heroine Mina Harker.  Chandler’s career got a big boost from the film and she was all over the posters, alongside star Bela Lugosi, who stared thirstily at her jugular vein.  Chandler is one of Hollywood’s great tragedies, a beautiful and promising actress who seemingly threw it all away and died in poverty and despair.  “I get very aloof and lost in a dream sometimes, while the world goes by outside,” Chandler once said.  “Everything is going so calm and sweet. Then, without warning, I’m in a jam.”

Helen Chandler was born on February 1, 1906, in New York City.  Her father, Leland Chandler, was a breeder of race horses and moved the family from New York to Jacksonville, Florida to Charleston, South Carolina (often erroneously cited as Helen Chandler’s place of birth) until racetrack betting was outlawed in South Carolina 1917.  Relocated to New York, Leland Chandler packed off his aspiring actress daughter to The Bennett School in Millbrook.  She later graduated from the Professional Children’s School (where one of her classmates was Lillian Roth, of I’LL CRY TOMORROW fame) and made her Broadway debut in a 1918 staging of Penrod, adapted from the stories of Boothe Tarkington, at the Punch and Judy Theater.  Though that production only ran for 48 performances, Chandler became a staple of the Great White Way, maturing into a beguiling, haunting beauty, whose patrician bearing and alabaster skin particularized such classics as Shakespeare’s Richard III (starring John Barrymore) and Hamlet (in which she played Ophelia to Basil Sydney’s Melancholy Dane), Ibsen’s The Wild Duck with Mischa Auer and Faust with Gale Sondegaard (playing The Witch a decade before she lost out on the role of The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz). By the age of 20, Chandler was as close to being a superstar as one could hope.  She made her film debut in 1927.  In 1930, she was cast alongside Leslie Howard and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in a film version of Sutton Vane’s hit stage play Outward Bound, about a disparate group of strangers who find themselves aboard a seemingly abandoned steamer adrift in uncharted, fog-shrouded seas. 
That above-mentioned production of Hamlet had been a ground-breaking and controversial modern dress retelling of the Shakespeare tragedy.  The show was produced by Horace Liveright, a former book publisher turned Broadway moneyman.  Liveright was chiefly responsible for bringing the hit British stage play Dracula  to American shores, where it debuted on Broadway in 1927 with Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi in the title role that would both make him a living legend and (it might be argued) destroy him. Chandler was actually cast in the 1931 film version well ahead of Lugosi and commanded a higher salary.  (The role was something of a consolation prize for the actress, who had dearly wanted to star in Paramount’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND but saw the part go to Charlotte Henry instead.)  Although she was given the star treatment, filming was hardly a breeze for Chandler who, through sheer force of will, staved off the symptoms of chronic apendicitis until after principal photography was completed.  “I played one of those bewildered little girls who go around pale, hollow-eyed and anguished,” she told an interviewer Ruth Rankin for The New Movie Magazine in January of 1932.  Perhaps the acute discomfort she no doubt experienced is due partial credit for her mesmerizing, otherworldly performance.  Though contemporary critics can be unkind to Chandler’s work in the film, branding her “cold” and “bloodless,” the actress evinces a walking dream-like state that ignores the novel’s construction of a New Woman encountering the Old World to speak to a more Gothic sensibility.  Though obviously tainted by the broad playing of that time, Chandler’s Mina feels experimental, almost avant garde.  But perhaps she was just playing herself.
.
DRACULA should have pointed Helen Chandler to a brilliant career but it instead marked the beginning of the end for the emotionally unstable actress.  As would Horace Liveright (squeezed out of profit-sharing on the film and all but booted out of Hollywood, he returned to New York and drank himself to death within two years), director Tod Browning (unemployable after 1939) and even Lugosi himself (dead in 1956 after years of substance abuse and general neglect), Chandler tried to silence the roar of her personal demons with alcohol and sleeping pills.  Her second husband was actor Bramwell Fletcher (memorable as the Egyptologist frightened to death by Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY) and the pair starred in a few plays together before their divorce in 1940.  (Chandler’s last role on Broadway was in a successful 1938-9 revival of Outward Bound directed by Otto Preminger, alongside Fletcher and rising star Vincent Price.)  When The New York Times reported in January of 1940 that Helen Chandler had been committed to a sanitarium, she was all but forgotten.  While living with friends in Hollywood, she was severely burned and scarred in 1950 after having fallen asleep while smoking in bed.  She lived another 15 years, dying of heart failure in 1965, penniless and alone.  There was no obituary.  Her body was cremated in a Venice, California mortuary and to this day her ashes have never been claimed.
.
Sources:
Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen by David J. Skal
Universal Horrors: The Studio’s Classic Films 1931-1946 by Michael Brunas, John Brunas and Tom Weaver
“Helen Chandler: Vision of Beauty,” by Dan Van Neste, Films of the Golden Age, Spring 1998
6 Responses Lost in a dream sometimes
Posted By bobbi : July 15, 2008 5:48 pm

I think you captured the fragile quality of this haunting actress well. While we probably wouldn’t know who she was were it not for Dracula, Helen Chandler gave her victim role an underlying sexuality and passivity that made her character somewhat sympathetic and hypnotic. She didn’t seem to have had the inner drive needed to survive Hollywood. As Billie Burke once said about the place: “To survive there, you need the ambition of a Latin-American revolutionary, the ego of a grand opera tenor, and the physical stamina of a cow pony.”

If you have a chance sometime, you might enjoy checking out her part in The Last Flight (1931), a well done version of the post WWI “lost generation”, based on a story by John Monk Saunders. I suspect that coming of age in the jazz age left its mark on her personality, and may have contributed to her destruction, as it did to so many others.

Posted By bobbi : July 15, 2008 5:48 pm

I think you captured the fragile quality of this haunting actress well. While we probably wouldn’t know who she was were it not for Dracula, Helen Chandler gave her victim role an underlying sexuality and passivity that made her character somewhat sympathetic and hypnotic. She didn’t seem to have had the inner drive needed to survive Hollywood. As Billie Burke once said about the place: “To survive there, you need the ambition of a Latin-American revolutionary, the ego of a grand opera tenor, and the physical stamina of a cow pony.”

If you have a chance sometime, you might enjoy checking out her part in The Last Flight (1931), a well done version of the post WWI “lost generation”, based on a story by John Monk Saunders. I suspect that coming of age in the jazz age left its mark on her personality, and may have contributed to her destruction, as it did to so many others.

Posted By Christine : December 3, 2008 2:14 am

I remember her as Mina in Dracula. Interesting role and movie.

Posted By Christine : December 3, 2008 2:14 am

I remember her as Mina in Dracula. Interesting role and movie.

Posted By Carrie Tuckera : December 15, 2008 4:49 am

Sad story, she even died the year I was born. I guess fame and fortune can’t buy happiness or companionship. Guess I’ll settle for boring and pestered by too many friends.

Posted By Carrie Tuckera : December 15, 2008 4:49 am

Sad story, she even died the year I was born. I guess fame and fortune can’t buy happiness or companionship. Guess I’ll settle for boring and pestered by too many friends.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.