My girlfriend recently received a nice poster of Todd Browning’s Dracula, which we put up in the living room. So lately, when I’ve been sitting in the living room watching TV or whatever, my eyes have wandered over to the poster and zeroed in on the name “Dwight Frye” written there, and I’ve been thinking “How do I know that name?”
Well, over the weekend, after a few sips of Jameson as inspiration, I came to my senses and remembered that “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” is one of Alice Cooper’s signature tunes.
Like David Bowie, Alice Cooper was a fan of thirties cinema, and apparently he was quite taken by Dwight Frye’s performance as Renfield (even if legal issues forced him to change the name by one letter in this song’s title). In fact, much of Cooper’s later shock-rock exploration of insanity and mental institutions seems to have stemmed from this one song. And watching Frye’s performance, you can see why he’d be such an inspiration.
Frye’s good in Dracula, for sure, but he had better roles in other films, perhaps most notably in Frankenstein where he played Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, Fritz.
For my money, the best portrayal of Renfield is not Frye, nor Tom Waits’s over-the-top yet wonderful rendition in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s actually Alexander Granach’s portrayal as the crazy, crotchety, vaguely Scrooge-esque “Knock” in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.
Nosferatu, with its depiction of a rat-like evil infecting Germany, was in many ways an anti-Semitic film that took some of its imagery from the popular “Jewish Peril” pamphlets of the day. So I was surprised to learn that Granach was actually a German Jew who later emigrated to Hollywood and made a bunch of anti-Nazi films. But that’s a story for another day.