LEADING LADIES: Helen Chandler
By Michael Arruda
Welcome to LEADING LADIES, the column where we look at leading ladies in horror movies, especially from years gone by.
First up, it’s Helen Chandler, who played Mina in the Bela Lugosi classic DRACULA (1931).
I have to admit, in all the years that I’d watched and re-watched DRACULA, I never really paid much attention to Helen Chandler. Obviously, I was mesmerized by Bela Lugosi, thrilled by Dwight Frye as Renfield, and equally impressed by Edward Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing, but the two romantic leads, David Manners as “John” Harker, and Helen Chandler as Mina, I hardly noticed at all and dismissed them as the over-acting romantic lovers so often found in those early black and white movies from the 1930s.
But one day, about ten years ago or so, I focused on Chandler and noticed for the first time just how beautiful she was, and how sad a character she made Mina in this movie. Suddenly, I was paying attention to her in her scenes, and I was hooked.
Helen Chandler made a bunch of movies, twenty-seven to be exact, but I’ll always remember her as Mina in DRACULA.
Chandler lived a sad life. Early in her career, she enjoyed considerable success as a stage actress, but when she tried to make the jump to the movies, things didn’t work out as well, and she never became as popular in film as she was during her years performing on the New York stage. She did make twenty-seven movies, her final one in 1938, a comedy/romance entitled MR. BOGGS STEPS OUT.
She was married three times, with two of the marriages ending in divorce. Her acting career was derailed by alcohol and a sleeping pill addiction, and in 1940 she was committed to a sanitarium. In 1950, she was disfigured in a fire, apparently the result of smoking in bed. She died on April 30, 1965 from complications from surgery to repair a bleeding ulcer.
I’ve always thought that Helen Chandler would have made a fine Daisy Buchanan in THE GREAT GATSBY. Interestingly enough, Chandler’s life shared parallels with GATSBY author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. Both women were sent to sanitariums, Chandler for alcoholism and sleeping pill addiction, and Fitzgerald for mental health issues, and both were victims of fires while there. In Zelda Fitzgerald’s case, the fire was fatal. Both women died in tragic fashion.
In her early scenes in DRACULA as Mina, Helen Chandler is so full of life. When you look deeply into her face, you’ll find an expression of playful mischief in her eyes, especially in her scenes with Lucy and at the concert hall when she is first introduced to Count Dracula.
These early scenes are juxtaposed perfectly to her later scenes after she has been bitten by Dracula. In these, she appears distant, lost, the vibrancy and life which had been in her eyes is now gone. She appears almost—dead. Of course, this is spot on, since she’s on her way to being undead, and during these scenes she’s in a state somewhere in the middle. She captures the feelings of being lost, of not knowing what is happening to her, perfectly, and she slides effortlessly from lively Mina to near-undead Mina in a heartbeat.
It’s easy to overlook these subtleties in her performance because she’s playing in these over dramatic love scenes with co-star David Manners, who hams things up more than she does, so on the surface it looks like she’s just over acting, but if you pay close attention to her, you’ll find a lot more going on.
She’s much better than Mae Clarke as Elizabeth in the Boris Karloff version of FRANKENSTEIN (1931), and her performance as Mina continues to grow on me each time I watch DRACULA. I really wish her film career had taken off and she had starred in some other major releases. Some more horror movies would have been nice.
It’s too bad that instead of making horror movies, her life itself became a horror story and ended on such a depressing tragic note.
But by watching DRACULA we can forget all that and enjoy and appreciate a wonderful acting performance that remains with us, timeless, throughout the ages. Sure, in DRACULA, Chandler is overshadowed by Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and Edward Van Sloan, and rightly so, because all three actors are terrific in the film, but Chandler’s performance as Mina shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s more going on there than what initially meets the eye, and in a very subtle understated way, Helen Chandler captures perfectly the character of Mina and her struggles with being under Dracula’s spell, a woman trapped halfway between living and being undead. She does this as well if not better than the host of other actresses who have played Mina in the movies.
Next time you watch DRACULA pay particular attention to Helen Chandler as Mina, especially watch was she does with her eyes and her expressions once Dracula has mingled his blood with hers. You’ll like what you see.
Helen Chandler. February 1, 1906 – April 30, 1965.
Thanks for reading!