Media is a strange way to make a living. Shortly before Gloria Holden died, a fan asking for an autograph referred to her performance in Dracula’s Daughter, and Holden responded with, “Oh, that awful thing.” Yet “that awful thing” is the only reason I’m writing about her, decades later. It isn’t the only movie of hers I’ve seen; I’ve seen at least four others, if you count the uncredited appearance as a guest at Mame’s party in Auntie Mame. But it’s the only one I actually remember her from, even when she played a title character’s wife. Then again, The Life of Emile Zola is a lot more forgettable.
The simple fact is, much of her career is fairly forgettable. She was in The Eddie Duchin Story, but that movie is, frankly, in the category of “biopic about someone no one remembers.” (Okay, not no one, but I’d put it with The Stratton Story, which is probably better known for having James Stewart in it than for any particular memory anyone has of its subject.) She was in a Cary Grant movie I’ve never heard of and a Douglas Sirk movie I’ve never heard of, and she did a couple of Shirley Temple’s teenage comedies, including Miss Annie Rooney, the one where Temple famously received her first screen kiss. And if that were all Holden had done, hardly anyone would remember her today.
But there is, like it or not, Dracula’s Daughter. And she may well have dismissed it, but I don’t; it’s a fine piece of filmmaking and one of a handful of horror movie sequels of the era that are actually worth watching. It has even been suggested that part of its power came from how little Holden wanted to be involved in it. Horror movies were even less well regarded then than now, and she dreaded being typecast the way she saw happen to Lugosi. She didn’t want to be there, which put greater power into her performance as a woman trapped in a life she hated.
There is, to my knowledge, no suggestion that Holden’s sexuality influenced her portrayal of Countess Marya Zaleska—I don’t even find a rumour that Holden was anything but heterosexual. I’d suggest it’s more an inherent aspect of vampire movies. The victims are usually attractive young women, because the expected audience is young heterosexual men, so even if the vampire is herself a woman, she’s going to go after women. And while I’m not going to wax as Freudian on the subject of vampires as Stephen King does in Danse Macabre, I mean, there is quite a lot of sex in at least our modern image of the monster. So, yes, lesbianism, enough that even Joe Breen could be concerned.
I really wish I could conclude by talking about how we should really remember Gloria Holden from her fine performances in other movies, but as established, I don’t. No matter how unhappy it would have made her, she’s just going to be remembered for that one movie, out of the dozens she was in. I’m sorry. I maintain, however, that there are worse things to be remembered for, and of course many careers not unlike Holden’s without even a single movie that anyone remembers today at all.