With her pale almost translucent eyes and seemingly permanent air of exhaustion, blonde Helen Chandler was perfectly cast as Dracula's near-tragic Mina Seward, and if translated into a parable on addiction, which the Gothic horror classic often is, the role also eerily mirrored the actress' real life.
A graduate of New York's Professional Children's School (where one of her classmates was the equally star-crossed Lillian Roth of I'll Cry Tomorrow fame), Chandler made her Broadway bow in Barbara (1917) and three years later played the doomed Prince Richard to John Barrymore's homicidal Richard III. She was Ophelia opposite Basil Sydney in the famous 1925 modern-dress version of Hamlet and was fast becoming one of Broadway's most talked about young ingenues when Hollywood came knocking on the door. Having made an inauspicious debut in the New York-lensed The Music Master (1927), Helen Chandler found herself perfectly cast in the ethereal Outward Bound (1930), as the suicide victim who finds herself on a cruise ship to destiny. Mina Seward in Dracula was just another contract assignment for the actress, who rather saw herself playing the title role in Alice in Wonderland (a role that, three years later, instead went to the much less talented Charlotte Henry). Few realized it at the time, but Chandler had already begun her lifelong battle with alcoholism, a tragic predilection only facilitated by her new husband, the hard-drinking British playwright Cyril Hume.
Due to its latter-day cult status, Dracula remains Chandler's most revered film assignment, but she was also effective as the mail-order bride opposite Walter Huston in A House Divided (1931) and as Colin Clive's daughter in Christopher Strong (1933). At the time, however, most of the attention was lavished on her Broadway returns: Helen Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (1935), the heroine in Bella Spewack's Hollywood satire Boy Meets Girl (1936-1937), and especially a repeat performance as the ghostly traveler in the 1938 revival of Outward Bound. Divorced from Hume, she married her co-star in these and several other stage productions, British actor Bramwell Fletcher.
By 1940, however, Chandler's drug and alcohol dependency had briefly landed her in a sanitarium, and continued ill health forced her to retire completely from performing after a stint opposite Joe E. Brown in a Los Angeles production of The Show Off (1941). In his unpublished autobiography, Bramwell Fletcher blamed Chandler's alcoholism for their 1940 divorce (ironically, he would later marry the equally dependent Diana Barrymore), after which her life seems to have spiraled out of control. In November of 1950, Chandler was badly burned in a Hollywood apartment fire -- newspaper accounts vividly described how her once so beautiful face had been mercilessly scarred -- and her death from cardiac arrest in April of 1965 was reported by almost no one. Sadly, Helen Chandler's ashes remain unclaimed at a Venice, CA, cemetery.
If nothing else, Helen Chandler will forever be remembered for playing Dracula's most prominent victim. Even though the more recent discovery of the Spanish-language version of the classic thriller features a much more vibrant Lupita Tovar in a production perhaps more to the taste of modern-day sensibilities, for most genre fans, Chandler remains the quintessential virgin despoiled.