During the course of this series, I have done my best to take you on a journey through my childhood, and impart upon all of you exactly what it was about each Universal Monster that made me crazy about them. I’ve given anecdotes about my interests beforehand, and toys that I had, and games that I would play with my Mom, and have woven those together with each week’s feature in the hopes that maybe you’d appreciate the Universal Monsters as much as I do.
This week, however, I got nothin’.
There really isn’t much from my childhood that initially attracted me to this week’s feature. It isn’t about my favorite character — though I do like him; it doesn’t star my favorite monster movie actor — though I can’t picture anyone else in the role; and it isn’t my favorite sub-genre of monster movies — though, if done properly, it IS a fun one.
So what’s my attraction? It’s just a damned good movie.
That doesn’t mean that the film didn’t have an ex post facto influence on my childhood once I saw it. Out of all my Remco Mini-Monsters, this character is the only action figure still in my possession, and I put him out every year with my Halloween decorations. For months on end I would bay at the full moon. I even once bought a silver wolf-headed sword cane because of this week’s feature.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, well, then, stay in your seats. The lights are dimming, and it’s time to enjoy the show!
I realize it’s not the first — that honor goes to Werewolf of London, the first attempt by Universal Studios, in 1935, at crafting a believable, spooky werewolf tale. There were so many things wrong with that movie, though: an absolute prick of a main character (Dr. Glendon, played by Henry Hull), a half-assed make-up job (by make-up master Jack Pierce, dumbed down at Hull’s insistence), and such glaring contradictions in the werewolf mythos (he can talk, and at one point even stops, post transformation, to put on a hat and scarf), to name but a few. It’s an interesting movie to watch, just to see all the mis-steps.
Thankfully, Universal Studios gave the werewolf genre another shot. Not long after Werewolf of London, the studio planned another werewolf movie, this time intended for Boris Karloff, but that one never saw the light of day. Instead, screenwriter Curt Siodmark gave it a shot, and what we are left with is pure fun on a bun.
The Wolf Man tales the tale of Lawrence “Larry” Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), recently returned to his ancestral home in Wales after an 18-year stint in California. Re-assimilation into his old life is a difficult one, but, with the help of his father Sir John (Claude Rains) and the beautiful shopkeep Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), Larry makes the most of it.
Gwen’s father owns an antique store, and it is there that she and Larry meet. While making idle chit-chat, Larry purchases a walking stick topped with the head of a wolf and a pentagram. When Larry expresses his confusion as to the mixing of the two symbols, Gwen explains that the pentagram is the sign of the werewolf, and it is then that she recites the small poem that has become synonymous with Hollywood werewolves ever since: “Even a man who is pure of heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” Larry, who has — incredibly — never heard of werewolves, dismisses the old folklore.
Larry manages to convince Gwen — who has a fiancee — to join him that evening at the gypsy carnival which has rolled into town. That night, accompanied by Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm), they attend the faire, and Jenny stops to have her fortune told by eerie gypsy Bela (Bela Lugosi). Bela sees the sign of the pentagram on Julie’s hand, and warns her away.
Larry and Gwen, meanwhile, have wandered off into the forest, where Larry is pitching his best woo. Just as he’s about the successfully land a kiss, there is a wolf’s howl, and a piercing human scream. Larry runs to the rescue only to find Jenny being savagely attacked by a large beast. Larry manages to put down the animal with his silver-headed cane, but not before being bitten.
From there things go from bad to worse for Larry.
Jenny is dead. The wolf that Larry killed was actually Bela, and not a wolf at all…or was it? Another visit to the Gypsy carnival brings Larry in contact with Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), Bela’s mother. She is the one who tells him that Bela was, in fact, a werewolf, and, because Larry was bitten and survived, so, too, is he. She gives Larry a pentagram charm to wear, to ward off the evil curse, but he dismisses the idea entirely, and instead gives the medallion to Gwen.
Big mistake, Larry. Big mistake.
The Wolf Man has got to be one of the most tragic monster movies ever produced. In Larry Talbot, we find an archetype — a very good man who has very bad things happen to him. In Lon Chaney Jr., we find the perfect man to play the role. Chaney’s sad features, deep worry lines and hangdog face are indelible characteristics of Larry Talbot — take away Chaney, and you take away most of the greatness of the picture. He gives a youthful exuberance to his character that can, at the drop of a hat, turn into the heaviest melancholy ever to befall a monster movie main character. Post-transformation, in full Wolf Man make-up, Chaney is limber and spry, moving with almost cat-like grace and bringing a surprising level of believability to the role. (As an aside, it should be noted that Lon Chaney Jr. shares the singular distinction of being the only actor to continuously play the same monster; with the exception of the upcoming remake of The Wolf Man, no other actor ever played Larry Talbot.)
Equally important to The Wolf Man is the old Gypsy woman Maleva, played by the charming Maria Ouspenskaya. A student of Russian acting master Stanislavski, Ouspenskaya was one of the first Method actors in the United States; she founded her own acting school in New York City in 1929, and taught Method acting to students like Lee Strasberg, who went on to become one of the most influential acting teachers in U.S. history. With such credentials, it’s no wonder that Ouspenskaya stole nearly every scene she was in. Her portrayal of Maleva is positively haunting, and a joy to watch.
And, of course, we must not forget Bela Lugosi, who does a remarkably deep turn as the tortured Gypsy fortune-teller, Bela. Though his appearance is, at most, five minutes, Lugosi gives one of the more memorable performances in the picture.
Rounding out the cast are three relatively well-known, capable actors.
As Sir John, we have Claude Rains, known not only for his portrayal as Erique in 1943’s The Phantom of the Opera, and as the title role in 1933’s The Invisible Man, but also perhaps best known as Captain Renault, the gloriously corrupt French official in Casablanca.
Following hard on his heels is the beautiful Evelyn Ankers as Gwen Conliffe. Ankers is mostly remembered as a B-actress, going on to portray imperiled women in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and Son of Dracula(1943), and for good reason: she’s easy on the eyes, and can scream like nobody’s business.
Finally, as dutiful police Colonel Mumford, we’re treated to Ralph Bellamy, who not only had quite a career at the time, but is perhaps best known to modern audiences as Randolph Duke who, along with brother Mortimer (Don Ameche) put the screws to both Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in Trading Places (1983).
The influence of The Wolf Man on the modern werewolf mythos can not be overstated. Before The Wolf Man, there really was no agreed-upon method for killing a werewolf. It was The Wolf Man that introduced the concept of needing silver. Virtually every bit of Hollywood werewolf lore hence has, in some manner or another, required the use of silver in order to kill a werewolf. Then, of course, there’s the above-mentioned poem recited by Jenny (and Gwen and Sir John), which has been repeated ad infinitum. Interestingly, that poem has no basis in lore at all — it is purely the fruit of writer Curt Siodmark’s imagination.
The Wolf Man, despite its not being the first werewolf flick from Universal, really is the one that started it all. Silver Bullet, An American Werewolf in London, and even Teen Wolf owe much of their existence to this picture. If you’ve never seen it, in my opinion, you have never seen a werewolf movie.
Cashing in on the success of The Wolf Man, Universal Studios showed us in 1943 that you can’t keep a good dog — er, wolf — down.
Taking place four years after the end of The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man opens on a pair of unwitting grave-robbers who have decided to plunder the Talbot family crypt in search of riches. Expecting to find a pile of bones, they open Larry’s tomb (sorry to spoil the ending of the first flick for you, but it’s been around for almost seventy years, so it’s not like I’m telling you anything new), only to discover his corpse fully intact. Unfortunately for them, this happens to be during a full moon and, once the silvery moonbeams hit Larry’s body, a hand reaches out from the tomb and grabs one of the graverobbers. Cue pants-wetting, cue scream.
Not long after, Larry awakens in a sanitarium miles away in Cardiff, where he is under the care of Dr. Frank Mannering (Patric Knowles), who dismisses Larry’s talks of werewolfery as the ravings of a madman deep in the throes of lycanthropy. A few full moons and murders later, and Larry knows it’s time to high-tail it out of there.
Larry roams the European countryside in search of Maleva, leaving behind him a trail of death. When he happens upon her, looking for answers and a way to die, she sadly tells him that she has no power to cure him, but has heard of one who may be able to; a great doctor, renowned for curing those who couldn’t otherwise be cured — Dr. Frankenstein.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is nothing but pure fun. It stays in continuity with the rest of the Frankenstein movies, picking up right where The Ghost of Frankenstein left off. At the end of that film, the brain of the monster (played by Lon Chaney Jr.) had been replaced by the brain of murderous henchman Ygor (Lugosi) at the unwitting hands of Ludwig Frankenstein (second son of the original Henry Frankenstein, and played by Sir Cedrick Hardwick). Unfortunately, a mismatched blood type left the monster blind, and ultimately burned by angry villagers. Returning writer Curt Siodmark wove that whole tale perfectly into that of Larry Talbot, making for an enjoyable — if somewhat convoluted — movie.
Chaney once again is fantastic as the tortured Talbot, but here he seems to have a bit more latitude with the character. He is still anguished, sure, but he seems a bit more introspective, and a bit more determined than when last we saw him — I suppose four years in a tomb will do that to any man.
Maria Ouspenskaya is charming as ever as Maleva, and she, too, gets a bit more room here — whereas in the first one she was mostly dark and mysterious, here Maleva is seen as a bit more human, both frightened by and sympathetic for the man cursed by her son.
And, of course, there is Bela Lugosi, finally roped into the part he swore off 12 years prior — Frankenstein’s monster. Offered the role in the original Frankenstein, Lugosi refused, largely because the part had absolutely no lines. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was to be different, however. The monster had learned to speak in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and, once implanted with Ygor’s brain in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), was able to speak quite well. Scenes were shot for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man with dialogue for the monster, including a fireside chat between he and Talbot that would have explained the monster’s blindness (and his lumbering gait with out-stretched arms which has since become the accepted — and oft-parodied — walk for the monster), but they were ultimately cut. As such, Lugosi was left with precisely what he never wanted — a non-speaking part, with what amounts to a little over five minutes of screen time.
I love Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. It’s one of my favorite monster movies, ever. The seamless interaction of both character’s stories doesn’t seem forced or contrived, like it would in later monster pairings (Van Helsing, anyone?). And this was the one that started it all. Without Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, there would be no House of Frankenstein, no House of Dracula, no Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (which is just fantastic), no Monster Squad, and no Van Helsing.
Well, okay, yeah, maybe this movie does have a downside…
If you plan at all to check out either of these films, I implore you to pick up The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection, which features not only The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, but also Werewolf of London and the much-lesser-known She-Wolf of London. You’ll be glad you did.
Next Week: “Listen to them, children of the night…”