Saturday, November 17, 2012

Werewolf of London (Universal, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I made it over to Charles’ place by 7 with two videotapes I intended to show him, The Werewolf of London and Monster of the Island. Werewolf is an old favorite of mine — originally written for Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, with James Whale set to direct, it finally reached the screen in 1935 (three years after the project, then called The Wolf Man, was first announced), with Henry Hull and Warner Oland, and one Stuart Walker directing. (In honor of Oland’s reputation as Charlie Chan, they made his character Asian but left unchanged his stated occupation as a botany professor at the University of Carpathia — obviously a locale at which Lugosi would have been more convincing.) I’ve always liked this movie better than the more famous Wolf Man of 1941 — even though Universal’s great make-up artist, Jack P. Pierce, lamented that Hull had little of the patience with long make-up jobs that Karloff did, and therefore he had to make Hull’s werewolf face much sketchier than Lon Chaney, Jr.’s six years later. Walker’s direction and the script by John Colton (who had also been one of the writers who turned W. Somerset Maugham’s story “Miss Thompson” into the hit play Rain) left something to be desired, but at least Werewolf was well-staged, had a lot of quirky humor (notably the old Cockney ladies played by Zeffie Tillbury and Ethel Griffies, and a nice bit of business in which Hull, post-werewolf change, nonetheless remembers enough human instinct to put on a jacket, a cap and a scarf around his neck before setting off to claw people to death) and some family resemblances to The Invisible Man (the hero is a self-absorbed scientist who Meddles in the proverbial Things Man Was Meant To Leave Alone, and movingly reverts to his human form at the end, after he’s been shot — in this werewolf movie silver bullets are not necessary; ordinary lead ones will do the trick). — 1/17/99


With Charles and I already having started a sort of belated Hallowe’en celebration by listening to the 1938 Orson Welles broadcast of The War of the Worlds, we continued by screening the 1935 film Werewolf of London (yet another film whose title is usually prefaced by a direct article, even though there’s no “the” in the credits), one of the last horror films made while Carl Laemmle, Sr. and Jr., were still owners and operators of Universal. The Laemmle-era Universal horror films were generally better than the ones that came later, and while Werewolf of London is nowhere near as highly regarded as the “New Universal” Wolf Man from 1941, it’s always struck me as a much better film. Charles and I had planned to watch it on Hallowe’en but the DVD of it in our copy of the Wolf-Man Legacy boxed set was defective, so I ordered it from (an edition pairing it with She-Wolf of London, a really dull film from 1946 that isn’t about a werewolf at all, but about a young woman being tricked into thinking she’s a werewolf) and we watched it last night. It’s interesting that Wolf Man scenarist Curt Siodmak is generally credited with being the first writer who included the full moon in the werewolf legend — but John Colton’s script for Werewolf of London also times the man-to-wolf transformations to coincide with the full moon, and indeed this version is even more moon-soaked than The Wolf Man. (And Colton is a much more reputable writer than the ones that usually got to work on horror films; his most famous credit was adapting W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “Miss Thompson” into the hit play Rain.)

I remember first seeing this film while I was in high school and being utterly haunted by it: by the opening scene, supposedly taking place in the wilds of Tibet (and pretty obviously a mix of studio “exteriors” and some of the familiar “B”-Western locations, complete with some abrupt transitions from day to night that would have embarrassed Ed Wood), in which botanists Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) and Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland in full Chinese drag — so a Japanese character is being played by a Swedish actor in Chinese makeup!) are competing with each other to find specimens of the ultra-rare Mariphasa lumina lupina, a flower that blooms only by moonlight rather than sunlight. (Even my high-school science education was enough to make me realize that was a crock — moonlight is simply reflected sunlight and the only difference between them is how much less light comes from the moon than the sun — but that just adds to the film’s quirky appeal.) Yogami turns into a rather silly-looking werewolf and cuts a V-shaped gash on Glendon’s arm, which of course eventually turns him into a werewolf. Colton’s script is a good deal more specific than Siodmak’s for The Wolf Man about how long the werewolf’s affliction lasts (for these purposes a “full moon” is four days) and, as Charles noted after we watched, is fantastic but not supernatural: Colton’s werewolves don’t have to be killed with silver objects (they are vulnerable to any gunshot, blow or the other ways normal humans — or normal wolves, for that matter — can be killed), they don’t get marked with pentagrams and the central character is a scientist who’s infected with the werewolf curse by another scientist, not the son of a Gypsy fortuneteller spouting Siodmak’s haunting poetry about the condition. Werewolf of London was originally going to be called The Wolf Man — it was first developed in 1932 as a project for Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi with James Whale directing (now that would have been a wonderful movie — and a shard of the original inspiration comes through when Warner Oland introduces himself as a professor at the University of Carpathia; no doubt had Lugosi played the role he would have been a native Carpathian, though Lugosi did occasionally play Asians), but the idea was put aside and revitalized in 1935 as a vehicle for Henry Hull, who had just made an impression at Universal as Magwich in the 1934 version of Great Expectations.

The “suits” wanted a suitable follow-up role and they seized on having Hull play the tortured scientist Glendon — only Hull had far less patience with hours-long waits in the makeup chair than Karloff and so Jack P. Pierce had to devise a simpler, more human-looking werewolf makeup than the one he’d wanted (or the one he got to do for Lon Chaney, Jr. in The Wolf Man and its sequelae). That’s an aspect of this film that’s been criticized, but to me Hull’s werewolf makeup is quite a bit more chilling than Chaney’s precisely because it looks more human. Indeed, this time around the film’s debt to the 1932 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seemed more obvious than ever — not only in the striking similarity between Hull’s werewolf drag and Fredric March’s Hyde but in his targeting lower-class blonde women as murder victims (the first person the werewolf kills is pretty obviously portrayed as a prostitute — even though, with the Legion of Decency breathing down Hollywood’s collective neck, that couldn’t be shown or even hinted at on screen — and the second is a woman who’s having an adulterous affair with a security guard at the London Zoo). Werewolf of London has got bad press over the years, partly because of its director, Stuart Walker — though it’s Colton’s fault, not his, that so much of the film takes place at boring parties which Walker is pretty helpless to liven up (though there’s a cool scene in which Glendon is exhibiting his collection of carnivorous plants and one of his aides feeds a frog to some giant tentacle-driven thing; according to the American Film Institute Catalog the original cut contained a sequence in which a child is nearly eaten by a plant and is rescued just in time, but that wasn’t in the release version — probably the censors striking again!); the movie really comes alive in the class clashes between the upper-class social network that sponsors Glendon’s scientific work and the lumpen people he hangs out with as the werewolf, including two drunken old women, Mrs. Moncaster (Zeffie Tilbury) and Mrs Whack (Ethel Griffies), whose banter and function in the plot are worthy of Whale.

There’s also a compelling love triangle between Glendon, his wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson, luminous as ever even though the cinematographer, Charles Stumar, didn’t shoot her anywhere near as lusciously as John Mescall did in The Bride of Frankenstein) and her ex-boyfriend Paul Ames (Lester Matthews), who despite having one of those silly “roo” moustaches ends up with her at the end after Glendon is shot ­— and goes out with one of the great horror-film exit lines: addressing the heavens, he says, “Soon I will know why all this had to be.” The last shot is a stock scene of an airplane crossing the sky from right to left — representing Ames, an aviator, taking Lisa back to his home in the U.S. (though Matthews retains his British accent even though he’s playing someone who’s supposedly lived in America for years — ironically in The Wolf Man Lon Chaney, Jr. played a native Brit who’d lived in America for a decade or so, which theoretically explained his lack of a British accent) — and then the airplane in the Universal logo flies across the model globe from left to right. Werewolf of London is a really underrated movie, sparing in out-and-out terror sequences but marvelously atmospheric and a more literate, better acted and staged film than the much better known The Wolf Man. — 11/17/12