Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Happy birthday to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. I cannot find an earlier fictional character crossover in film history. Two monsters for the price of one. A colossal battle royale for the ages. Sure, Frankenstein may meet the Wolf Man, but more importantly, Frankenstein's Monster BATTLES The Wolf Man. The film was released seventy years ago today, March 5, 1943, and remains one of the best known and best loved of Universal Studios' famous monsters films.

Origin story

Ironically, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man began as nothing more than a joke by screenwriter Curt Siodmak. Siodmak had just written the screenplay for Universal's mega horror hit, The Wolf Man, released in 1941. George Waggner had produced and directed the film.

Siodmak and Waggner were both transplants from Germany and often ate lunch together. Siodmak had a bit of a sense of humor, while Waggner did not. The epic concept of a monster crossover came from a simple misunderstanding. Siodmak said of the idea, "I was sitting down at the studio commissary having lunch with George Waggner and I said, 'George, why don't we make a picture Frankenstein Wolfs The Meat Man-er, Meets the Wolf Man?' He didn't laugh. This was during wartime; I wanted to buy an automobile and I needed a new writing job so I would be able to afford it. George would see me every day and ask me if I had bought the car yet. I said, 'George, can I get a job?' He said, 'Sure, you'll get a job, buy the car.' Well, the day finally came when I had to pay for the car. George asked me that day, 'Did you buy the car?' and I said, 'Yes, I bought it.' George said, 'Good! Your new assignment is Frankenstein Wolfs The Meat Man-er, Meets The Wolf Man! I'll give you two hours to accept!'" Naturally, Siodmak had no choice but to accept this bizarre assignment.

"Whipped cream is good and herring is good, so they think they should be better together," wryly commented Siodmak.

It was going to be difficult enough to continue the saga of his own creation, the Wolf Man, but he also had to find a way to integrate the Frankenstein Monster (in its fifth film appearance) into the story. The Wolf Man had ended with Larry Talbot's father beating Larry to death with a silver headed cane. To death. He beat him to death. Larry Talbot was dead.

The last outing for the Frankenstein Monster was, The Ghost of Frankenstein. Through a devious plan, Ygor (Bela Lugosi) had his brain placed into the body of the Frankenstein Monster (played by Lon Chaney Jr.) by one of Dr. Frankenstein's sons, Ludwig. The Frankenstein-Ygor-Monster was then quickly dispatched in a burning building. The Frankenstein Monster, it should be noted, was blind and spoke with Ygor's voice at the end of the film. 

So, the Frankenstein Monster spoke with the voice of Bela Lugosi, was blind, and then he died. He was dead. Not living. Not undead. Just dead. How were these two dead characters going to "Meet" each other? Why were they going to meet? Who the hell was Lon Chaney Jr. going to play? Was the Monster really going to sound like Bela Lugosi? Was the Monster still blind? Siodmak had his work cut out for him.

Siodmak warmed up considerably to his new assignment when he hit upon an interesting idea involving Dr. Frankenstein's notebook. "Fortunately, the characters of the two freaks were established. They might contain the 'weenie.' The 'weenie' is the central idea around which the screenplay is written. Larry Talbot (that name which I had given the Wolf Man stuck to him) is aware that at a certain moon phase he was destined to become a murderer. He also found out that there was no way for him to escape his fate, even if he died, since some mysterious (studio) powers would bring him back to life. But if he could find Baron Victor [sic] Frankenstein, who knew the secret of life and death-didn't he construct a body of human parts?-he might learn the answer of how he could escape his horrible fate. On his search for the Baron, he ran into the Frankenstein Monster."

Siodmak had found his weenie. The Monster had been killed four times at the end of four of his own films. But the Frankenstein Monster wanted to live. He wanted to live, as badly as the Wolf Man wanted to die. The Monster had to find Baron Frankenstein, to keep him alive forever.
Siodmak adds, "One monster wants to die-another one to live forever; that was the 'weenie' which was the pivot of the picture."


Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman balances its weenies with precision. The competing storylines are given almost exactly the same amount of screen time.

Two grave robbers (Cyril Delevanti and Tom Stevenson) break into the murky Talbot crypt to rob the recently deceased Lawrence Talbot (Chaney) of his valuables, which he took with him to the grave. Unfortunately, they’ve picked the worst possible time to do their plundering, as a full moon shines through the windows of the crypt and onto the seemingly lifeless Larry. All of a sudden, a hand reaches out of the coffin and grabs one of the robbers. Realizing their grave error, the other felon flees for his life, abandoning his partner to his fate with the revived corpse.

Later, Larry’s unconscious body is found in the streets by a constable (Charles Irwin) and he is taken to the Queen’s Hospital in the village of Cardiff. When Larry comes to he is as confused as anyone about how he got that fractured skull. But after turning into the Wolf Man once more and killing the constable, he remembers everything about his curse, which it seems, is an eternal spell more powerful than death. Desperate for help, he seeks out Maleva (Ouspenskaya) and asks her advice. Knowing of the incredibly gifted Ludwig Frankenstein, Maleva brings Larry to Vasaria in hope of a possible cure. Unknown to her is the fact that Ludwig is dead. The full moon rises, and the increasingly despairing Larry becomes the Wolf Man yet again. He savages another victim, this time a young girl (Martha MacVicar). The infuriated villagers chase after the Wolf Man, but he successfully eludes them amidst the still-standing remains of the Frankenstein ruins.

There, in the cellar, Larry changes back into his human self and discovers the Monster (Lugosi) preserved in ice. Larry frees the Monster from the glacial tomb in the hope that the creature can find the late doctor’s diary concerning the “secrets of life and death.” However, neither the blind, weakened Monster nor Baroness Elsa Frankenstein (Illona Massey), who vehemently vows never to visit the castle again after her father’s tragedy, are able to help Larry with his quest. The distraught Larry vents his anger on the villagers at a wine festival when the chief singer (Adia Kuznetzoff) starts belting out a vibrant song about eternal life. Larry’s bad social manners are covered up by the Monster’s sudden appearance, which causes a major panic. Larry and the Monster go back to the castle where they are met shortly afterwards by Talbot’s doctor from Queen’s Hospital, Dr. Mannering (Patrick Knowles). When Mannering promises to destroy the Monster by draining its energy, Elsa has a change of heart and locates the Frankenstein notebook.

Unfortunately, Mannering also has a change of heart; fascinated as he is by the Monster’s unusual physique, he can’t resist pumping the creature up with electricity to see it at full strength. The heavy voltage also restores the Monster’s vision much to his delight. But, at about the same time, the Monster breaks free of his bonds and starts carrying off Elsa. Larry, whom Mannering had promised to drain of his natural life force, but was ignored by Mannering in favor of the Monster, turns into the Wolf Man and leaps on his towering opponent. The two creatures battle heatedly, but their fight is a brief one, as one the crankier villagers, Varzec (Rex Evans), blows up a nearby dam, which floods the castle, drowning both the Monster and the Wolf Man. 

Fortunately for Universal horror fans the Wolf Man and the Monster live to fight another day. Unfortunately for the pickier Universal horror fans, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man slaughters continuity and hacks at the larger cycle of films.

Siodmak apparently had little interest in the films predecessor, The Ghost of Frankenstein, choosing to ignore that movie's Ludwig in favor of the original Henry Frankenstein from the original classic, thus creating an inconsistency that would plague the succeeding Frankenstein sequels for the rest of the series.

At the end of Ghost of Frankenstein, the Monster has had Ygor’s brain transplanted into it’s dome. This has given the Monster the ability to talk (with Ygor’s voice) but has rendered the Monster blind (incompatible brain.) Both of these qualities are forgotten in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. Looking for a satisfying reason why? You won't get one. While scenes of the Monster talking were filmed, they were subsequently cut out of the final film. Test audiences laughed at Lugosi's accent. Before Boris Karloff had accepted the Monster role in Universal's first Frankenstein film, Lugosi had been asked. He refused because the role was mute, the character a staggering brute. Now, finally, Lugosi agrees to play the Monster on short notice (they shot for two days with plans for Chaney to play both the Monster and the Wolf Man) and his lines are cut. Ouch. 

Ever the fall guy, Lugosi also invented one of the more common attributes of the Monster; the outstretched, clawing, reaching hands. Lugosi was playing the Monster blind. This was not mentioned in the finished film. Students of the film laugh at Lugosi's performance. I applaud.

I've always liked the idea of Lugosi playing the monster in this film. At the end of The Ghost of Frankenstein, Ygor's brain is slapped into the Monster's body. So, for the Monster to physically transform and look more Ygor-ish, is kind of a cool idea. Even though Chaney had a decent enough turn at playing the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, he truly had to play The Wolf Man. Lon Chaney Jr. IS Lawrence Talbot. He is the Wolf Man.  

Cast and Crew

Lon Chaney, Jr. (born February 10, 1906). Chaney holds a unique accomplishment in horror cinema. He is still the only actor to have played the Big Four of Universal Monsters: the Wolf Man (five times), the Mummy (three times), and Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula once each. Chaney also starred in 1941's Man-Made Monster and a six-film unrelated series of thriller-mysteries known as the Inner Sanctum films. At a time when earlier horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were slumping a bit in film genre, Chaney powered Universal through its second great horror wave in the 1940s. In the wake of the huge success of The Wolf Man, Chaney became a major star at Universal. "The studio received more mail for me during that period than any other star," remembered Chaney.Two years earlier, Chaney had registered a breakthrough performance in a non-horror classic, Of Mice and Men. Chaney died of a heart attack on July 12, 1973.

Ironically, it was Bela Lugosi, not Karloff (the man who had definitively played the Monster in the first three films) who took over the role of Frankenstein's creation from Chaney. Born in Oct. 20, 1882, Lugosi's major claims to horror fame are as cinema's most famous Dracula (twice), and what's regarded as his best characterization, the Monster's sly and sinister friend, Ygor (twice). However, Ygor's physical presence in the Frankenstein series had come to an end when his brain had been placed inside the Monster's skull in The Ghost of Frankenstein. Thus it did seem logical for Lugosi to play the Monster since the script called for the Monster to be talking and acting as if it still had Ygor's intellect. When the Monster’s dialog was tossed in the trash, so was Lugosi’s performance. Stuntmen Gil Perkins and Eddie Parker also played the Monster at various points in the film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on Aug. 16, 1956.

Playing the role of Elsa Frankenstein, Ludwig's surviving daughter from The Ghost of Frankenstein, was Illona Massey (born June 16, 1910). It seems strange that Universal didn't bring back their leading horror heroine, Evely Ankers, to repeat her role from the previous Frankenstein film, but Massey was something of a casting coup. She had briefly been a singing star at big, glossy MGM a few years back, thus bring a lot of prestige and glamor to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. One might assume Massey would have been embarrassed by her newest assignment, but instead she was extremely enthusiastic. "Personally, I love horror films," said Massey, "and that's why I did this one. I thought it would be wonderful to do a horror film. I really enjoyed it." The quality of this film probably helped fuel her enthusiasm since she had hated appearing in Universal's 1942 horror offering, Invisible Agent. Massey also really enjoyed working with Chaney. "I think Lon Chaney is one of the nicest, sweetest people in the world," remembered Massey. "It was a great deal of fun. You know it took four hours to put on his makeup and when it was on, it was hot under the lights. It was very difficult for him to eat. He mostly had soup which he sipped through a straw and just for fun, we put hot peppers in it! We had a lot of fun...I never had any difficulty with my co-stars, but Chaney was something special." Massey died on Aug. 20, 1974.

Dr. Frank Mannering, a quasi-blend of leading man and mad scientist was played by Patric Knowles (born Nov. 11, 1911). He was the perfect choice since he was not only handsome, but actually had the acting skills to bring color to that least appealing of roles in a horror film, the hero. Knowles never made it as a leading man, usually playing second banana, in the major studio films of the Thirties. His prestige didn't get bigger at Universal, but the roles did. Knowles' other genre films included The Wolf Man as well as The Strange Case of Dr. Rx and Mystery of Marie Roget (both 1942). Knowles died on December 23, 1995 from a brain hemorrhage.

The Mayor of Vasaria was played by an actor best known for playing a score of mad doctors, Lionel Atwill (born March 1, 1885). Some film historians even consider Atwill to be the greatest of all the mad medicos, a remarkable achievement amid such stiff competitors as George Zucco and John Carradine, to say nothing of Karloff and Lugosi. Actually, despite his talent, Atwill was almost lucky to be in this film. He had just emerged from a nasty sex scandal resulting from a trial over a rape charge involving two women, one of them, a sixteen-year old. Atwill was convicted of perjury and sentenced to five year’s probation. There was heavy pressure by the Hays Office for studios not to hire Atwill, but Universal stuck by his side, a show of loyalty he greatly appreciated. "But for the courage and magnanimity of one particular studio I guess I should be a dead egg now," said Atwill. He died on April 25, 1946 from respiratory failure as a result of bronchial cancer.

Reprising her pivotal role as Maleva the Gypsy from The Wolf Man was Maria Ouspenskaya (born July 29, 1876). Although not nearly as well known by name to horror fans as Chaney or Lugosi, Ouspenskaya became an inconic figure in the horror genre for her characterization as the mysterious, yet sympathetic Maleva. Indeed, despite her impressive work in classic dramas of the Thirties and Forties such as Dodsworth (for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress), Waterloo Bridge, and King's Row, Ouspenskaya will always be remembered first and foremost as the silver screen's most famous Gypsy. It proved to be an arduous shoot for the elderly actress who suffered a broken leg when the horse-drawn-cart carrying her and Chaney overturned. Ouspenskaya suffered an even more traumatic fate at the end of her life when she fell asleep with a lit cigarette. She died from her burns and a resulting stroke on Dec. 3, 1949.

The most notable face among the bit players belonged to Dwight Frye, one-time Renfield and Fritz of Dracula and Frankenstein respectively. A common supporting player in Thirties' horror films, Frye's career had almost completely dried up and he died shortly after completing this film.

Another notable face was provided by Dennis Hoey, Inspector Lestrade in Universal's Sherlock Holmes series.

Universal's A-Team of horror talent behind the camera was in full force for the making of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. John B. Goodman and Martin Obzina created some excellent sets, including the remarkably eerie graveyard featured in the film's opening. George Robinson provided his usual superb camerawork, with some nice use of shadows in the film's atmospheric first half.

Both of the monsters' makeups were done by the legendary creator of Universal's famous creatures, Jack P. Pierce. He created the definitive images for the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy to name but a few. Even such brilliant contemporary makeup artists such as Rick Baker and all the technology available to them haven't succeeded in overshadowing Pierce's unique concept for Frankenstein's Monster or the Wolf Man. But although Pierce used the same original makeup design of built up cheesecloth for the Monster's famous flat head that had originated with Karloff's career making debut in "Frankenstein," the results looked far less impressive on Lugosi's distinctive and slightly rounded face. A quick look at the other actors (Karloff, Chaney, and Glenn Strange) as the Monster reveals they were well suited both physically and facial for the role. Unfortunately, Lugosi looked more like a participant in a Halloween costume party rather than a valid movie portrayal of Frankenstein's Monster, greatly diminishing the impact of the creature in this film. 

Fortunately, Pierce's makeup for the Wolf Man was even slightly more impressive than that of "The Wolf Man." Once again Pierce meticulously glued strand after strand of yak hair onto Chaney's face, hands, and feet. Pierce received a powerful assist from Universal's special effects ace,  John  P. Fulton who supervised the excellent transformation scenes. This was achieved by keeping Chaney pinned in position so he couldn't move and setting targets for his eyes so he could hold them still. The camera was weighed down with a one ton weight to likewise keep it immobile. Then five to ten frames of film would be shot, after which Pierce would apply more makeup, and another five to ten frames of film would be shot, and so on until after 22 hours of filming, the transformation was complete. Quite an ordeal for Chaney who would mutter threats about wanting to kill Siodmak for having conceived the Wolf Man in the first place! Small wonder Siodmak kept his distance from Chaney while he was in his Wolf Man makeup even though for the most part, the two men were good friends.

Helming all these components together was director Roy William Neill, whose claim to fame was the stellar work he did on 11 of Universal's 12 Sherlock Holmes films. Although Neill wouldn't direct another Universal monster film he had a real flair for the horror genre, expertly using shadows and dark lighting to convey a real sense of menace to many of his films. His work on the best of the Sherlock Holmes films, The Scarlet Claw, is a great deal scarier than many of Universal's  horror films. Neill's superb staging of the opening graveyard sequence, Talbot's first transformation scene, and the Wolf Man's murder of the constable rank among the very best moments in all the Universal classics. Given his outstanding direction on Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, it's truly a shame Neill didn't get an opportunity to direct any other Uinversal horror film but he was simply too invaluable to the Sherlock Holmes  series to be used elsewhere.      

One final key ingredient that was added to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man after filming was completed was the first rate music provided by Hans J. Salter. Fittingly, the opening credits used a smooth blend of both the opening themes for The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein. Many other pieces from both these films were re-sused, but Salter came up some memorable new bits, notably the music for the graveyard scene, Talbot's transformation into the Wolf Man, and Talbot and Maleva's journey to the village of Vasaria. Salter also composed the lusty folk song "Faro-la, faro-li" which was sung with gusto by Russian actor/singer Adia Kuznetzoff. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man's music was so memorable that it was used frequently in future Universal horror and Sherlock Holmes films.         

Universal had high hopes that Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man would be a blockbuster and it didn't disappoint. The film premiered at the Rialto Theater on Broadway, March 5, 1943 and was popular enough to run from 8:30 am to nearly 4:00 am. The film scored heavily at the box office in other theaters across the country and was Universal's top horror attraction of 1943.

Critics were up and down on the film. With Variety calling the film a “creepy affair in grand style,” and commenting that Siodmak’s script “delivers a good job of fantastic writing to weave the necessary thriller ingredients into the piece, and finally brings the two legendary characters together for a battle climax.”

Bosley Crowther over at the New York Times commented that the film was “Not very horrible.” Crowther also expressed the same concerns that many have had, “Here Universal had gone to work and dug the Wolf Man out of his coffin, where he had been sleeping peacefully since his last film, and sent him in quest of Dr. Frankenstein just so he could meet the latter’s famed mechanical man. (Of course the Wolf Man had no knowledge that the doctor had been dead for several years even though they both worked for Universal; he wanted to consult him about the hair on his face.) And then, when he does meet the monster in the burned-out castle of Dr. Frankenstein – well, they both hit it off magnificently. There’s only a little tussle between them at the end. And that only lasts but a moment. They are both washed away during the same.”

Crowther also has a suggestion for Universal: “Why not unite with Monogram and turn out a horror to end all horrors – “Wolf Man and Monster Meet the East Side Kids”? Monsters in a comedy film? What a sick joke.
The horror team ups were just getting started. However, after House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein Universal went to their last bountiful well, and in 1948 released Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The monsters turned to comedy to keep them afloat. It is a sad end to a once mighty empire. 

Many  years later Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man’s financial success repeated itself when it was released on video cassette. In New York in the fall of 1986, nearly all the New York stores sold out of their copies of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

by Vince Logothetti and Emerson Murray

The stills were found on the ever-amazing Classic Horror Film Board