Poe Folks (Karloff & Lugosi)
As soon as Boris Karloff and his Frankenstein’s Monster appeared on the scene, Bela Lugosi’s stock dropped with studio executives, if not necessarily audiences. Film historians have been unable to pin down exactly why. There was certainly room for more than one horror star. Lugosi could be stand-offish but was not difficult to work with — quite the opposite, in fact. Some blame his inability to adapt his old-fashioned, theatrical acting style to more modern cinema standards, but one viewing of Son of Frankenstein should be enough to scotch that theory. Maybe it was his proud refusal to tone down the accent. Could it be interwar xenophobia against someone from eastern Europe? Impossible to say for sure. All that can be definitively said is that Universal (and other studios, but Universal especially) seemed to go out of their way to treat Lugosi shabbily.
In 1934, Lugosi’s name could still draw horror fans, and it was known he worked cheap. And Universal had just renewed Karloff’s contract. The inevitable result was the teaming of the two. Karloff and Lugosi appeared together in five Universal films from 1934 to 1940, one of which was part of the Frankenstein series, two of which were more science fiction than horror, and two of which were very, very loose adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories. No matter the part, Karloff always received top billing and lots more money.
The first of these, The Black Cat (May 1934), is probably the most interesting. Lugosi is a traumatized war veteran just released from a Siberian prison and bent on avenging himself against the man (Karloff) who betrayed his wartime companions to the enemy, and stole away Lugosi’s wife and young daughter. Karloff is now an Aleister Crowley-like leader of a Satanic cult and is married to Lugosi’s daughter (the wife having been dispatched as a cult sacrifice long ago). After Karloff callously offs the daughter as well, Lugosi has his revenge, skinning Karloff alive, and then sacrificing himself so the Handsome Young Couple™ who had gotten themselves tangled up in this mess can escape. What does this have to do with the Poe short story “The Black Cat”? Nothing whatsoever, except that Lugosi’s character has a cat phobia, and this comes into play at one crucial point in the story.
The Black Cat may be one of the darkest, most twisted films of the 1930s, and merits a mention here even if it has nothing to do with the classic Universal monsters. (And it has one of the most classic lines from any Universal horror move. When the goings-on are dismissed by the young hero as “superstitious baloney,” Lugosi remarks ominously “Superstitious…perhaps. Baloney…perhaps not.”)
The follow-up, The Raven (July 1935), also has nothing to do with the first shared universe, but has a little more to do with Poe than its predecessor. Lugosi has the madman part here, playing a deeply disturbed plastic surgeon with a Poe fixation, to the point that he has a stuffed raven on his desk. Oh, and he’s also replicated the pit and its bladed pendulum in an extensive torture chamber in his basement. When a Handsome Young Couple™ (and her father) enter his web, terror ensues. Karloff is the B-story — a murderer on the run who asks Lugosi to alter his appearance. Lugosi does — horribly disfiguring the criminal, promising to change it back only after he does his bidding.
Was there a long-running Karloff/Lugosi feud or rivalry as has long been speculated? Certainly not on Boris’ part, but because he came out on top, financially and in the public perception, he could afford to be magnanimous. Lugosi’s last two wives insisted that Lugosi really did not much like Karloff, and did give voice to jealousy and resentment in regard to his “rival” on occasion. As portrayed by Martin Landau in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), the elderly Lugosi would go into a profanity-laced rage at the mere mention of Karloff’s name. Bela’s son was gracious enough to praise Landau’s Oscar-winning performance, but stated that it was a work of fiction. The real Lugosi never used bad language, and never spoke ill of Karloff to anyone beyond private moments with his spouses. During the course of the five films they made together for Universal (plus two for RKO, and several self-parodying radio spots and publicity appearances), no one remembered a cross word between the two. Their relationship was always cordial and professional, although they did not socialize or build a friendship once they clocked out from the day’s work.
A Bride and a Daughter
Yes, Karloff got top billing and a truckload of money for a pretty small part in The Raven. Universal felt justified because Karloff was hot off Bride of Frankenstein — triumphantly revising the role that made him a star in a film that many, then and now, say surpasses the original.
As promised, James Whale got free rein to make the film however he wanted. He abandoned the somber tone of the original, and replaced it with a more personal style — dark comedy, with lots of symbolism, and moments of high camp. Henry Frankenstein has learned his lesson and wants nothing more to do with reanimating dead bodies. The problem is, his creation is still running amok. Knowing this, an old associate of Henry’s, the quite insane Dr. Pretorius, forces Henry to continue his experiments and make his Monster a mate.
Karloff once again plays the Monster with a pure simplicity that can switch to fearsome menace. He has even learned to speak a few words (a development the actor fiercely opposed.) Colin Clive as Frankenstein is tense and edgy as before. But the movie-stealer is Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius. The flamboyantly gay Thesiger was an old theatrical crony of Whale’s, and had appeared as one of the very odd inhabitants of Whale’s Old Dark House, which struck a similar tone of suspenseful dread combined with gallows humor. (Thesiger was also a master needlepointer, and referred to himself as the “Stitchin’ Bitch.”) Dwight Frye makes a welcome return as Pretorius’ grave-robbing lackey, Karl.
The title plays on the fact that many people were already incorrectly applying the name of the doctor to his creation. (The title can be taken at face value — Henry Frankenstein does get married in the film. Or it can indicate possession, that he’s the creator of the Monster’s mate, as in the “plays of Shakespeare.”) The Monster’s Bride herself is played by bohemian free spirit and former dancer and cabaret performer Elsa Lanchester, who appears as the iconic character only for a few moments at the end, and also plays a dual role as Mary Shelley in the film’s prologue. The Bride’s make-up is another Jack Pierce creation that has lived on in popular culture, and Lanchester said she based the Bride’s jerky movements and hostile hissing on the swans in Regent’s Park.
It all ends in tears, of course. Rejected by his feral Bride, the sobbing Monster blows up the lab with one of those convenient levers installed for the sole purpose of blowing up the lab, allowing Henry and Elizabeth (now played by Valerie Hobson instead of Mae Clark) to escape, and killing Pretorius, the Bride, and supposedly himself, intoning “we belong dead.”
Bride of Frankenstein opened on April 20, 1935 and was a sensation. To this day, it is widely regarded as the best of the Universal monster movies. (An opinion the Holy Bee respectfully disagrees with. The campy humor hasn’t aged well, especially Pretorius’ homegrown homunculi, kept in small jars. That’s just damned silly.)
A month after Bride, Universal released its first werewolf movie, Werewolf of London, starring Henry Hull as an oddly civilized werewolf, in minimalist make-up and who remembered to put on his hat and scarf before going out to stalk his victims. It did not connect with audiences, and Universal shelved any other werewolf ideas for the time being.
So Frankenstein got a successful sequel…why not Dracula?
The fact that Count Dracula died at the end of the original should certainly prove no obstacle, as any horror movie sequel from then until now until the end of time should tell you. Bela Lugosi was contracted for Dracula’s Daughter, but then in another example of Universal’s peculiar anti-Lugosi policy, he was only making a brief appearance in a flashback prologue. Then even that was eliminated. The character of Count Dracula was not in his own sequel. Lugosi did manage to get the last laugh — his Dracula’s Daughter contract was pay-or-play, and he received his salary for the picture even though he wasn’t in it. He was paid more for his non-appearance in the sequel than for his starring role in the original.
Dracula’s Daughter (May 1936) picks up right where the original left off, just after Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan making a brief return appearance) has staked the count through the heart. But evidently, the undead Transylvanian nobleman has offspring — Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden, so embarrassed by the role she refused to speak of it in later years). Dracula’s daughter is also cursed with vampirism. Like her father, she also seems to prefer female victims, leading to several moments of pretty intense lesbian eroticism. The censors came down hard…
…but horror movies’ Golden Age seemed to be winding down anyway. The most recent Karloff-Lugosi teaming had been The Invisible Ray (January 1936), a bargain-basement bunch of sci-fi claptrap set in the jungles of “darkest Africa,” and featured the pair for the first (and last) time as truly equal co-stars with an even amount of screen time. If nothing else, their roles as rival scientists had them looking quite dapper. Lugosi sported a flattering goatee, and Karloff, in a curly wig and drooping mustache, rather resembled Kurt Vonnegut.
In the end, horror did not save the financially-teetering Universal Studios. Despite their huge success, movies like Dracula and Frankenstein only managed to keep the gates open for a few more years. Uncle Carl came out of retirement when Junior got tired of being head of production. Then the Laemmles took one last gamble, putting all of their resources, and borrowing tons of money, to mount the lavish musical Show Boat — directed by none other than James Whale.
Two months before the release of Dracula’s Daughter, both Laemmles were forced out during a hostile takeover by the lending group Standard Capital. The studio could not pay back its Show Boat loans, and now Universal would be run by J. Cheever Cowdin (how’s that for an evil capitalist name?) Proudly touting themselves as the “New Universal,” Cowdin and his board of directors cut budgets, fired deadwood, terminated contracts, and carefully watched the bottom line of their now low-budget productions. (The sad irony is that Show Boat was a huge success, but it was too late.) Formerly pampered favorites like James Whale would have to toe the line or hit the bricks.
And no more horror movies. Too expensive, and not the image New Universal wanted to project. Great Britain, their most important foreign market, had essentially banned horror movies altogether that year. And at first, New Universal seemed to be right. The studio went into profit for the first time in years thanks to the immensely successful family-friendly fare starring their new discovery, wholesome and virginal Deanna Durbin. It was Durbin, not Frankenstein’s Monster, that truly saved Universal.
Then something extraordinary happened.
In August of 1938, the Regina Theater on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles ran a double feature of Dracula and Frankenstein. Lines wrapped around the block. Other theaters across the country followed suit, and raked in money.
Within weeks of this development, New Universal had Son of Frankenstein in production.
Son of Frankenstein
The titular son of the now long-dead Henry, Wolfgang Frankenstein, was played by Basil Rathbone, the sneering antagonist of Errol Flynn in swashbucklers like Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Many years after the events of Bride, Wolf and his wife (Josephine Hutchinson) and four-year-old son Peter (Donnie Dunagan) return to his ancestral village to claim his inheritance and re-occupy the crumbling Castle Frankenstein. The villagers, remembering the trauma caused by Wolf’s father’s creation, are not particularly welcoming.
Speaking of welcoming, let’s welcome Lionel Atwill to the world of Universal horror. The English actor was already a veteran of horror movies at other studios, and from here on, very few Universal thrillers would go without Atwill lurking somewhere in the cast. In Son, he gives voice to the villagers’ fears and suspicions as Police Inspector Krogh, peering through a spiffy monocle and living with a prosthetic arm — the Monster ripped his original arm out “by the roots” in his youth.
Karloff plays the Monster for the third and final time, returning to muteness and clad in a sheepskin vest. The cataclysmic explosion at the end of Bride did not kill him, but reduced him to a low-power, shambling shell of his former self. The Monster exists at this point solely to do the bidding of Ygor.
After Count Dracula, Ygor (yes, with a “Y”) is Bela Lugosi’s greatest character, and couldn’t be a more dramatic departure from the slick vampire. A malevolent, hairy, snaggle-toothed outcast, Ygor is a local shepherd tried and convicted of grave-robbing and sentenced to hang. He survived the hanging and now has a twisted, calcified broken neck. He has taken up residence as a squatter in the ruins of Castle Frankenstein, and has discovered the enfeebled Monster deep in its bowels. He uses the Monster as his instrument of revenge against the jury members who convicted him, and possibly for other purposes. (“He…does things for me,” is the cryptic statement Ygor makes when questioned about his relationship with the Monster.)
It isn’t long before Wolf Frankenstein decides to restore the Monster to full strength and prove that his father was a brilliant scientist and not just a “maker of monsters.” (In these few scenes, the character of Ygor can very loosely be described as an “assistant” to Dr. Frankenstein, a role that will echo through pop-culture history.) Wolf’s plan goes about as well as expected. In the end, Ygor is gunned down, the Monster is kicked into a boiling sulfur pit, and Wolf and family leave town permanently after deeding his property to the village.
Son of Frankenstein is the Holy Bee’s favorite Universal monster movie. The cast is perfect (even the over-acting of little Donnie Dunagan is endearing), the set design and cinematography fully embrace the canted angles and titled architecture of German Expressionism in a way only hinted at by earlier American horror movies, and Lugosi’s bravura performance as Ygor proves he’s Karloff’s equal. Veteran director Rowland V. Lee was not a great film stylist, but allowed the actors, cinematographer, and designers to do what they did best. He filmed at a leisurely pace, despite the New Universal front office breathing down his neck for quick results. Everyone involved recalled the warm family atmosphere that permeated the set as the film was shot over the 1938 holidays (Bela and Boris had both become first-time fathers that year).
The script was never in a completed state. Lee and credited screenwriter Wyllis Cooper essentially made up the story on a day-by-day basis. Universal gave Lugosi only $500 a week…and instructed Lee to only use him for one week. “Those goddamned sons-of-bitches!” Lee reportedly said. “I’ll show them. I’m going to keep Bela on this picture from the first day of shooting right up until the last.” Lee and Cooper concocted several additional Ygor scenes.
Well over-schedule and over-budget, Lee and company wrapped in the wee hours of January 5, 1939, and the hastily-edited and scored Son of Frankenstein was playing to audiences by January 13. It was a huge hit. Money talks and you can’t argue with success — despite Rowland V. Lee seemingly going out of his way to antagonize the Universal suits, he was assigned their next prestige picture, the dark historical drama The Tower of London (featuring Karloff as the shaven-skulled Mord the Executioner opposite Rathbone’s conniving Richard III.)
Horror was definitely back at Universal, but not like before. Budgets were strictly controlled, formulas adhered to, and mavericks like Whale (and even Lee, eventually) were ushered out. Creativity took a back seat to speed and economy. Sequels and re-teamings were considered a safe bet. Newcomer Vincent Price cut his horror teeth as the title character in The Invisible Man Returns (January 1940), leading to The Invisible Woman, The Invisible Agent, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge. A similarly lengthy series of disappointing Mummy sequels kicked off with The Mummy’s Hand (September 1940) featuring cowboy actor Tom Tyler as the Mummy. No longer Karloff’s Im-Ho-Tep, the “new” mummy was called Kharis, and Pierce worked his make-up magic for only a couple of days of close-ups. The rest of the time, Tyler wore a rubber mask.
When Karloff and Lugosi met again in their final Universal pairing, it was to no one’s credit. The brain-switching sci-fi tale Black Friday (April 1940) originally had Karloff as the brain switchee, alternating between two personalities, and Lugosi as the scientist responsible. For whatever reason, Karloff decided he wanted the smaller scientist role. Lugosi’s thick accent prevented him from taking on the twin personalities part, so he was given the very small, tacked-on part of a gangster heavy. What was essentially the leading role was given to someone named Stanley Ridges, and Karloff and Lugosi had no screen time together. A waste.
In spite of all of this corner-cutting, sometimes magic still happened.
The Wolf Man
When we last left young Creighton Chaney (b. 1906), he had been told that his mother was dead, and was sent away to boarding school as his father built a new career in silent movies. Once Lon Chaney had remarried and established himself, Creighton was sent for and re-added to the family unit, but he maintained he had a “tough childhood.” His strict father forbade him to enter the acting profession and put him into business college. He discovered his mother was still alive only after his father’s death in 1930. The fact that his father lied to him and robbed him of years of time with his mother seemed to tear a hole in his soul — which he attempted to fill with alcohol.
The death of his father meant he could finally enter the acting field, and he did. He resisted the studios’ suggestion of being billed as “Lon Chaney Jr.” for as long as he could, but with a wife and two young sons to support, and let’s face it, limited skills as a thespian, he needed all the breaks he could get. He adopted the name. From 1935 on, Creighton Tull Chaney would be Lon Chaney Jr. The other thing he resisted was horror films, playing mostly far-down-the-cast-list cowboys or dim-witted thugs. Chaney’s pre-horror career peaked with solid performances as Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939) and as the patriarch of a caveman tribe in One Million B.C. (1940), his first (but far, far from last) experience with heavy make-up.
Universal finally convinced him to do a horror film with Man Made Monster (1941), where he played an “electric zombie” controlled by mad scientist Lionel Atwill. The less said about that one the better, but the New Universal bean counters noted that it turned a tidy profit (on that budget, how could it not?) Finally, lycanthropy beckoned with its hairy paw the following year, and Chaney Jr. entered the pantheon of horror legends. He ended up playing most of Universal’s key monsters at least once in the 1940s. (The Wolf Man was always his favorite. “He was mine.”)
The last of the truly classic Universal horror films, The Wolf Man came about when Universal decided to really push Chaney Jr. as its new horror star. A generation younger than Karloff or Lugosi, Chaney Jr. could tackle roles that had more physical range — such as a werewolf. It had been six years since the failure of Werewolf of London, and Universal was willing to try again. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak was tasked with concocting an original werewolf tale, and his literate and well-researched script succeeded admirably, combining a bunch of old werewolf lore into the tragic story of Lawrence “Larry” Talbot, and even adding to the lore itself. The little poem “Even a man who is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night; May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright” sounds like its been around for centuries, but it was an invention of Siodmak.
The tall, stocky Chaney Jr. had none of the dapper European sophistication of a Rathbone, Lugosi, or a non-Monster Karloff. He shuffles around The Wolf Man awkwardly, like a linebacker at a tea party. The Wolf Man script works with his limitations. Chaney’s Larry Talbot has been living in America for many years before returning to his European family’s estate after his older brother’s death. He’s a fish out of water and clearly uncomfortable — except when flirting shamelessly with a local antique shop owner (Evelyn Ankers). Dapper European sophistication is supplied in spades by the Invisible Man himself, Claude Rains, as Larry’s father, lord of the manor Sir John Talbot. Bela Lugosi has a small but crucial cameo as a sinister gypsy with a secret — he’s a werewolf, and in that form, he attacks poor Larry, setting off a chain of events that will reverberate through the rest of the Universal monster series.
For all his other flaws as an actor, Chaney Jr. does anguished, sweaty desperation quite well. His traumatized reaction when he finds out he’s capable of transforming into a slavering beast that kills without mercy, and his increasing desperation to get people to believe him and find a solution, definitely works the audience’s sympathy.
And what of the slavering beast? Another Jack Pierce creation. A rubber snout, greasepaint, a large wig, fangs, and several layers of yak hair were applied to Chaney Jr., with the addition of furry, clawed gloves and uncomfortable rubber “paw” boots. The only on-camera transformation would be at the end as the dead (not really dead — sequels!) Talbot transforms back from werewolf to man through a series of camera dissolves as layers of make-up are removed. Future sequels would be more generous with transformation effects.
The Wolf Man was shot between October 27 and November 25, 1941. The limited budget was used creatively. Universal’s massive Stage 12 (former home of Frankenstein’s laboratory) was filled with layers of ground fog, and dozens of twisted, dead walnut trees from a San Fernando orchard scheduled for re-development were imported to create the eerie woods where the Wolf Man preyed on the unwary. Evelyn Ankers gained minor notoriety among horror film enthusiasts for her robust screaming. As writer Tom Weaver points out, George Waggner’s talents as a director serve to remind you that his real talent lies in producing, but he acquitted himself well enough.
The Wolf Man hit theaters on December 12, 1941, as the country reeled from the Pearl Harbor bombing only five days before. Audiences appreciated the distraction, and The Wolf Man did quite well.
Lon Jr. Dons The Boots
By the time of The Wolf Man, Chaney Jr.’s youthful good looks were fading and his features were coarsening as alcoholism increased its grip. His already-large frame expanded into paunchiness. (One writer described his appearance in Son of Dracula as “well-fed.” Ouch.) His reputation with film historians is as something of a plodder, but on occasion, he could be an actor of surprising competence (as long as you got all his key shots done before his boozy lunch break, by his own admission). But he could never match the subtlety of Karloff’s version of the Monster. And he certainly brought little to the role of the Mummy when he took over from Tom Tyler, but that’s because he wasn’t really expected to. All Universal wanted out of him was to don the costume and put his famous name on the poster. He had a reputation for pranks and rough-housing, which didn’t always go over well with frequent co-stars like Evelyn Ankers. (He referred to her as “Evelyn Chancres” and complained she was “too heavy” for his monster characters to carry around, resulting in the costume department developing a harness that is to this day called the “Ankers strap.” No wonder she hated him.)
Despite (sometimes literally) rubbing some co-stars the wrong way, Chaney Jr. is mostly remembered as a jovial teddy-bear type, with a soft spot for children, but a definite predilection for alcohol-induced unpredictability and bursts of violence. Shirtless wrestling matches with fellow burly drunk Broderick Crawford would draw blood and completely destroy Chaney Jr.’s dressing room on numerous occasions.
With Karloff on Broadway in the long-running Arsenic and Old Lace, and a lined Lugosi showing his advancing age (not that they ever liked him much anyway), Universal decided Lon Chaney Jr. was their one-stop shop for all of their monsters…whether he was suited to the role or not. They even dropped the “Jr.” He was now just the next Lon Chaney. (The Holy Bee will follow this policy from here on, hopefully there will be no confusion.)
The lights and cameras were still warm from shooting The Wolf Man when production began on The Ghost of Frankenstein in December of ‘41, re-using some of the same sets, and sending Chaney back to Pierce’s make-up chair to have the familiar Monster design applied to a face still recovering from all the yak hair. Chaney had a combative relationship with Jack Pierce, calling him a “goddamned sadist.” One day, refusing to sit through the lengthy make-up removal process, Chaney clawed the Monster’s brow and square head off himself — taking a good portion of forehead skin with it.
The fusillade of bullets at the end of Son seems not to have stopped Bela Lugosi’s Ygor, who discovers the Monster, alive but again at low power, inside a chunk of hardened sulfur. The odd couple road trip to another village in search of Henry Frankenstein’s second son, Ludwig. (The fact that old Henry named his sons Wolfgang and Ludwig indicates he must have been quite the classical music fan.) Along, the way, the Monster is restored to full power by a direct lightning strike. They discover Ludwig (Cedrick Hardwicke), a brain surgeon, trying to live in anonymity and running a sanitarium with his adult daughter, Elsa (Evelyn Ankers).
Ygor and Ludwig’s bitter, envious assistant Dr. Bohmer (Lionel Atwill) try to blackmail Ludwig into transferring Ygor’s brain from its sick, broken-necked body into the Monster’s powerful form. Ludwig reluctantly agrees, after a visit from the ghost of his dead father in a dream (hence the title — Hardwicke played his own father in lieu of Colin Clive, who had died a few years before.) For a moment, the operation seems successful — the Monster briefly speaks in Ygor’s voice.
Then the body rejects the brain, and the Monster goes blind and into a killing rage. In the ensuing chaos, Bohmer is electrocuted in spectacular fashion, Ludwig’s lab catches fire, and the Monster perishes once and for all in the flames (yeah, right.)
Up next…the Monsters meet and the first shared universe is born (and very quickly dies)…