The Wolf Man and The Universal Studios Monster…Mash

Whether we’ve seen them or not, I’m sure most everyone has heard of the classic monster movies produced by Universal Studios in the 1930-s and 40’s. Films like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man (which is next on my list), The Bride of Frankenstein, and of course, The Wolf Man (two words). These well-known flicks stay alive symbolizing the dawn of horror, the popularity of the monster, and as a basis from which these iconic figures are depicted to this day. So what of The Wolf Man, in particular?

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. – Jenny Williams –

In Summary & Review
The Wolf Man centers around the story of Larry Talbot (Lon Cheney Jr.) who returns home after 18 years away. We don’t really know why he was gone that long, all we know is that his father Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains) is rich, a bit snobbish, and fairly skeptical of his wayward son. Larry begins his return by stumbling upon his neighbor Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) Rear Window style,while testing out his father’s telescope; endearing him to us immediately (or not). He immediately rushes to her shop to introduce himself, and that’s where his lesson in werewolf lore begins. When a band of gypsies passes through town Larry and Gwen and her friend Jenny go to have their fortunes told, only to cross paths with a murderous wolf. Thus, the terror begins, landing Talbot right in the center of suspicion.

I’m not sure what I was expecting from this movie. I suppose, it being one of the first werewolf films, I expected some sort of grand lore to unfold, and the first gruesome death-by-wolf to induce shock. Having not seen many werewolf movies, The Howling probably being the only one, most of my werewolf knowledge stems from books like Harry Potter and The Dresden Files. I was looking forward to a classic look at these strange and frightening creatures, which are depicted in these books as the deadliest, cruelest, and most devilish of monsters. After watching the film, though, I was left thinking the werewolves of my reading adventures were far more frightening than that of Lon Cheney Jr. as the Wolf Man. Of course, he was one of the first, and that does make him special. Doesn’t it?

I have to say, all-in-all, though I kept watching, I was a little disappointed in this film. It started with grand potential, slowly building up to Cheney’s character, Larry Talbot, becoming the werewolf. Little references to dogs, wolves, and wolfbane crept in weaving suspense. Then, after the transformation, the suspense just sort of dropped and everything from that point forward was both expected and shallow. I will give Universal props for the tragic ending, though. Expected, as it was, it was still…memorable. Until, of course, you find out that Universal went on to resurrect Larry Talbot for three more horror movies, and one Abbott and Costello monster flick.

Recognition & Discussion
It seems as if either the original Dracula, Frankenstein, or Wolf Man appear on many lists people have compiled of their favorite horror films. But why? They aren’t scary… not even close. Years later, I actually can’t even remember what happened in the Dracula or Frankenstein movies, though I obviously know the tales of both monsters as well as anyone. Of course, there are those images that stand out; Bela Lugosi opening up his black cape and grinning freakishly and Boris Karloff first coming to life as Frankenstein’s monster. The same is now true for me of the scenes in which Lon Cheney Jr.’s wolfman stumbles through the foggy woods in search of his next victim. It would seem, then, that the acclaim of these films now is more in respect for their significance in monster history, than in their actual timeless thrill. Unlike the classic comedies or dramas, which have themes, jokes, and characters that still hold relevant, it would seem that our sense of “scary” has changed through time. The twists, the jump-out-of your seat scares, and the gore of modern horror films has left these monsters of yore waddling about in disappointment. What they represent has not changed, but they’re scare-power has greatly decreased. In, my opinion.

I wonder, though, how a film like TheWolf Man was received in 1941. Was it scary? Was it cheesy? What about Frankenstein or Dracula? According to a 1941 movie review from The New York Times, reviewer T.S. (perhaps I should started writing with just my initials for a name) gives less than flattering remarks about the film:

Perhaps in deference to a Grade-B budget it has tried to make a little go a long way, and it has concealed most of that little in a deep layer of fog. And out of that fog, from time to time, Lon Chaney Jr. appears vaguely, bays hungrily, and skips back into mufti. Offhand, though we never did get a really good look, we’d say that most of the budget was spent on Mr. Chaney’s face, which is rather terrifying, resembling as it does a sort of Mr. Hyde badly in need of a shave. Privately, and on the evidence here offered, we still suspect that the werewolf is just a myth.

He goes on to compare the werewolf to Santa Claus, stating that both are in need of a makeover to make their image more convincing. He states:

Without any build-up either by the scriptwriter or director, he is sent onstage, where he, looks a lot less terrifying and not nearly as funny as Mr. Disney’s big, bad wolf. Sharing his embarrassment are Maria Ouspenshaya, Claude Rains, Bela Lugosi, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy and Evelyn Ankers—who under more nonchalant circumstances would be referred to as a “sterling” cast. Most of them look as though they wished they had a wolf-skin to jump into—any old wolf-skin, so long as it was anonymous.

I question his comparison to Santa Claus, though. I’m pretty sure that depiction has lasted throughout time. Also, why would you compare Santa Clause to a werewolf? Regardless, the film, according to The Times’  T.S., does nothing to make the myth of the werewolf believable. Of course, something important to note, is that the screenwriter, Curt Siodmak,  admits to purposely not writing the script based on actual werewolf mythology, but rather he makes up his own werewolf story. He claims to base his monsters on scientific truth rather than mythology. In this case, I’m not really sure where the science was, but Siodmak must’ve thought it was there. Perhaps, he refers more to his later scripts featuring Cheney’s wolf man squaring off with Frankenstein and Dracula.

Frankenstein and Dracula on the other hand roused positive reviews in 1931 when they were released. In the December 5, 1931 issue of the New York Times, reviewer Mordaunt Hall says, “It is naturally a morbid, gruesome affair, but it is something to keep the spectator awake, for during its most spine-chilling periods it exacts attention.” The same reviewer gives praise to Dracula in an article from February 13, 1931, “It is a production that evidently had the desired effect upon many in the audience yesterday afternoon, for there was a general outburst of applause when Dr. Van Helsing produced a little cross that caused the dreaded Dracula to fling his cloak over his head and make himself scarce.”

It would seem, then, that by the time The Wolf Man was released, either Universal was losing it’s flare, or audience tastes were changing. The Wolf Man and it’s sequels (of which most monster movies had in those days), were hailed as the last of the great Universal monster films.

In an article by Eric Hehr titled The Golden Age of Monsters on Chicagoist.com, he discusses this golden age of horror:

Universal’s impact on the horror genre is without a doubt tremendous. They were not only able to brand the genre and coin the term ‘horror’ in a cinematic sense, but they were also able to exploit it in order to bring money into an otherwise suffering studio in a bleak point in America’s economy. Carl Laemmle Junior and Senior fed the public’s craving for these romantically dark, twisted tales, and in the process an incredibly deprived and underprivileged public still managed to feed the Laemmle’s wallets. Junior developed shock value in horror films, set the foundation for the original archetypes, and in the process created stars out of actors playing disgusting, sinister characters.

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
It’s hard to know who to blame for this film falling a bit flat. Lon Cheney Jr. certainly gave his best performance, and for the time, the make-up and costuming by the acclaimed monster maker Jack Pierce (Whose story is both interesting, and tragic) was on par. Curt Siodmak could, perhaps, have written a better story then with better suspense build-up near the end, but then, he too was on beat with the times. Or was he? The New York Times reviewer would say, “No.” I don’t blame anyone, though, for my underwhelming reaction to this movie. It was simply, not what I’d hoped for. I can’t put my finger on why. Maybe one of you can. Maybe you disagree wholeheartedly with me. Heck, maybe I just picked the wrong time to watch an early werewolf film.

Why I watched this film in the first place?
In searching for classic horror films, I found this on many lists. I hadn’t seen it, and I hadn’t seen many werewolf films. It’s as simple as that.

If you liked this, you might also like:
If you liked this, by chance, you’ll like Frankenstein and Dracula even more. You’ll also probably enjoy Abbott and Costello’s monster spoofs, of which, I plan to watch VERY soon. They did one with all of the Universal monsters, and some of them featured multiple monsters in one. I remember watching them as a kid and they were great fun. If you like this, I’ve included a few lists of werewolf movies that others have compiled. I can’t speak for them, so if anyone finds one you really enjoy, I’d love to hear about it.

Final verdict – in claps:
I did not clap. I did not howl. I didn’t boo, though. It was what it was, and I have respect for the era in which it was made. I loved watching the documentary about the Wolf Man that accompanied the film. I particularly enjoyed the section on costume designer Jack Pierce. Yak hair was apparently what was used to make Lon Cheney’s beard. Who’d of guessed? So… clap if you’d like. It’s just a matter of tastes. Clap in respect for an era, or clap because you love werewolves. Clap for Cheney and his depiction of the Wolf Man or clap for the costuming. I wouldn’t fault anyone for liking this film.

Related Links
More on the history of The Wolf Man: http://famousmonstersoffilmland.com/2010/01/07/wolf-men-the-men-who-created-1941s-the-wolf-man/
Other people’s favorite werewolf films:
http://horror.about.com/od/horrortoppicklists/tp/bestwerewolfmovies.htm
http://www.pajiba.com/seriously_random_lists/the-best-werewolf-movies-of-the-last-30-years.php
http://www.top10films.co.uk/archives/5793
http://www.ranker.com/list/the-best-werewolf-movies-ever-made/all-genre-movies-lists

Bette Davis Eyes Gone Bad: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Twisted Sisterly Macabre and Bitter Rivalry

Bette Davis, easily one of the best-known stars of the 1930’s through 50’s, was only 54 when she made the frightening film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? which acted to revitalize her career after a short lull. Her transformation from big-eyed beauty to beastly spinster is so terrifying that it really gives a whole new perspective to the phrase “Bette Davis Eyes.” The question I asked myself multiple times during my screening of the movie, though, was, “Is this horror? Or just depressing?” It certainly doesn’t meet the requirements that we normally think of when we think of “scary movies.” There are no monsters (or are there), no gruesome attacks (not exactly), and I certainly never screamed with terror. Upon looking up the definition of horror, though, it’s defined as: an overwhelming and painful feeling caused by something frightfully shocking, terrifying, or revolting; centered upon or depicting terrifying or macabre events. That said, I suppose this does qualify as horror, it certainly was horrific to watch and it absolutely shocked.

Blanche: You wouldn’t be able to do these awful things to me if I weren’t still in this chair.
Jane: But you ARE, Blanche! You ARE in that chair!

In Summary & Review
The film is about two aged Hollywood sisters who live alone in their equally aged house. One sister, movie star Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford), is confined to a wheel chair from an infamous and somewhat mysterious car accident that we see early in the film. The other sister, Jane “Baby Jane” Hudson (Bette Davis) is her eccentric caregiver. Poor Jane was a child vaudeville star who never found her footing in the movies when she grew older. It’s a sad picture before Jane goes bonkers. It’s a horrifying picture once she does. While both sisters battled severe jealousy towards one another at various points in their lives, it seems Jane’s fall from stardom effected her more than Blanche’s. She’s trapped in the child-like world of Baby Jane, certain that one day she’ll regain her star status; that is, after she’s rid of her beautiful, annoying, and crippled sister. However, a spoiled child grown into a spoiled and mentally disturbed woman isn’t a charming thing to watch, but rather a frightening one. How can we feel sorry for her psychosis, when she’s raging twisted attack after twisted attack upon poor, helpless Blanche? No, Jane seems beyond help, and Blanche is but the helpless victim. It’s a frigthful depiction of childhood rivalry, turned adult rivalry, turned insanity. You can watch the trailer at the link below.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zAcf9QqXprc

Marked with all of the elements of a psychological thriller with doses of the macabre, I was actually on the edge of my couch rooting for Blanche to break free of her sister’s lunacy. I was shocked, appalled, and yes, rather disturbed by the pathetic place where these two sisters found themselves. I was hoping for Jane to trip up, perhaps even up the stairs while carrying one of those grotesque meals she brought Blanche. Of course, that’s not the formula of horror films, and sadly this one was no different. Bette Davis and Joan Crawford shine as eccentric, loony, bitter, creepy, and altogether cooky fallen stars. I couldn’t help but think of Grey Gardens gone bad. Thank goodness little Edie wasn’t that kind of crazy.

Bette Davis’ remarkable performance as Baby Jane reminds us once more of how completely devoted she was to every role she encountered. Practiced in playing the strong-willed beauty, how different it must’ve been for her to play the psychotic old lady, hell-bent on torturing her paralyzed sister. It’s remarkable the way in which Davis flits back and forth between the evil and innocence brought on by whatever personality disorder Baby Jane was experiencing. That moment when we first see her in the oversized Baby Jane costume that matches that of her Baby Jane doll perfectly, is perhaps the most terrifying and telling of all. Can you imagine some of our most recognizable recent child stars jumping into grown-up sized versions of their character’s best-known outfits at age 50? Somehow I picture a grown Urkel running about saying, “Did I do that?” It’s deranged. It’s probably not an uncommon effect of child stardom, though. What make the film most horrific, however, is that for some reason Bette Davis’ Baby Jane character takes out all of her twisted regrets on her sister, who’s trapped in an upstairs room with no hope of getting out. This is the part that puts What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, right on par with any other creepy kidnapper, torture, or serial killer film of today. It takes light, fun places like the beach, and turns them into terrifying reminisces about a childhood long-gone and two sisters on the edge of destroying one another. It makes the viewer go, “Oh God! What can she possibly do to that poor woman now! Make it stop!” It certainly made me do that.

Blanche, you aren’t ever gonna sell this house…and you aren’t ever gonna leave it…either.” – Jane

Reaction and Recognition
According to Tim Dirks on the AMC Filmsite, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is, “A great psychological thriller, black comedy, and over-the-top camp classic… It features the bizarre (and sole) pairing of two legendary — and rival — screen legends in a gothic, macabre.” He goes on to describe the original theatrical posters for the film as having the following five points or things you should know before buying a ticket:

1. If you’re long-standing fans of Miss Davis and Miss Crawford, we warn you this is quite unlike anything they’ve ever done.
2.
You are urged to see it from the beginning.
3.
Be prepared for the macabre and the terrifying.
4.
We ask your pledge to keep the shocking climax a secret.
5.
When the tension begins to build, remember it’s just a movie.

Here, we get a sense of just how terrifying it must’ve been to see this film in 1962 when it was released, particularly, if you were already a fan of Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. I know it bothered me seeing Davis in such a strange, new light. It was, perhaps, this strange, new light, however, that earned Davis an Oscar nomination for her role as Baby Jane, which she lost to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker. Sadly, had Bette won this award she would’ve made Academy Award history as the first actress to receive three best actress Oscars. According to IMDb, “It was the general feeling among Academy voters that while Davis was superb, the movie itself was little better than a potboiler exploitation film, the kind that doesn’t deserve the recognition that an Oscar would give it.” The film, however, earned four other nominations. Newcomer Victor Buono was nominated in the supporting actor category for his role as Edwin, and the film was nominated for it’s cinematography, costume design, and sound. The only category it won was costume design. A fair win, because as previously stated, some of Bette Davis’ childlike costumes were terrifying! In the photo below you can see her as child standing next to her grown-up self. It gives me the creeps just looking at it.

The film was also listed as #63 on AFI’s list of 100 Years…100 Thrills, and Baby Jane Hudson was #44 on the list of AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains.

Bette & Joan: Rivals on and Off the Screen

“You mean all this time we could have been friends?” – Jane –

Something interesting to note about this film is the way in which the real off-screen rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford must’ve played into the perfection of their twisted sisterly rivalry on screen. I didn’t know this before watching the film, but the two supposedly hated one another. If you visit Bette Davis’ IMDb page, you’ll find quote after quote about her dislike of Joan. According to the site:

“Joan Crawford and Davis had feuded for years. During the making of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Bette had a Coca-Cola machine installed on the set due to Crawford’s affiliation with Pepsi (she was the widow of Pepsi’s CEO). Joan got her revenge by putting weights in her pockets when Davis had to drag her across the floor during certain scenes.”

In a quote from Bette about working with Joan on the film she says:

“We were polite to each other – all the social amenities, ‘Good morning, Joan’ and ‘Good Morning, Bette’ crap – and thank God we weren’t playing roles where we had to like each other. But people forget that our big scenes were alone – just the camera was on me or her. No actresses on earth are as different as we are, all the way down the line. Yet what we do works. It’s so strange, this acting business. It comes from inside. She was always so damn proper. She sent thank you notes for thank you notes. I screamed when I found out she signed autographs: ‘Bless you, Joan Crawford.’”

Why did Bette hate Joan, though? From what I read it sounds as if her dislike stemmed from Joan’s constant need to be in character. Bette claims that off-screen she was herself, while on-screen she became whatever the character required. Whereas, Joan was always playing up what Bette regarded as the character of Joan Crawford. Was this true, or not? Hard to say. Odds are that Bette and Joan hated one another (if they did hate one another) because they were just too darn similar. For instance, after Joan’s daughter wrote the deprecating book about her mother titled, Mommy Dearest, Bette’s daughter went on to write a similar book. Both daughters apparently found something in their mothers to detest. Perhaps it was also a bit of jealousy that caused the stars to feud, or at least caused rumors of the feud. While both carried equal amounts of star power, Bette was a trained actress dedicated to her roles, while Joan was the beautiful actress who played into her image as a “star.” They made films for rival studios MGM and Warner Brothers for years, then Joan jumped over to Warner Brothers where Bette was. In an interview from 1987, which you can watch at the link below, Bette claims the two women got along just fine. Whether that’s true or not is another question, but in 1987 all seemed to have been well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4Y9B9PJnW8

In another interview, Joan Crawford talks about her time working on What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? She talks briefly about her feud with Bette, and gives a few more interesting insights into the making of the film.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1QmhRRcT64&feature=related

Who’s to blame/thank for the film’s greatness or lack there of?
This was an all-around group effort of awesomeness. Bette Davis giving an amazing performance is a no-brainer. Joan Crawford’s performance, though, is not to be ignored. If we hadn’t believed 100% in her fear, then the film would’ve been cheesier than it was terrifying. No, she deserves a fair amount of credit for her fabulous performance as well. Director Robert Aldrich was spot-on in the way in which he builds up the horror and the characters. He’s definitely a director I want to look into now. Here’s a nice behind-the-scenes gem I found about him and the making of the film.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nY5hCBb48O8

Why I watched this film in the first place?
Believe it or not, my mom actually recommended this to me when I mentioned I was planning on watching scary movies this month. It was the first thing she thought of. I guess it scared her so much as a young teenager, that she wanted to share in the terror. Thanks Mom.

If you liked this, you might also like:
Okay, so this falls into that weird niche of horror like Psycho or The Orphanage (which isn’t an old movie, but one that I’d highly recommend) where it’s the freaky images that stick with you more than anything else. It holds up its end of suspense as well just like Rear Window or the original House of Wax. If you liked Bette Davis in this and aren’t familiar with her, please find a copy of All About Eve to watch right now, then watch anything else by her and enjoy. If you like the idea of fallen celebrities, then Hollywood has no shortage of great films about that. Amongst those I’ve seen Sunset Boulevard and Grey Gardens are the best. All About Eve dances around that same topic as well.

Final verdict – in claps
You may clap as Baby Jane dances around in circles at the beach, perhaps for the last time. She’ll think you’re clapping for her, when in reality you’re clapping at the sheer genius behind making this film seem so darn creepy and real.

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