75 years ago today – March 5th, 1943, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was first released. We look back on the hilarious hijinks of this Universal Monster classic, starring horror icons Lon Cheney Jr. and Bela Lugosi.
Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man
Curt Siodmak wanted to buy a new car. He’d picked it out and had spent several hours daydreaming about getting behind the wheel. He just needed a down-payment to make it a reality. The only trouble was, he also needed a new writing job to be able to afford it and hadn’t been given a new assignment in a while. The screenwriter was pondering his next move when he bumped into George Waggner in the Universal studio commissary.
The two sat and began to shoot the breeze as they ate. Both men had enjoyed a fruitful professional and personal relationship since Waggner had directed The Wolf Man, from Siodmak’s script. Nevertheless, Siodmak felt some trepidation about asking for a new job. Still, he thought, if you don’t ask…
“George, I’ve an idea for a new monster movie.”
“Oh, really?” Waggner replied over a mouthful of food. “Go on.”
“Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man,” Siodmak returned, with a hesitant chuckle.
Waggner did not share the screenwriter’s humour. The two men quietly continued their lunch until Siodmak, growing desperate, broke the silence.
“George, I need a new car,” he confessed. “I want to make a down-payment, but I need a new job first.”
Waggner raised an eyebrow and went back to eating his lunch. After what seemed like an eternity, Siodmak spoke again.
“Well, can I get a job? Please.”
“Sure,” Waggner nodded. He stood and walked away, stopping at the door to the commissary. “You’ll get a job, buy the car.”
A week later, Waggner called Siodmak into his office.
“Did you buy the car yet?”
“Yes, I bought it,” Siodmak answered.
“Good. Your new assignment is Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man…er, Meets the Wolf Man. I’ll give you two hours to accept.”
Building the myth
In 1931, Universal followed the enormous success of Dracula – starring then-unknown Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, as the eponymous vampire – by mining another classic literature property. Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelley and originally published in 1818, was an even greater success than Dracula. The movie propelled its star, William Henry Pratt, into the stratosphere, under his adopted stage name, Boris Karloff. Thus, began a professional rivalry between Lugosi and Karloff – whose careers endured wildly disparate degrees of success – lasting until the former’s death in 1956.
Universal, for its part, were keen to ring as much success as possible from their fledgling monster movie cycle. They were soon plundering literature again for HG Wells’, The Invisible Man, and Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Raven.
Not all the studio’s creations were borrowed from the great authors, though. Myths, legends and folk tales were equally fair game. So, when the German-born screenwriter, Curt Siodmak, wrote a script called The Wolf Man, which then proved to be a huge hit, Universal had another potential franchise property on their hands. And they were keen to exploit their hirsute creation for all it was worth.
George Waggner, a former actor, had taken directorial reigns on The Wolf Man, casting the late Lon Chaney’s son, Creighton Chaney (now capitalising on his father’s name via the appellation, Lon Chaney Jr.), in the role of Lawrence ‘Larry’ Talbot, a man cursed with lycanthropy.
The Wolf Man marked the first of five collaborations between Waggner and Siodmak. Their work together would go on to include The Invisible Agent, The Climax, and Cobra Woman (albeit with Waggner producing and Siodmak’s brother, Robert, in the director’s chair).
But it was the throwaway half-joke in the Universal commissary that led to the first pairing of any of the studios’ Monsters.
“Transforming Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man from a half-baked idea into a feature film was not a simple proposition..”
Of Gods & Monsters (and Mice and Men)
Transforming Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man from a half-baked idea into a feature film was not a simple proposition. As Siodmak remembered:
And then you had to sit there and think, “What can I do now?” Now is when you need a basic idea. My idea was, The Wolf Man, as was the tradition now, wants to die – he doesn’t want to be a murderer. And Dr. Frankenstein know the secrets of life and death. So he wants to meet Dr. Frankenstein. The Monster, on the other hand, wants to live forever.
From this outline, Siodmak fashioned a script, which, at the time, was a singular feat for a horror screenplay. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was a direct sequel to not one but two separate films. A follow-up to The Wolf Man, and a continuation of the events that took place in the previous year’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, amalgamated into a linear narrative that would bring the creatures together for the first time.
Waggner, producing this time, left directorial duties in the safe hands of Roy William Neill, an Englishman with over 50 films already under his belt. Lon Chaney Jr. was duly hired to return in the Larry Talbot/Wolf Man role. Neill had worked with Chaney Jr. before on Eyes of the Underworld and was well aware of the star’s penchant for drinking on set – his prodigious alcoholic intake concealing an inner distress, rarely divulged. As it transpired, the director was unable to inspire Chaney Jr. to really elevate his performance: a much-celebrated turn as Lenny in Of Mice and Men just four years earlier seemingly consigned forever to the past.
Meanwhile, Bela Lugosi finally took on the role of Frankenstein’s Monster. There’s no definitive account to substantiate beyond doubt that Lugosi rejected the role that made Boris Karloff a star over a decade earlier. It’s certain, however, that test reels were filmed (now lost) with Lugosi and Universal even went so far as to release posters announcing ‘the star of Dracula‘ in his next role. Upon discovering that the role was not a speaking part, however, with no dialogue written for the Monster, Lugosi allegedly reneged on the deal. In a moment of hubris, Lugosi was said to have raged: “I was a star in my own country and I refuse to be a scarecrow here!”
Despite Lugosi’s advancing years, his casting as the Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man 12 years later, made perfect narrative (and sonic) sense. His portrayal of the crazed Ygor in The Ghost of Frankenstein, had culminated in the transplant of the broken-necked minion’s brain into the Monster. When the Monster speaks for the first time, it is the voice of Lugosi as Ygor that is heard, not Chaney Jr’s – here playing the role of the Monster. In a further development, which would have future repercussions, the Monster subsequently goes blind due to the incompatibility of the blood types between itself and Ygor. Continuity dictated that Lugosi would take the role of the Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, since Chaney Jr. had sole ownership of the Larry Talbot/Wolf Man character and simply couldn’t play both.
The Accidental Icon
It was the cruellest of ironic twists, then, that audience reaction to Lugosi’s performance precipitated the complete removal of the Monster’s dialogue. The unintentionally hilarious sound of the Monster speaking with a strong Hungarian accent didn’t sit well with test audiences, nor it seemed did the Monster’s blindness, so all exposition regarding the origin of its ocular incapacity was also expunged.
To exacerbate things further, Lugosi, caught in the grip of an addiction to opiates prescribed to counter his acute sciatica, collapsed on set. Consequently, he only appears on screen in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man for a scant few minutes. Stuntmen were employed to portray the monster in a number of scenes, notably during the battle finale with the Wolf Man and, oddly, during the Monster’s initial close-up reveal.
Instead, the Monster’s entire screen time is an incomprehensible mess. Lugosi staggers around blindly, mouthing words that we do not hear. Later in the film his eyesight returns – though no explanation is given for the sudden clarity. Yet, despite the utter chaos of the characterisation, Lugosi’s performance had one indelible impact on the Monster: the incidental creation of the iconic ‘Frankenstein Walk’. Staggering around, blind (though not from the audience’s perspective), with arms stiffened and outstretched, Lugosi gave birth to all future Universal incarnations of the Monster: a stereotype that would endure for decades.
“[Siodmak] married new characters to old.”
The Ballad of Dwight Frye
In writing Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Siodmak had taken care to ensure that the continuation of both stories didn’t omit important characters from previous films, and married new characters to old. Maria Ouspenskaya returned as the venerable Maleva, whom Larry Talbot seeks out to help find a cure. Her Gipsy woman character first appeared in The Wolf Man and was indirectly responsible for Talbot’s fate; her son, a werewolf (played by Lugosi) attacked and maimed Talbot, cursing him to a life of lycanthropy.
Ilona Massey joined the cast as Baroness Elsa Frankenstein. This was her second and final horror movie role, following The Invisible Agent. Massey’s character formed a link to The Ghost of Frankenstein as Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein’s daughter; while Patric Knowles took on the role of Dr. Mannering, an ostensibly noble medical practitioner, who’s logical countenance eventually gives way to a more hubristic side. Lionel Atwill also joined the cast taking a small role as the Mayor of Vaseria. At the time of filming, Atwill was struggling to find work. He’d resorted to taking parts in cheap Poverty Row productions, following his embroilment in a salacious Hollywood scandal.
Horror staple, Dwight Frye, also had some connection with Lugosi via his role as Renfield in Dracula. Frye had made a career playing murderous henchman figures. ‘The Man of a Thousand Deaths‘ appeared as Dr. Frankenstein’s loyal hunch-backed minion, Fritz in Frankenstein, and Dr. Pretorius’s henchman, Karl, in the follow-up, Bride of Frankenstein. Despite his pedigree, Frye was only a peripheral figure, playing Rudi, a Vaserian villager. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man would be his last credited role. Frye succumbed to a heart attack just eight months after the film’s release.
‘For life is short…’
Ostensibly, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is a cash-in on the waning monster movie phenomenon that began with Dracula. It would be easy, though probably true, to cast the film as the point Universal began to run out of ideas, but there’s no doubting it paved the way for future ensemble pieces, albeit of varying quality, from House of Frankenstein to King Kong vs. Godzilla, and decades later, Alien vs. Predator and Freddy vs. Jason.
But was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man really just a cheap way to keep the monster movie gravy train rolling, or were there layers hitherto unexplored? In Don G. Smith’s book on Lon Chaney Jr. he discusses a theme not previously mentioned in relation to the film; that of ‘a Blakeian journey from childhood and innocence, to experience.’ Smith expands further:
The words of Kuznetzoff’s song, “For Life is short, but death is long,” is a theme of adult experience explored by many writers. This leads us to reconsider Talbot’s journey from carefree youth to death-cursed maturity, a journey we all face.
It’s certainly an interesting theory. Larry Talbot knows that he can only bring great suffering and so seeks any possible means of ensuring that his demise is a permanent one. The tragedy of Talbot is that, despite his relatively young age, he has already reached a ‘death-cursed maturity’. If Talbot covets emancipation, only death will bring him peace.
‘…but death is long.’
Larry Talbot’s story is by far the more interesting of the two monsters. It appears as if Frankenstein’s Monster is forced into the narrative in order to sell a few more theatre seats. It can be argued that the extensive cuts to the film negated Lugosi’s role. In fact, he only really serves as a sparring partner for the Wolf Man in the film’s denouement. It’s also fair to suggest that Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance lacks the charisma befitting a leading man. But, for all his often mediocre acting prowess, Chaney Jr.’s eyes convey such sorrow, one wishes his suffering would end. The sadness, though, was no act. This was never more pronounced than when he revealed to Siodmak the treatment at the hands of his father, the revered silent star, Lon Chaney. As Siodmak explained:
All these people, if you knew them, had sad stories behind them. The father of Lon Chaney – the old man, Chaney Sr. – was a very cold man, and he used to beat the boy all the time. Lon told me he had to go into a shed and be beaten with a leather strap, sometimes for things he hadn’t done. This killed him, mentally – he became an alcoholic, and always needed a father figure to tell him what to do. He’d drink on set.
‘He simply wants to die.’
The film begins to lose a little focus following the introduction of the Monster. The distracting performance, and appearance, of Lugosi (and numerous stuntmen) shakes the viewer out of the story. Lugosi isn’t to blame, given the erasure of his screen time and any semblance of character lost to the cutting room floor. Unfortunately, though, this doesn’t make for a particularly coherent story. So, it’s a testament to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man that it holds together as well as it does.
And despite Chaney Jr.’s relatively average performance, the film only really catches fire during the scenes involving Talbot. Only by sacrificing himself can he end the murderous path he is on. Regardless of the obstacle, the survival instinct is the most powerful of humanity’s driving forces. Yet, Talbot is cognisant that his own humanity is drifting further out of reach with every transmogrification into the beast; thus his own survival instinct is weakened to the point that he welcomes death. Maleva’s assertion that: “He is not insane. He simply wants to die,” marks the finest, and most tragically profound moment of the film.
It’s possible that, in the hands of a better actor, Talbot’s plight could have made for an exceptional character study. Still, it remains that in Chaney Jr.’s hands – or, rather, eyes – there’s a pathos that still resonates 75 years later.
The beginning of the end
Following the release of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man on March 5th 1943, cracks were showing in Universal’s horror monopoly. RKO Pictures’ Cat People, released the previous year had raised the bar, with a more cerebral take on the genre. As Variety noted:
“This is a weird drama of thrill-chill caliber, with developments of surprises confined to psychology and mental reactions, rather than transformation to grotesque and marauding characters for visual impact on the audiences.”
This was the sea change that the horror movie, by now beginning to go stale, needed. With RKO’s next picture, I Walked With a Zombie on release shortly after Frankenstein Meet the Wolf Man, Universal was looking over its shoulder.
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was just the start for monster mash-ups. But for Universal Studios’ Classic Monster period, it marked the beginning of the end.