Saturday, 2 July 2016
WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935)
In 1935, during the slump period that the horror film went through, Universal gamely tried to keep creating new titles to attract the public. Soon after the excellent sequel Bride of Frankenstein, the studio came up with the first appearance of a brand new monster to add to their Hall of Fame: the Wolf Man. Werewolf of London was in fact the first time a werewolf had been seen in a mainstream horror film. It would not prove successful enough to generate a sequel rush - six years elapsed before Lon Chaney kick-started their franchise properly with The Wolf Man in 1941- and this 1935 version is often overlooked. However, it’s well made enough to introduce this iconic creature, albeit a little too reminiscent of Jekyll and Hyde’s urban aspect rather than natural primitivism.
Henry Hull plays Dr Wilfred Glendon (his first name already hinting at a lupine connection?), a gruff, driven British botanist of means who travels to Tibet in search of the fabled ‘mariphasda Lupino lumino’, the Wolf Flower, that allegedly only blooms in moonlight. He risks everything to secure the exotic plant, including his future when he is attacked by an obscured humanoid figure just as he takes a cutting from it. The creature scratches his hand and arm severely. Once back in his London laboratory, Glendon tries in vain to reproduce an artificial moon-light ray trained on the transplanted mariphasa. Meanwhile, he is visited by Dr Yogami, Warner Oland, who claims he met Glendon in Tibet (as his assailant it turns out) and suspects the botanist to be afflicted with the werewolf curse of lycanthropia – which by sheer coincidence can be cured for a few hours at a time by the pollen thorn of the plant. Glendon refuses to reveal his curse which will set the seal on his fate. Yogami warns him, as he knows only too well, that “The werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the thing it loves best” In private, Glendon feels the transformation begin to take hirsute effect upon his arm in a series of dissolve shots but manages to quell it with plant extract.
Hull plays Glendon with an effectively frosty, brooding quality for a gradually tormented soul and a huskiness to his English tone reminiscent of Colin Clive (though he was actually American). Oland, as Dr Yogami, was continuing in an asiatic vein that was already achieving him fame as the wily Chinese detective in the ongoing Charlie Chan film series (1931-37). Oland was in fact Swedish-American, born Johan Verner Olund into a Swedish family that emigrated to the U.S. when he was thirteen. He claimed some unproven Mongolian ancestry to justify his slightly oriental appearance. Though the term ‘inscrutable’ is a somewhat racist stereotype, it’s an apt description for Oland’s playing of Yogami with immensely controlled emotion and guarded expertise , though erring at times into an uncertain line delivery.
Adding a love triangle to the increasingly hairy tension is Valerie Hobson as Glendon’s wife Lisa, who’d played Baroness Frankenstein that same year for James Whale in Bride of Frankenstein and would go on to the equal classics back home in England of Lean’s Great Expectations and Edith D’Ascoyne in Kind Hearts and Coronets. (She would later be embroiled by association with a notorious society sex scandal in real life as wife of the disgraced government minister John Profumo). Lisa gamely fends off the old-flame of her childhood sweetheart Paul (Lester Matthews), who at first seems a bit of a moustached cad pointedly remarking that she has lost the sunny temperament she had when formerly with him, until he’s revealed as an action man with prior knowledge of a werewolf murderer in the Yucatan.
Glendon’s first full metamorphosis into a werewolf is artfully staged, melding dissolve photography with cleverly-edited shot composition in three stages as he passes behind two pillars, each one allowing a cut to a more detailed change as Hull acquires a widow’s peak of hair, pointed ears and protruding sharp fangs to his lower front teeth. Physically, Glendon’s werewolf is reminiscent of Jekyll’s Hyde alter-ego more than a primal beast as instead of fully embracing the lupine predatory animal, his inner creature clothes the outer self in a full gentleman’s suit, cap and overcoat each time he heads out to kill. Coupled with the London setting, Robert Harris’s script owed a fair amount to Robert Louis Stephenson’s novella.
Universal’s renowned make-up supremo Jack Pierce had designed a more elaborate look for Hull, one identical to the design used on Lon Chaney Jr in the later The Wolf Man, but Hull’s great-nephew Cortlandt claimed that the actor wanted a more pared-down aspect on the grounds that other characters would then be able to recognise him. Whether or not this was valid or a performer’s vanity, it created a bad working atmosphere between Hull and Pierce and a look that still took four hours to apply each day.
Lighter notes are to be played along the way while Glendon succumbs to his terrifying disorder. There is the relentless scepticism of Lawrence Grant’s Sir Thomas Forsythe of Scotland Yard who refuses to believe any evidence no matter what is presented to him. Paul has eye-witness proof of Glendon being the killer when he is attacked by him after he tries to put the moves on her in the woods. Yogami predicts city-wide werewolf contagion unless they confiscate Glendon’s mariphasa antidote as a preventative for the people. It takes an overwhelming amount to shake the inspector’s disbelief- and Paul is his nephew!
The more deliberate fun is the double-act of Mrs Moncaster and Mrs Whack, a couple of exuberant cockney landladies, irony-free and with surreally unself-conscious survivalism. Mrs Whack is proud of her jailbird son’s model prisoner status: “I always knew he’d amount to somebody” Moncaster avers. They are injected into the plot as comic relief as if inspired by James Whale’s established trademark of dark comedy to alleviate the horror. Zeffie Tilbury and Ethel Griffies respectively are an unforgettable duo whose bosom friendship bizarrely endures despite ‘just business’ cut-throat competition with each other often resulting in un-ladylike violence. When Glendon comes by looking for private lodgings in the throes of his rampage, Mrs Moncaster knocks “my oldest friend” out with a sock to the jaw so she can take his custom.
Eventually, Forsythe agrees to head to Glendon Manor with Yogami and Paul. Lisa appeals to Glendon’s latent humanity but he is by now too loopy with the lupine and Forsythe is forced to fatally shoot him. In a touching end, Glendon apologises to his wife for neglecting her happiness in favour of his scientific mania and praises her: “Thank you for the bullet. It was the only way”. Forsythe softens his British reserve enough to offer framing Glendon’s death in his report as occurring whilst trying to protect his wife.
Werewolf of London doesn’t give us the full moon of werewolf legendry. We must wait till 1941 for Universal to embrace that with The Wolf Man yet its creation of a new franchise mythology is nonetheless welcome in a period when the horror film was losing potency…