Universal Monsters: How The Wolf Man Created The First Cinematic Universe

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The Universal Monsters is the first true shared movie universe; and the Wolf Man united it

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Universal Studios is busy working on their version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or ‘shared universe’ as it’s come to be know, featuring the classic Universal monsters.  In truth, the Universal monsters already have a shared universe and movies like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein and House of Dracula are the 1940s equivalent of Marvel’s Avengers movies. In this article published by Den of Geeks takes us through the history of the Universal Monsters shared universe and explains how the Wolf Man ties it all together:

This article was previously published in the Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine. You can find out details about that issues and other articles in it by clicking here.

One only needs to peruse the headlines of the last few years to realize that Hollywood’s big budget franchises have graduated to the even bigger realm of “universes.” Marvel may have been the first to popularize it with the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” but shared brand synergy is underway at nearly every studio at the moment. Warner Bros. has their own superhero stable, as does 20thCentury Fox, and there are even rumors that Paramount is trying to find a path toward unifying their Hasbro titles. But while everyone else is looking forward, Universal is glancing back. And why not? After all, Universal Pictures is responsible for the first shared cinematic universe.

Over 80 years since it began, the Universal Monster legacy continues to stretch into a new century, spreading its celluloid immortality like a juicy Transylvanian kiss. The Universal Monsters did it first, and in many ways, their blunt directness has a special charm that is sorely lacking in the self-seriousness currently masquerading in their bloodless, caped descendents. And it really all goes back to one monster in particular: Lon Chaney Jr.’s eternally unblessed Wolf Man.

Chaney’s unforgettable plea for audience mercy and understanding in 1941’s The Wolf Man, as well as make-up artist Jack Pierce’s notoriety for the best use of Yak fur in movie history, is generally considered the marker for Universal’s final “A-list” monster picture. But it also signified a change of thinking at the studio, inadvertently inviting a literary concept as abstract as “universe-building” in through the backlot’s sidedoor. And with those eventual follow-up sequels, there came a new type of monster movie.

In the decade preceding The Wolf Man, Universal horror began its high pedigree breeding when Carl Laemmle Jr. had successfully won over his father to pursue the relatively untapped genre. Carl Laemmle Sr., a co-founder of Universal, saw little initial appeal in the supernatural stories of Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley. But the success of Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent films eventually led to the advent of Tod Browning’s Dracula (which Chaney the elder was originally set to star in before his death) and James Whale’s Frankenstein, both of which were released in 1931. In purely geeky terminology, Bela Lugosi’s vampire was Tony Stark, but Boris Karloff was Robert Downey Jr. since he benefitted the most from these two Universal chillers.

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Despite being the first (official) silver screen realization of Dracula, and the first talkie iteration of Dr. Frankenstein’s arrogance, neither of these films were “small,” much less the B-movies that would later be invented for the slums of horror cinema and those characters in particular.

Universal and Carl Laemmle Jr., as the head of production, treated all of their horror films with the same kind of reverence that MGM would come to shower upon the musical. Maverick filmmaker and human being James Whale, who amongst other things was an openly gay man living proudly in the early 20th century, was given special leeway by the Laemmle family that tended to recognize a brilliance most of the industry would ignore in his lifetime.

Pictures like The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) were allowed near carte blanche for Whale to introduce his acidic sense of humor, lacing the scares with just as many laughs. Indeed, the studio bent over backwards to lure him for the first major horror sequel ever made, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is widely considered by film historians to be the crown jewel in Universal’s legacy, as well as possibly the horror genre as a whole. It is certainly difficult to top for pure emotional catharsis the sequence where Karloff’s monster stumbles upon a blind man’s shack (though Mel Brooks tried his damnedest in 1974).

However, just as Whale was attempting to stretch out to more “respected” fare like Show Boat (1936) and the ill-fated All Quiet on the Western Front sequel, The Road Back (1937), it seems the studio stretched too far. Despite the success of Showboat and almost all of their monster movies, the rest of Laemmle Jr.’s gambles had gone bust by 1935. That year, John Cheever Cowdin’s Standard Capital began the process of buying out the Laemmles share of Universal Pictures. In 1936, the father and son were pushed out, and Universal became a very different company—one that wouldn’t necessarily make a horror sequel the centerpiece of its expensive production year (or keep an openly gay director in its favor).

The era that kicked off the Universal Monsters Universe, including celluloid joys like The Mummy (1932) and The Black Cat (1934), came to an end. But the monsters as always proved impossible to stay dead. In fact, soon their forces would merge for unprecedented movie history.

As Siodmak told it, he desperately wanted a new car, so he joked to George Waggner at the Universal commissary during lunch that he had the perfect idea for a new movie: “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.” Later that afternoon, Waggner called Siodmak to his office and told him to buy the car, because he had a script to write. Despite Universal already churning out monster movies like they were B-24s, such as The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), both of which starred Lon Chaney Jr. in excessive amounts of make-up, 1943’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was the studio’s relatively delayed follow-up on their last pre-war classic. And it seems Siodmak found the best way to continue the sad sack tale of the doomed Larry Talbot, who tragically died in the last picture at the hands of his father, was for Larry to wake up and commence biblical combat with the Frankenstein Monster.

In essence, Siodmak inadvertently made his creation the lynchpin of cinema’s first shared universe. Despite the Universal library already brimming with fangs and teeth, the only one that had really continued as a series beyond a spare sequel was “Frankenstein” (now simply signifying the Monster since the last “Dr. Frankenstein” in the series appeared in The Ghost of Frankenstein). And all of these works were standalone, taking place in a twinkling Neverland of automobiles and horse drawn carriages. The Wolf Man is even one of the few that appeared to take place in modern times (WWII notwithstanding), as Larry Talbot was exceedingly a mid-20th century American with a background in electrical engineering when he returns home to Wales for the first time in 20 years. The only horse drawn carriages are from the backwards-looking gypsies, beautifully personified by Maleva (the wonderful Maria Ouspenskaya).

With Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the film’s brisk 74 minutes are literally cut in near symmetrical half when the film begins as a direct continuation of the 1941 film—Larry Talbot is conveniently awakened by two dimwitted grave robbers who sneak into his crypt and remove his death shroud of wolfsbane on the night of a full moon—and abruptly enters the twinkling fantasy of the Frankenstein franchise, which began with Whale’s tongue firmly planted in his cheek. Lesser directors on the other hand had continued it with Son of Frankenstein (1939) and Ghost, unaware that they were emulating a sly comedy. When Larry Talbot crosses the English Channel to continental Europe in his search for a permanent death at the hands of Dr. Frankenstein, he is crossing over from his own mythology into another from the Universal canon, thereby stitching them together like the good doctor himself.

In short, this is the moment where the Wolf Man became the Agent Coulson of 1940s cinema.

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