In 1941, Universal released another of their big Monster Movie hits. It was a werewolf tale called The Wolfman. What a lot of people don’t realize, is that 6 years earlier; there was a first attempt at the werewolf story. It would be in the form of this obscure classic which opened the same year as the much more popular Bride of Frankenstein.
Like The Mummy, there was no literary source for Werewolf of London. The genesis of the project seem to begin in the same way The Mummy did, with Universal searching for projects for their new star, Boris Karloff. They pulled out an old story from 1931 by Robert Florey, the same guy that was always one step away from directing one of the Monster Movies for the studio but would never get any closer than shooting Murders In The Rue Morgue in 1932. It seems he was given a title back then by the studio, Wolf Man; and asked to come up with an outline. His story treatment would have a lot of influence on this film and the preceding Wolfman (1941).
Set in the Bavarian Alps in 1850, it involves a village woman who is attacked and killed by a pack of wolves in her cabin. A she-wolf finds her baby and takes it home, nursing it with its’ own milk. The father, Peter; tracks him down and rescues him but on the way back, the village madman warns him that a child who drinks from the wolf’s milk will become a werewolf. The boy, Christoph; grows up and finds himself involved in a love triangle with a young girl, Theresa and his friend, Franz. Franz tells Christoph one night that Theresa has agreed to marry him and this sets Christoph into such a rage that he transforms into a werewolf for the first time and kills Franz. He’s later found next to Franz’s mutilated body. Christoph consoles Theresa over this death and she eventually agrees to mary him but before that happens, the wolves attack Christoph and Peters’ cabin once again. Peter shoots the same she-wolf that nurtured Christoph which causes Christoph to transform once again and he kills his own father. Going to a priest to confess, the priest tells him that in order to protect her, he must renounce her. This angers Christoph to the point where he transforms once again and kills the priest and afterwards, flees to the city by himself.
This is all I could find on this story treatment but the murder of the priest is what ended up killing this project since the studio thought they would catch too much flak from the Catholic Church over the priest’s murder by the werewolf. Once again, Florey was pulled off the project and even though the current project would become a variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it would still end up borrowing elements from Florey’s treatment. What’s interesting here though, is that there seems to be no mention of the moon’s cycle in this treatment. Instead, it seems the transformation is triggered by anger, very much like a big green, comic book character that would emerge decades later.
Seeing that the werewolf myth differs all around the world from culture to culture, the actual film’s most interesting element is probably the fact that this is the first pass at creating the “rules” of the werewolf myth that’s become the accepted standard thanks to this and the 1941 film. The rules here though are slightly different but still set the stage for what would come.
The story begins in the Himalayas, which in actuality; is the now very recognizable Vasquez Rocks which anyone who has scene the Star Trek episode “Arena” (where Kirk fights the Gorn) will instantly recognize. These familiar rock formations would appear in everything from “The Zanti Misfits” episode of The Outer Limits to Blazing Saddles but here, it’s 1935 and these rock formations haven’t been shot a thousand times over yet, so it’s Tibet and it surprisingly works, despite the fact that I’ve hiked all over those rocks myself.
Why Tibet? Well, world famous, English botanist, Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) has come in search of the extremely rare mariphasa plant which only blooms in the moonlight marking one of the first connections between lycanthropy and the lunar cycle in film lore. He finds the plant of course but upon his discovery, he’s attacked by a werewolf and the audience is introduced to a part of the myth that endures to this day: Once bitten by a werewolf, it’s only a matter of time before you’re feeling a bit shaggy yourself. This is pretty much the origin of that concept in film.
Returning to London with three plant buds, Glendon attempts to induce their blooming with a nifty “moon lamp” he’s invented. He’s also made himself the world’s first close circuit security camera at his place which no one seems to comment on. Seeing as the tradition of these Universal films seems to be that of borrowing elements from other similar genre stories or resurrecting unused elements from old story treatments, this immediately reminded me of the same unused concept from the “Cagliostro” draft of The Mummy (1932) where it was used in conjunction with a death ray. Either way, it’s 1935 and if I were this guy, I would get a patent on that thing real quick.
On the other end of the screen is Lisa (Valerie Hobson), his obviously neglected wife. She’s busy having a gathering with the members London high-society who have gathered at the Glendon’s place to view his impressive collection of exotic plant life which includes a carnivorous plant from Madagascar that will instantly remind people of Audrey from the original Little Shop of Horrors. Both are simple puppets with articulated vines that are ready to grab the nearest warm-blooded creature as seen in many low budget sci-fi pics in the upcoming decades like Angry Red Planet for instance. In fact, that seems to be the original intention as evidenced by a cut scene in which the plant grabs a young boy and attempts to eat him before being rescued. In the end, the man-eating plant would be reduced to a short sequence where we see it fed a live mouse.
In this sequence, we are also introduced to one of the elements from Florey’s original treatment that made it all the way to the final film. This is the love triangle in the form of Lisa’s childhood sweetheart who is obviously still carrying a torch for her, Paul Ames (Lester Matthews). In the character dynamics introduced here comes the film’s fatal flaw, the reason why it wouldn’t hit with the audience and why it would be destined to live in the shadow of The Wolfman made six years later…
Henry Hull as the lead gives a strong performance being a famous stage actor at the time, but that’s not the problem. The character of Wilfred Glendon comes across as self-involved and cold. Basically an unsympathetic dick. And with those character traits, this film was destined to miss the mark with the public. Think about virtually every werewolf film made in it’s wake. They all have one very important element in common. From Lon Chaney Jr. to David Naughton in An American Werewolf In London (1981), the main characters have all been in the mode of the likable every-man that audience’s can relate to which allows the viewer to experience the story as if it’s happening to them. It’s a lesson learned from the mistakes of THIS film and has seldom (if ever) been repeated. Here, the opposite traits become so apparent that when Lisa starts stepping out on the town with her old beau, you end up understanding her point of view a lot more than his. It’s a bad sign when the lead protagonist is made into a cuckhold and I’m fine with it. In fact, it seems to make complete sense.
Despite this, Henry Hull is still best remembered for this film but he’s also remembered for his role as Magwitch in Great Expectations the year before which is what lead to his casting here. He also had a small but memorable role in High Sierra (1941) which put Humphry Bogart on the map and convinced Hollywood to make him a leading man. He even starred in the western remake of that film, Colorado Territory in 1949. He would go on in the 50’s and 60’s to star in numerous television guest spots, mainly westerns like Bonanza and Outlaws and would make his final film appearance in The Chase (1966) opposite Marlon Brando and Robert Redford. He would pass away in the year of Star Wars, 1977.
Valerie Hobson as his wife, Lisa is also great here and as I’ve stated, plays the character in such a way as to garner all the sympathy that Hull should’ve gotten. This is a character who is virtually a kept woman and the actress is so likable, you end up really feeling for her and hope she finds a way out of her predicament. Even when her old boyfriend starts to tempt her away from Hull, she comes across as a woman with a moral compass that is being tested rather than a wife who’s ready to step out on her man and of course, like many of the leading ladies of the time; she imbues her role with maturity and intelligence which also makes her more likable. This was a big year for 17 year-old Hobson who also starred as Elizabeth in Bride of Frankenstein, released only 8 days before this film. Hobson would go on to play Estella in David Lean’s version of Great Expectations in 1946 but would give up acting by 1954 shortly after marrying British Parliament Member, John Porfumo who himself would become infamous in 1963 with the well known British sex scandal known as the Profumo Affair (not actually an episode of The Man From Uncle) which led to his resignation after his sexual affair with 19-year-old model Christine Keeler was uncovered. The incident was finally made into a very good film itself called Scandal in 1989 with Porfumo played by Ian Mckellen and Hobson herself portrayed by Deborah Grant. Despite the controversy, Hobson stayed married to Profumo until her death in 1998.
Also at the same party, the last major player is introduced as a guest from Tibet, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland) who’s also a botanist and claims to have met Dr. Glendon on his trip there although he doesn’t have any recollection of it. This is because Dr. Yogami is the werewolf who attacked Dr. Glendon and has come for the antidotal powers of the mariphosa which can temporarily ward off the disease. He’s also kind enough to warn Glendon of what is to come.
Warner Oland does what he does best here, playing the magical, mysterious Oriental which he was already making into a personal cottage industry by first playing Fu Manchu in 1929 and two more films after as well as starring in 1931 as the popular Charlie Chan for the first of 16 films. The fact that Oland is actually Swedish, highlights one of the most entertaining aspects of movies from the 30’s and 40’s when now seen from a modern perspective. And that is Hollywood’s complete lack of knowledge pertaining to Asian cultures which they seem to view as something closer to a wizard out of a fairy tale or some sort of proto-Jedi Knight who is ready to reveal in an expository scene; his ancient chinese secret. Also just as often, they were the go-to villains of the time representing that ever dangerous Other.
Here, Oland gets to play a rather interesting twist on the Oriental villain who actually comes to embody the tragic, sympathetic werewolf victim we would all come to know so well in the genre’s later films. Surprisingly, he’s the most complex character in the piece, first giving the titular warnings to Glendon then later being seen as the main antagonist when he steals the blooming mariphosa plants from Dr. Glendon’s lab, administering the cure to himself. Then later in the tale, his humanity is shown when he realizes his responsibility for the murders Dr. Glendon carries out as the werewolf and tries to warn the authorities. He’s even seen as an attractive, exotic gentleman by the ladies of London’s high society. Not bad for an Asian character in 1935 and it’s a nice twist to see the werewolf who bites the lead character return as the one who tries to save him.
Yogami’s warnings of “werewolfery” which he describes as a satanic creature (now there’s a variation on werewolves I would like to see in a modern interpretation), and warns that “The werewolf instinctively seeks to kill what it loves best”; falls on deaf ears of course. Dr. Glendon is way too myopic and intellectually arrogant to heed these warnings and it’s not long before the first symptoms start to manifest in the form of hands that turn hairy under the moon lamp, sensitivity to normal light levels and a cat who suddenly starts to hiss at the good doctor. And wouldn’t you know it? As his wife is out on the town with Paul, it turns out that it’s that time of the month: Full Moon. As he begins to transform, Dr. Glendon finds the bloomed moon flowers cut by Yogami and has no choice but to undergo the full effect. What follows is a nice, first transformation scene that’s achieved by revealing the stages of make up in a tracking shot where Hull walks behind a series of optically composited columns to appear on the other side further along the process until fully transformed, probably the most recognizable sequence from the film.
The make up by Jack Pierce is an interesting, toned-down variation of what Chaney would don in The Wolfman. In fact, the original design was identical to that one but was toned down by Hull himself, who was an accomplished make-up artist as well as an actor. Rather than vanity, his reasons stemmed from the fact that he would be too unrecognizable to the other characters under that much make up and the script calls for the others to recognize him as Glendon. Pierce objected which led Hull to go over his head to Carl Leammle Jr. who sided with Hull and story wise, it makes absolute sense. This may have left Pierce fuming but he would get his opportunity to go Full Wolf six years later anyway. It also seems to be in line with how the werewolf is portrayed in the story anyway. The first film werewolf lacks the superhuman strength of his descendants to the point that he can be fought off and even knocked unconscious by an average man. And unlike all later werewolves to come, his original personality is retained throughout his transformation, leaving him with a fully intact memory of the events afterwards so it seems to make sense that this lycanthrope would retain a more human appearance.
After killing a young girl on the night streets of London (a favorite Universal Monster victim), the doc can no longer ignore the signs and decides to shack up in an old boarding house run by two old-lady drunks in what seems to be an obvious, borrowed element from The Invisible Man (1933) in which a land lady also rents a room to a monster/scientist.
What follows are more killings and an escalating hunt by Yogami to stop Glendon leading up to another well known werewolf trope that’s played out here for the first time when Dr. Glendon seeks out an old associate who he asks to put him in the basement and to not unlock it, no matter what. Of course, like those other guys; he finds a way out anyway leading to the climax which doesn’t see a silver bullet anywhere in sight. That addition to the lore would also have to wait another six years.
The film is competently directed by Stuart Walker who had directed films for Paramount then Universal at the time including the version of Great Expectations that featured Henry Hull but he was better known as an uncredited producer on the Bulldog Drummond series. There’s also another full film score here just like Bride of Frankenstein that adds an immediacy to the proceedings.
The problems in this one don’t really stem from the direction or performances but from the script. Besides the unsympathetic leading man, there’s also way too much time spent on attempts at comedy featuring slapsticky old ladies, first within the London high society circle which seems like it belongs more in a Marx Brothers film and then with two drunken land ladies. It feels like filler to pad out a story that is just a little over an hour long anyway, highlighting the glaring truth that the studio never quite licked the script which went through several rewrites after starting with Florey’s treatment.
In the end, the film wasn’t a hit and Bride of Frankenstein more than overshadowed it. The whole beast man thing would be put on hold for another six years until it would re-emerge as another big hit, licking the problems that bogged this version down. Despite that, this film still has it’s influence. First on the Chaney film that takes the lore that’s began here which would both alter and build upon it and then in later films like An American Werewolf In London which is somewhat of an homage to this one, being a favorite of director John Landis.
While being a flawed film in some ways, it’ still fascinating to see the first pass at the werewolf myth and to watch that now famous film lore begin to take shape in a way that feels both familiar but different in some fairly important ways. A lot of the werewolf legend that would be perfected in The Wolfman is found here in it’s proto-version and it’s fun to watch as well as the variation on an iconic make up design that would become legend half a decade later. For those reasons, as well as its’ 1930’s charm; it’s still worth a look just to see where the lycanthrope legend we know so well first began to take shape.