Happy 132nd birthday, Bela.
After vintage Batman and Detective comics from childhood buy-em-at-the-newsstand days, and (the always brilliant) Terry Moore’s venerable Strangers In Paradise, I realize that most of my favorite comics and series have been by Howard Chaykin, whether as the all-around and in-charge creator, or as the writer, or on occasion, as the artists-only. Black Kiss, Satellite Sam, American Flagg, and then DC-Vertigo’s American Century, which may be my very favorite long-running series, starting back in 2001. Co-written by Chaykin and David Tischman, it was a series of linked multi-issue mini-series telling the tale of Harry Block, a Korean War combat pilot who fakes his death, assumes the name Harry Kraft and gets involved in a series of adventures from Central American drug and gun smugglers to Hollywood crooks, backwoods Southern moonshiners and New York gangsters. Hard-boiled, noir-ish, pulpy-spicy, and always excellently scripted and drawn, American Century was a real treat, and I sorely miss it. And, all the Glen Orbik and Jim Silke cover illustrations didn’t hurt none either!
“Suggestions” by Vincent Peters: Not sure what fashion editor Valentina Serra and photographer Vincent Peters had in mind with the title “Suggestions” for this particular October 2014 Vogue Italia photo suite. Models Sara Sampiao, Luma Grothe, Fardau Van Der Wal, Masha Gutic, Travis Bland, Brendon Beck and Bill McLamon are posed in urban scenes that range from bored city-fringe and blue collar suburb kids to shots that almost echo the Jets and The Sharks and their girl gang squeezes in some kind of bungalow belt couture version of West Side Story.
My long awaited trek to see the 1931 Dracula on a big screen may have been a bust – and I mean a total bust – but things were redeemed (somewhat) later that night. Ol’ Sven came through Saturday evening. Universal’s 1941 The Wolfman aired on Svengoolie Saturday night, and bummed as I was about the Dracula fiasco, it was pleasant enough to cozy up on a mighty chilly October Saturday night to watch this first (and many say best) of the ‘new wave’ of Universal’s sometimes-labeled ‘silver age’ classic monster films.
The Laemmle Jr. era was over, that short-lived magic time of 1930’s gothic horrors at Universal. The new owners were more focused on B-movies, Deanna Durbin and teen musicals, series detective yarns and Sherlock Holmes movies. But as many know, a 1938 double-bill of the original Dracula and Frankenstein in a second-run California theatre witnessed long lines ‘round the block, broke box office records, did not go unnoticed among the new Universal execs, and horror was back on the bill. 1939’s The Son of Frankenstein was the result – a peculiar transitional film, starring Boris Karloff, co-starring Bela Lugosi and Basil Rathbone, with ample reminders of Universal’s eerie Gothic fairy tale roots, intermixed with German expressionist touches. But, the pacing was ramped up, the sets were just a smidge less costly and smaller, all more in keeping with new management’s guidelines. Whether the new management liked it or not, horror sold tickets. At least, Universal’s particular brand of uniquely gothic horror, that is.
The Wolfman was scripted by German expatriate Curt Siodmak and produced and directed by George Waggner, a journeyman filmmaker who had his biggest success much later in television (being a frequent director on the 1960’s Batman series, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and other shows). Makeup maestro Jack P. Pierce handled the memorable Wolfman creation, and Universal’s new horror star Lon Chaney Jr. (Creighton Chaney, son of Lon Chaney) was the star, having already worked with Waggner earlier that year on The Man-Made Monster. The cast was rounded out with industry vets like Claude Rains (The Invisible Man and The Phantom Of The Opera remake), Ralph Ballamy, Patrick Knowles, Maria Ouspenskaya, ‘scream queen’ Evelyn Ankers, and no less than Bela Lugosi in very small but pivotal role.
The story’s familiar to most classic horror fans: Set in 1934, Lawrence Talbot returns to his family’s Welsh estate, following the untimely death of his older brother, to assist his father (Claude Rains) with the family’s affairs. Larry’s a regular Yank now, having spent 18 years in California (not a trace of Welsh accent to be detected here). He soon falls for Gwen, a village antique shop owner’s daughter, and takes her and her friend Jenny to see a traveling gypsy caravan’s fest one night. There, Jenny is attacked by a wolf (Bela the Gypsy, played by Bela Lugosi). Talbot intervenes, kills the wolf, but is wounded, and sadly, Jenny is dead as well.
Though the wolf bite mysteriously vanishes, Larry Talbot is now infected by the curse of the werewolf, and will turn into a wolf when the wolf bane blooms. In his first transformation, he kills a cemetery worker. Later, and now on the run from hunting parties, he attacks Gwen, but his own father (Claude Rains) intervenes and kills the werewolf with Larry’s own silver wolf’s head cane, shocked then to see the creature transform back into his own son.
The Gothic grandeur of Charles D. Hall’s Castle Dracula and Frankenstein’s laboratory sets are gone now. And there’s no place here for the indulgently quirky directorial style of a James Whale or Todd Browning. But in their place are something still mighty good – fast pacing, taut storytelling without intrusive comedic insertions, and plain ol’ cinematic storytelling done right. Director and crew do their best with tighter budgets, eking out fog-shrouded moors and eerie cemeteries, and of course, a truly memorable horror character to rival the Frankenstein monster, Count Dracula and Kharis the Mummy.
Just as 1931’s Dracula is responsible for so much of 20th and 21st century notions of vampire lore (arguably, more so than the arcana in Bram Stoker’s own novel), Siodmak’s werewolf comes with his own fabricated folklore. In The Wolfman, the transformation into a werewolf isn’t guided by the full moon (as in later Universal horror films), but when wolf bane is in bloom. Silver (and by extension, a silver bullet) and the pentagram – they’re all dreamt up or pirated piecemeal from bits and pieces of disjointed folklore Siodmak may or may not have browsed. The famous poem he wrote: “Even a man who’s pure in heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.” was altered in subsequent films, and is often mistaken for a genuine bit of traditional folklore.
Jack Pierce’s werewolf makeup was more or less created several years earlier for Henry Hull in The Werewolf Of London, but the actor balked at the tortuous application process and his diminished ability to emote under all that yak hair (and yes, it really was yak hair). Trying to launch a movie career, and unlikely to be a leading man, Lon Chaney Jr. was in no position to argue.
Studio execs fretted when the film opened on December 12, 1941, just days after the Pearl Harbor attack and with the entire nation focused single-mindedly on our sudden but still inevitable entry into WWII. But they needn’t have worried. The film was a box office success, all the more so since it was produced more or less on time and more or less on budget.
From your favorite horror blogs to Wikipedia, monster kid magazines to scholarly horror film tomes, you can uncover oodles of anecdotes and trivia about the making of this first of Universal’s 1940’s new wave of horror. Just one example: Discarded scenes of the werewolf wrestling with a bear also resulted in poor Evelyn Ankers being chased right up into the soundstage rafters when the animal got loose. Another, with Ankers again: For the climactic scene when the Wolfman attacks her on the fog-shrouded moors, she’s suppose dot be rendered unconscious and was instructed to lie still where she fell while Claude Rains arrives and finally kills the monster, his own son. When the scene was in the can, everyone left the set, unaware that the chemicals in the fog juice had rendered the actress unconscious for real, and she lay hidden beneath a thick layer of fake fog till a crewman finally discovered her. (And if you’ve ever smelled fog machine fumes, you’d believe this one, even if it’s just another Hollywood urban legend.)
No, 1941’s The Wolfman isn’t quite the iconic piece of horror-history filmmaking like Dracula, Frankenstein or Bride Of Frankenstein. But it’s still pretty special. Subsequent films in Universal’s 1940’s horror film cycle may not have always maintained The Wolfman’s level of quality. The Ghost Of Frankenstein is a particular low point for me, though I have a soft spot for 1943’s Son Of Dracula, for some reason. But all of them are an integral and cherished part of the classic horror film canon.
Next Saturday, Svengoolie will be running the film that closed it all out, 1948’s Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, with Chaney’s last of four outings as Larry Talbot the Wolfman, Bela Lugosi back in the black cape for only his second film appearance as Count Dracula, and big-boy cowpoke actor Glenn Strange third turn as the Frankenstein monster, in what many considered to be classic Hollywood’s very best horror comedy. I won’t argue that. Once again, I’m on schedule to be out of town starting Friday, and might miss it on Svengoolie this Saturday night. But just in case, I’m packing the DVD to celebrate the last weekend before Halloween!
Heroin Chic had its day in provocative fashion editorials and photography (and still does, after all). So, Alcohol Chic? Not sure, and not even sure it’s a good thing. But then, I’m still drawn (however guiltily) to gritty, urban night scenes like these that tell mini-stories — however tawdry they may be — in artsy-smartsy fashion images. The models stumbling and falling about in the pretty frocks, shredded hose and lost shoes are Anja Rubik, Andreea Diaconu, Lily Donaldson, Daria Storkus and Edita Vilkeviciute. (Via Anne Of Carversville).
More paintings from Nigel Van Weick (b. 1949), an admirer of the American Realist painters and Edward Hopper in particular — here and in many of his works, probing the sad, poignant but utterly beautiful (in a lonely and desolate kind of way, of course) affairs of lovers in (and out of) love. Just, stunning…