November 11, 2008

When Frankenstein Met The Wolf Man

On this day, November 11, in 1942, Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man wrapped after a month of filming. During the editing process over the days that followed, the film would be fundamentally transformed.

The project began as a vehicle for Lon Chaney Jr., touted by Universal as their new horror star. The young actor had gone directly from his break-through part in The Wolf Man to The Ghost of Frankenstein, taking over The Monster role vacated by Boris Karloff. The new film, as planned, would combine the two monsters, with Chaney, the “Master Character Creator”, playing both parts.

Two days into shooting, on October 14, Variety was still reporting on Chaney’s “double-header” part, but that notion had been scrapped. The flashy twin-role stunt would have meant the use of doubles and complicated split-screen effects, not to mention the wear and tear of heavy makeup sessions on a notoriously impatient Chaney. The actor settled for his signature role as the lycanthropic Larry Talbot and, at the last minute, Bela Lugosi was drafted for The Monster’s part. It made sense. In the previous Frankenstein film, Chaney’s Monster had been given Lugosi/Ygor’s brain and distinctive voice.

Technically speaking, it was Lugosi’s second swipe at the part. Eleven years earlier, he had piled on the makeup for the notorious, now lost test reel for the original Frankenstein. But Lugosi had begged out of the part he felt “any half-wit extra could play”, only to see it make a star out of his replacement, Boris Karloff. By 1942, Lugosi had settled in as a Poverty Row menace and he no longer had the means to refuse a part, even the one he had evaded earlier. “Isn’t it crazy” Lugosi’s wife, Lillian, said, “After turning down the original, Bela winds up doing it anyway… He finally did it because of money. He didn’t do it any other way!” At least, this time, The Monster’s part was a speaking one.

Lugosi, who turned 60 on October 20th, was not in good health. Reports had him rising at 2:30 AM, soaking in a hot bath and taking a massage to prepare for the grueling, four-hour makeup session and the sixteen-hour workday. Lugosi’s age shows through the makeup. He appears frail and shrunken in the big Monster suit. On November fifth, inevitably perhaps, Lugosi collapsed on set, due to exhaustion. It wasn’t a good day for the film’s cast: During another setup, a horse-drawn cart overturned, spilling Chaney, who suffered cuts and bruises, and Maria Ouspenskaya (as the old Gypsy Woman), who broke her ankle.

Lugosi’s part was filled out by a tag team of stuntmen. Sharp-eyed viewers can make out different people wearing the neck bolts and hinged skullcap in scenes showing The Monster lying in a block of ice, throwing barrels off a speeding wagon, carrying off sculptural heroine Ilona Massey, battling The Wolf Man, and getting violently swept away in the closing tsunami. In fight scenes, Lugosi appears in brief close-up inserts, tying the action together.

Update: Stuntman Eddie Parker has often been credited as Lugosi's stand-in, but careful study of the film indicates that most of the stunt work was done by Gil Perkins.

Shooting had been an ordeal for Lugosi, but the final ignominy was still to come. According to screenwriter Curt Siodmak, The Monster’s dialog “sounded so Hungarian funny that they had to take it out”. It seems late in the game, after a month of shooting, to decide that Lugosi’s accent was unsuitable for The Monster. Perhaps Lugosi spoke his dialog with Ygor’s spirited, lusty delivery, which had worked beautifully for that character but would have been overdone for the stone-faced Monster. Whatever the reason, the solution was drastic. Entire scenes were dropped and, in short sequences that couldn’t be excised, Lugosi’s voice was erased, though we still see his lips move.

Gone were all the exposition between Lugosi and Chaney. Surviving stills show Chaney and Lugosi sharing their stories in front of a warming fire in the ice cavern. Also gone with the dialog was a key plot point explaining how The Monster was weakened, half blind, and dependent on Chaney’s Larry Talbot. As a result, Lugosi’s flung-back head stares and outstretched arm gropes are interpreted as robotic spasms, and the impact of the final laboratory scene is lost: After the juice is turned on and The Monster is re-energized, a shot of Lugosi grinning malevolently was meant to signal that he was back at full danger-zone power, with eyesight restored.

For all the butchering done in editing, the resulting film is surprisingly effective. It’s a brisk and very entertaining adventure movie, with monsters. The graveyard opening sequence and Chaney’s moonlit reanimation is gorgeous. Chaney and Lugosi meet in an underground ice cavern, and go on to explore a wonderful smashed castle set. The local Tyrolean-type town and its festive villagers provide scenes for genre regulars Dwight Frye and Lionel Atwill, and everyone panics on cue when The Monster clomps down Main Street. The climactic wrestling match between the title monsters is a little too short to be entirely satisfying, but the stunt men go at it with wild abandon, Wolf Man leaping and The Monster throwing refrigerator-sized lab equipment, until the dam blows and the monsters are drowned, or at least sent into icy hiatus until the next film.

Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man’s advertising campaign, touting the “Titans of Terror”, yielded a great movie poster, a lurid pulp magazine-style painting of The Monster cranking up a knockout blow against The Wolf Man’s animalistic lunge. The title logo has “Frankenstein’ spelled out in riveted letters, and “The Wolf Man” written in fur. Ilona Massey reclines across the bottom of the image in a flimsy, off the shoulder nightgown.

The original script by Curt Siodmak, entitled Wolfman Meets Frankenstein — featuring all of The Monster’s dialog — is still available in book form.

The film is available on DVD packaged with The House of Frankenstein, or as part of The Wolf Man Legacy Collection.

The film’s very entertaining re-release trailer is on You Tube.


Chris said...

I really love your blog! Thanks for the great reads.
I just recently found it last week and since then have been tracking down all the universal Frankenstein films.

Pierre Fournier said...

Thank you! Glad you found me.

When you have seen all the Universal Frankensteins, we'll have to get you started on the Hammers.

Dane said...

You make me really want to get this on my Netflix queue.

Cory Gross said...

I think it's about time I watched this one again... It's been a while, though not as long as Ghost of Frankenstein. That one tends to get overlooked.

The Vicar of VHS said...

What a great article, Pierre! Fascinating stuff--even an old Universal fanatic like me learned a thing or two.

FmtWM has always been a sentimental favorite for me--The Wolf Man was my introduction to horror, the movie that made me love scary movies (at the tender age of 6, staying up late with my older brother to catch it on the Friday Night Creature Feature), and I always loved the subsequent Monster Mashes featuring my favorite lycanthrope, even while realizing their shortcomings.

This one is still better than many give it credit for, I think, though I would LOVE to be able to see it in its original form, with Bela giving the monster voice. (His performance as Ygor in Son and Ghost rank at the top of the list of his greatest character portrayals, for my money.) I still cringe a little watching Chaney crouch in the foreground trying to make Bela's monster look taller in some scenes, but when we get to that battle in the lab, I can't help giggling like a schoolboy, every time.

Thanks for this--it's great!

Pierre Fournier said...

Dane: You'd enjoy this one. It's a monster movie with a big heart.

Vicar: Thanks. I barely scratched the surface, there's lots of anecdotes about this film. The script book I mentioned has a long introduction with all kinds of info.

Ralph DeLuca said...

I always loved this films as a kid. its not as good as the first three Frankenstein movies, but still very enjoyable. I even have the original movie poster in my collection.

Ralph DeLuca
Madison, NJ

caron chaney said...

As the grandaughter of Lon Chaney and having a son born on Halloween
it is a pleasure to see that people like you recognize and take the time to critique these films and I love reading what everyone has to say about it. Thank you. Cameron and Caron Chaney

caron chaney said...

Hi Ralph DeLuca, you say you have an original Frankenstein poster. I was thinking about getting a lot of people together and join forces to retrieve items such as yours meaning copies so we can get them out to the public and we will back it up being related to Lon Chaney. I also know Bela Lugosi Jr. attorney in L.A. and Sharon Karloff who lives her in Rancho Mirage, Ca. Please let me know your thoughts.

Jeff Price said...

Hi Caron, I think that is a great idea. I recently stumbled across an early original script from the movie that may be one of the only existing ones left. Let's try and conect.