Like the vampire scare of the early 1700s, eighteenth century Europe and Russia also saw genuine panic about marauding beasts. The most famous case was the Beast of Gevaudan, a case that could have inspired Conan Doyle’s famous story, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Since the werewolf was a staple of European folklore, it is unsurprising that it also travelled to the New World, represented in novels, short stories and plays, and eventually found itself part of the growing moving pictures industry. Here’s a look at the werewolf films made between 1910-1950! More decades to follow in future posts.
CW// whitewashing, dated/racist/offensive language and attitudes, one reference to sexual assault
In 1913, the first werewolf film, The Werewolf, was released, directed by innovative Canadian silent cinema pioneer, Henry MacRae. It was scripted by Ruth Ann Baldwin, another pioneering screenwriter and director of the 1910s, and based on the short story The Werewolves (1898) by Henry Beaugrand. It is now a ‘lost’ film, thought to have been destroyed in a fire at Universal Studios in 1924.
The plot positions Native Americans as werewolves, something picked up in modern American werewolf fiction too, where blood quantum laws echo fictional preoccupations with purity of werewolf heritage. This is something addressed in one of the essays in Wolves, Werewolves and the Gothic (open access reviews here, here and here).
In this case, the plot relies on the Othering of the Native American characters and positioning them as adversaries of the White settlers driven by vengeance and dark magic.
The official synopsis of the film (which had a running time of 18 minutes) is as follows [expect dated/offensive language and phrasing]:
The play opens in pioneer days. Kee-On-Ee, an Indian maiden is married to Ezra Vance, a trail blazer. When her child is five years old, Kee-On-Ee is driven back to her tribe by Ezra’s brother, who scorns all squaws. Ezra is killed by an old enemy and Kee-On-Ee, thinking his failure to return to her to be indifference, brings up her child, Watuma, to hate all white men. When the child is grown, Clifford and a party of prospectors appear. Kee-On-Ee, now a hag, sees her way to be revenged. She sends her daughter to Clifford’s camp and he is driven nigh mad by her beauty. Clifford finds her in the arms of a young Indian. She taunts him. Enraged beyond control, Clifford shoots the buck. He flees to the mission. Watuma leads the enraged Indians against the Friars. When one of them raises a cross, Watuma slowly dissolves into a slinking wolf. A hundred years later, Clifford, now reincarnated in the form of Jack Ford, a miner, receives a visit from his sweetheart, Margaret. Hunting with her he comes upon a wolf which he is unable to shoot. The wolf dissolves into the woman of old, and there appears before his puzzled eyes the scene where he slew the Brave. The “Wolf-woman” would caress him, but he throws her off. She returns again as the wolf and kills his sweetheart. Clifford’s punishment for the deed of past life is made complete at the death of the one he loved.Official synopsis of The Werewolf (1913)
Kee-On-Ee and her daughter Watuma were both played by White actresses: Marie Walcamp (younger Kee-On-Ee) and Lule Warrington (older Kee-On-Ee) and Phyllis Gordon (Watuma). Ezra Vance was played by Clarence Burton.
Wolf Blood was released in 1925, also known as Wolf Blood: A Tale of the Forest. It has a running time of 68 mins and is available to view via the linked title on YouTube (at the time of posting) on ClassicMoviesHQ‘s channel. It was written by Dr C. A. Hill, and edited by Bennett Cohen, and directed by Bruce Mitchell and George Chesebro (who also played the lead).
This film plays upon anxieties around surgical and body horror, following the school of thought that criminality (particularly violent crime) was inherent and hereditary or somehow physically transmittable, like disease. This played into racial stereotypes and anxieties around human evolution, and was evoked in other horror films well into the mid-twentieth century, like Hands of a Stranger (1962).
In Wolf Blood, this time it’s a White Canadian man who becomes the werewolf after an accident leaves him in desperate need of a blood transfusion. The doctor has no donors, so uses a wolf. While nothing has probably happened to him, rumours fly post-transfusion and our hero goes mad, isolated and ostracised, and comes to believe he really is a monster. It doesn’t matter whether he or the wolves are responsible for the mauling of another character after this point: if everyone around you has decided you’re a monster, who’s to say you aren’t one? Film Dirt Blog has a more detailed review of it here.
In 1933, Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris was published. This novel was arguably as influential for werewolves as Bram Stoker’s Dracula was for vampires, but is far less widely known. Typical of Gothic Horror novels, it uses a framing device before getting into the historical fiction narrative. The origin story for Bertrand Caillet’s lycanthropic condition is once more hereditary but also superstitious, the conjunction of his conception (the result of rape by a priest descended from a notoriously brutal, violent family) and his birth, on Christmas Eve. Consequently, Caillet is born with both a human and a beastly nature, and transforms into a wolf. The novel follows his travels around nineteenth-century France at a socio-politically turbulent time, and uses lycanthropy as a metaphor for human aggression and ‘man’s inhumanity to man‘.
In 1935, Werewolf of London was released by Universal Pictures, which established the common origin story of werewolves being bitten by pre-existing werewolves, and often in foreign locations (similar to infection by vampire bites). In this case, the antagonist is Dr Yogami, who meets the lead character, botanist Wilfred Glendon, in Tibet. The choice to make the antagonist Asian rather than European is perhaps indicative of U.S. relations and attitudes towards China, Tibet and other Asian countries at the time (not to mention contemporary attitudes towards Asian-Americans).
Despite the popularity of Endore’s novel and the similarity of the title, Universal went with an original script but made the lead an antihero, ‘brutish and inattentive to his wife’ even before his transformation, according to Nige Burton, and was criticised for being too similar to the transformation pattern in Paramount’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1932).
In 1939, British horror film The Face at the Window was released. This is a crime horror which doesn’t feature a real werewolf, but can be included here because of the way the wolf is used to represent sinister elements of society, and the savagery of a killer. This was the second adaptation of the stage play of the same name, penned by F. Brook Warren and first performed in 1897. The setting is 1880s Paris, so the usual distancing is employed as per British Gothic traditions of Othering Europeans and making the setting more ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign’ and therefore more interesting for audiences.
The first adaptation (1932) had the criminal ‘Le Loup’, ‘The Wolf’, as a masked killer peering through windows, but in this adaptation the ‘Wolf Man’ aspect was played up a little more. Donato Totaro’s audio-visual essay on the 1932/39 version is available from this link, asking why the image of a face at the window has been so prevalent in horror. The full 1939 film is available to view on Dailymotion.
During and after the Second World War, the werewolf film really took off and captured the public imagination. There are probably many reasons for this, but the impact of war and the realisation that people have base survival instincts, even if they did not themselves engage in combat, must have had at least something to do with it. Even on the Home Front people preyed on one another, looting was common during the Blitz, and people did what they could to get by in times of rationing. It is no wonder that of all the cinematic monsters, the wolf – or rather, the fear of becoming the wolf – really took off.
The makeup used for Werewolf of London was reprised for Universal’s 1941 release, The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr, and developed further into the now-iconic image. The setting for this classic is Wales, a wild and savage place for many American visitors in Gothic fiction (and for many English visitors, too). Lawrence Talbot returns to his family home (a place of stifling values, superstition, and sinister rural pursuits) from America (his chosen ‘new life’ of freedom, sophistication and modernity).
The classic film had a number of sequels, and was also responsible for a lot of lycanthropic lore, and the sequels had Talbot rise from the dead during a full moon, retrospectively changing the villagers’ rhyme from ‘autumn moon’ to ‘full moon’ so that this resurrection twist made sense. The first of these sequels was Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943), but you have to wait until the second half of the film for the monster to actually show up. The first half is concerned with Talbot’s resurrection and continued transformations, his killing spree in Cardiff (which I nod to in Real Meat for those who might get the reference), and escape across Europe. The big showdown comes at the end, so it’s something you either have to fast-forward to get to or hang on in there to see.
The other mashup monster sequels featuring Lon Chaney Jr’s Wolf Man were The House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and the horror comedy Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Between The Wolf Man and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, there was The Mad Monster (1942), which picked up on the themes of Wolf Blood and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In this one, a mad scientist takes revenge on his peers by creating a formula that transforms – wait for it – his ‘simpleminded’ gardener into a werewolf. It picks up on the idea that wolf blood transfusions can give people wolf-like traits, but here we see it actually working with Cameron the scientist as the puppet-master and Petro the gardener as his unwitting weapon.
That same year, The Undying Monster (1942) came out, this time a 20th Century Fox production. This film features a doomed upper class English family and their dark, creepy manor. Also known as The Hammond Mystery, it was adapted from the novel by Irish novelist Jessie Douglas Kerruish by Lillie Hayward and Michael Jacoby (as Michel Jacoby). Werewolves and their associated curses are equal opportunities monsters, and the English upper classes (gentry to aristocracy) seem to be particularly prone to this condition.
French cinema was not to be outdone, and the werewolf was proving to be a perfect conduit for anxieties around human savagery throughout World War II. Guillaume Radot’s Le Loup des Malveneur (The Wolf of the Malveneurs, 1942/3) featured a governess investigating mysterious disappearances at a castle, but borrowed elements of Universal Pictures’ 1930s monsters franchise and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. It plays with the mystery elements most, adds in the family legend that one of the family sold his soul to the Devil (this trope appears in The Undying Monster too), and leaves the question as to whether there was a werewolf or not as an open one.
A werewolf appears in The Return of the Vampire (1943/4), set during the First World War. This is the first time a werewolf assists a vampire on-screen, and is cured of his curse when the vampire is staked.
Even the three stooges got a werewolf encounter in Idle Roomers (1944)!
The Cry of the Werewolf (1944) echoes The Werewolf (1913), but in this case the at-will transformation is enacted by a Romani princess who kills to protect the secret location of her ancestress’s tomb. Here, Native American ‘magic’ is swapped for Romani magic, as in The Wolf Man where Lawrence Talbot contracts lycanthropy from Bela, played by Bela Lugosi.
1946 saw the noir crime horror, She-Wolf of London, hit the screens, another offering from Universal Studios. Its UK title was the more Gothic and less sensational The Curse of the Allenbys. This is the first female werewolf since 1913, but has more in common with Wolf Blood in terms of themes. In this case, Phyllis Allenby believes she is a werewolf and has succumbed to ‘the curse of the Allenbys’, and is responsible for a series of frenzied attacks. However, picking up on the ambiguity of Wolf Blood and the fact that this is supremely unlikely, it turns out that she is being manipulated into insanity by her conniving Aunt Martha for her own ends.
This film capitalises on the werewolf’s savagery – all victims of the ‘Wolf-Woman’ are found with their throats torn out – and positions the feminine as monstrous. In the same way that Dracula’s infection inverts and undermines Victorian ideas of motherhood and domestic stability by creating baby-eating, overtly (and therefore indecently) sexual Brides, this might be seen to do the same thing with hereditary lycanthropy (also an allegory for inherited mental illness).
However, it could also be interpreted as a cynical or realistic post-War recognition that women, as well as men, are capable of viciousness and animalistic savagery. It’s worth noting that if this is the case then it’s British women who are capable of this, not American women. Moreover, once again it’s upper class British women – stereotypically, the keystones and gatekeepers of an out-dated class system with hereditary problems caused by in-breeding – reinforcing American views of Britishness as Other.
How these themes developed and were represented in the following decades will be considered next time! And after that… we have vampires to look forward to! (My favourite!)
Werewolf films of the 1950s and 1960s, posted on Thursday!
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2 thoughts on “Werewolf Films: 1910-1949”
Hi great reeading your post
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