Thursday, May 8, 2014

Universal Horror Classics: Comfort Food for the Senses Part 2


The British horror ban of 1936 not only cost Universal a lucrative market but Uncle Carl Laemmle his job as well. The new owners decided to try to emulate MGM with lush musicals and comedies, but on a shoestring budget — and it showed. Singer Deanna Durbin kept the studio afloat from 1937 to the end of the decade, while the monsters waited in the wings, anxiously drumming their claws.

Theaters began running double features of the original Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938, whetting the appetites of horror hounds and making lots of cash. Universal, always angling to exploit an asset, brought out its A-team — Karloff and Lugosi — to star in Rowland V. Lee's 1939 Son of Frankenstein. Unhappy to be cast again as the monster, Boris was given little more to do than grunt and murder. But Lugosi had the opportunity to portray a really grotesque character and steal the show in the process. His vengeful Ygor, neck and spine twisted as the result of an unsuccessful hanging attempt, resurrects the creature to exact his revenge on the jurors who falsely found him guilty of body-snatching (hence the hanging).

Son is, of course, the film upon which Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein was based. Basil Rathbone plays the titular son, driven by the perverse Ygor to get the monster back into fighting shape, even donating his own brain to give it human intellect.

Universal was considering making the film in color (this was 1939, after all — the year of Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind) but Karloff's makeup was deemed too cartoony.

More sequels followed, but Boris, who suffered permanent, debilitating back pain as a result of the heavy suits the monster was required to wear, declined to don the stitches and bolts. His career in Universal horror was certainly not over, however.

Creighton Chaney, son of Universal's silent superstar Lon Chaney, christened himself Lon Chaney Jr. and started a film career of his own. He spent years in the periphery of Hollywood, playing secondary roles in cowboy movies, serials and studio comedies. His big break came when he played Lennie in Lewis Milestone's 1939 Of Mice and Men, and he arrived at Universal ready to take up the Chaney mantle some ten years after his father's passing.

The studio was delighted to cast the son of "the man of a thousand faces" as The Wolf Man in 1941, and the result was solid gold. This film is also where Universal's uniquely mittel-European vision began. The leads are clad in contemporary 1940s garb while secondary and background players are dressed in various unrelated period costumes.

As the tortured Larry Talbot, Lon gives a nice performance, but Claude Rains, the Invisible Man himself, playing the father who is forced to kill the monster his son has become, is truly the emotional center of the film. Still, another major cult figure emerged here — Maria Ouspenskaya, a Russian actress and teacher who fit into the mix-and-match Universal milieu just perfectly. As Maleva, the gypsy woman who knows about Larry's hairy problem, she wants to help him get comfortable with his condition. And her recitation of "Only a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night..." is legendary.

As Universal's new horror star, Chaney got a film series (Inner Sanctum) and was assigned the unlikely role of Count Alucard in Son of Dracula in 1943. Chaney was too big and lumbering to portray the (literal) lady-killer, so it all was rather comical. However, this was the first film to showcase special effect artist John P. Fulton's nifty bat-to-man transformation, so there was that.

Also in 1943, Frankenstein met the wolf man, which started everyone on the bad habit of referring to the monster as "Frankenstein," which is not correct. Chaney returned as Larry Talbot, and Lugosi, who refused to play the creature in 1931, stepped into Karloff's shoes for this one. It was weird — Lugosi just looked like Lugosi in Frankenstein monster drag!

The studio's new owners must've decided that all the films should have some sort of musical entertainment, for here the villagers gather together for an impromptu musical number, Faro La Faro Li, in celebration of the new wine.

That same year, the studio remade Phantom of the Opera, this time in color and featuring singing stars Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster. Claude Rains played the phantom, but all he did was wander around the opera house while the two leads sang endlessly. What a bore.

Speaking of Phantom, when I worked at the studio, I liked to walk around the backlot during lunch. I never got tired of seeing the town square where all the classic creatures skulked or stepping into the original Phantom stage, which is still intact.

Encouraged by the box office results for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Universal decided that if two monsters were good, three were better, and the "monster rally" was born. 1945's House of Frankenstein brought together the monster (Glenn Strange), the wolf man (Chaney) and Dracula (John Carradine), with Boris Karloff playing the mad scientist for good measure.

In keeping with the bizarre requirement for musical entertainment, Elena Verdugo plays a gypsy girl who does a really hilarious dance number prior to becoming the apple of the wolf man's eye. If contrived, the film was certainly brisk, clocking in at 71 minutes.

Even shorter was the same year's House of Dracula, running 69 minutes. Strange, Chaney and Carradine were all back, none the worse for wear. And, of course, the hunchback nurse with the implant error that I referred to in Part One of this post, is in this one. Surprisingly, there was no musical number. A wasted opportunity — Strange could've sung "If I Only Had a Brain."

Sadly, these two films represented the final high water marks for Universal classic monsters. She-Wolf of London (1946), starring June Lockhart, was a total cheat, a boring murder mystery with no wolves. And actor Rondo Hatton, who suffered from acromegaly, a disease that enlarges and distorts facial features, starred in House of Horrors (also 1946), intended to be the first in a series of films about "the Creeper."

But the second Creeper film, The Brute Man, was sold to mega-low-budget Producers Releasing Company after the death of its star, Universal worrying that it would just be too tasteless. And it was. When I saw the film being myst-ied by Mike and the Bots on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it looked like it could have been made by PRC as well. And poor Bela, whose career was hitting the skids, ended up at PRC for The Devil Bat before wrapping up his career — and his life — with Ed Wood.

The comedy team of Abbott and Costello was making tons of money for the studio, so they began to "meet" the creatures in 1948, including Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, the mummy, the invisible man and "the Killer" (Boris Karloff). A&C Meet Frankenstein is considered a classic of the genre, but those particular comedians are an acquired taste I'm afraid I was never able to acquire.

The 1950s brought with them the cold war, and the studio started turning to mutants and alien invasions. Some of these films are certainly classics, but they ain't the classic monsters. It was left to England's Hammer Films to resurrect the creatures in bloody full color. But that's a story for another dark and stormy night.

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