Universal Monsters: How The Wolf Man Created The First Cinematic Universe

Despite being the first (official) silver screen realization of Dracula, and the first talkie iteration of Dr. Frankenstein’s arrogance, neither of these films were “small,” much less the B-movies that would later be invented for the slums of horror cinema and those characters in particular.

Universal and Carl Laemmle Jr., as the head of production, treated all of their horror films with the same kind of reverence that MGM would come to shower upon the musical. Maverick filmmaker and human being James Whale, who amongst other things was an openly gay man living proudly in the early 20th century, was given special leeway by the Laemmle family that tended to recognize a brilliance most of the industry would ignore in his lifetime.

Pictures like The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) were allowed near carte blanche for Whale to introduce his acidic sense of humor, lacing the scares with just as many laughs. Indeed, the studio bent over backwards to lure him for the first major horror sequel ever made, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is widely considered by film historians to be the crown jewel in Universal’s legacy, as well as possibly the horror genre as a whole. It is certainly difficult to top for pure emotional catharsis the sequence where Karloff’s monster stumbles upon a blind man’s shack (though Mel Brooks tried his damnedest in 1974).

However, just as Whale was attempting to stretch out to more “respected” fare like Show Boat (1936) and the ill-fated All Quiet on the Western Front sequel, The Road Back (1937), it seems the studio stretched too far. Despite the success of Showboat and almost all of their monster movies, the rest of Laemmle Jr.’s gambles had gone bust by 1935. That year, John Cheever Cowdin’s Standard Capital began the process of buying out the Laemmles’ share of Universal Pictures. In 1936, the father and son were pushed out, and Universal became a very different company—one that wouldn’t necessarily make a horror sequel the centerpiece of its expensive production year (or keep an openly gay director in its favor).

The era that kicked off the Universal Monsters Universe, including celluloid joys like The Mummy (1932) and The Black Cat (1934), came to an end. But the monsters as always proved impossible to stay dead. In fact, soon their forces would merge for unprecedented movie history.

As, in many ways, the transition film between Universal’s “A-picture” horror and what would become the cash-in monster mashes to come, The Wolf Man (1941) still stands underrated in its own right as a masterpiece of the style. Produced and directed by George Waggner, the movie was a commercial effort to tap into werewolf mythology better than Universal’s less successful (and highly undervalued) preceding lycanthrope adventure, The Werewolf of London (1935). The far greater success of The Wolf Man was due to a number of reasons, but one especially unique contribution was that of Curt Siodmak.

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