Sunday, August 24, 2014

A Survey of Monsters-Part Seven

Universal Monsters--1923-1955

When we think of movie monsters from Hollywood's golden age, the name of one studio comes to mind: Universal Pictures. That's partly because of a hugely successful campaign at branding. In truth, the popularity of Universal monsters goes all the way back to the original movies themselves. Their popularity has gotten a boost every so often. That boost has often been in some other medium besides film.

If the Aurora line of models from the 1960s is any indication, the first Universal monster was The Hunchback of Notre Dame, played by Lon Chaney in a movie of that same name from 1923. I'm not sure how monstrous the poor hunchback is. Nonetheless, he's thrown into the mix. Next came The Phantom of the Opera, again played by Lon Chaney in a film from 1925. The sound era for Universal monsters began in 1931 with the release of Dracula and Frankenstein. Both films, both monsters, and the actors who played them--Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff--have reached the status of icons in our culture. They have also spawned movies made and remade in the decades since.

There were still more Universal monsters and Universal horror movies in the 1930s and '40s. The Mummy, played by Boris Karloff, followed close on the heels of Dracula and Frankenstein's monster (1932). Then came The Invisible Man (Claude Rains, 1933), The Bride of Frankenstein (Elsa Lanchester, 1935), and The Wolfman (Lon Chaney, Jr., 1941). By the mid to late '30s, Universal monsters had become so popular that the sequels, team-ups, battles, and remakes had already begun. (Eventually there would be comedy take-offs as well.) The first sequel was The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Then came Dracula's Daughter (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). The actors, too, were teamed up: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff appeared together in at least five Universal horror movies from that period. Those two men would also team up with Lon Chaney, Jr., in movies of the 1940s. (1) 

Universal released a few dozen horror movies and monster movies during the 1940s. Most of those (all but five by my count) came out before the end of the Second World War. I would guess that the films released in the immediate post-war period (1945-1946) had gone into production before V-J Day. That would leave just one made entirely after the war. The world had changed by then of course. Horrors had become real on battlefields, in bombed-out cities, and behind the walls and fences of Nazi concentration camps. True human monsters had held sway over the earth for six years. In some places they persisted even after the war. Cinematic horrors and movie monsters paled by comparison. For six years, people had looked to the future, to the end of the war and what that might bring. New technology developed during the war promised a better world afterwords. Maybe it would all be powered by nuclear fission. Maybe we would all have flying cars, live in automated houses, and have our work done by robots. Maybe we would even go into outer space, to the moon, and to the other planets. In the post-war period, we turned our gaze from the past and from the monsters of the past to the future. But there, too, would be monsters.

The last Universal Monster movie of the 1940s and the first of the 1950s were team-ups. The stars weren't some combination of Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr., however. Instead they were Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), Bud and Lou encountered Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, and The Wolf Man. Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was the curtain call for all three. The other Universal monsters ended their careers with the comedy duo as well, in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and finally Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy (1955). (2) With that, the Universal monster came to an end . . . but not really.

To be continued . . .

(1) It's worth noting here that the Universal picture Weird Woman (1944), with Anne Gwynne in the title role, was based on the novel Conjure Wife (1943) by Fritz Leiber, Jr., the author who got me started on this ramble. I haven't seen Weird Woman, but I wonder if it would have fallen into the category of the Weird Tales-like horror movie, like Cat People (1942) and I Walked with a Zombie (1943). Conjure Wife originally appeared in Unknown Worlds in April 1943.
(2) Still using the Aurora monster models as my guide, I should say that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was not originally a Universal monster but based on Frederic March's performance in the Paramount release of 1931.

Text copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley

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