Fragments #4 – Continuity & The Universal Monsters, Part Two

Last month, we focused on the “legacy” sequels to Universal’s smash 1931 films, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi and Frankenstein, starring Boris Karloff. Before we dig into the next era of the Universal sequels, the crossover and shared universe, we have to discuss the final “done in one” component of Universal’s monster-menagerie, 1941’s The Wolf Man, written by Curt Siodmak, brother of Robert, who directed 1943’s unusual Son of Dracula (whose continuity issues we explored last month). Starring Lon Chaney Jr. (sans the Jr.) as Larry Talbot, the role that would cement him in the annals of film history, The Wolf Man is the ultimate expression of Universal’s running theme of the curse of immortality. A tragic hero-monster in the vein of Marvel Comics’ Human Torch, who made his four-color debut in 1939’s Marvel Comics #1, Talbot isn’t inherently evil; his curse was thrust upon him during an action of the best intentions. His ensuing quest to rid himself his lycanthropic curse is the fuel that propels the Universal Monster films through the 1940s. Those films–Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)–constitute the first shared universe in film history. Let’s look at their growing pains.

Continuity and the Edit Bay

house_of_dracula_poster_03Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is the first crossover film between two intellectual properties in film history, and it lays bare the pitfalls found at the intersection of commerce, current events and continuity. First, the film functions as a direct sequel to The Wolf Man, with grave robbers awakening the dead Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) and unleashing the beast once again. Talbot’s quest to die and be free of his curse leads him to the village of Vasaria, the center of the Universal Monsters storyworld (and World War II-era stand-in for Germany) where Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein met his end at the hands of his father’s creation in 1942’s Ghost of Frankenstein, and where Talbot encounters both Ludwig’s daughter, Elsa, and the Monster himself, this time played by Bela Lugosi.

Lugosi’s decision to take on the role (he had turned it down after Dracula) in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was two-fold: first, as per the events of Ghost of Frankenstein, which left the Monster blind, the brain of Ygor was now in the Monster’s body and it made sense for Lugosi to play the part; and two, the Monster would speak, and had spoken in the previous film with Lugosi’s voice (though the Monster was played by Lon Chaney in Ghost; Chaney was supposed to portray both the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man in Meets, but logistics prevented that bit of marketing ingenuity).

In a move that drastically altered the continuity of the series, Lugosi’s Monster dialogue in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was cut from the final film, and any reference to the Monster’s blindness was nixed. In one story, from screenwriter Curt Siodmak, test audiences apparently broke into laughter at the sound of Lugosi’s Hungarian accent coming out of the Monster’s mouth (a great look at the history of the film can be seen at the Frankensteinia blog ). Another story has the reason for the cuts being that the Monster’s dialogue was filled with allusions to “taking over the world,” which, given that the film was released at the height of World War II and Adolph Hitler’s reign, seemed inappropriate. Whatever the reason, the result was the outright destruction of both the continuity established by the previous film and an embarrassing performance by Lugosi; the “arms-outstretched” Monster, now mockingly iconic, was a result of the Monster being blind because of the events of the previous film, which, because it was nixed in the final film, made Lugosi’s performance appear overwrought and farcical–a lasting cautionary tale for filmmakers (and actors!): edits can make or break a performance.

Despite this, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is an absolute ball. It’s got everything you could want in a classic horror film, and, of course, it delivers on the promise of the title: in the final sequence, the Monster and the Wolf Man beat the crap out of each other and are swept away in the ensuing flood after the destruction of Ludwig Frankenstein’s castle, setting the stage for the potluck dinner duo of monster films.

The HOUSE Mash and “Just Because”

1944’s House of Frankenstein is the first “monster rally” film in the Universal canon. Not only did it bring back the Frankenstein Monster (now played by Glenn Strange) and the Wolf Man, but they threw Count Dracula (now played by John Carradine) and, sans Monster makeup, Boris Karloff, as Dr. Niemann, a mad scientist hellbent on revenge for his imprisonment, into the mix.

En route to Vasaria, Niemann revives Count Dracula by removing the stake from his heart. Unfortunately for the Count, he doesn’t make it to the sophomore pairing of the Frankenstein Monster (fully mute in this outing and cementing Lugosi’s performance-by-edit as series canon) and the Wolf Man, as Niemann dumps Dracula’s coffin into the sunlight and travels on to the water-ravaged ruins of Castle Frankenstein, freeing Talbot from the waters that swept him and the Monster away the previous year and promising Talbot the long-desired release from his cure. But, in true dramatic fashion, things don’t work out that way: Talbot does find a release, vis a vis death by silver bullet, and Niemann meets his demise at the hands of the Frankenstein Monster and a pool of quicksand.

The film’s follow-up, House of Dracula, in spite of featuring the Monster holding Niemann’s skeleton in mud, is notable for what I like to call “just because” continuity: no explanation as to why or how a character has returned from the dead (Dracula inexplicably reappears; Larry Talbot, likewise), beyond grabbing a few more coins from movie-goers. Let’s be honest here: the point of “continuity” in the 40s was not what we think of when we (ok, some of us) think of continuity today: a means of giving audiences with a vested interest and deep passion for the minutiae of combining intertextual intellectual properties a starting point for deep engagement and discussion. The point of continuity in the 1940s was to throw everything at the wall and make entertaining war-time diversions that would shock, thrill and excite audiences. In all cases, no matter the quality of the film, the films of Universal’s Golden Age, much as with the Golden Age of Comics, occurring roughly in parallel, exceeded beyond the wildest expectations of anyone at having fun and delivering memorable B-movie entertainment to the masses, continuity be damned.

The Comedy

In 1948, the comedy duo of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were in the eighth year of their long-term contract with Universal. From this period came film comedies like One Night in the Tropics, In the Navy, and 1941’s Hold That Ghost, a horror-comedy hybrid and precursor to the all-out genre-mashing of 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. In this brilliant collision of horror and slapstick, Bela Lugosi returns for his second and final film performance as Count Dracula, as does Glenn Strange as the Frankenstein Monster, and in his final performance in the role, Lon Chaney returns as the Wolf Man. Following the precedent set by the House films and forgetting continuity such as Larry Talbot’s cure and Dracula’s death by sun in the previous film, the film is a wonderful slapstick comedy involving more brain transplants and monster fisticuffs that brings the series, an early model for franchise growth (and growing pains), to its conclusion.

At the root of Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein is an important trait of enduring mythologies: “elasticity of character,” the ability of a character or characters to fit in almost any story; in almost all cases this is because the simple nature of the character’s story allows writers and audience to place their own values onto that character. Superman (sole survivor of a doomed planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men) has endured for 75 years because of that elasticity; Batman (witnessed the murder of his parents, dedicated life to preventing that happening from anyone else), the same deal. In Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the Monsters show their own iconic elasticity, and in so doing, set the stage for innumerable horror-comedy hybrids, for better or worse, to come.

•••

Continuity and the cross-pollination of disparate franchises was a new thing in the 1940s; before the advent of home video, repeat viewings and Internet dissemination and discussion, the complexities of a cohesive continuity were barely after-thoughts. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was the first time anything approaching a comic book-inspired crossover had been done in film, a medium where you can’t simply erase mistakes with a pencil eraser. When the filmmakers were making that film, or any of these films, do you think that a strict continuity between films was their first priority? There was no “continuity maven,” like Joss Whedon and the Marvel films, or long-term, long-range thinking about the ins and outs of monster continuity; rather, the films were produced by a group of talented people putting together things for shock and profit in the middle of the worst armed conflict that the world had ever known, almost on a yearly basis with a restrictive production code and tight budgets.

But now, franchising and connective cross-pollination and deep, media-crossing continuities are de rigueur in modern media creation and consumption. If the Golden Age of Universal represents the antecedent for all that’s come since, we may see its consequent played out onscreen(s) over the course of the next few years, as Star Trek and Sleepy Hollow writer-producer team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci have been tapped to lead a reboot of the Universal Monsters films, with strong hints that they’ll be exploring a shared universe. What will they take away from the lessons of the past? Where will they go wrong? Where will they go right?

Next month, this continuity-a-palooza continues with an exploration of the longest-running film series in history, the martini-shaking superspy, James Bond. See you then.

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