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06 February, 2010

The Universal Monsters: How Universal Studios Created the Horror Film

[Ed. Note: This is it—the first article I wrote for Sean Kotz at Creaturescape.com, and the first article I wrote as the Unimonster. It’s rough; though it’s not been a drastic improvement, my writing has gotten somewhat better in the nearly six years since I wrote it. I hope you overlook the flaws and enjoy the look back into the Unimonster’s past.]

How Universal Studios created the Horror film.

A pretty bold thesis, considering there were no shortage of such films from other studios in the years following the end of the First World War. THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (released in 1920), NOSFERATU (1922), and METROPOLIS (1927) are all considered seminal works in the genre, and rightly so. As early as 1910, Thomas Edison’s motion picture studio produced a version of Mary Shelley’s classic novel, FRANKENSTEIN. By 1918, no fewer than 3 movies featuring mummies had been made, and between 1908 and 1920, at least ten versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE were produced, including the superior Barrymore version of 1920. So how, you may be asking in righteous indignation, can I claim that Universal Studios created the horror film?

Simple… Universal took a nascent genre, one that, while having drawn its first breath was still in its infancy, and in the space of fifteen to twenty short years, transformed it into a staple of the movie-goer’s diet. Carl Laemmle’s Universal created horror films the same way that Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s created fast food: with the franchise.

Universal’s rise to horror prominence didn’t occur overnight, and it certainly wasn’t accomplished without resistance. In the early 1920’s, Universal was considered a minor player in Hollywood, nowhere near an equal to studios such as M-G-M or Warner Brothers. The studio made low budget films, primarily westerns, with poorly paid contract actors and actresses.

Then, following the success of 1923’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, Laemmle was persuaded to finance the studio’s first big budget film: Rupert Julian’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). Starring arguably the best actor of his time, Lon Chaney, this adaptation of the classic Gaston Leroux novel opened to huge critical and financial success, and went a long way towards convincing Hollywood that horror just might have a place in motion pictures. Many hold that, had the Academy Awards existed in 1925, Chaney would have walked away with the Best Actor award, and the film would have undoubtedly been Best Picture.

That success was due in part to fantastic marketing on the part of Universal, whose executives knew the value of publicity, especially the free kind. No photographs were allowed of Chaney in make-up, except for some production stills that were circulated with the Phantom’s face redacted out (very similar marketing methods were used six years later, during the production of FRANKENSTEIN).

The popularity enjoyed by THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA inspired Universal to look for other horror properties that would be suitable for filming, and their attention turned, quite naturally, to the two most popular genre novels of their time, Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, and Bram Stoker’s DRACULA.

While F. W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece, NOSFERATU, had been based (without permission) directly on Stoker’s novel, Universal, now under the control of Carl Laemmle, Jr., who had received the studio for his twenty-first birthday, wanted to produce the version made famous as a stage play; this version featured a more romantic, less ghoulish interpretation of the infamous count. With Tod Browning slated to direct, it was widely assumed (indeed, ‘Papa’ Laemmle practically demanded,) that the star of the film would be Lon Chaney, who had worked with the director in several films.

However, Chaney’s death in 1930 meant that someone else would get the job. After an extensive search for a replacement, it was decided to give a screen test to the Hungarian actor who had had great success with the Broadway release of the play. Though he was no one’s first choice for the role, his willingness to take the part at a quarter of the salary he could’ve gotten clinched the deal. It would become the role of a lifetime for a forty-nine year old, unknown actor named Bela Lugosi.

DRACULA, released in February of 1931, catapulted Lugosi to stardom, and helped give Universal Studios it’s only profitable year during the Depression, though Laemmle, Sr.’s financial bad habits continued to insure that Universal would not be in fiscally sound health. Though the critics weren’t quite as kind to it as they had been to THE PHANTOM, the public loved it, and flocked to the theaters to see the supernatural mystery and sensual, subtle eroticism of the vampire. Lugosi so captivated the imaginations fans that from that moment on, vampires have been set in a mold for which he is the model. Until recently, it was rare to see any portrayal of a vampire that differed significantly from what I would call the ‘High Society’ version that Lugosi, for all intents, patented.

DRACULA set Universal apart as a producer of the horror film, and made the studio a major force in Hollywood. But the year was still young, and, in November, the film would be released that would forever cement the studio’s place in the history of the genre.

James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN has been hailed as perhaps the greatest horror film ever; certainly the best of the 1930’s and ‘40’s. Though Whale’s direction is impeccable and the story is excellent, it is the performance of a forty-four year old English-born Canadian named Boris Karloff that elevates this film to such lofty heights, and establishes Universal as the premier player in the genre. A long-time veteran of silent films, Karloff was able, even from under Jack Pierce’s heavy make-up, to convey more emotion and pathos with a glance and a growl than most actors can with a ten-minute soliloquy.

Once again, Universal’s marketing department went into high gear promoting the film, with rumors circulated about that Karloff’s appearance was so frightening that sensitive cast and crew members fainted at the sight of him, and that Mae Clark, who played Henry Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth, refused to work with him. The secrecy associated with THE PHANTOM returned for this film; as Karloff wasn’t listed in the credits, the actor who portrayed the Monster simply being identified as “?”.

Having enjoyed a phenomenal 1931, the studio needed little encouragement to return to the horror well. John Balderson, a reporter who had been present at the opening of King Tut’s tomb (and who had written the play on which DRACULA had been based), supplied a story involving the discovery of a cursed tomb, an undead mummy, and his eternal love for an Egyptian princess. 1932’s THE MUMMY, directed by Karl Freund, was another showcase for Karloff's talents, and while the story was little more than a rehashing of the plot from DRACULA, (indeed, in what would become one of the studio’s trademarks, many of the cast of DRACULA appeared in THE MUMMY) Karloff’s performance as Ardath Bey carried the film, and made it more than successful, if less than original.

This was followed by films such as THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), THE BLACK CAT (released in 1934, it was the first of six on-screen pairings of Karloff and Lugosi), THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON (1935) and DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, (1936). But it was James Whale’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, released in 1935, that truly gave birth to the horror franchise. Considered by some to be even better than FRANKENSTEIN, this film gave the Monster a voice as well as a (reluctant) bride. But public opinion, as expressed by politicians and newspapers, was turning against horror films. Images and themes that to modern viewers seem mild and inoffensive shocked and outraged many critics in the 1930’s. Following outcries by media and religious groups over 1935’s THE RAVEN, starring Karloff and Lugosi, among other films, the first half of Horror’s Golden Age came to an end.

By the late 1930’s, Universal, no longer the property of the Laemmles, had fallen on hard times; and, in what would become a pattern that continues to this day, fell back on the monsters to regain financial health and well-being. Though they had decried horror films, claiming they wouldn’t make another one, the continuing popularity of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN convinced the new ownership that new horror films could be financially viable, and a continuation of the Frankenstein saga was quickly produced. SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) was Karloff’s last appearance as the Monster, and featured Basil Rathbone as the son of his late creator, as well as Bela Lugosi as Ygor, his second-most famous role.

Universal then saw the wisdom of further Monster pictures, and quickly developed the horror film into a commodity that could be mass-produced, much like Henry Ford’s Model T. And just as the Model T made automobiles affordable for the common man, Universal’s Horror Factory insured that the public received a steady diet of the monsters they had grown to love. From 1939 to 1945, more than a dozen films were released featuring Universal’s growing stable of monsters. Many good: GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942); THE MUMMY’S TOMB (1942); SON OF DRACULA (1943); HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944). Some not so good: THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (1944); THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944); HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). A few just plain bad: INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940); THE MUMMY’S CURSE (1944).
And one unforgettable classic: THE WOLF-MAN (1941).

One of Universal’s most popular movies, THE WOLF-MAN came on the scene just as the second half of Horror’s Golden Age was beginning to take off. The war in Europe, increasing economic prosperity, and changing tastes were going to put the monsters out of business, according to the critics. Instead, they were entering the period of their greatest popularity, due primarily to Universal’s first truly sympathetic monster. Audiences loved Lon Chaney, Jr. as Larry Talbot, cursed by the bite of a werewolf to an eternal, nightmarish existence, more beast than man. Directed by George Waggoner, it provided a fresh perspective on the monsters; one from the monster’s point of view. Within five years, Chaney, Jr. would become Universal’s biggest star, having portrayed every major monster in their stable.

And, reasoned the Universal executives, if one monster was a success, what would happen with two? A chance remark by Curt Siodmak, the screenwriter of THE WOLF-MAN, provided the spark, and thus was born FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN (1942). Now, there was a rivalry, and the two biggest stars of Universal’s line-up would do battle twice more before the end of World War II, in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944); and HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945). By now, the Universal Horror film was a set formula, almost a patented recipe. It didn’t matter who directed what film, or who played which monster, or even that the script be good. If the formula was followed, then the fans would continue to come. Horror films had completed the transition from hand-crafted works of art for the few, to mass-produced, assembly-line manufactured goods for everyone. Sixty years later, things haven’t changed all that much, have they? Movie franchises such as FRIDAY THE 13TH, HALLOWEEN, and NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. continue to demonstrate the truth of that.

Did Universal make the very first horror film? No, of course not. Henry Ford didn’t build the first car. McDonald’s didn’t make the first hamburger. But Universal did do what they did . . . moreover, they did it better than anyone, made it available to everyone, and transformed it from something rare and exotic, to something that we all could enjoy. And in so doing, they’ve inspired generations of fans who will never forget the simple joy of being scared.

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