Universal’s True Original Monster and Other She-Wolves
We love our Universal Monsters.
Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and The Wolfman – these guys are legends for a reason.
But it’s time to ask the guys to move over and make room for Phyllis Gordon – the original Universal monster.
Yep, you read that right.
The Canadian actress is the star of the 1913 silent film The Werewolf – a lost film that is technically Universal’s first monster movie. The two-reeler was produced by Bison Film Co. and released by Universal Film Manufacturing Co., a precursor to Universal Studios.
Unfortunately, the film was destroyed in a 1924 fire at Universal so not much is known about it. Even the author’s name of the origin story, published in Century magazine in 1898, is disputed as either Henry Beaugrand or Honore Beaugrand (who penned The Werwolf). That’s too bad since the author deserves credit for the story that’s also the basis of another lost film, White Wolf (1914) and Le Loup-Garou (1923, French).
The story and film used the Navajo legend about a witch, Yea-naa-gloo-shee (“he who goes on all fours”), who can take on wolf form.
Here’s what I’ve culled together about the plot: a Navajo woman, who is a witch, turns dangerously bitter thinking she has been deserted by her “trail blazer” husband who she doesn’t know has been killed. She raises their daughter, Watoma (Phyllis Gordon), to hate white men and teaches her skills to transform into a werewolf. Watoma suffers her own tragedy and returns to life 100 years after her death seeking vengeance on the reincarnation of the man who killed her boyfriend.
A 1914 item in The Daily Republican (Rushville, Ind.) is to the point, writing ”the story is based on an old Indian legend and makes an attractive picture.”
Sadly, that’s all I’ve learned about The Werewolf but I’m happy to know the film existed.
As to Phyllis Gordon, she made mostly silent shorts during her acting career which lasted from about 1911 to 1941. Her most notable feature film role was that of the housekeeper in Another Thin Man (1939).
Other Wolf Girls
Gordon, however, wasn’t the only actress to be a wolf/werewolf in classic cinema.
Cry of the Werewolf (1944) starred Nina Foch as a cursed Gypsy princess. In She-Wolf of London (1946), a terrified June Lockhart lived under the fear of a family curse. And two women played large roles in The Undying Monster (1942) with one yet again under a family curse and the other trying to solve the beastly crimes.
These movies were good old-fashioned yarns that talked of curses and legends and sometimes ended up being more mystery than horror film. They were atmospheric, pulling out all the goodies: darkness lit by lanterns and moonlight; creaky, slow-opening doors; clocks stopping to mark a terrible event and secret passages where horror awaits.
They loved to use melodramatic quotes to set the mood, too, like “Perhaps there are still things in the world that science hasn’t found out about.”
Because they didn’t have the technology to pull off the effects for the transformation of human into beast, the films played a lot with shadows and fog, another fun element. In Cry of the Werewolf, shadows are used to show a woman turning into a beast. In She-Wolf of London, fog billows up at the most opportune time to engulf a lone person in danger or shroud the identity of the attacker.
Here’s a bit more about these films.
Cry of the Werewolf
Classic film fans should catch Cry of the Werewolf (also known as Daughter of the Werewolf) if only to see 20-year-old Nina Foch early in her career. I found it fun right from the opening credits of a close-up of a wolf’s face chomping away on something. Then we’re taken into the LaTour Museum in New Orleans where we join a tour about “werewolfism, vampirism and voodoism.”
This opening museum scene not only sets the stage for what is to come but makes the film worth watching for me. It’s like listening to ghost stories around the campfire as the guide tells us there’s “much to be seen, more to be heard and plenty to imagine,” and weaves spooky stories like the one about a picture purported to be the exchange of souls that was secretly taken at the risk of death by museum director Dr. Charles Morris.
The most important tale is that of the former mistress of this house, Marie LaTour, who was thought to be a werewolf and disappeared the night she killed her husband. Dr. Morris is close to learning the truth about Marie, but unfortunately won’t live to share his findings.
This film doesn’t try to hide what is happening or who killed the doctor. It spells out enough of the plot that we know what’s going on. Meet Celeste (Foch), Marie’s beautiful daughter who was raised by gypsies and learns of her tragic “matriarchal inheritance” from the Old One. “Weep child, weep. It is your destiny,” the Old One says.
Celeste’s matriarchal inheritance is another name for a family curse that is a prevalent part of werewolf movies. It helps with the portrayal of werewolves as sympathetic creatures who aren’t at fault for their actions. In this film, it allows us to empathize with Celeste, who is so angry about not being able to love the doctor’s son, that she hypnotizes his fiancée, Elsa, so she will suffer, too. “Since I am forbidden to love him, so shall you be. You will learn to live as I must live – apart – beyond the reach of men and mortals,” Celeste tells Elsa.
The Undying Monster
Another family curse is at the forefront of The Undying Monster (also known as the Hammond Mystery). Since the Crusades, family members of the House of Hammond, set atop a seaside cliff, have mysteriously died or committed suicide. Current residents Oliver (John Howard) and his sister Helga (Heather Angel) scoff at the legend, but still live under the shadow of their grandfather’s suicide 20 years earlier.
Recently, signs are pointing to trouble returning. Nights are frosty and stars are bright which is not good news according to an old Scottish saying, repeated in the film: “When stars are bright on a frosty night, beware thy bane on the rocky lane.” (A clear variation of the classic quote from The Wolf Man.)
Helga is a great character: , all spunky and independent. “If there is something out there – I’d like to get a crack at it and I’m a jolly good shot,” she says about a possible creature attack. Hearing screams, she’s the first one running across the countryside and down the cliffs in her dress.
As attacks occur, more people are introduced into the film giving us a group of characters who could be future victims or the person/animal responsible for the attacks. A scientist from Scotland Yard and his female sidekick are a bit of comic relief as they investigate.
Soon the whole motley gang is off to find the much hyped “secret room” – the legendary lair of the Hammond relative who sold his soul to the devil and started it all. Sadly (for me at least), the secret room is not-so-secret, but just another room in the basement and is quite empty. (Far scarier is the mausoleum, also in the basement.)
The Undying Monster is an atmospheric film that benefits greatly from the cinematography of Lucien Ballard who captures the beauty in the stark landscape accented with scattered rocks and wind-blown trees that seem frozen in time. The architecture inside the massive Hammond Hall – all arches and magnificently large windows – is grand and ominous at the same time.
She-Wolf of London
She-Wolf of London comes under the Universal horror banner, but feels more like a psychological suspense film. It stars one of television’s most popular moms (June Lockhart of Lost in Space) as Phyllis Allenby, a timid young woman who lives with her aunt and cousin in a nice house in London.
Engaged to a handsome barrister, she should be happy, but Phyllis is unbearably maudlin and frail, yet draws a violent reaction from the family dog. (“He’s so gentle around everyone but Phyllis,” her cousin says.) Though Phyllis apologizes for being such a coward, she also believes she suffers from the Allenby Curse which turns her into a werewolf.
When she finds blood on her hands, mud on her slippers and nightgown and has a memory loss each morning following a murder by something witnesses call a “she-wolf,” Phyllis is sure she is to blame and falls deeper into depression, refusing to see her fiancé.
Later in the film, director Jean Yarbrough and cinematographer Maury Gertsman unexpectedly start to play with the camera. Low shots and tilted angles lend to a feeling of psychological terror and give the viewer a hint as to other things going on, without using words. It works.
Just like Cry of the Werewolf, facts are laid out for the viewer. But surely there are some missing pieces (hence that interesting camera work). What’s the history of the curse? What’s really going on with this family? Who are all these people leaving the gated home at night? Why is there so much fog? I asked all those questions, too, but I suggest doing what I did: sit back and enjoy the ride through early 20th Century London. When that fog lifts, you’ll have the answers you want.
Where you’ve seen them
Eily Malyon has a name you may not know, but a distinct face you won’t forget. She was in both The Undying Monster and She-Wolf of London, playing a familiar role of a maid skulking about the house. (Is she part of the problem or an innocent bystander?) Her lengthy and distinct filmography – too long to list – also included The Devil-Doll, A Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre and Going My Way.
James Ellison, who portrayed Robert Curtis The Undying Monster, had a nice film career including such movies as Vivacious Lady, Next Time I Marry and I Walked With a Zombie., He also played Johnny Nelson in the Hopalong Cassidy Paramount series.
Heather Angel, who played Helga in The Undying Monster, was Phyllis Clavering in the Bulldog Drummond series, Kitty Bennett in Pride and Prejudice (1940) and was Miss Faversham in the TV series Family Affair.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.