aka the birth of the cinematic universe
BY MICAHEL GRANT
Cinematic Universes are pretty big now. Disney has made the highest-grossing series of all time with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it seems like every studio now is trying to copy them. Look at their biggest rival, Warner Bros. for an example. They’ve been trying to catch up with Disney by using their various properties at their disposal such as with their DC heroes with mixed success, their Hanna Barbara characters with zero success, and they’ve even licensed the use of Japanese giant monsters from a studio overseas to make their own interconnected Godzilla films. It’s weird to think that these film series have reached this almost repetitive point, but it does cause some to wonder, where did this start?
I’m sure some obvious recent (as in pre-MCU/2008) examples could come to mind for this answer, like 2004’s Alien vs. Predator (connecting the Alien Franchise with the Predator franchise) or maybe even some would cite Star Wars as a cinematic universe. Some would even say that the monster films created by Japanese studio Toho made the first cinematic universe with their Godzilla and Mothra films. They essentially had the same format as the Marvel films today.
Introduce a character (in this case, a monster) in one film, introduce a different one in another film, then make a film crossover. For example, in 1954 they made Godzilla, in 1961 they made Mothra, and then finally in 1964, they made Mothra vs. Godzilla. It’s the same format as today. I bet some would even argue that Disney made the first cinematic universe since their cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and other characters regularly cross over with one another. But that’s the animated cinematic universe, not live-action, as discussed earlier. If you want the real answer for the first cinematic universe, look no further than the classic Universal Studios Monsters of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.
Everyone familiar with Halloween is familiar with the monsters, regardless of whether or not they have seen any of the films. You’ve got Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and The Wolf-Man, among others. Whenever some imitate Dracula, they imitate the original 1931 film, starring Bela Lugosi. Whenever someone pictures an image of Frankenstein, they picture Boris Karloff’s big head and green skin (not that you could tell it was green as it was in black and white).
When the series started is a bit debatable, but for the sake of this article, we’ll say 1931, when Dracula was released. Big hit, and then they followed it up with Frankenstein later that year, another big hit. And of course, eventually, they made sequels to Frankenstein. You had Bride of Frankenstein in 1931, Son of Frankenstein in 1939, and Ghost of Frankenstein in 1942. The year before Ghost of Frankenstein, they came out with The Wolf-Man, which was also a big hit. Universal wanted to do a sequel to both Ghost of Frankenstein and The Wolf-Man. How they did that, was a little unique for the time.
Screenwriter Curt Siodmak wrote a script that was a squeal to both Ghost and Wolf-Man. In it, Larry Talbot (Wolf-Man in human form) is brought back to life, he wants to die again, so he tries to hunt down Dr. Frankenstein for help, but instead, he finds the monster. To make a long story short, the Wolf-Man and Frankenstein’s Monster eventually fight, and you get your money’s worth.
And also, unknowingly, Sidomak unintentionally created the first cinematic universe, and following the release of this film, they made House of Frankenstein in 1944, and House of Dracula in 1945. Both of these films added Dracula into the mix, and later on in 1948, Universal made the comedy spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, a comedy that’s very much of its own time as it sounds, but at the very end of that film, The Invisible Man shows up. While not as much of an expansive universe as the Marvel films, it still is the first time Hollywood tried something like this.
To make the film, Universal got a big cast. A lot of the actors in the film were pretty regular actors for the Universal films of the time. There was Dwight Frye (who was born in Salina, KS), who appeared in every one of the Frankenstein films up to this. This film was one of his last films prior to his death.
Another Frankenstein series regular who was in this was Lionel Atwill. He made his first appearance in Son of Frankenstein, playing a police inspector who has a wooden arm (a character parodied in Young Frankenstein).
Two actors they got from The Wolf-Man were Patric Knowles and Maria Ouspenskaya. All these actors do a good job, but the two people I mainly want to talk about are the film’s two monster stars, Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi.
Lon Chaney Jr. reprised his role as the Wolf-Man, and he’s as great as he was in the original Wolf-Man. The characterization of the Wolf-Man is similar to The Hulk, where he’s just a regular guy who under certain circumstances, can become a horrible monster. It’s possible that this was a source of inspiration for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the creation of the Hulk. Lon Chaney Jr. (born Creighton Chaney) was the son of prolific silent actor Lon Chaney (best known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, due to the fact that he played characters that required extensive makeup, which he himself did).
During his father’s lifetime, he was forbidden by his father to become an actor. He wanted him to have a normal life. Instead, his father made him go into the plumbing business. When his father died in 1930, the country was in the Great Depression, and to make ends meet, Chaney began taking acting roles, reluctantly later being billed as Lon Chaney Jr., a moniker which he despised.
His film career started to get some traction in 1939, when he played the character Lenny in Of Mice and Men. However, instead of getting more roles in bigger films, he got roles in mainly monster movies and cowboy movies like The Mummy’s Hand, Calling Dr. Death, and Bride of the Gorilla. He died in 1973, shortly after playing a character in the microscopically budgeted independent film Dracula vs. Frankenstein. Not the best film to end on, especially since you can tell the many years of alcoholism had on his face. During his lifetime, he was in the shadow of his more famous father, but today he’s probably better known than his father.
The role of the Frankenstein Monster was a different actor than in the previous film. In the first three Frankenstein films, the Monster was played by English actor Boris Karlof (who’s also famous for voicing the Grinch in the original 1966 cartoon adaptation). The fourth film, the Monster was portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr. and so for obvious reasons, he couldn’t be in the Monster in this one. The actor they got to play the monster was a Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi.
Lugosi is probably most famous for playing Dracula in the original 1931 film. He was originally offered to play the Monster in the original Frankenstein but declined as the Monster had no speaking lines. Twelve years later in 1943, they offered him the role again, and he agreed as this time since the Monster could actually talk.
At least in the original script, he could.
His performance in the finished film might seem off. He lumbers about, with his arms outstretched, like he’s trying to feel through the room because he’s blind or something. Well, in the original script, that was the case. The Monster would’ve explained that he was blind, thus explaining the awkwardness of the performance. Supposedly, test audiences found it hilarious that the monster spoke with a Hungarian accent so all scenes featuring the Monster talk were either cut out, or the audio was removed (you can actually see Lugosi move his lips in at least two shots).
These edits just made him look like a bad actor, and it could probably be seen as the beginning of the end of his career, as he didn’t get as many projects afterward, and his career was totally in the gutter by the early 1950s, up until his death in 1956.
I’m kind of split on my thoughts on the final film. On the critical side, compared to today’s Marvel films or even modern horror films (which this film is technically classified as genre-wise), it isn’t much. Even back then, it certainly doesn’t match up to the earlier Universal films that started it all. The first third of the film starts out strongly, almost like an actual stand-alone sequel to The Wolf-Man, but then once they introduce the Frankenstein stuff, it starts to go a bit downhill and play out kind of like someone’s fanfiction.
The lead-up to the fight comes off as rather convoluted and nonsensical. There’s a scene involving this big German festival with a big giant song and dance type scene (not joking, that happens in this). There are a lot of continuity errors between this film and the first Wolf-Man (the first film was presumably set in the present time as there are cars, but this film, despite taking place four years later, seems to be set in the Victorian era, or at least a couple decades before the 1940s). And the big fight that the entire film is building up to (while amusing), lasts for barely two minutes (and it’s really more of a tussle).
Two minutes, and there isn’t even a clear winner (though in my opinion, the Wolf-Man won). Oh, and because they cut the Monster’s dialogue out of the film, some of the actions of the characters don’t make any sense.
On the other hand, I do find this film enjoyable in its own way. There are a lot of great atmospheric shots of the sets that look splendid. Yes, even black and white can look awesome, especially in HD. The story (while I said that it seemed like fanfiction in certain quarters) is fun in its own way. You got monsters, crazy scientists, crazy villagers, over the top acting. I find enjoyment in a lot of this stuff.
It may have seemed scary back then, but today with how horror is portrayed today, there’s kind of a novelty with these films. They’re fun, and really a lot of the stories in the Universal Monster films felt more like comic books than horror stories, and I get the feeling that these films inspired many comic book creators who created the character that we see in films today.
So if you ever watch these films, maybe don’t expect full-blown horror more like old-fashioned campy horror. Well, whatever it is, I love it. Plus, I personally find the story of how these films got made fascinating. The guys that made these films established the basics of the horror genre and inspired future filmmakers. And, established the first cinematic universe that continued in future installments, such as House of Frankenstein and Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein.
It’s for these reasons, that while the film itself is a mess, it’s still enjoyable and I consider it important to the history of film. It may not hold up as strongly as the other films in the Universal canon of the 40s (or hold up compared to other films of the era), but what it did, made it stand out from the others. The people who made this may have just been making another b-movie, but little did they know that they were the first to do what studios today are doing.
They laid the basic groundwork for Marvel, DC, and others to copy and expand on. Inspired by the success those studios had, Universal tried to revitalize their monster universe with the Tom Cruise Mummy in 2017 with little success. Since that film, Universal has been doing reimaginings of their other monsters.
You might be surprised that The Invisible Man which came out in 2020 starring Elizabeth Moss was actually a remake of a film made in 1933. And coming out this spring is Renfield, a story about the character Renfield from Dracula. Perhaps one day, the Universal Monsters Universe will receive another reboot. In any case, stay tuned for more weird films in the future…
If you have any films suggestions to torture me with, please email me here: email@example.com