Saturday, October 14, 1978: Werewolf of London (1935) / Weird Woman (1944)

Synopsis: On an expedition to the mountains of Tibet botanist Dr. Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is on the trail of a mysterious flower that blooms only in moonlight. Entering an impossibly remote region, he secures a specimen of the “moon flower” but is attacked by a strange creature — seemingly part man and part wolf.

Back at the laboratory in his London estate, he tries to get the moon flower to blossom under an artificial moonlight projector he has constructed, to no avail.

Glendon’s obsession with discovering the secrets of the flower has caused him to neglect everyone in his life, including his beautiful and devoted wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson).

Glendon is soon visited by a mysterious scientist, Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland). Yogami warns Glendon that the creature that attacked him in Tibet was a werewolf; because of this, he is doomed to become one himself. The only hope for staving off the affliction is the juice from the moon flower that Glendon is now keeping in his laboratory. But it quickly becomes clear that Yogami wants the specimens for his own purposes.

Glendon notices that when he places his hand underneath the moonlight projector, the hand grows hairy; when he applies a drop of juice from one of the blossoms on the hand, it returns to normal. But there are only one or two buds on the moon flower — not enough to help him if things get, well, really hairy.

Meanwhile, Lisa has reconnected with an old flame, Paul Ames, who has recently returned from a long stay in America. Paul runs a flight school in California, a not-so-subtle counterpoint to the deeply-rooted life of a botanist.

While Paul’s behavior toward Lisa is strictly above board, it is clear that there is a mutual attraction at work, and it is also quite obvious that Paul can offer a life that Wilfred can’t: the carefree, adventurous and attentive Paul is shown to be a favorable alternative to the secretive, buttoned-down Wilfred.

But soon the full Moon rises, and Wilfred’s plans to lock himself away for duration fail. Now the Werewolf of London is on the loose, and looking for blood….

Comments: Henry Hull stars as the hairy-handed gent who ran amok in Kent, in a production that predates George Waggner’s better-known The Wolf Man by six years. Werewolf of London deserves praise on a number of points: it is Universal’s first foray into werewolf lore; the moon flower that serves as an antidote to lycanthropy is an interesting device; but most importantly, it cleverly uses the werewolf concept as a metaphor for deeply repressed emotion.

Not only is Wilfred a stereotypical scientist — more interested in his test tubes and experiments than anything else — but he’s also a stereotypical Brit, who finds strong emotions confusing and emotional displays distasteful. Thus Wilfred can only watch disapprovingly from afar as his wife is drawn into the orbit of another man.

So it makes sense, given Wilfred’s state of mind, that when he becomes a werewolf he inexorably zeros in on Lisa, whom he subconsciously views as the source of his troubles.

This is far more interesting dramatic terrain than we find in The Wolf Man, in which we’re asked to believe that Lawrence Talbot, a thoroughly nice guy who never had an unkind thought about anyone, goes on a rampage entirely against his will.

The Wolf Man winds up being the better movie, though, for a number of reasons. From beginning to end Werewolf Of London wastes a number of opportunities to build suspense. The moon flower, carefully set up to be a crucial plot element, is discarded by the third act. And in spite of its best efforts the movie veers dangerously close to comedy, because nearly all the victims belong to London high society. Werewolf of London becomes a movie primarily about social embarrassment.

Wilfred’s greatest crime is not that he’s turning into a wolf and killing people. It’s that he is making such a deuced spectacle of himself among the teatime-and-lawn-tennis set. It just isn’t done, old man!

Henry Hull is convincing as the starchy Wilfred, and does well in the werewolf scenes. But he isn’t helped by the makeup effects, which made him look more like Eddie Munster than a wild animal (Hull himself reportedly was responsible for this, rejecting Jack Pearce’s more elaborate make-up design, which was later used for 1941’s The Wolf Man). Valerie Hobson (who played Elizabeth in both Bride of Frankenstein) makes a very fetching Lisa — beautiful, loyal to her husband, but also keenly intelligent and capable of making her own decisions when the chips are down. Hobson takes a thinly-written role and makes more of it than most actresses of the day would have done.

Warner Oland, on loan from Fox Studios, was at the height of his considerable fame when this movie premiered in the spring of 1935. He had been playing detective Charlie Chan in that profitable series of films for several years now, and would do so until his death in 1938. Typecast as a Mysterious Oriental (though he wasn’t actually of Asian descent himself) Oland nonetheless turns in a solid performance here.

Lester Matthews, a bread-and-butter actor who worked steadily throughout the 1930s, is unquestionably the weak link as Paul Ames. Matthews is far too bland for the role. Paul should be a dashing Errol Flynn type, a fun-loving and adventurous soul who points up all of Wilfred’s deficiencies as a husband and as a man. Instead, we have another repressed Brit politely eating cucumber sandwiches on the sidelines. This is a werewolf movie that could have used a lot more wolfish behavior.

Weird Woman

Synopsis: Norman Reed (Lon Chaney, Jr) is a professor at Monroe College, specializing in the study of ancient cults and superstitions. While working at home on his book on the subject, Superstition vs. Reason and Fact, he gets a phone call from his neighbor Evelyn Sawtelle (Elizabeth Russell) who says she just saw his wife Paula (Anne Gwynne) walking home in the bitter rainstorm raging outside.

Reed says it’s not possible, because Paula had gone to bed some time ago. He goes upstairs to look and finds Paula in bed, and she says she hasn’t been up. Reed notices a pagan charm she has placed on the nightstand and angrily removes it, admonishing her for falling back to the pagan rituals she practiced in her native land. Reed later discovers mud on her shoes, indicating that she’d been out and had lied to him about it.

We learn that Paula is a native of the South Sea islands, and that she was seen as a powerful witch by the natives of her home island. In a flashback sequence, Reed meets Paula while is on the island doing research. He had met her a number of years earlier while a graduate student, and they hit it off again immediately. But when Reed steps across a line of charms against evil the islanders had set up, he is seized and nearly killed; only Paula’s intervention spares his life.

When Reed returns from the island to Monroe college, it is with Paula as his bride. This greatly upsets Nona Carr (Evelyn Ankers), who had believed she and Reed had been getting serious. Reed brushes this off, telling her it was nothing more than a “flirtation”.

Superstition vs. Reason and Fact is finally published to great acclaim, and Reed becomes something of a celebrity in the academic world. This is greatly concerning to Evelyn Sawtelle, who had been pressing her husband Millard (Ralph Morgan) to complete his own book in hopes that publication might help him secure the position of department chair. But the weak-willed Millard had only been pushed into completing the book by Evelyn. Nona, sensing an opportunity in his weakness, goes to Millard and tells him she knows he plagiarized large portions of his book from a student’s thesis. She convinces him to kill himself, then convinces Evelyn that Reed must have driven Millard to suicide in order to eliminate his competitor for department chair.

At the same time, knowing that Reed’s assistant Margaret (Lois Collier) is infatuated with him, Nona tells Margaret’s jealous boyfriend David (Phil Brown) that Reed has been taking advantage of her. She also spreads the rumor that Reed’s exotic wife is a witch.

Secretly following Paula on one of her late-night excursions, Reed discovers she has been visiting a graveyard, where she has been conducting strange rituals from her homeland. Confronting her, Reed destroys the charms she has been using, telling her that it’s all superstitious nonsense. But Paula insists that the charms were for his protection, and now that they’ve been destroyed, there’s nothing to keep evil away from either of them….

Comments: Weird Woman is one of the better entries of the Inner Sanctum series (we’ve seen all of them on the show save Strange Confession). Weird Woman sports all the best-known hallmarks of the series: whispered stream-of-conciousness passages, a protagonist being aggressively courted by numerous women, and supernatural happenings that turn out to be nothing more than red herrings.

The movie is based on the Fritz Leiber novel Conjure Wife, which was a tongue-in-cheek satire on the backstabbing world of academia. Weird Woman undercuts the satire and shoehorns the witchcraft subplot into the Inner Sanctum template: it offers the promise of the supernatural just long enough to get the audience interested, then retreats to a conventional murder plot and an explained-away ending.

Norman Reed is a typical Inner Sanctum protagonist in that he’s a respected and self-confident professional who doesn’t seem to notice the gaggle of beautiful women who are inexplicably in love with him. Reed is apparently an anthropologist (it’s never stated explicitly) who travels the world to study the religious beliefs of cultures that are technologically less advanced than our own; yet he has no respect for them, dismissing their beliefs as foolish superstition, something they should wise up and reject. Tellingly, he doesn’t storm into the Presbyterian church down the street from Monroe College to tell the congregants the same thing.

We’re told that Paula was a native of the island Reed was studying, and that she has abandoned her home and family in order to marry him, traveling halfway around the world to be a housewife in what must be to her a strange culture. Yet this sacrifice isn’t enough for him; he demands that she shed any trace of the culture she grew up in. The woman Reed demands she become is indistinguishable from Nona Carr or Evelyn Sawtelle or any of the other backbiting wives on campus, and it isn’t clear what attracted him to Paula in the first place. We don’t catch the slightest glimpse of Paula’s interior life, assuming she even has one; in fact, her decision to carry out pagan rituals is revealed to be out of devotion to him, in order to protect him from the predations of others.

So vaguely identified is the south seas island Paula comes from that the screenwriters don’t bother to give it a name, and in fact “Paula” is her handle on the island as well as in the bucolic campus town she ends up in. Even by the standards of the 1940s Anne Gwynne could not be regarded as “exotic” in her looks, and she fortunately doesn’t attempt to adopt any sort of foreign accent.

I must pause for a moment to praise Inner Sanctum veteran Evelyn Ankers, whom I have derided many times for her forgettable performances. She is actually quite good as the conniving Nona Carr, and seems to be greatly enjoying driving men to suicide and plotting to ruin careers. It’s a shame she didn’t do more of that during her time at Universal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.