From the video case: Botonist Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) travels to Tibet in search of a rare flower, the “Marifasa Lupina,” which blooms only in moonlight. Despite warnings that the region is dangerous, Glendon continues his quest until finally locating the exotic flower, but not before he has to defend himself from an attack by a howling monster.
Back in London, Glendon is visited by the enigmatic Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), who tells him a current rash of murders is the work of two werewolves. Yogami also claims that the only antidote is the blooming Marifasa flower, which keeps the werewolves from harming the ones they love. Glendon scoffs at Yogami’s stories, until the next full moon! (1935, b&w)
Mark says: Universal’s Werewolf of London has gotten a bad rap for a couple of reasons. For viewers of the time, it was too similar to 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Fredric March. For modern fans, it is inevitably compared to the superior The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney, Jr. Either way, Werewolf of London, Hollywood’s first werewolf flick, isn’t getting the individualized attention it deserves. I’m not saying this is a great movie, or that it should even be included with Universal’s other monster classics, but it does have some interesting facets.
One common complaint is that Henry Hull (Master of the World) in the role of Dr. Wilfred Glendon, is not an entirely sympathetic character. He is work-obsessed and does not give nearly enough attention to his luminescent wife, Lisa, played by Valerie Hobson (Bride of Frankenstein). In contrast to Lon Chaney’s portrayal of Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man, Dr. Glendon is certainly not a sympathetic character. Still, I find Hull’s characterization adequately likable. He’s a dedicated man of science and would rather work on his experiments than attend fancy dinner parties. One of my favorite lines is when Lisa drags the doctor away from his laboratory to greet their guests and he says, “I’ll not only divorce you, but I’ll beat you as well if ever again you get me mixed up in a mess like this.” Despite the feigned severity of these words, Dr. Glendon obviously loves his wife; he only has difficulty expressing himself properly.
An interesting aspect of Werewolf of London is the use of the Marifasa Lupina flower that serves as a temporary antidote for lycanthropy. It is this plant (apparently the only one in the world) that Dr. Glendon retrieves from Tibet and transplants to London. A sufferer of werewolfism needs only to break off the blossom of the plant and stick the stem directly into his vein to spare himself a night of murderous carnage. This plant, and its healing properties, is the reason that Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland, who played the title role in many Charlie Chan movies) follows Dr. Glendon back from Tibet. It does not take much imagination to figure out why Dr. Yogami has such an interest in the flower.
I’ve never seen this antidotal flower angle featured in a werewolf flick since. This gives the film a certain tinge of originality when stacked up against all the similarly themed movies that came later. Strangely, much of the film focuses on a moonlight simulator beam developed by Dr. Glendon, and this seems an unnecessary distraction. The only reason I can see that the beam is featured at all is to give the viewers a sense of a “mad scientist’s lab.”
Also unusual for a werewolf film is the initial transformation scene. Instead of the facial close-up where we watch as the hairiness is gradually applied, Werewolf of London uses a more subtle approach. First, Dr. Glendon’s cat, which is sitting peacefully on his lap, suddenly becomes riled and hisses furiously. As Glendon feels the change coming on, he gets up and stalks through the manor. In the process he passes several stone pillars. As he emerges from behind each pillar, he is more and more transformed, until, at last, he is a full-fledged werewolf. It’s not a sophisticated technique by today’s standards, but certainly a clever approach for 1935.
Dr. Glendon never does achieve the beastliness for which Lon Chaney and other actors would become famous. Reportedly, Universal’s makeup artist Jack Pierce (Frankenstein, Man Made Monster) had already created the makeup effects that he would be known for 6 years later in The Wolf Man. However, Henry Hull was put off by the amount of time necessary to apply the effects and a much less hairy beast was settled upon. The monster in Werewolf of London is decidedly more human than wolf.
Personally, the toned-down woflyness of the creature is not as exciting or fun to watch. When going out on a killing spree, Dr. Glendon (as the beast) has the foresight to put on his hat and coat. Also, though the werewolf is able to break out steel bars from a concrete window, he has trouble grappling with mere mortals. It doesn’t seem to take much more than a few good whacks from a stick to chase him off. He only needs to be shot with a simple bullet to be destroyed; no silver is necessary. In appearance, at least at some points of the transformation, he vaguely resembles Eddie Munster. Of course, it’s these same qualities that give the film its unconventional flair.
As for the acting, the main players range from adequate to good, with Warner Oland’s portrayal of Dr. Yogami at the higher end of the scale. I found Lester Matthews (The Son of Dr. Jekyll, The Invisible Man’s Revenge) in the role of Lisa ex-boyfriend, Paul Ames, to be most disagreeable. I’m still torn if it is the acting or the character I don’t like. It’s probably a little of both.
Like many such films of its time, Werewolf of London provides plenty of “comedy relief.” It’s subtle enough at first as not to be too distracting. However, the characters of Mrs. Whack and Mrs. Moncaster (Ethel Griffies and Zeffie Tilbury, respectively) are so over the top and not funny, that they become a hindrance to the story. I’ll never understand why directors of the time decided to stick these gag performances in at precisely the moment they should be building suspense. Possibly so they could say their films had “something for everyone.”
If you go into Werewolf of London expecting a Lon Chaney iconic werewolf flick, you’re going to be disappointed. However, if you can approach it for what it is, a fresh look at a monster that had not been portrayed in film before, you might find it enjoyable, even refreshing. Lycanthropy fans will definitely want to give it a view, if only for its historical significance.
Werewolf of London is directed by Stuart Walker (Mystery of Edwin Drood), with a screenplay by John Colton, and based on a story by Robert Harris.
Scene to watch for: Dr. Glendon, as a werewolf, takes the time to put on a coat and hat before going out for the evening.
Line to listen for: “Thanks. Thanks for the bullet.”
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! out of 5.