The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
Botanist Wilfred Glendon (Henry Hull) is on the hunt for a rare flower that blooms only by the light of the silvery moon: the Mariphasa lupino lumino. The scarcity of this specimen is such that its only known location is in a remote and forbidden region of Tibet. With his companion Hugh Renwick (Clark Williams) and the requisite band of sherpas, Glendon approaches the vicinity of the Mariphasa but is warned by a holy man (Egon Brecher) not to venture further.
Glendon laughs off the priest’s prophetic advisory, but as is so often the case with superstitious native bearers in the movies, they beat a hasty retreat back to the nearest Tibetan waterhole. Left to their own devices, Wilfred and Hugh are yards away from the flower when Renwick stops in his tracks, describing an unusual sensation of being struck down by a “ghostly fist.” Spotting the Mariphasa up ahead, Glendon rushes to collect the flower and is attacked a half-human, half-animal creature whom Wilfred is forced to subdue with his knife. During the struggle, however, Wilfred suffers a deep bite wound on his arm from where the beast attacked him.
Back in England, Glendon continues his Mariphasa research, and is visited in his lab by a Dr. Yogami (Warner Oland), a fellow scientist who has also been searching for the flower. Yogami explains to Wilfred that the Mariphasa is the only known antidote for a condition known as lycanthrophobia: in which the individual is transformed into a werewolf in the light of a full moon. How does one contract lycanthrophobia, you might ask? “From the bite of another werewolf,” Yogami solemnly tells his host, touching Wilfred’s wounded arm.
Before John Landis directed his “Abbott-and-Costello-Meet-The-Exorcist” classic An American Werewolf in London (1981)—heck, even before Warren Zevon released his unforgettable tune Werewolves of London—there was the original Werewolf of London (1935), a Universal release functioning as a blueprint for their later success with The Wolf Man (1941) and the subsequent entries in the franchise. Until London’s release, werewolf motion pictures had a sort of spotty history in the cinema—mostly a few silent shorts and a foreign feature or two (though there was a 1924 American effort with John Gilbert appropriately titled The Wolfman, released by Fox). The release of Guy Endore’s novel The Werewolf of Paris in 1933 spurred interest in the topic of lycanthropy for the movies, and although Universal took a pass on Endore’s novel (deciding instead to opt for their own original treatment, with story by Robert Harris and a screenplay courtesy of John Colton), Endore would wind up contributing to MGM’s Mark of the Vampire and Mad Love, released that same year.
Werewolf of London had the good fortune to be released at a time when Universal Pictures was riding high on the success of their burgeoning “monster” franchise; the studio was constantly on the hunt for movie ideas to star their reigning kings of horror, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. In fact, a script had been prepared back in 1932 for a Wolf Man film that would have starred Karloff as the titular lycanthrope (with Robert Florey of Murders in the Rue Morgue fame on tap to direct) but the project never got off the ground. London is in many ways the Rodney Dangerfield of Universal monster pictures: it doesn’t get a lot of respect, with fans often speculating whether the finished product would have been better with someone like Florey or James Whale at the helm, and/or if Boris and/or Bela were in the cast. (Lugosi had actually been slated to play the Yogami role in London, but the studio chose Warner Oland instead.)
In the role of the unfortunate botanist who succumbs to sprouting hair and fangs whenever a full moon is in the vicinity, Universal picked Henry Hull to star in light of his recent success in the studio’s Great Expectations (1934) and Transient Lady (1935). Hull would enjoy much later success as a character actor in such films as Jesse James (1939) and Lifeboat (1944), and the actor’s slightly prickly quality hasn’t exactly endeared him to London fans, who argue the romantic triangle between his Wilfred Glendon, wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson), and Paul Ames (Lester Matthews) is ineffectual because Wilfred is an unlikable wanker preoccupied with his work. (He’s not nearly as sympathetic as the later Lawrence Talbot in The Wolf Man.) But I tend to side with those who feel Hull’s detachment is necessary for his character; like Sherlock Holmes, succumbing to supernatural beliefs would detract from his research. (And of course, there’s the irony that as Glendon becomes more aware of how doomed he is, the more human he becomes—as witnessed in a memorable scene in a seedy rooming house where he begs God for His intervention.)
Warner Oland was quite familiar at this time to movie audiences as the inscrutable Charlie Chan; his role of Yogami in Werewolf of London is one of his most interesting, and at the movie’s conclusion, irony once again raps the podium for attention as Oland’s Yogami winds up destroyed by the very beast he created. There’s an amusing moment or two when Glendon’s in-law, Aunt Effie Coombs (Spring Byington), drunkenly refers to Yogami as “Dr. Yokohama.” A small vein of comic relief runs through London in the James Whale tradition, with a highlight being the two landladies (Ethel Griffies, Zeffie Tilbury) vying to see who rents Dr. Glendon a room.
Werewolf of London is not without its problems…and I’ll readily assert The Wolf Man is the superior motion picture. But London is also not without its high points: the background music by Karl Hajos is quite superb, and the attention paid to sustaining its sinister and spooky atmosphere is admirable, even in the hands of journeyman Stuart Walker. One area in which Werewolf of London surpasses the later Wolf Man is in the area of makeup; I prefer the lupine look of Henry Hull’s character to the get-up later applied to Lon Chaney (who resembles a poodle at times). In one scene, Hull’s character changes into his wolfen self as he walks past a series of pillars, a device later co-opted for a classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Howling Man.” Werewolf of London may not be a perfect film (though Hull’s hair is—thanks, Warren) but it’s definitely a worthwhile look-see for any fan of Universal Horrors.