We’ve unfortunately been away from our blog a bit, for which we heartily apologize. (Yes, Grand Old Movies does have a life away from the movies.) For all our readers who have been anxiously awaiting our return—perhaps even hanging a lamp outside the window, to guide our weary footsteps back to the Internet—we’re happy to say we’re finally back, and thanks so much for your patience!
But of course, you’re all wondering about our current post and just what our unwieldy title means. (What missing wolf?, we can hear you grumbling; and what’s with the Red Riding Hood shout-out?) As you’ve probably guessed, our post revolves around wolves—or, more exactly, werewolves, which, as this linked YouTube video indicates, seem to have become a movie genre all to themselves. The basic requirement of a werewolf film is that it have a werewolf—that is, a character (sometimes several characters) who, at some point in the narrative, will transform into a wolf or wolf-like creature (the were of werewolf derives from the Old English word “wer,” meaning “man”). We’re not attempting a comprehensive analysis of werewolf cinema here; and the werewolf movies we mention don’t range beyond the 1940s, a decade that produced a spate of werewolf films. In our contrarian fashion, however, we are looking at the one werewolf film that (as our title hints) is missing the essential ingredient of werewolf cinema (can you guess what that is?).
It’s this very lack that makes Universal’s 1946 release She-Wolf of London the poor step-sister of the human-into-supernatural-animal monster movies that, in the wake of the same studio’s 1941 hit The Wolf Man, flourished in the 1940s. The Wolf Man wasn’t Universal’s first lycanthrope film—that honor belongs to its 1935 production Werewolf of London—but The Wolf Man really began the cycle: hapless human, under malign influence, turns into rampaging beast. Literally: the film’s unfortunate protagonist, Larry Talbot, is bitten by a werewolf and becomes one in his turn whenever, as scenarist’s Curt Siodmak’s made-up doggerel (no pun intended) passing for werewolf lore notes, “the autumn moon is bright” (although, famously, no moon ever appears in the film).
It’s hard to pass up a profitable trend. Other studios rushed out their own werewolf films to cash in, including 20th-Century Fox’s The Undying Monster (1942), in which a man becomes a werewolf via a family curse, and PRC’s ludicrously entertaining The Mad Monster (1942), in which a man becomes a werewolf via mad science. There were also the imitation human-into-rampaging-beast-other-than-a-wolf flicks, such as RKO’s 1942 classic Cat People, in which a young woman may (or may not) turn into a panther; the similar The Leopard Man of 1943, in which a man may (or may not) become a leopard; and Universal’s own 1943 Captive Wild Woman, in which Acquanetta plays a gorilla who becomes a woman who then turns back into a gorilla (don’t ask). We’re not even counting Universal’s monster-rally follow-ups, such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), wherein we’re treated to the further adventures of Larry Talbot as he encounters various other Universal monsters, dying at the end of each film only to rise again, like Osiris from the Underworld, in time for the next sequel.
1940s cinematic lycanthropy wasn’t restricted only to men; Columbia’s 1944 Cry of the Werewolf, featuring a heroine descended from a werewolf family, fills the gender gap. But whatever the sex, what all these films have in common is a werewolf. Sooner or later, for whatever reason, the main character, sprouting fur and fangs, sets out for a night of mayhem, leaving a trail of mangled corpses in its wake. However, as a survey of viewer comments at the film’s IMDB entry indicates, She-Wolf of London‘s major disappointment is that (spoiler alert here)—there’s no werewolf. Not one. Nary a fang or claw in sight. True, there are a few mangled corpses (including those of a policeman and a small child), and a police inspector (Lloyd Corrigan) does announce right up front that he suspects a werewolf is behind it all (a deduction based on scant evidence; perhaps our nervous inspector was watching too many werewolf movies). But what might be called the core of a werewolf movie—viz., the shot of the actual werewolf—is not present. It’s not just that no befurred, befanged, snouted, snarling, and incisor-filled visage pops into view; it’s that the werewolf motif, suggested in the film’s title, proves a blind alley. Though murder and mayhem occur (largely offscreen), characters do not transform into beasts, but stay resolutely in their own skins. It’s a monster movie without, apparently, the monster.
However, the film does present us with another image that carries its own lupine associations:
So what wolfish connotations does the figure of a cloaked, hooded woman bring up? Like earlier werewolf movies, She-Wolf of London tells a slight story of a frazzled protagonist, here being Phyllis, a young, fragile, Victorian-era heiress (a tremulous June Lockhart), who wakes up in the mornings with a vague, disturbed feeling that Something Terrible Has Happened the night before. She has no recollection of what she’s done, but notes horrific traces of her apparent nightly atrocities—namely, bloodied clothing and hands. The usual trajectory of the werewolf film is to take us closer and closer to what that culminating Something is—the revelation of the werewolf itself, in full attack mode.
What She-Wolf of London gives us, however, is this:
Instead of the Wolf, we get … Little Red Riding Hood. Not the sweetly naive child of the fairy tale, though, but a Red Riding Hood on the Rampage, one who has criminal intent on her mind, and who, if out to visit Grandma, would come swinging a blunt instrument from her basket.
As it turns out, Red-Toothed Riding Hood isn’t even the film’s heroine; she’s the seemingly-oh-so-perfect-but-really-evil housekeeper, Mrs. Winthrop (Sara Haden), who’s been sneaking out at night, hooded and cloaked, to murder innocent victims in a nearby park. It’s all part of her nefarious plot to drive poor Phyllis insane by making her believe that she’s the werewolf committing these vicious crimes. It’s like Gaslight, but with dogs instead of gas. So successful is the housekeeper in her scheming (aided by Phyllis’ own fears of inheriting a family werewolf curse), that, halfway through the film’s 61-minute running time, our angst-ridden heiress must take to her bed with a severe case of the Victorian vapors.
But why not a werewolf? Why get coy and deny audiences the primal scene of lycanthropy films? By 1946 viewers would probably have been familiar with the genre’s tropes, including heavy doses of fog, the sound of howling dogs, and mutterings of moonlight and dark curses. The director, Jean Yarbrough, gives us all that; he also sets up the expected mirror scene, in which the lycanthrope-to-be stares in horror at her reflection, in anticipation of her lupine transformation.
Yet the film, like a nervous stripper, backs away from revelation and takes refuge in a hackneyed the-housekeeper-did-it mystery plot. And the climatic scene, when the nasty lady Reveals All, gives us not a wolf but Haden with a glassy gaze and a fixed, pained smile, looking like a weekend toothache sufferer praying patiently for Monday and the dentist’s return. Hardly the socko punch that horror-film fans have been waiting for.
Still, we wonder about that peculiarly apposite Red Riding Hood image. After all, if you were playing a free-association game with the word “Wolf,” “Red Riding Hood” might be among your top five answers, along with”Three Little Pigs” or “whistling on street corners.” Red Riding Hood and her Wolf have by now attained mytho-poetic status; as a pair of matched antagonists, they’re right up there with Jack and his Giant and Snow White and her apple-carting Witch. Most of us have encountered Ms. Hood and her lupine adversary, either through the various European fairy-tales (the best-known is probably the Brothers Grimm version), in paintings and drawings, on stage and screen, or even via Tex Avery’s cartoon masterpiece, “Red Hot Riding Hood,” which casts a decidedly adult slant on the wolf’s activities.
Avery’s erogenously punning title uncovers what may be the subtext of the duo’s famous confrontation—one that concerns more than a trip to Grandma’s. According to Wikipedia, the red cap that so strongly identifies the story’s heroine was a late arrival to the tale; yet its vivid color has now indelibly marked the narrative, lending it a symbolic importance that has kept generations of artists, writers, and scholars busy assigning interpretations. Most frequently the reading is psychoanalytically tinged, with red representing the young heroine’s sexual awakening, either as an abstract metaphor of dawning eroticism, or as a more concrete one of the onset of puberty, with red standing for menstrual blood—an image reflected in She-Wolf’s scene when the heroine gazes in shock at her bloody fingers.
If you think the menstrual blood association sounds far-fetched (blood can also symbolize—well, blood, a prime component of werewolf tales), then consider how Phyllis reacts to her fear that she may be moonlighting as a canine cousin: she abruptly informs her dull fiancé (Don Porter) that she’s cancelling their impending wedding. Perhaps her decision is a sensible one—a fur-and-fang-decked bride would put a decided damper on the honeymoon—but perhaps there’s more going on. A Freudian explanation (and 1940s cinema was drenched in Freudian theory) would link Phyllis’ terror of her supposed wolfishness to sexual terror; she postpones her nuptials because she fears the release of her own ‘animal’ impulses (as expressed in her hysterical declaration that the sight of her boyfriend makes her feel “unclean”). No doubt the deeply Freudian Cat People was an influence here; in that earlier film, the heroine delays sexual consummation in her marriage because she believes that her passion will transform her into a panther. Sex and Violence coalesce here into the image of the Beastly Bride, whose ardor is decidedly lethal.
But (we can hear readers objecting), Phyllis, unlike Cat People‘s Irina, doesn’t turn into anything. It’s that wicked housekeeper who dons the Red Riding Hood guise and races round the park after hours like a pit bull off its leash. And anyway, isn’t Red Riding Hood the victim in the original tale? Valid points, of course: cinematic werewolves, like real wolves, do tend to be the aggressor, albeit unwilling ones (no werewolf in a 1940s werewolf film ever chooses his fate). But She-Wolf‘s villainess subverts the original RRH plot and, substituting a hooded cloak for the proverbial sheep’s skin, becomes the predator. It’s as if Grandma really does have Big Teeth (and is willing to use them). This anti-social behavior may remind us of another compassion-challenged fairy-tale character, the wicked stepmother. As Phyllis’ de facto guardian, Mrs. Winthrop assumes a maternal role toward the girl, but her idea of mother love seems modeled on the hostile stepmothers of (just for starters) Snow White, Cinderella, and The Sleeping Beauty, all who plot to undo the heroine, or at least make life for her as unpleasant as possible.
Evil stepmothers aren’t just in fairy tales, but they do have unlikely cinematic avatars—in the scheming femme fatales of film noir. Lethal ladies like Phyllis Dietrichson of Double Indemnity and Helen Grayle of Murder, My Sweet also function as conniving stepmothers to suspicious stepdaughters, who have every reason to be so (noirish stepmothers tend to be a very grim breed). As the blog This Island Rod notes, by the mid-40s Universal was moving away from the horror genre, and She-Wolf, with its shadowy atmospherics and psychological terrors, can be seen as a bridge between melodrama, horror, and noir of the later 1940s, in which the ghastly goings-on are grounded in “a purely human” villainy. The film’s elision from the literal monsters of horror to the metaphorical monsters of noirish melodrama recalls the Gothic thriller, whose ghouls are located in flesh and blood rather than in the supernatural, and where the frights are often a case of mind over matter.
Our mention of flesh-and-blood Gothic ghouls brings up another She-Wolf cinematic forebear, also a malicious housekeeper who has it in for an innocuous heroine. Mrs. Winthrop can be likened to a less (much less) subtle version of Mrs. Danvers, Rebecca‘s ghoul-in-residence, whose silky, soft-toned villainy plunges the unnamed protagonist into an exquisitely protracted bout of mental torture; it’s practically a master’s class on how to drive someone crazy without ever raising your voice. Like that earlier antagonist, Mrs. Winthrop resents what she perceives as a younger woman’s unjustified assumption of power within her own domain. But if Mrs. Danvers merely begrudges the second Mrs deWinter replacing her beloved mistress, Mrs. Winthrop’s animosity is more profound. Once engaged to Phyllis’ wealthy father, she had thrown him over for a penniless artist, leaving him free to marry someone else and produce an heir. Left a destitute widow with a daughter of her own to support, Mrs. Winthrop must now work for the person who possesses the money and luxury that she herself, had she not been so foolishly impulsive, could have had. Her bitterness runs deep indeed.
Villains usually have it all over the virtuous leads in a story (dear, depraved Mrs. Danvers just dominates both novel and film of Rebecca); and it’s Mrs. Winthrop who centrally figures in She-Wolf and determines its uneasy but interesting amalgam of horror and the Gothic woman’s film. Like the horror genre, the Gothic delves into the sinister and bizarre; but, perhaps keeping in mind its primary female audience, its shocks tend toward the obliquely genteel. Mrs. Danvers may be Rebecca‘s monster, but she’s a monster of the refined put-down and the delicately nasty innuendo; it’s what we would expect from a woman whose idea of sensual indulgence is to fondle the late Rebecca’s expensive lingerie. Pure horror is far more blunt: the Frankenstein monster heaves a child into a pond; the Wolf Man shreds a young woman to pieces. This kind of in-your-face evil is not what the deceptively proper Mrs. Winthrop will display; gracious females don’t tear their victims apart—at least, not in front of the camera. (Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s famous remark about streets and horses comes to mind.) We’re all ladies here, she seems to insinuate; we don’t indulge ourselves with such crude methods.
And, as in any woman’s film, it’s the ladies who prevail in She-Wolf. Mrs. Winthrop oversees an all-female household (consisting of Phyllis, herself, her daughter, and a servant); save for visits from a police inspector and the anxious fiancé, the women remain a cloistered community, unleavened by a male presence, in spite of constant warnings (by men) that the lack of same renders them vulnerable to a werewolf attack. (Though if it had ever come to a confrontation between Mrs. Winthrop and an actual werewolf, our sympathy—if not our bets—would be with the latter.) So that’s the set-up—four ladies gathered under one roof, facing horrors both outside and in, and getting on each other’s nerves. With all that concentrated femininity, She-Wolf really is the woman’s film par excellence. Can a woman’s film also be a horror film? Please—haven’t you seen that pre-eminent entry in the genre, the eponymously titled The Women (1939)? Oh, the jaws that bite, the claws that catch. Maybe all that biting and scratching is merely metaphorical (merely?), and then, again, maybe it’s not. Recall Joan Crawford’s final line from the ’39 film, about the ladies and the dog kennel; throw in a werewolf and a murder or two, and you’ve got yourself a story.
The Women‘s advertising tag line notes that “it’s all about Men”; and so, really, is She-Wolf—in the sense that its jockeying for power among the principle females focuses on marriage, which, pace Jane Austen, is the concern of women, and which was one of the few institutions in which women, until recently, could attain real clout. And only via Men. At least, the right man, meaning one who can offer social position and financial prospects. Hence Mrs. Winthrop’s plot to ship Phyllis off to the loony bin; it’s so her own daughter Carol (Jan Wiley) can marry Phyllis’ well-connected boyfriend (a frequent scheme of fairy-tale stepmothers). Unfortunately, Carol has fallen in love with an impecunious artist (Martin Kosleck), which brings us right back to She-Wolf”s backstory, and what might be the Ur-text of all scheming-stepmother narratives: the disastrous marriage or the ill-advised relationship from the past that’s left the dame without security for the future. Never again, we imagine the stepmother declaring; and if she can’t, like the femme fatale, make an advantageous marriage for herself, then she’ll use her daughter—anything to keep that metaphorical wolf from the door. (So much does Mrs. Winthrop disapprove of Carol’s impoverished suitor that she selects him as a would-be victim). And if you need to disguise yourself as Red Riding Hood and eviscerate a series of victims in the manner of a wolf to do so, so be it. In an ironically apt touch, Mrs. Winthrop takes a symbol of helpless, child-like femininity and applies to it the techniques of the (male) predator; in a tooth-and-claw game of survival, why not borrow the opposition’s methods to your own advantage?
Of course, for the werewolf aficionado, no amount of stepmother skullduggery will make up for the absence of a guy (or gal) plastered with yak hair and loping through a fog-soaked soundstage under a klieg-light moon. But if She-Wolf doesn’t follow the path of pure horror, it does offer a pleasurable detour into the intertwined tropes of other genres. Our own take on the film is as a mildly gruesome cinematic fairy tale, with characters that are interesting variants on classic fairy-tale archetypes—and if you think it’s odd that a horror film can be a fairy tale, then you need to reread your volume of Grimm and really see what’s going on in what is mistakenly thought of as literature for the nursery. Just remember that in most versions of the story, Red Riding Hood is actually eaten by the Wolf, which is about as grim as it gets. So we don’t think it’s too strange to see Red Riding Hood running riot through Universal’s B-movie backlot. At the very least, it should make us re-think any notions of fairy tales as stories of sweetness and light to read to the tiny tots at bedtime.
BONUS CLIP: Here’s the trailer for She-Wolf of London. You’ll notice the presence of Dennis Hoey, one of Universal’s most recognizable stock-company actors, in the cast. Sherlock Holmes fans know Hoey as the low-wattage Inspector Lestrade of Universal’s Holmes series. He plays a similar role here: