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Home / Film / Feature Articles / I Was A Fifties Werewolf: American juvenile delinquency, the Latino experience and lycanthropy Disney style during werewolf cinema of the 1950s

I Was A Fifties Werewolf: American juvenile delinquency, the Latino experience and lycanthropy Disney style during werewolf cinema of the 1950s

I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957) takes the concept of the eternal outsider and injects it with a complex combination of the turbulent time of baby-boomer America, teenage rebellion, angst and alienation and draws blood from the ruthlessness of adolescent hormonal rage and inner-conflict. During this period, films that dealt with teenage anger and rage were a novel idea being that it was the first time films were geared towards this particular market – and for the most part, independents such as American International Pictures were at the reins bringing home the bucks and delivering the goods to an oversexed, rock’n’roll loving new breed of horror movie fans – the fifties teenager. In fact, I Was A Teenage Werewolf would be the first motion picture to feature the word “teenager” in it’s title.

Joe Dante states that I Was A Teenage Werewolf is one of his all-time favourite werewolf pictures, and it is not hard to see why. The film is loaded with social satire, an insight into the teen movement of the decade, a dedicated commentary on adolescent despair, confusion and turmoil and it brings horror back to the realm of the personal and the character driven rather than being a product of Atomic Age fears and Cold War paranoia. Starring Michael Landon in a very intense, personal and deeply multi-layered performance as troubled teen Tony Rivers, the film is a true testament to basic story telling devices and plotting adding to the complexity of it’s rich subtext. It is also a perfect example of ruthlessly innovative, efficient and productive filmmaking in that it only took seven days to shoot and yet captures a delightfully creepy menace, is an astoundingly good character portrait and a genuinely boo-heavy monster movie that both entertains and provokes critical discussion.

Along with it’s contemporary I Was A Teenage Frankenstein and a female-centric monster movie Blood For Dracula (both from 1957), I Was A Teenage Werewolf would become the pillar of teen-creature features and would be heavily influential in the pop-cultural canon. Punk band The Cramps would have a song based on film, Stephen King’s It (1990) would feature a teen-werewolf type character that would torment one of the story’s central children and the title alone would serve a multitude of service to the fabric of a culture infatuated with fifties nostalgia and fun.  However, all this aside, the film – primarily thanks to the production and Landon’s tortured performance – is a truly dramatic work, and responds to the teen-allegory of fitting in, struggling in and out of delinquency and forming a bond with the righteous and the reasonable. It is a truly American piece for an American audience, most especially of the time – or in retrospect, a sublime account of teenage hoodlumism during a period of post-war middle class sensibility.

Tony Rivers in comparison to Eddie Quist is an overtly aggressive young man, whereas The Howling’s (1981) number one shadowy villain is a secretive sicko – a demented and deluded monster who hides in small, tight spaces such as grotty tiny apartments in downtown Los Angeles, porno booths and dimly lit doctor’s offices in secluded retreats. The spaciousness of the  high school fields, the broad empty arena of the high school gym and the open air suburban terrain of I Was A Teenage Werewolf reflects the out and proud attitude and free menace of Tony Rivers, while The Howling positions Eddie Quist in confines that comment of his character as a cagey, dark soul, calculated and sinister. Tony Rivers is just as ruthless, but not as measured and mannered – there is an outward appeal in relishing his learned lycanthropy which is essentially an extension to his very human angst.   

American International Picture’s cash in on the success of the brilliant I Was A Teenage Werewolf and it’s companion piece I Was A Teenage Frankenstein was the unofficial meta-sequel How To Make A Monster (1958). Rather than being a straight up horror feature, the film offered a behind the scenes look at monster movie making and involved mind control as it’s principle evil. In How To Make A Monster, two coded homosexual characters (a make-up artist and his assistant, one assigned top and the other bottom (aggressor and subservient)) use their teenage “prey” to do their bidding. When the studio decides to cut back on making monster movies, these two make-up men have their jobs jeopardized, so the aggressor concocts an ingredient for his greasepaint that manipulates the consciousness of the actors who wear it.

The designated teenage werewolf of the piece is Larry (Garry Clarke), an affable young man who is very much a regular boy-next-door type, unlike Michael Landon’s moody and troubled youth in the predecessor. He is a chipper and upbeat teen actor who has a girlfriend who he worries about and who is used to cause some great distress for some of the residence on the studio lot. Larry (the namesake most likely being a tribute to cinema’s most famous wolf man Larry Talbot) is not a werewolf in the traditional sense – the true monster of the film is the make-up artist and his diligent assistant who uses his foundation base to transform soft spoken, sensitive young men into murderous menaces. But what the film also does is present the throwaway nature of the entertainment industry. In this AIP offering, the studio at the focal point of the film believes that horror movies featuring monsters such as werewolves and Frankenstein’s monster are becoming “old hat” which is something that parallels what was happening at the time of production of The Howling. In 1980-1981, the concerns the fictional studio heads have in How To Make A Monster comment on the eventual soft-peddling of the werewolf angle in the campaign for Joe Dante’s eighties film.

How To Make A Monster explores the flippant attitude in the motion picture industry where monster movie makers such as the two make-up artists (who turn lascivious and underhanded) are no longer necessary while the actor-werewolf Larry is simply a pawn in their destructive behaviour, who is torn away from his girlfriend and his normalcy in favour of being “corrupted” by immoral (coded queer) old men. In this regard, considering The Howling has a heterosexual corruption at play (Dr. Waggner to Karen, Marsha to Bill etc),  the gender dynamics make How To Make A Monster an overt addiction to the gay-paranoia movies of the 1950s outside of melodrama and painted up in meta-horror “colours”. I Was A Teenage Frankenstein, starring bodybuilder turned actor Gary Conway (who returns for How To Make A Monster) most certainly featured this homoerotic dynamic between creator and muscle-bound monster, and this concept of Production Code “sexual perversion” would trickle through the narrative fabric of monster movies and werewolf features – the perception of the duplicitous, the hidden true nature and the secret life that has to emerge from time to time, can be factored into the dualism and double lives lead by cinematic werewolves and the very real lives of closeted fifties homosexuals: How To Make A Monster turns that on its head and presents it’s coded homosexuals as “very human”, while it’s werewolf is an actor playing a werewolf and used to perform unsavoury acts. All subtext aside, How To Make A Monster is a treat for monster fans in that it is a wonderful sight to see young Larry be tended to by the vindictive make-up men. Having his fur spirit-gummed on, his teeth put in place and then presenting him with a hand mirror to have a look at the wild beast he has become, is something that horror fans would eat up.

In Mexico of the same year, El Castillo de los Monstrous tapped into the comedic elements left over from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) and featured two werewolves that not only chewed up fellow cast members, but scenery as well. In what could be considered the first Mexican film to feature a werewolf, El Castillo de los Monstrous is an enjoyable multi-monster outing from a nation that would soon become obsessed with lycanthropy and culturally invested in wolf-people. Thankfully, straight horror from Mexico would follow the year later, in 1959’s El Hombre y el Monstruo.

El Hombre y el Monstruo tells the story of a brilliant but struggling musician who makes a bargain with the devil, selling his soul in order to wow audiences and compose great concertos. The catch to this Faustian tale is that every time the musician plays his piano he transforms into a violent and bloodthirsty werewolf. The influence of music on monsters has been something that many films have examined – metaphorically and tangibly. This Mexican outing is a fantastic example of this, in that it utilizes the complexity and dynamic of musicality and musicianship and pits in right on the character function of duality, repression, sexual conquest, struggle between good and bad and the violent dance between man and beast – something that the werewolf film is completely indebted to. With it’s visual flair, stylish elegance and sophisticated delivery, El Hombre y el Monstruo would be considered the first truly menacing werewolf movies from Mexico where a love affair with wolf people would flourish and prosper in the coming decade.

Written by Alfredo Salazar who penned some screenplays for Mexican wrestling and acting sensation Santo, and directed by Rafael Baladon who would later direct the even more impressive and highly sensual La Loba (1965), the film uses the story of Faust as it’s reasoning behind the principle’s lycanthropy, and this works beautifully. It is something that had been explored in historical accounts and witch hunting records, however never truly surfaced in cinematic measures – in fact, Mexico having such a Christian backbone to it’s cultural infrastructure gives the film a theological sense of validation and importance. In The Howling, music is played at the BBQ where Karen and Bill are first introduced to the werewolves of The Colony, and in this Mexican outing, music (Bach and other classical composers) sets off the young musician into full blown wolf mode. In contrast here, the Pino Donaggio-composed slice of Americana that comes from the jug band is used to entertain and used to comment on the marriage between old America and American mountain people folklore and New Age sentimentality and ideology, whereas in El Hombre y el Monstruo it inspires transformation and causes it. It is interesting to note that when Erle Kenton tries to throw himself into a barrel of fire the band ceases playing, but sparks up again once he is calmed down and “rescued” by Dr. Waggner. It’s as if the diegetic music calms and restores the balance, whereas the Greek-chorus Donaggio score heightens the drama, as the jug band fades away and the musical stings that form the foundation of the score for The Howling prick up and usher us into the next scene (Karen in the cabin having another nightmare). El Hombre y el Monstruo uses music (both diegetic and commentary) as an extension of the protagonists’ lycanthropy. As straight and as serious Baladon’s film is, there are elements of dark humour wedged into the film’s make-up, and a lot of that comes from the situations our musician lead puts himself in. In many ways it resembles a very entertaining sequence where the hero of the next film in discussion is at a dance and has to hide the fact that he shape shifts from the two girls he has decided to escort.

The Shaggy Dog (1959)

Disney’s delightful The Shaggy Dog (1959) presents us with a benign and sweet werewolf story (albeit being a boy-to-dog story and not a boy-to-wolf tale). The film not only employs lycanthropic narrative tropes such as transformation sequences and dealing with character duality, but it is also the first family film to use the term “lycanthropy”, which comes as a pleasant surprise in a production from Walt Disney. Teenager Wilby (Tommy Kirk) is a socially awkward inventor wannabe who has a crush on the new girl in town; a French sweetheart Francesca (Roberta Shore) who owns an Old English Sheepdog who becomes linked to Wilby via some form of magic. Along with the help of his little brother Moochie (Kevin Corcoran), who seems to prefer him in his dog form, Wilby busts some crooks that have grandiose plans involving communist terrorists. The film is most certainly a product of Cold War anxiety and paranoia, and the heroic dog-boy represents all that is innocent, pure and good about baby boomer America.

During the opening, a pleasant and welcoming voice over states: “The is a shaggy dog story” and also explains that Fred MacMurray’s character, a cantankerous postal worker, hates dogs (of course, by the end of the film his disdain will turn to admiration and love) and the film seems to be instantly preoccupied with him, rather than his soon-to-be shape shifting son. However, the film successfully marries MacMurray’s neurotic and wildly entertaining bumbling with his son’s coming-of-age and social “awakening” with the help of his transitioning into a shaggy dog. Influenced by the story “The Hound of Florence” by Felix Salten, The Shaggy Dog was co-written by Lille Hayward who made a career out of writing dog-centric screenplays as well as the werewolf outing The Undying Monster. Her writing is measured, captivating, charming and loaded with social awareness and political insight. There is some heavy subtext for a Disney live action film (something that will flourish later with master works such as Mary Poppins (1962) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)) – however, because Hayward’s writing (sitting right in the heart of the strict dictatorship of the Production Code) is so intelligently constructed and mapped out, the Cold War panic that underpins the fantasy is quiet and used as a back-peddle plot device.  

Young Disney contract actor Tommy Kirk is a sweet boy with a wide open face and an honesty to him that makes his Wilby completely likeable. The actor also struggled with his own issues of duality with his homosexuality having to be a secret during his long run with Disney (he was also the young boy in the heartbreaking Old Yeller (1957)). When Wilby transforms it is done with subtle dissolves with his shaggy white fur creeping upon him, and his nose morphing into a big wet shiny muzzle.

Even in this Disney produced family movie, lycanthropy is a formidable theme and although the werewolfery is not at all associated with violence whatsoever, it is still played out with a subtle creepy edge (most significantly in the earliest moments where curses and history lessons concerning sorcery). Roberta Shore as the French exchange student comes to represent the exotic “other” and is presented as someone in tune with nature and the natural order – after all, the dog that influences Wilby’s lycanthropy belongs to her, therefore Lillie Hayward’s script relies heavily on a connection made between old world Europe and dogs and wolves, while in American suburbia the connection is muffled and confused – dogs are initially introduced as the “enemy of the postman” (embodied by Fred MacMurray’s hardened irritable character). The power of transforming into a shaggy dog allows Wilby, who is a shy, bookish teen and not as confident with girls like his friend, to become heroic and inspirational. Instead of going through life in a continuous state of nonchalance, becoming the shaggy dog helps his character develop and grow into a self-possessed and aware teen – something singing a very similar tune to the eighties comedy sport hybrid Teen Wolf (1985). In addition to this toying with dualism, another character named Alison, played by Disney “Mousketeer” Annette Funnicello, is the atypical girl next door while the French exchange student is other worldly and glamorous. The film plays with the notion of two varying young women (resembling archetypal innocent virginal debutante and worldly and street wise whore in most (if not all) Jekyll and Hyde film adaptations).

With all its talk of black magic, gypsy curses, witchcraft and shape shifting, the film borrows from classic werewolf fare such as The Wolf Man (1941), but it also comically entertains the idea that this kind of talk and this kind of esoteric interest is throwaway compared to the reality of the threat of communism in halcyon Americana. In The Howling, the establishment is a dangerous place (potential rapists, dark alleyways, irresponsible journalism), while the alternative establishment is a secret sect that reads more like a cult living on the fringe embodied by The Colony, whereas here in The Shaggy Dog, both the mainstream American society is plagued by oppressive paranoia and the alternative is struggling to understand animalism on your own – Wilby has no other dog-people to talk to, he has to figure things out on his own and outside of the traditional tragic/horrific landscape of classic horror cinema.

The Shaggy Dog is the perfect response to the concept that all werewolves are not necessarily innately evil, snarling beasts – something employed by Joe Dante, Rob Bottin and Dee Wallace in the creation of the Karen White werewolf for The Howling. In fact, if Karen had been permitted to live and the film went on longer, it could possibly be argued that she may have more in common with Wilby Daniels than fellow werewolves that came and went before her.

Instead of benign werewolves making a cultural impact, there was a flurry of anthropomorphic wolves that entertained the young and the young at heart. Hanna-Barbera’s only theatrically released short cartoon series since leaving MGM was Loopy De Loop (1959-1965) and this charming ditty was a testament to the bad reputation that burdened wolves in popular culture. The titular lupine is a French Canadian do-gooder who wants to shake off the negative status shared by himself and fellow wolves, therefore he is often seen trying to save lambs, escorting Red Riding Hood to her grandmother’s house, helping little old ladies cross the road and so forth. However, unfortunately for Loopy, his good deeds are always mistaken for the actions of a lascivious opportunist, and he ends up shunned and ostracized from “civilized” society. In a sense, Hanna-Barbera’s Loopy De Loop could be considered the family-friendly thematic precursor to Dr. George Waggner from The Howling in that he represses his carnal desires in order to “fit in” and “do good”. The other Hanna-Barbera anthropomorphic wolf is Hokey Wolf who had a spot on The Huckleberry Hound Show running from 1960-1961. In Hokey Wolf, our star howler is a con-artist and charlatan modelled on popular comedian Phil Silvers and voiced by Hanna-Barbera longstanding vocal actor Daws Butler. Hokey Wolf is clearly a more traditional lupine in the realms of pop-culture in that he is shifty and manipulative, and also on top of that a bad influence to his mini-sidekick Ding-A-Ling Wolf who is somewhat impressed with Hokey’s dodgy plans, but at many times second guesses them. Ding-A-Ling Wolf is a wolf pup with a complicated ethos, similar to young werewolf T.C. Quist in The Howling – there are principles there, but ultimately the desire to follow in bad footsteps (in Ding-A-Ling’s case to go ahead with Hokey Wolf’s plans) and give in to carnal desire (in T.C.’s case lust after women and kill) come to dominate the ego.

Along with films such as Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) where a werewolf subplot would make itself known and run alongside the core narrative that usually commented on both psychological disorders, recurring themes of duality and the complex nature of the human condition as well as Cold War anxieties, the fifties werewolf would be a pop-cultural icon more than a cinematic threat. In Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, the monstrous counterpart to the literary figure of Jekyll is in fact a werewolf (or at least a wolf-like man), however, besides the terrific I Was A Teenage Werewolf (which is most certainly one of the best lycanthropic ventures on celluloid) the fifties would come to be a period of drive-in fun and the birthplace of the nostalgia kick. Lon Chaney Jr.’s 1940’s Larry Talbot would become one of the heroes of many “monster kids” of the follow up decade and with the invention of television, the werewolf would come to be a stable part of the lexicon and cultural consciousness of the western world (most notably America). However, come the sixties, werewolves would primarily emerge from Spain and Mexico and those two nations’ affiliation with wolf people and dog children would leave an impenetrable mark on the unity shared between the hirsute, highly sexed, mysterious and the varied Latino.  

Hispanic film archetypes such as the dark lady, the Latin lover, the cowardly clown and so forth, would soon be matched by the horror addition which would be embodied by the sexually free, completely hedonistic and also thoroughly complex and tormented werewolf. These wolf men and women would appear in numerous Spanish and Mexican outings during the sixties which was a time of revolution, cultural swing and youthful cries from angry outsiders – the Latino community being a core component of this societal outrage during a period of civil unrest and student protest, but also an overlooked one as well. Which in turn, made the werewolf metaphor for the Spanish/Mexican community even more poignant and politically motivated.

 

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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