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Hushed Howling: Werewolves in the Age of Silent Movies

werewolfBefore the first mainstream and well-received entry in the history of werewolf cinema came about in 1935 with the stylish, sophisticated and complex character study that is Werewolf of London from Universal Pictures, lycanthropy in the movies was presented by four notable silent motion pictures that explored the spiritual relationship shared between beast and humankind. While Werewolf of London featured movie make-up pioneer Jack Pierce’s wonderful werewolf designs for the film’s star Henry Hull, these silent offerings preferred to present their supernatural beings as shape shifters dancing in between the realm of human form and animal – something that will resurface in werewolf movies to come including Cry of the Werewolf (1944) and The Company of Wolves (1984). While the first “talkie” lycan-outing Werewolf of London was an elegant and urbane horror picture (and soon to be an iconic addition to Universal’s legacy of monster movies), the silent werewolf films would be primal, earthy and emotionally invested in the natural order while scrutinising the harmony (and disharmony) that comes with man’s intricate and complicated involvement with his environment.

werewolfslateIn 1913’s The Werewolf, a Navajo Indian woman named Kee-On-Ee (Marie Walcamp) is disgusted in her husband who she believes has left her. Sadly, instead of just packing up and leaving his beloved, the man has been killed by invading white men. Kee-On-Ee delves into witchcraft and becomes an enemy of the people, while her daughter Watuma (Phyllis Gordon), who knows the truth about her father’s demise, decides to embrace her lycanthropy and transform into a wolf to avenge his death. She morphs into her lupine state and slaughters many white men, until she is apprehended by a friar who kills her. However, reincarnation plays a part in this film and Watuma comes back one hundred years later to wreak havoc on those who betrayed her, her mother, her lover, her father and her people. Unfortunately the film was destroyed in a fire and only some stills remain, most notably a slide that depicts Watuma’s dissolve into a wolf. Real wolves were used in this film and classic fade ins and outs as well as optical dissolves were utilized to bring the transformation to life. The Werewolf proves that the first cinematic werewolf was not only a woman, but also a Native American Indian, which makes the film a rather important addition in silent-era feminist representation as well as Indigenous representation. The tragedy is that the film is no longer around, which is rather ironic seeing that the visibility of women and indigenous cultures is seldom seen during the early period of film, and if it was, it was often viewed through a filtered/white/male lens.  The film was written by Ruth Ann Baldwin, who was considered the first woman to direct a western (’49-’17 (1917)), and the motion picture is considered to not only be the first werewolf movie, but one of the earliest of the Universal horror movie features that would fundamentally establish the studio and rake in the big bucks for years to come.

In 1914, more American Indians were connected to the legend of the werewolf with the motion picture The White Wolf (sometimes known as The White Hunter). It is something of note, that the first two known werewolf films on record both employ a narrative element that would resurface in 1981’s Wolfen (one of the four movies to come out in the “Year of the Wolf” which included The Howling, An American Werewolf in London and Full Moon High). In these two movies, lycanthropy would be inexplicably linked with Native American Indian indigenous folklore and mythology.

Telling the story of an Indian medicine man who can change form into a wolf, The White Wolf parallels unrequited love with bestial loneliness – in this film, the medicine man in his wolf form (as performed by a real life timber wolf) is ensnared in a trap, but rescued by a woman who shows him compassion. In his wolf form he follows the woman home, and is instantly smitten. However, when he arrives at her place he sees that she is already married. Heartbroken and living in anguish, the werewolf medicine man continues to pine for the woman, and dreams of a life with her and without his supernatural curse. The White Wolf precedes the self-loathing and depressed werewolf that would come to be the principal cinematic lycanthrope come the forties benchmarked by Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance as The Wolf Man (1941).  In an early episode of popular nineties sci-fi television series The X-Files (1993-) entitled Shapes, werewolves and Native American Indians are once again interlocked and linked, while skin walkers would incurably be connected to various Native American Indian tribes in a number of movies to mostly come out of the eighties and nineties. American Indian motifs are scattered inside the fabric of The Howling and most of that is found in the character of Marsha Quist and the actress who played this lycanthropic sultry seductress. Brooks was part Comanche Indian, and the costuming her werewolf is designated is a distinct combination of Native American and S&M. Marsha is fundamentally attached to the land and at peace with her animal state, which makes her a formidable adversary to Doctor George Waggner who wants his community to channel their lycanthropy, rather than wholeheartedly embrace it and be overpowered by the bestial urges. In many respects, Marsha represents the natural, wild and untamed earthiness of the indigenous culture, while the British Waggner comes to represent white colonialism, patriarchy and contemporary humanity.

le-loup-garouTaking a detour from North America and Canada as well as the plight of the Native Indian, 1923’s Le Loup Garou is a French werewolf outing based on the novel by Alfred Marchard. The title comes from the French term meaning “werewolf” and tells the story of an escaped convict who goes on the run with his young son who frets for both their safety. Chased by the authorities and dodging the guillotines, the prisoner tells his son that they are being chased by a blood thirsty werewolf who is leaving behind a trail of horrendous slayings on their trail. Of course, the werewolf is fabricated, and used as an excuse to cover up his own horrendous crimes – here, this distraught and mentally unstable father would rather tell his child folkloric legends about werewolves that digress about his own malicious murders. In this case, a film about the illusion of truth matches some thematic elements of The Howling, where the idea and concept of deranged serial killers (ala Eddie Quist) can quite easily be constructed and perceived as modern day werewolves that have somehow re-entered the public consciousness far from the years of medieval legend and myth. The story of Le Loup Garou had a German incarnation with Gehetzte Menschen in 1932, where the film’s fabricated werewolf was interpreted as a folkloric “boogeyman” that haunted the nightmares of provincial Germanic children for centuries.

wolfbloodWolf Blood from 1925, embraces the romantic notion of wolves (and werewolves) being loyal, committed and unconditionally devoted to one another, most notably in monogamous pairings. Directed by (and starring) George Chesebro, the film tells the story of good hearted woodland logger Bannister who is maliciously attacked by fellow loggers from a rival collective who leave him alone in the thick of the forest to die. When he is rescued by his camp’s surgeon and given a blood transfusion, the film moves into supernatural terrain – the blood used to revive the wounded logger is that of a she-wolf’s. Later in the story, the head of the rival logging camp that caused such initial distress for our hero is found dead: a possible wolf attack. Stressed and conflicted, Bannister, our mentally unstable hero fears that after this blood transfusion he has inadvertently become a werewolf, seeking revenge on the men that persecuted him. Eventually, the film shifts it’s main focal attention to a romance that blossoms between Bannister and his boss played by the lovely Marguerite Clayton, with the lycanthropy angle sitting in the background of their troubled and somewhat doomed affair. Clayton’s character is already engaged to the surgeon, so it leaves our hapless hero in turmoil with more dreaded drama to contend with. The fear of his impending werewolf state comes with wonderfully performed delusional outbursts from actor/director Chesebro who had performed in over four hundred films (both of the silent era and from the talkies period) and the line between real-life wolf attacks on his logging friends/adversaries and supernatural werewolf involvement is treated with subtle and nuanced synergy. If The Howling presents werewolves as monsters that sometimes have trouble concealing their lycanthropy, Wolf Blood plays up the notion of “man into beast” as an ailment that is something to accept.

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.

3 comments

  1. Excellent and informative piece.

  2. Hi. I’m looking for the novel by Arthur Marchard and I can’t seem to find any sources for what it’s called or the movie Le Loup Garou. Any idea what the novel was called and if there’s anywhere I could find it? It sounds really awesome.

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