Sunday, August 16, 2015

Phyllis Gordon: The First Movie Werewolf

Lost films are fascinating by their very nature, and the fragments of stories that they’ve left behind are haunting. One of the reasons I’m drawn to lost horror films in particular is the loss of so many firsts: the first full-length adaptation of Frankenstein, for example, and film’s first Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The first film appearance of Dracula, the first Phantom of the Opera, and the first mummy film are also lost.

One of the early horror films whose loss I most lament is 1913’s The Werewolf, and not just because it was the first werewolf film ever made, but because the werewolf is a woman. Let that sink in for a moment: the first movie werewolf was a woman. It’s a fact that few people are aware of, thanks to the fact that the film has been lost for almost a hundred years (like the vast majority of silent films).

Gordon played ingenue roles in almost fifty silent-era films, most of which are lost, but you can still see her today in a small role as a housekeeper in Another Thin Man (1939). She’s fifty years old by then, and she may have seemed like housekeeper material to studio execs, but she was still quite the glamourpuss in real life, and the photograph of her walking her pet cheetah on a downtown London street often makes the rounds on the internet. Few who post it seem to know that the photograph is of Phyllis Gordon, and that she was once a silent movie actress. Even fewer know that she originated the character of the movie werewolf.

Phyllis Gordon walking her pet cheetah in 1939.


In 1913, she was 24 years old and at the height of her acting career when Bison Films cast her in The Werewolf. Gordon plays Watuma, a Native American woman who shapeshifts into a wolf to fight off invading white settlers in the two-reel movie. What we know about the film comes mainly from brief reviews and synopses in silent film magazines, such as this one from Universal Weekly:

“The play opens in pioneer days. Kee-On-Ee, an Indian maiden is married to Ezra Vance, a trail blazer. When her child is five years old, Kee-On-Ee is driven back to her tribe by Ezra’s brother, who scorns all squaws. Ezra is killed by an old enemy and Kee-On-Ee, thinking his failure to return to her to be indifference, brings up her child, Watuma, to hate all white men.

When the child is grown, Clifford and a party of prospectors appear. Kee-On-Ee, now a hag, sees her way to be revenged. She sends her daughter to Clifford’s camp and he is driven nigh mad by her beauty. Clifford finds her in the arms of a young Indian. She taunts him. Enraged beyond control, Clifford shoots the buck. He flees to the mission. Watuma leads the enraged Indians against the Friars. When one of them raises a cross, Watuma slowly dissolves into a slinking wolf.

A hundred years later, Clifford, now reincarnated in the form of Jack Ford, a miner, receives a visit from his sweetheart, Margaret. Hunting with her he comes upon a wolf which he is unable to shoot. The wolf dissolves into the woman of old, and there appears before his puzzled eyes the scene where he slew the Brave. The “Wolf-woman” would caress him, but he throws her off. She returns again as the wolf and kills his sweetheart. Clifford’s punishment for the deed of past life is made complete at the death of the one he loved.”

 
Phyllis Gordon as Watuma, the "wolf-woman" who seeks vengeance by shapeshifting into a wolf.





It would be almost twenty more years before a film featured a female monster that anyone still really remembers—The Bride of Frankenstein. It’s worth noting that Bison Films was a brand of Universal Studios, which means that Phyllis Gordon was not only the first film werewolf, but may technically have played the first Universal Monster.

What makes the loss of this film even more poignant to me is how much its existence, if it had stuck around, could have changed the very idea of film werewolves. The Wolf Man and Werewolf of London established the rules of werewolf movies for decades to come, but how would those rules have been different if The Werewolf had stuck around? Would werewolves be thought of as female monsters? Would the long-established trope of male-as-monster and female-as-victim be inverted?

We might know the answers to these questions if Universal hadn’t destroyed its silent film collection in 1948. While many silent films were lost to fire, just as many were lost due to intentional destruction, as studios thought they were too worthless to store. Perhaps Watuma should have set her werewolf sights on thoughtless studio executives as well.


I’ll be expanding on the story of film’s first werewolf in my upcoming book on lost horror films, along with many other stories of long-lost films. Subscribe to Film Dirt (several options on the right), and/or follow on Facebook for more forgotten film stories.

This post was written as part of the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently. You can read the rest of the entries by clicking the image below.

http://moviessilently.com/2015/08/10/update-the-anti-damsel-blogathon-schedule/

18 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for joining in with this intriguing look at the first wolfman (who was a woman). Just goes to prove that silent movie women had more fun. ;-)

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    1. Thanks for hosting the blogathon. It's my first one!

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  2. Um, this was fantastic! Wish I could see this film.

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    1. Thank you. It's definitely on my personal list of most-wanted lost films.

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  3. I remember reading about this movie somewhere, but I really don't know anything about it. I'd love to see it.

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    1. It's difficult to know much about lost films, as some have left so few traces. We're lucky that this one was reviewed (though not always favorably), so we can piece together the story.

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  4. Fascinating story. We have lost so much, and have so much to learn. Thanks.

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    1. The number of lost silent films far outweighs the number of existing ones, which blows my mind when I think about it.

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  5. NO WAY. The first werewolf was a woman?! I had no idea.

    I also had no idea that the famous photo of the woman and the cheetah was Phyllis Gordon.

    You've really expanded my horizons today. I'm serious!

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    1. Thanks, I'm pleased to do so. One of the reasons I'm writing this book is because lost films are seldom written about. It's as if they never existed at all.

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  6. I've seen that photo! I wanted to BE her! I had no idea she was the first Werewolf!!!
    It's a shame so many films are lost - I had no idea.

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    1. I recently saw someone post the same photo with a caption identifying it as Josephine Baker. That was a real head scratcher.

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  7. Poor cheetah. But, goodness: "Universal hadn’t destroyed its silent film collection in 1948." Kinda like the DuMont kinescopes dumped into the Atlantic. I mean, what else to do with them? Got any libraries that need burning?

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  8. The first Universal monster. That's pretty cool. If only the rules of werewolfery had been set by this movie. Thanks for an informative essay.

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  9. Such a shame. That's a film I would have liked to have seen.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

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  10. Such a shame. That's a film I would have liked to have seen.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

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  11. That is a brilliant discovery Kelly - thanks for that, I have several friends who will be amazed and delighted by this - and yeah, that Cheetah photo is wonderful!

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  12. Thanks so much for joining us for the anti damsel blogathon. Your piece of the 1st 'woman' werewolf is so intriguing! It's a great addition to our event and we're lucky to have your insights along for the ride!!! Cheers Joey from The Last Drive In

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