Showing posts with label Universal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Universal. Show all posts

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/

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Absinthe (1914): A Lost Film on the Terrors of Addiction

From Reefer Madness’ famous defenestration to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s PCP freakout in Death Drug, poor-souls-under-the-influence films are more often a source of hilarity than horror. These types of scenes, though, were meant to scare the daylights out of the masses—and scare them straight. 

Absinthe was among the first films of its kind, depicting the horrific hallucinations and criminal repercussions of addiction to the alcoholic liquid nicknamed “the green fairy.” Released in January of 1914, the film's scare tactics may have worked. Absinthe was banned in August of the same year in France (it had already been banned in the States in 1912).


 
Ads from Moving Picture World.


It didn't seem to matter to the public that the tales of absinthe's psychoactive properties were false (it's no more hallucinatory than any alcoholic beverage). Temperance societies (and winemakers, who didn't like the competition) circulated stories of the evils of absinthe, claiming it led to insanity and violent crime. 

They ran with the story of Jean Lanfray, a Swiss farmer who murdered his family after consuming absinthe, conveniently ignoring the fact that he had been drinking wine and liquor all day, topped off with a mere two ounces of absinthe. It was an alcohol-fueled rage that led to the murder, and not an absinthe-induced hallucination, but the stories persisted. 


French anti-absinthe poster.


A 1906 petition calling for the ban of absinthe outlined its perceived evils and echoed the beliefs of much of the public:


"Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country."

It was into this climate that the Independent Moving Pictures Co. (now under the umbrella of Universal) released Absinthe. From what we can glean from newspapers and film magazines, the four-reel film centers on a French artist, Jean Dumas, who is introduced to absinthe by his mistress (he is French, after all). Dumas becomes addicted to the drink, and becomes a full-on absinthe fiend, joining an Apache gang and committing robberies to fuel his need. He strangles his own wife to death in the course of one of the robberies, and ultimately ends up as a ruin, mocked even by dirty street urchins.


Still of Baggot in a hallucination scene. (Illustrated Films Monthly)




Production still from Absinthe.

King Baggot played the absinthe fiend, and he was at the height of his career. Said to be the first individually-publicized leading man, Baggot was fresh from his stint in the Brenon-helmed 1913 film of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde when he was cast as the lead in Absinthe, which Herbert Brenon wrote as well as directed. Leah Baird was cast as his wife. Baird began her film career playing opposite Jean, the Vitagraph Dog (a subject for a future post, perhaps?) and ultimately turned to screenwriting, but in 1914, she was a well-liked leading lady.



Baird and Baggot on collectible stamps.


Brenon hauled the whole cast to Paris in a bid for authenticity, and Baggot was said to have spent his time among the lowlifes and absinthe addicts to study their habits. The result was a film that the audiences of the time took as absolute truth—just short of a documentary in its depiction of the evils of absinthe. 

Absinthe received rave reviews, and was so successful that it was revived again in 1916, and newspaper ads show that it continued to play in some theaters for at least two more years. 

While Absinthe is lost (there are no known reels in existence), its legacy lingers in the form of shows and films that sensationalize whatever is deemed to be the cause of violence and social ills—and not just drugs and alcohol, but video games, the Internet, or fast food. There's always something to blame.