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Brides and Daughters: Women of Universal Monster Movies

Considering my most popular post to date has concerned the women of Hammer Horror, I figured it was time to turn my attention to the classic Universal Studios monster movies of the thirties and forties, and the actresses that made them great. Brides. A daughter. An invisible woman. Even before the age of sound, with its successful Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Phantom of the Opera (1925), Universal was known for creating memorable monsters. But with 1931’s DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN,  the studio truly mastered the art of monster-making. No one denies that Lugosi’s titular count, or Karloff’s monster are a part of pop culture like no other monsters of the twentieth-century. And, unsurprisingly, it is Lugosi and Karloff  that are the actors most often discussed in regard to horror movie history. But Universal Studios’s horror films contain some equally memorable, frightening (and, at least on one occasion, funny) female characters.

A BEVY OF BRIDES
Dracula's Brides in 1931's Dracula
Pictured from left to right: Geraldine Dvorak, Dorothy Tree, and Cornelia Thaw. From DRACULA (1931)

The brides in DRACULA, for example, are truly threatening women. Ethereal creatures. And deadly. It is only through the intervention of the Count that they give up their pursuit of Dwight Frye’s poor Renfield. While Garret Fort’s script takes its cue from Balderston and Deane’s play, the scene gets close to the eeriness of the novel. The appearance of the brides is essential to the film (and the novel), as it establishes Dracula as both a vampire that can create other vampires (an infection), and women as more than mere victims of the Count (by no means the weaker sex). Though their screen time is short, the effect of the brides of Dracula is lasting — one of menace and death.

Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Franstein (1935)
Elsa Lanchester as The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Elsa Lanchester, however, as the titular BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) plays a more sympathetic character. Similarly on screen for mere minutes (at the very end of the film, unless you count her appearance as Mary Shelley in the opening to the film), Lanchester plays more of a creature to be pitied than feared — shocked more than shocking as she rejects the advances of the monster for whom she is made. Yet is is her character that is among those best remembered by the audience, with a scream that shreds the silver screen, She is there as men’s (and monster’s) plans literally crumble to dust.

A DANGEROUS DAUGHTER
Gloria Holden as Dracula's Daughter (1936)
Gloria Holden as Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

It is with the character of Countess Marya Zaleska in 1936’s DAUGHTER OF DRACULA that Universal found its first true female monster, a fully fleshed out (and blood curdling) character that is both sympathetic and threatening. Played with sophistication and mystery by the talented Gloria Holden, Zaleska is perhaps the first truly conflicted vampire in cinema history (long before Hammer made it a theme, Anne Rice made a literary career of it, and Twilight a hallmark of its series of films). Though Zaleska feeds (most notably in a scene that many consider the first cinematic suggestion of a lesbian vampire), she yearns for a cure to her condition. Tragically, it is not meant to be.

Invisible Woman (1940)
Press kit promotional still from Invisible Woman (1940)
TWO DUDS AND A DOCTOR

To the opposite extreme is the comedic INVISIBLE WOMAN (1940). Here, the horrible is played purely for laughs with the title character, played by Virginia Bruce, first getting revenge on a sadistic boss then playing foil to a group of thieving thugs. If there’s any doubt as to the silliness of the picture, know that Shemp Howard’s in it. Still, it’s not a terrible movie, unlike…

SHE-WOLF OF LONDON (1946). An outright misfire. Forgettable, despite a decent enough performance by June Lockhart (long before she was lost in space), the movie is by no means horror, and certainly not (intentional) comedy. Instead, it’s a dull mystery film where a woman believes herself to be a werewolf, responsible for a series of murders where victims had their throats ripped out. Spoiler alert: she isn’t.

Curiously, one of the most monstrous women in all of Universal Studios horror movies is Dr. Sandra Mornay (played by Lenore Aubert). A scientist in cahoots with Dracula to give the Frankenstein Monster a more obedient brain,  Dr. Mornay is a serious threat to the bumbling Wilbur (Lou Costello) in 1948’s ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. With its many monsters and truly memorable performances, the film is actually among the best examples of horror comedy movies. And it was definitely a highlight for Lugosi (only his second, and last time playing Dracula for Universal), whose career was well on the decline.

Lenora Aubert and Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
Lenora Aubert and Bela Lugosi in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948)
BEYOND THE MONSTERS

While some Pre-Code actresses got to play more complex characters, female characters of the late thirties, forties and fifties were too often relegated to roles of the good daughter, the imperiled girlfriend, or the dutiful wife. Women’s liberation was decades away, and Universal Studios, for the most part, played it safe.

Evelyn Ankers gives Lon Chaney Jr. a long overdue trim
Evelyn Ankers gives Lon Chaney Jr. a long overdue trim

Actresses like Evelyn Ankers served as beauties to Universal’s beasts. Ankers, most notable for THE WOLF-MAN (1941) was a Universal Studios staple, appearing also in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Captive Wild Woman (1943), Son of Dracula (1943), The Mad Ghoul (1943), Jungle Woman (1944), Weird Woman (1944), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), and The Frozen Ghost (1945).

Other talented women like Valerie Hobson and Gloria Stuart (both of whom also starred in multiple Universal Horror films) had long and varied careers. Just two among the many actresses that made those movies work as well as they did. Louise Allbritton, Helen Chandler, Mae Clarke. Julie Adams. Susanna Foster. Martha O-Driscoll. Jane Randolph. The list goes on and on.

Though their cult of followers is not as prominent as those for the women of Hammer Horror, the women of Universal’s monster movies are undeniably essential to the success and legacy of those films.

 

(for more on Universal monster movies, click here)

A Shot at The Gun Club

Jeffrey Lee Pierce by Yves Lorson, circa 1985

About a week after musician Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s death in the Spring of 1996, Britain’s Independent published an obituary that called him “one of those musicians who never quite fulfil (sic) their potential yet follow their destiny to its inescapable conclusion.” Grim words for a man who — despite fusing punk rock with psychobilly, roots music, country, and a whole lot of the blues — eschewed much of the angst and anger that was common among his peers. His band, The Gun Club, invariably raises questions of the “who are they?” variety in some circles. But they were pioneers nonetheless, cited as an influence by the likes of The Pixies and Jack White.

“Why are these songs not taught in schools?” asked Jack White in an article in Mojo Magazine [as quoted by The Guardian]). Pointing to tracks like “Sex Beat,” and “She’s Like Heroin to Me,” White would go on to say that “the songwriting of Kid Congo Powers and Jeffrey Lee Pierce has the freshest white take on the blues of its time.” (Listen to “For the Love of Ivy,” another song cited by White, and you can hear how much the band influenced him).

Experiencing many lineup changes (nearly 25 people!) over the years (with Kid Congo Powers leaving to play with both The Cramps, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for a time), The Gun Club released seven albums in the nineteen eighties and early nineties. Arguably, the band’s first two were its best: Fire of Love (1981) and Miami (1982). The former features a raucous cover of Robert Johson’s “Preaching the Blues.” The latter, released on Blondie guitarist Chris Stein’s Animal Records, found Debbie Harry* singing backup vocals.

Like their debut album, Miami is steeped in the blues, but comes off a little bit darker than its predecessor. Perhaps not as much gloom as the burgeoning goth crowd wanted, but still too strange to appeal to fans of more traditional blues.

That odd mixture might explain why stardom eluded Pierce. The music was difficult to pin down. Live, it could come across as discordant and jarring, as on a 1983 performance of “Sex Beat” at the Hacienda in Manchester, UK. And in the studio, the results were often mixed (no pun intended). Sometimes too polished. Other times, thin and tinny.

Of course, Pierce himself may have been to blame for The Gun Club never getting much notoriety. At least according to bassist Patricia Morrison (later of Sisters of Mercy fame), who joined The Gun Club soon after the release of Miami. In a recent interview with Stomp and Stammer, she attributed their relative anonymity to the same thing that made the band work: Pierce himself. “Jeffrey was quite difficult,” said Morrisson. “He was his own worst enemy. That band should have been huge. I sat there and watched as we were offered record deals and he would turn them down, to take less. It was just his personality, but that’s what also made him Jeffrey.”

The Gun Club never found wider appear like other Los Angeles bands of the time — like X and, especially, The Cramps — did. No coverage on MTv (anyone remember 120 Minutes?). Very little college radio play (at least in the Philadelphia area, where I grew up).  Although they now appeal to fans like me that sought them out years later due to others’ recommendations, they just never attracted a broad audience, then or now.

Their Fire of Love album is included in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Vefore You Die, but they never charted.

Pierce died young, suffering a brain hemorrhage in 1996.

He was 37.

*Pierce was the President of the West Coast chapter of the Blondie fanclub. Harry would go on to record a duet with Nick Cave on “In The Fire” — part of The Jeffrey Lee Pierce Sessions Project, a tribute to Pierce that has produced a handful of albums.

“Mother of Earth,” was chosen as the song to embed in this article because Debbie Harry performed it with Blondie at the second-to-last CBGB show in 2006. I make that remark for no other reason than I find it hard to believe I’m a Blondie fan and never knew of their connection to The Gun Club.

Finally, the photo used in the header of this post shows The Gun Club, circa 1984, with band lineup, left to right: Terry Graham (drums), Jeffrey Lee Pierce (vocals, guitar), Kid Congo Powers (guitar) and Patricia Morrison (bass).