Last week marked the 75th anniversary of Universal's "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man". A direct sequel to both 1941's The Wolf Man and 1942's The Ghost of Frankenstein (the third sequel to the 1931 classic), marking the first ever film crossover. That's right, folks. Decades before Samuel L. Jackson let himself into Tony Stark's swanky home at the end of Iron Man, the Universal Monsters were already rockin' the whole shared cinematic universe thing. This was followed up by House of Frankenstein in 1944, and House of Dracula, in 1945, both of which confirmed that the previous Dracula films starting with the 1931 classic also existed in this same continuity. Furthermore, the 1948 sequel/spoof Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein confirmed in its final scene (practically a "post-credits scene" if you will) that The Invisible Man likewise exists in this cinematic universe.
Set four years after the events of both The Wolf Man and The Ghost of Frankenstein, "Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man" finds Lawrence Talbot AKA The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) unwittingly resurrected by a pair of grave robbers who remove the wolfsbane from around his body and expose him to the light of the full moon. Following a head injury obtained as the Wolf Man and a brief stay at a hospital, Talbot comes to the stark realization that he cannot die. He escapes the hospital and with the help of Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the gypsy woman whose son Bela caused his transformation in the preceding film, sets out to find Dr. Frankenstein, whose infamous experiments into life and death Maleva and Talbot theorize will help him end his curse of immortality in the most permanent way possible. As is to be expected, this eventually brings Talbot's Wolf Man into direct conflict with the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi taking over the role from Boris Karloff and, ironically, Lon Chaney Jr. himself).
Opening the film in a dark, gothic, mist-ridden graveyard, Director Roy William Neill successfully maintains the look and feel of the previous films, making the seamless transition into this new entry in the series. And in true cinematic-universe fashion, he approaches this entry as if it were the latest episode in a grand television series, and, featuring only the bare minimum of exposition, assumes that audience members have already seen the previous "episodes". Adopting this use of episodic storytelling also allows the film to do away with needless set-up and jump right into the action, giving us Talbot's first werewolf transformation within the first ten minutes of the film.
One way in which the Universal Monster films separate themselves from modern cinematic universes is in its use of several of the same actors in different films, playing different roles. In addition to Lon Chaney Jr, "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" also features the return of Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye, and several others, all of whom had played different roles in different Universal Monster movies over the years. All of which gives this series of films the impression of being an elaborate stage play, with a small company of actors returning to the stage in different costumes, playing different roles. It gives this series a quaint, familial quality that, in my opinion, I find sadly lacking from the more commercial modern cinematic universes.
Studios utilizing the same small group of actors for several of their films was not unusual for the times, and like I said, it adds a certain charm to the finished products, but it was not without its downsides. In the case of this particular entry, Bela Lugosi was laughably miscast as the Frankenstein Monster, which adds quite a bit of unintentional camp to the film. This might not have been the case had this been a version of the creature that was more faithful to Mary Shelley's original vision, and Bela was allowed to be as eloquent as the literary creature, but this stumbling, grunting, zombified version just made me feel embarrassed for someone who was otherwise a talented actor. Karloff took care to successfully infuse life and personality into this particular version of the creature (pun intended), but Lugosi gave off the impression of just wanting it to be done with as quickly as possible. Although to be fair, at least a part of that can be attributed to cuts in the final product. (SPOILERS) In the conclusion to the previous Frankenstein entry "The Ghost of Frankenstein", we saw the brain of Ygor (Bela Lugosi) be transplanted into the body of the monster. The result is that the monster was now able to speak with the voice of Ygor, but was struck blind because of incompatible blood types (hence, the shuffling, stumbling movements with outstretched arms). (END SPOILERS) Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was to continue that storyline, but all of Lugosi's lines were cut from the final film, making it seem to viewers that the Monster was awkwardly stumbling around with arms outstretched for no apparent reason.
Despite the clumsy, unintentional campy nature of the Monster, Lon Chaney Jr. brings the required gravity to his role as Lawrence Talbot and keeps things from going too far off the rails. As he did with 1941's The Wolf Man (and most of his characters), he takes the role seriously and completely sells the tortured, haunted, and suicidal Talbot. And since the majority of the film's plot focuses on Talbot, it helps to prevent us from completely dismissing this as a pure cheese-fest. Let's be honest though, this movie is 75 years old, so of course, certain elements of it will be dated by today's standards, that's unavoidable, but Chaney's performance isn't one of those dated elements.
"Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" is a flawed film, and it's certainly not one of the best Universal Monster movies (neither is it one of its worst). However, it's legacy persists to this day. I don't believe the folks at Universal set out to create the first ever shared cinematic universe. They had one franchise (Frankenstein) that was on its last legs, and they figured a good way to reinvigorate it would be to combine it with another franchise (The Wolf Man) that was still relatively new, fresh, and popular. Regardless of their original intent, they made history with that decision, creating the first, and certainly not the last, interconnected cinematic universe. And the success of this film led to further Universal Monster crossovers, and the success of those inspired other cinematic universes from other studios throughout the decades, notably Toho's Kaiju/Godzilla films from Japan and director Kevin Smith's "View Askewniverse", and of course, the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
There is no disputing that Marvel Studios has taken the concept of a shared cinematic universe and made something much grander and more intricate than any of the previously mentioned examples, but I have trouble believing that a fledgling movie studio with not even a single film under their belt (which Marvel Studios was in 2006) would have had the moxie to pull the trigger on such a massive and risky undertaking had there not already been several examples of other successful interconnected movie universes in the past, and it all traces back 75 years to a fun little B-grade creature feature called "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man".