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Man Made Monster

Man Made Monster(1941)

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teaser Man Made Monster (1941)

The boom in American horror films that lasted for five glorious years after the release and monstrous box office of Tod Browning's Dracula and James Whale's Frankenstein in 1931 went bust with the sale of Universal Studios in 1936 and a blossoming reaction against gruesome subject matter in films from civic organizations and church groups. At Universal, birthplace of the horror genre, no new cinematic terrors were made after Dracula's Daughter (1936). After a few fallow years, however, horror kings Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were reunited for Son of Frankenstein (1939), second sequel to James Whale's game-changing original, and in short order Universal was back in the spook game. The studio's first steps were tentative, offering such audience-tested sequels as The Invisible Man Returns and The Mummy's Hand (both 1940). At the end of 1940, however, cameras were pointed at a new Universal monster, a wholly original creation, brought to life on the big screen by the son of the Man of a Thousand Faces.

Silent film star Lon Chaney had earned his infamous nickname not strictly from starring in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925) at Universal but from bringing his estimable acting abilities and acuity with prosthetic make-up to bear in all manner of films, from military dramas and literary adaptations to jungle melodramas to crime films (as well as quite a few features that could only be classified as "other"). Chaney had been shortlisted to star in Dracula but his death from throat cancer in 1930 turned production in another direction, making a star of Hungarian expatriate Lugosi. With Karloff and Lugosi both getting on in years by 1940, Universal looked to another source for fresh blood. Creighton Chaney had been an actor in his own right since 1931, albeit mostly in westerns and various serials, his burly 6'3" frame stereotyping him in henchman roles. All that changed when he was cast as the Herculean halfwit Lennie in Lewis Milestone's adaptation of Of Mice and Men (1939). Universal saw potential in the hulking Chaney and ported him over to star in its first original horror thriller in half a decade.

The new project began shooting on December 9, 1940 as The Mysterious Dr. R.. Its origins lay in a story by New York Daily Mirror reporters Harry J. Essex, Sid Schwartz, and Len Golos. "The Electric Man" was a spin on the Nazi search for the bermensch, a superior man able to live longer, fight harder, and propagate a new race. Essex, Schwartz, and Golos sold their story to a literary agency, who in turn passed it off to Universal in 1935, ostensibly as a vehicle for Karloff and Lugosi. Bela and Boris wound up in the somewhat similar The Invisible Ray (1936) - in which Karloff's character attains greatness via rays from a landed meteor - and the Essex-Schwartz-Golos property was shelved for the duration of the horror drought. With Chaney onboard (the actor had long since been persuaded to make his professional name Lon Chaney, Jr.), the property was recrafted by director George Waggner (employing the alias Joseph West), who switched the focus of the film from mad scientist (Lionel Atwill) to tragic protagonist and changed the title to The Human Robot.

Despite putting its weight behind Lon Chaney, Jr. as a potential successor to his father, Universal invested little capital in what came to be called Man Made Monster. The $86,000 production cut costs wherever possible, from larding its cast with affordable contract players to recycling Hans J. Salter's opening title from The Invisible Man Returns and minimizing a third act prison break (as Chaney's electrified fairground geek "Dynamo Dan" bursts out of the electric chair to make a beeline for the man who made him a monster) with cost-effective ellipses. The film was a success upon release in the spring of 1941 and Universal rewarded Chaney and Waggner with long-term contracts, while pointing them to their next collaboration: The Wolf Man (1941). Chaney would eventually groan under the weight of the aggregate horrors to which he was pressed - The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Dracula (1943), Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and star turns in Universal's post-1941 "Mummy" sequels and its "Inner Sanctum" franchise - and capped his career thirty years later (minus a cancerous larynx) as one of the stars of Al Adamson's patchwork cheapie Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971).

Though the franchise-minded Universal limited Man Made Monster to a one-off, the film endured with horror fans. Barbra Streisand name-checked both Chaney and the film in Herb Ross' The Owl and the Pussycat (1970) and in 1974 cinema scholar William K. Everson devoted a chapter of Classics of the Horror Film to what he considered "an expert little made-to-measure horror vehicle." Man Made Monster (retitled Atomic Monster for its 1953 rerelease) bears another intriguing footnote, having been the film costar Lionel Atwill was working on at the time of his infamous 1940 Christmas party. When it was alleged that Atwill had projected stag films as part of the holiday revels, the actor was hauled into court for a highly-publicized trial that left him (a not guilty verdict notwithstanding) blacklisted in Hollywood. Though he had plunged into the Universal horrors in order to finance a personal film project (to be directed by James Whale), Atwill found himself remaindered to Poverty Row programmers and bits in Universal's monster rallies. The stress, intensified by the combat-related death in April 1941 of his son John, a Royal Air Force pilot, hastened the actor's demise from heart attack in April 1946.

Associate Producer: Jack Bernhard
Director: George Waggner
Writer: George Waggner (as Joseph West), from a story by Harry Essex, Sid Schwartz, and Len Golos
Cinematographer: Elwood Bredell
Editor: Arthur Hilton
Music: Hans J. Salter
Make-up: Jack P. Pierce
Special Effects: John P. Fulton
Cast: Lon Chaney, Jr. (Dynamo Dan McCormick), Lionel Atwill (Dr. Paul Rigas), Anne Nagel (June Lawrence), Samuel S. Hinds (Dr. John Lawrence), Frank Albertson (Mark Adams), William B. Davidson (D.A. Stanley), Chester Gan (Wong), Constance Bergen (Nurse), Byron Foulger (Alienist).BW-61m.

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946 by Michael Brunas, John Brunas, and Tom Weaver (McFarland and Company, Inc., 1990)
Heroes of the Horrors by Calvin Thomas Beck (MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975)
Classics of the Horror Film by William K. Everson (The Citadel Press, 1974)Lionel Atwill obituary, Reading Eagle, April 23, 1946

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