Retro Review: Wolf Blood (1925).
This October we highlight the history of Werewolves in film, beginning with the oldest surviving movie, Wolf Blood.
Each October we like to run down a popular movie monster genre. We’ve staked out Vampires. We shook a broom at Witches. We’ve even spent way longer than is healthy contemplating homicidal clowns. This year, we get to tackle the monster that was my favorite growing up: Werewolves. Some form of wolf-man has been around since the beginning of history. The Greeks believed Lycaon was turned into a wolf for giving Zeus human flesh to eat. The Ojibwe in North America believed in the Wendigo, which was a ravenous cannibalistic monster resulting from human greed. Greed and partaking of taboo nourishment are two central motifs that director/star George Cheseboro employs in his silent film adaptation of the legendary creature.
Wolf Blood takes the Loup Garou werewolf myth and the native Wendigo story and puts it through a modern transformation. Our hero is forced to partake of wolf’s blood, and his animalistic rage is directed at the greedy materialists around him. For such an early film, it is a lofty inspiration; unfortunately Wolf Blood does not have the chops to chew through everything it has bitten off.
Wolf Blood (1925).
AKA: Wolfblood: a Tale of the Forest.
Dick Bannister is the foreman for the Ford Logging Company, which is involved in a bitter rivalry with the Consolidated Lumber Company. The head of Consolidated, Deveroux, is a vicious man who hires a local bootlegger to keep Bannister’s men liqored up. When Bannister quashes that, he hires the bootlegger to shoot at the Ford workers, injuring several. Dick wires for the owner, Edith Ford, to bring help. Edith arrives with her fiance, a surgeon named Horton, just as the conflict explodes. Bannister is mortally wounded in a confrontation with Deveroux while out on patrol and requires a blood transfusion to survive. Caught in the wilderness, Horton is forced to use blood from a tamed wolf. Like the local legends warn, Bannister becomes something bestial, part man and part wolf.
A Tale of the Times.
As a film and a story, Wolf Blood is extremely tied it’s time and place. The use of modern techniques such as eye-line matches (moving from where one actor is looking to another shot of the item being looked at) cutaways (breaking away from the action to provide a shot with extra details) and continuity matching is handled clumsily. There are many jump cuts and dissolves that are jarring or mistimed. Other artifacts are left over from early film such as low-key lighting, long sequences at very wide angles, and extended travelogue segments that are more akin to early tourism films than a dramatic film. While modern techniques were being pioneered in 1925, they were not wide spread.
Wolf Blood is George Chesebro’s first and only directing role. As an actor, he featured in over 400 films, dating from silent short films in the 1910’s to western epics like The Stage to Mesa City in the 1950’s. He even starred alongside the Three Stooges in their western Out West. He was never a first billing star, but was a journeyman who often played the villain in cowboy flicks both dramatic and comedic. As such, his talents are better used in front of the camera than behind it.
The story of Wolf Blood is influenced by audience expectations of film at the time, and pop culture. Bannister is essentially a cowboy, riding the range of the logging company in a tall hat and solving problems with haymaker punches. The inter titles play up his folksy dialogue. Despite the supernatural elements, Wolf Blood is more concerned with dealing rough justice to the bad guy and letting our hero get the girl in the end…despite it making no real plot sense. Edith Ford (Marguerite Clayton) is a city girl and flapper for no real reason other than to allow some jazz and dancing into the piece. Much like Bollywood films have to have a song and dance routine, no matter the subject matter, Wolf Blood shoehorns in popular elements just to meet expectations.
A Weird Hybrid.
Wolf Blood feels like two movies as its two acts are wildly different. The first 30-40 minutes are slow and stately, moving between folksy travelogue sequences and simple moralizing. Bannister walks around in his tall hat, kicking out the lazy (and racist!) bootlegger and trying to improve his men’s morals instead of their morale. The scenes in the city mostly amount to Cheseboro squinting and spitting at the feckless, immoral ways of the roaring 20’s. It’s not till the second half that anything to do with wolves enters in.
The second act has Bannister get bushwhacked, left to be eaten by wolves, and ultimately saved by the wolf blood transfusion that makes him an abomination and outcast. Here we get to the good stuff. The morally upright man is now debased. He becomes a slave to his passions: both for violent retribution towards Deveroux and his lackeys and for Edith (who he and we know is engaged to Dr. Horton). There is no make-up enhanced transformation into a snarling monster, just the psychological transformation of a fastidious man into his baser elements. Cheseboro shines, his maniacal grin and wild eyes reminiscent of silent film icon Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Man Who Laughs). Then the movie chucks the red meat and goes back to moralizing!
Instead of a delicious exploration of what separates man from beast, Bannister is rescued by the chaste love of Edith and Wolf Blood cops out of any morally opaque implications. Deveroux’s murder is explained away as not just a natural event, but as a result of Bannister’s moral superiority. While he is having his throat torn out by wolves, he conveniently has time to explain to one of his lackeys that he fought Bannister in a gentlemanly contest and lost…and then tripped on his way home and got eaten by wolves. I’m not making this up.
The illicit love between Bannister and Edith is turned licit because Horton made up the whole “wolf blood makes you a monster” bit to scare Edith away from Bannister. See, our hero is not compromised and Horton is no longer worthy of our heroine, all in one convenient revelation! Thank goodness!
Less Than Man or Beast.
Wolf Blood’s only real draw is as a surviving artifact from another era. The cinematography will make anyone but a scholar wince, and the melodrama would make a preacher roll his eyes. There is a kernel of real insight and story here, but Cheseboro and Wolf Blood were not the vehicles to realize it. As much as a liked his performance, the film is just too formulaic and pedestrian. It would be ten more years before Hollywood would tackle a werewolf movie again, and by that time sound and modern monster movie tropes had taken over the landscape.