He Walked With the Monster

The A's and B's of classic Hollywood: Curt Siodmak (right) with his brother Robert in 1962

The A's and B's of classic Hollywood: Curt Siodmak (right) with his brother Robert in 1962

In recent years, seminal Hollywood horror screenwriter Curt Siodmak often recounted a story--apocryphal, slightly embellished, or unvarnished truth, only he knew for certain--about how, in 1943, he came to script Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man for Universal Pictures. "I was sitting at the Universal commissary during the war with a friend of mine who was drafted and wanted to sell his automobile, a Buick," Siodmak recalled in more than one interview. "You couldn't get an automobile in those days, since those companies only turned out war material. I wanted to buy that car, but I didn't have the money. I didn't have a job, an assignment."

When producer-director George Waggner, for whom Siodmak had co-written Universal's commercially successful The Wolf Man two years earlier, joined the pair, the writer jokingly suggested, "'George, why don't we make a picture, Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man--er...Meets the Wolf Man?' He didn't laugh. George would see me every day and ask me if I had bought the car yet. I said, 'George, can I get a job?' He said, 'Sure, you'll get a job, buy the car.' Well, the day finally came when I had to pay for the car. George asked me that day, 'Did you buy the car?' and I said, 'Yes, I bought it.' George said, 'Good! Your new assignment is Frankenstein Wolfs the Meat Man--er...Meets the Wolf Man. I'll give you two hours to accept!'"

As was his custom, Siodmak, in his early 40s at the time, with a wife and a young son to support, seized the offer, which ended up as one of the lesser entries in a series of memorable horror screenplays he knocked out for Universal and other studios in the 1940s, among them The Wolf Man (1941), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), and The Beast With Five Fingers (1947). And yet Siodmak--who died on September 2, at age 98, on his isolated 50-acre ranch in the central California town of Three Rivers--frequently accorded mere punch-the-clock status to his Hollywood achievements. "I had an invisible altar in my office at the studio," he told Dennis Fischer in the 1991 book Backstory 2: Interviews With Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s. "When I couldn't take it any longer, all that crap, I went to it, in my mind, and said, 'My weekly check! My weekly check!' Then I continued working. It wasn't more than a job."

Siodmak's "job" ranged from reporter to screenwriter to director to novelist, spanning 70-plus years. During a stretch in Hollywood in the Forties and Fifties, he devised a clutch of innovative ideas, many of them oft-copied: the Wolf Man, the multiple-monster movie (1944's House of Frankenstein, a gang's-all-here hodgepodge that corralled Dracula, Frankenstein's creature, and the Wolf Man), and, not least, the disembodied-brain film (his best-selling 1943 novel Donovan's Brain inspired three uneven adaptations, none scripted by Siodmak himself).

Born in Dresden, Germany, in August 1902, the second son of a banker, Kurt Siodmak (who changed his name to Curt for professional reasons) earned a doctorate in engineering from the University of Zurich in 1927, but it was while working as a freelance journalist in Berlin a year earlier that he first encountered the film industry when he and his reporter girlfriend (and soon-to-be wife) Henrietta attempted to gain entry to the Berlin set of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Barred, they signed on as extras instead.

Simultaneously, Siodmak pursued a literary career--several of his novels were published in Germany--and began contributing to screenplays, most notably 1929's influential Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), directed by his celebrated older brother Robert, who later made The Spiral Staircase (1946) and The Killers (1946) in Hollywood. A film version of Curt's 1931 novel F.P.1 antwortet nicht (Floating Platform One Does Not Answer) was released in 1932 (he co-scripted), before the writer fled Nazi censorship in 1933: "I received a letter from the National Socialist Chamber of German Writers, informing me that I was not going to be permitted to write for any German publisher or motion picture company."

He relocated to France, then England, continuing to script films as he learned English. Then in 1937 he took off for Hollywood, where he co-wrote the Dorothy Lamour "sarong saga" Her Jungle Love (1938) for Paramount Pictures and, for Universal, The Invisible Man Returns (1940), the first in a skein of ooky-spooky movies at the studio that came to bear Siodmak's mark. "At the studios," he carped to Fischer, "if you have a success in a special kind of picture, you are condemned to getting similar jobs, and soon I had to write only horror pictures. Your mind changes, too. You are brainwashed."

True, one of those pictures, The Wolf Man, undeniably sealed Siodmak's rep as a horror avatar, but it also established him as a deft storyteller capable of conveying deep characterizations while incisively commenting on the human condition. Bitten by a werewolf, Lawrence Talbot (played by Lon Chaney Jr.) changes unwillingly into a dolorous wolf man, an innocent cursed by fate. The movie's lyrical qualities, encapsulated in a short poem written by Siodmak and spoken by Maria Ouspenskaya as an elderly Gypsy ("Even a man who is pure at heart/And says his prayers by night/May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms/And the autumn moon is bright"), moved both audiences and academics. "I got a letter a few years ago from a professor at a university in Georgia," Siodmak told Lee Server in the latter's 1987 book Screenwriter. "He had written 'A Parallel Between Aristotle's Poetics and The Wolf Man.' I thought the guy was nuts. But, no, he showed me: The gods tell a man his fate, and he cannot escape it. The parallel of the wolf man and a Greek play is perfect. And I didn't know it. By chance, I wrote it in seven weeks, $400 a week."

Siodmak went on to co-script the taut and highly atmospheric I Walked With a Zombie and the chilling The Beast With Five Fingers, segued into writing and directing science-fiction films in the Fifties (some worthy, some better forgotten), then largely abandoned Hollywood in the late Sixties to write novels, plays, short stories, an opera, and whatnot for nearly 35 years. At the time of his death, in something of a full-circle oddity, he was reportedly working on a Metropolis sequel.

"Look, I didn't make big pictures in America, not the blockbusters," he admitted to Fischer. "I made mostly B pictures, accompanying pictures for the big show. Strangely, some small pictures that we wrote survived the expensive ones. It is the idea of the story and the precision of the screenplay which make a film survive the decades, not the money which is spent on it. And I have written a few pictures which have been shown for the last 40 years. So we never know what we do, eh?"


A biography of Curt Siodmak, Wolf Man's Maker: Memoir of a Hollywood Writer, will be published in December by Scarecrow Press.