Wolf Man's Maker: Memoir of a Hollywood Writer, by Curt Siodmak
Scarecrow Press, 2001, 455pp, £42.75 ISBN: 0-8108-3870-2
"Communazis": FBI Surveillance of German Emigre Writers, by Alexander Stephen
Yale University Press, 2001, $29.95
Reviewed by L. J. Hurst
Siodmak's is a long autobiography, but then he was born on August 10th 1902, and died only in the last year of the twentieth century on September 2nd 2000. His name is best associated with the trilogy that began with DONOVAN'S BRAIN (1943; HAUSER'S MEMORY, 1968 ;GABRIEL'S BODY, 1992), but his science fiction was only a small part of his output. He was an engineer by training, but never practised due to the vicissitudes of the slump in Germany, and later fled with all the other Jewish emigres. He lived in England for three years at the beginning of the thirties, struggling to work as a screen-writer, and then took his wife's advice and moved to Hollywood to struggle in a warmer climate.
He found his opening at Universal Studios, and in 1940 he produced the screenplay for THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, and a year later THE WOLF MAN. This latter provides the title for Siodmak's memoir, first self-published in 1997 as EVEN A MAN WHO IS PURE IN HEART, the phrase coming, of course, from the verse quoted in the film saying that anyone may become a wolf. Siodmak had faith in himself as a writer (great faith in himself, indeed, because he was a writer: no one remembers the names of Shakespeare's directors from the last four hundred years, he re-assures himself, when told he is only a writer), and he tells many stories to fill in the background of his experiences, but he also misses some interesting details. In the case of these early films he fails to compare his experiences with those of other screen-writers. There is a detailed account by R C Sheriff, in his autobiography NO LEADING LADY, of how he arrived in Hollywood after the success of his stage play JOURNEY'S END, ten years before Siodmak, and was eventually given THE INVISIBLE MAN to adapt for the big screen. Siodmak notably makes no reference to Sheriff's experiences. And by chance, the original novel was by H G Wells, who more recently had written THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME, filmed in England by Alexander Korda. Siodmak's last big work in Germany had been on FP1 DOES NOT ANSWER, another massive science fiction work (his engineering training showing its uses). In fact, just as 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY and SOLARIS were seen as rival offerings from the Cold War, so THINGS TO COME and FP1 were earlier films from rival nations. The Babelsberg Studios were to make no more films like FP1 for years, and perhaps, while re-assuring himself with its potential, Siodmak found some of its memories too painful to expand upon and explore. It is now little more than an entry in THE ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION.
THE WOLF MAN, however, remains a potent force - as Siodmak says now the third part of a triptych of horror (Frankenstein and Dracula the other two), the only one created fresh for the screen, and yet as much as the Vampire a symbol that has meaning in literature, psycho-analysis, and in popular culture. Again Siodmak leaves a strange omission - THE WOLF MAN is set in Wales, somewhere he never mentions visiting. He worked mainly in London when he lived in Britain, and apart from being sent to do some research in Scotland on a potential Rob Roy movie, seems not to have left the city. He does not mention why he chose Wales as his setting.
During the remaining war years he worked on movies such as SON OF DRACULA, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, and also adapted I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. He then found himself being signed up by the OSS (the CIA predecessor) for training in sabotage, but never left the USA, and worked on propaganda instead. He was in his mid-forties, and could not have known that his best years of film-work were at an end. His filmography now starts to cross-over to the B-list, and then quickly moves to some of the absolute turkeys of all time. He tried directing, but I would not want to see the results. He started to move into television but while he could write episodes his attempts to produce pilots for series never turned up the goods. As he reached his sixties Siodmak moved up-state and returned to novel writing.
Several times Siodmak remarks on his reliance on others for help with his English - when he first started to work for Gaumont, for instance, he was given a co-writer, and he often had co-writers in Hollywood. WOLF MAN'S MAKER shows a different problem. It shows the lack of an editorial hand, as throughout the book Siodmak develops the habit of telling a story or quoting someone several times as if it were the first, but far worse is his extra-ordinary malapropism. He has an almost incredible ability to chose the wrong word - the strangest is when he talks about a "Father Brown Bible", presumably meaning a King James Bible, and does it repeatedly. Recalling his visit to Scotland, he says that much later came a film called ROB ROY PRINCE OF THIEVES. He stayed up all night after a funeral at sea, he says, until it was dusk - well, dusk and dawn both begin with the letter "D". Perhaps not every page has all of these features, but there is a strong chance that you will find at least one.
This is the seventy-eighth in Scarecrow Press's "Filmmakers Series" - the first was on James Whale, the director of the original FRANKENSTEIN, friend of R C Sheriff, and also not mentioned by Siodmak. The film GODS AND MONSTERS revealed Whale's homosexuality, while Sheriff's was more uncertain, but there may well be a dissertation in how horror was taken away from its original gay genesis, but moved to the B-list as its makers became more sexually straight.
As his conscription suggests Siodmak was never investigated as a possible red - even though he was vehemently anti-Nazi. Ian Hamilton's WRITERS IN HOLLYWOOD, and now Alexander Stephen's "COMMUNAZIS" (the word was coined by J Edgar Hoover), reveal the problems he could have faced. Did Bertold Brecht have Ronald Reagan round to his poker parties, though, or Robert Heinlein as a neighbour?
Note:R.C. Sherriff, No Leading Lady (London: Gollancz 1968)
Ian Hamilton, Writers in Hollywood (London: Heinemann 1990)
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© L J Hurst 2007