In The Shadows: MARIA OUSPENSKAYA
By Michael Arruda
Welcome to another edition of IN THE SHADOWS, that column where we look at character actors in the movies, especially horror movies. Today we look at the career of Maria Ouspenskaya, the actress most famous among horror fans for her portrayal of the gypsy woman Maleva in the Lon Chaney werewolf films THE WOLF MAN (1941) and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943).
As Maleva, Ouspenskaya endeared herself to horror fans as the sympathetic gypsy woman who befriends Lon Chaney Jr.’s cursed Larry Talbot. In THE WOLF MAN, it was Maleva’s werewolf son (played by Bela Lugosi!) who bit Larry Talbot and turned him into a werewolf. Later, it’s Maleva who helps Talbot understand his new condition.
In the sequel FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, it’s Maleva again who comes to Larry’s aid, this time leading him to Castle Frankenstein in search of Dr. Frankenstein, hoping that he can help cure Larry. Unfortunately for them, Dr. Frankenstein is dead, and they find the Monster (Bela Lugosi) instead.
Ouspenskaya shines as Maleva in both these movies, and she’s one of the highlights of both films.
Ouspenskaya taught acting in the 1920s, and she opened her own acting school, the Maria Ouspenskaya School of Dramatic Arts in 1929. Some of her students included John Garfield, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg. Strasberg honed his famous Method Acting techniques under Ouspenskaya’s guidance, and Adler went on to teach among others Marlon Brando.
Ouspenskaya enjoyed a successful movie career, mostly in non-genre films. It was a brief one, as she didn’t start acting in movies until late in her career, and it was cut short due to an untimely tragic death.
Here’s a look at some of these movies:
DODSWORTH (1936) – Baroness Von Obersdorf- Ouspenskaya’s film career gets off to a rousing start as she’s nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in her movie debut at age 60 in this Academy Award winning film by director William Wyler which won an Oscar for Best Art Direction.
LOVE AFFAIR (1939) – Grandmother – nominated for an Oscar again for Best Supporting Actress. This film was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture but won none.
DR. EHRLICH’S MAGIC BULLET (1940) – Franziska Speyer – Bio pic written by John Huston about Dr. Paul Ehrlich (Edward G. Robinson) who developed the first synthetic antimicrobial drug, which he called a “magic bullet.”
WATERLOO BRIDGE (1940) – Madame Olga Kirowa- Oscar-nominated World War I romance starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor.
THE MORTAL STORM (1940) – Mrs. Breitner – World War II drama (contemporary for its time) about a family in Germany divided by the Nazis’ rise to power. Stars James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Robert Young.
DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940) – Madame Lydia Basilova – Musical about ballerinas in a dance troupe starring Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball. Also stars Ralph Bellamy who would co-star again with Ouspenskaya in THE WOLF MAN.
THE WOLF MAN (1941) – Maleva – one of the greatest horror movies ever made, with a superior cast that includes Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Evelyn Ankers, Patric Knowles, Warren William, Bela Lugosi, and Maria Ouspenskaya in the role which would make her famous among horror fans.
KINGS ROW (1942) – Madame von Eln – Mystery romance starring Ann Sheridan, Robert Cummings, and Ronald Reagan. Also features Ouspenskaya’s WOLF MAN co-star Claude Rains.
MYSTERY OF MARIE ROGET (1942) – Mme. Cecile Roget – Mystery based on an Edgar Allan Poe tale stars Ouspenskaya’s WOLF MAN co-star Patric Knowles as Poe detective Paul Dupin trying to solve the mystery behind the death of an actress. Also stars KING KONG’s Frank Reicher.
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) – Maleva – reprises her role as Maleva the Gypsy Woman, in this sequel to THE WOLF MAN which brings the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) together with the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi). WOLF MAN actor Patric Knowles plays Dr. Mannering, a different role from the one he played in THE WOLF MAN.
TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS (1945) – Amazon Queen – Ouspenskaya is Queen of the Amazon in this Tarzan adventure starring Johnny Weismuller as Tarzan.
A KISS IN THE DARK (1949) – Mme. Karina – Ouspenskaya’s final role in this comedy starring David Niven.
Maria Ouspenskaya died tragically in December 1949 when she fell asleep while smoking in bed. She suffered severe burns and died shortly thereafter.
Maria Ouspenskaya – July 29, 1876 – December 3, 1949. Age – 73.
For those of us who love horror movies, Maria Ouspenskaya will always be remembered for her endearing portrayal of Maleva, the strong-willed gypsy woman who was always there for Larry Talbot in THE WOLF MAN and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN. She delivers a masterful performance in both movies.
I hope you enjoyed this edition of IN THE SHADOWS, and I’ll see you again next time when we look at another character actor from the horror movies.
Thanks for reading everybody!