Growing up I had a set of parents that had very different approaches to baking. My mother was the more conservative, but selective, with the ingredients for most dishes. If it tastes good then why mess with it? My father, on the other hand, loved pecans – in everything. It barely mattered what the dish was, pecans will always make it better. He’d probably decide at some point to try mixing in pecans to his ketchup if you’d let him (in fact, nobody let him read this). His approach was more “you never know ’til you try, and don’t be afraid to fail.”
Often times if you have a good formula for something flavorful adding in extra ingredients will only muddy the food, and the power of the flavors that are supposed to stand out in the meal get lost in the mix of the added pecans the recipe didn’t ask for. No recipe is ever truly perfect and you should never be afraid to experiment to make it more to your liking, but if you’re going to mess with something that works you should understand what it is about the dish that makes it tasty – what’s supposed to pop when you put it in your mouth.
When you look back at the original 1941 The Wolf Man what sticks out the most, at least to me and what I like about it, are the relationships – the relationship between Larry Talbot and his father Sir John, and the relationship between Larry Talbot and his love interest Gwen. Everything about the original film is built around those relationships and the majority of the picture is spent establishing those so that it’s all the more affective and tragic when the conflict occurs. The transformation sequence from Larry Talbot into the beast doesn’t even happen until the 40 minute mark (the film itself is only 70 minutes long) and it’s because of the focus to solidify the affection the audience should have for the hero.
The werewolf aspect of the story is a secondary ingredient that’s completely interchangeable with any other kind of split personality, deadly disease, or story element of corruption. It’s the sugar of the recipe that can be replaced with baking Splenda, maple syrup, or honey.
Fight Club, for example, used the recipe and replaced the sweetener, and so did the goofy-fun children’s flick Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. You might consider Meatballs more of a Frankenstein story, but the beats most resemble that of the original The Wolf Man. Man meets woman, man loves woman, man becomes monster, man must destroy monster to protect woman. That’s the base of the recipe.
Ironically, one of the modern films that does not use this recipe is Joe Johnston’s remake The Wolfman.
The Wolfman, starring Benicio Del Toro as Larry Talbot and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Sir John Talbot, isn’t built upon the relationships of the characters so much as their history and our discovery of it – mainly the history between Larry and Sir John. However, the relationship between Larry and Gwen (played by Emily Blunt, and this time the fiancée of Larry’s very recently murdered brother) is still included and is still a focus of the story, which turned a 70 minute film in 1941 into a 125 minute one in 2010 by consequence.
The additional hour in length of the film though, is not a problem and in fact the film is noticeably shorter than it was supposed to be in the area that you’d think mattered most – the developing of the relationships. This exclusion of time allowance to establish a solid, and believable love chemistry between Larry and Gwen along with the excessive focus on exposing a relevant history between Larry and Sir John resulted in a dual-layer cake with one layer under-baked in the center and the other too brown on the outside; and both covered with a ton of gooey frosting trying to distract you from the bad baking.
If you’re going to change the recipe make sure you understand what it is that makes the dish tasty.
It’s not always a bad idea to add a second layer of cake. As long as you bake both layers evenly (and all the way so as not to get sick) the results are usually quite good. Nothing wrong with adding more cake, and like my father insisted you can’t be afraid to fail. But, nobody ever remembers a bad cake with a lot of frosting, they just remember frosting unless your cake is so terrible that the taste lingers.
Rick Baker (hahaha….I just got that) is one of the best creators of frosting the movie business has ever seen. His frosting is so good that even some of the most horrendous cake-baking in cinema don’t affect his flavor (he’ll even get Academy Award nominated for it), and if you give him some great baked goods he’ll top it off to make it about as perfect as it can be from that point. He knows the recipe, he knows what can complement it, but more importantly he knows when he should add pecans, or listen to Mom.
Back in the ’90s when Tim Burton started pre-production on Ed Wood, Rick Baker heard about the project and wrote Burton a letter saying that he had to do the make-up for it, even if he had to do it for free. He didn’t just want to do it, he felt he had to do it because he was afraid of someone else coming in and, essentially, adding pecans when it came to transforming Martin Landau into Bela Lugosi. He was wary of a less experienced artist doing too much.
Baker’s work on Ed Wood was awarded with an Academy Award win for Best Make-Up and Martin Landau was awarded with Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Adding too much to the frosting may still have gotten Rick Baker an award, but by approaching the matter conservatively he allowed the sweetness of Landau’s cake to be front and center without distracting the audience with too much frosting.
Rick Baker was also hired on as lead make-up artist for The Wolfman, a project he was excited about because of his admiration for the classic Universal monsters, which is evident when you compare the look of Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man to the work Baker did on Del Toro. He basically took an already wonderful frosting and added some tasteful garnish.
However, the higher-ups of the production didn’t completely share Baker’s vision on what kind of frosting the new Wolfman film should have. Baker’s approach was more practical, the filmmakers’ approach more digital. So, they changed the frosting and what came out at the end was something that looked, and tasted, artificial. They not only messed with their original spin on the original recipe they messed with their spin on the original spin of the original recipe – resulting in a cake both over and under-done and frosting that was out of the can, tastefully garnished.
It’s been discussed that there is indeed a good deal of footage that was cut from the first act of the new Wolfman. The idea was probably that the film was too long, and was taking too long to get to the stuff people wanted to see. I don’t recall the time marker where the first encounter between Talbot and the wolf occurs, but it seemed relatively early in the picture. Afterward they threw in some history of insanity, an exploration of why Talbot left home, and an attempt to build a romantic connection between Larry and Gwen – strangers that are days removed from the murder of a brother and fiancée. After adding a second layer of cake they added pecans, and then decided to go ahead and try and apply the frosting while the cake was baking.
After all of these substitutions, extractions, and sweet tooth indulgences what came out of the oven was a cake that resembled its ancestor by name only, and to avoid confusion of which one you’d be tasting they changed the name from The Wolf Man to The Wolfman. Mom’s single-layer cake with a thin frosting spread that allows the moistness of the bread to be savored became Dad’s dual-layer, pecan-filled cake with a thick-spread of canned frosting that was applied before the bread could rise.
I’m sure many out there will find something to enjoy about Dad’s cake, especially the overpowering frosting. However, I was raised in a house where we strived on one simple rule – when it comes to baking, Momma knows best.