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The Wolf Man (1941)
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers

Written By: Curt Siodmak Directed By: George Waggner

The Short Version

It’s not the first time Universal went werewolf, but it’s the one we all remember.

The charisma of Lon Chaney, Jr. carries the movie well.

The Wolf Man goes by quickly; maybe too quickly.

Whatever its small flaws, this movie stands the test of time.

The Wolf Man is called a classic for a reason.  Consider it required viewing.

The Long Version

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“Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

2 oz. vodka, 1.5 oz. cherry brandy, 0.5 oz. cream, 1 egg white.  Take all of that and shake it.  Pour the results into a highball glass that’s been rubbed with lemon juice, sprinkled with sugar, and frosted in a freezer.

“The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own.  But as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end.  Your suffering is over.”

December 7, 1941 is, as President Roosevelt so aptly declared, a day that will live in infamy.  The Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against the US Navy base at Pearl Harbor, and the United States was officially propelled into World War II.  Given that, executives at Universal Studios expected their new picture set to debut on December 12, 1941, The Wolf Man, to fizzle at the box office.  After all, everyone would too busy with news of the war to care about some silly horror movie, right?

Wrong.  As it turns out, many Americans were desperate to escape from the horrors of newly joined war for an hour and change, so they flocked to see The Wolf Man.  Indeed, it would go on to become one of Universal’s highest grossing pictures for fiscal 1942, as has since come to be remembered as one of the greatest achievements in their entire horror catalog.

While I personally won’t go that far, the fact is that it’s still a damn good movie that holds up well even seventy-plus years on, and definitely worth stepping away from the newsreels for.

As our story begins, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr., Son of Dracula) is returning to England after spending the past eighteen years shedding his accent in the United States.  With the (off camera) death of his brother, he has now become the heir apparent to Talbot Castle and its adjoining estates, and his homecoming is a matter of family duty.  Even so, his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains, The Invisible Man), sees this as an opportunity to mend fences with his estranged son, and Larry is cheered by that prospect even more so than he is by the other challenges ahead.

Things take a nasty turn, however, when Larry comes to the aid of a woman being attacked by a wolf during a nighttime Gypsy festival in the nearby woods.  He succeeds in killing the wolf by beating it with a silver-headed cane, but not before he gets bitten himself.  When the sun rises, the wolf is gone… but there is a dead Gypsy in its place, and the wound that Talbot sustained has completely healed.

This can’t bode well for anyone…

Except, of course, for the audience.

To modern popular perception, The Wolf Man represents Universal Studios filling out its gothic horror canon by finally making a werewolf movie.  This, however, is incorrect.  In fact, the studio had made a werewolf flick back during the silent era well before “Universal Horror” was “a thing,” and then made Werewolf of London starring Henry Hull during the height of their mastery of All Things Gothic in 1935.  But neither of those films had “clicked” the way that Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, or The Invisible Man had done, and so the studio did an old school version of a reboot by creating yet another werewolf based storyline, this time to serve as a vehicle for Lon Chaney, Jr.  As it turned out, the third time was the charm, so that now, seven-plus decades later, the attempts that came before are far less well-remembered, if they’re remembered at all.

Without question, the primary reason that The Wolf Man so readily clicked with audiences both then and now is the casting of Lon Chaney, Jr., an actor with charisma to spare and an affable screen persona that audiences can’t help but be charmed by.  But of course, there’s more to Chaney than just a disarming demeanor and a legendary family name; he pours his soul into the role of Larry Talbot, which he clearly loves (he never let anyone else take over the role at any point during the classic era, even for a spoof), to the point where the audience truly believes that he has become Larry Talbot.  Chaney does a masterful job of portraying Talbot’s anxiety as he comes to understand the awful curse that has been thrust upon him, and an equally masterful job of playing a bloodthirsty animal once he’s transformed, delivering a great performance that even several hours’ worth of yak hair application can’t hide.

Just as importantly, the supporting cast is strong enough to prevent Chaney from outshining everyone else.  Claude Rains is certainly never one to be outshone by anyone, and he matches Chaney step for step, wonderfully playing out his own character’s metamorphosis (which is of a somewhat different variety) even as the audience isn’t necessarily watching him do it.  (It’s easy to miss on the first pass while you’re concentrating on Chaney, but on the second or third run through?  Oh, yeah.  Brilliant.)  Meanwhile, the film’s first werewolf is played by none other than the great Bela Lugosi (Dracula), who never met a screen he couldn’t own, even when only given two scenes and a really horrible mustache to work with.  Nearly stealing the show, however, is Maria Ouspenskaya (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), whose quietly determined portrayal of the Gypsy matron Maleva is as captivating as it is authoritative.

As matron of the Gypsy camp, of course, Maleva is the script’s device for passing on to the audience the real scoop on All Things Werewolf.  Contrary to popular memory, the werewolves of this film do not transform by the light of the full moon (indeed, one never sees the moon at all in The Wolf Man, which is pretty much the only time you’ll see that omission from a werewolf flick); instead, the transformation occurs based on the time of year (“when the wolfsbane blooms”) and the fact that it’s nighttime, regardless of the phase of the moon.  (This is actually closer to Old World tradition.)  Despite some claims to the contrary, the “death by silver” stuff is tried and true werewolf mythology that had been in place for some time and is not the invention of the screenwriter.  What he did invent, however, is intriguing enough to warrant some discussion.

I will admit that I was always put off by the idea presented in The Wolf Man that a pentagram-shaped mark appears in the spot where a man was first bitten to become a werewolf, and that the man will see the same mark magically appear in the palm of his next victim (though it will be invisible to everyone else).  To me, this was incredibly silly, and the story could really have done without it; and if I were to still take it at face value, as I had from the beginning, I’d still feel that way.  As it turns out, though, this is one instance where there’s symbolism afoot, and the author really meant it.  Curt Siodmak was born in Germany, and had fled to the United States after the Nazis came to power.  As he saw it, Nazism turned people who would otherwise have been decent, caring human beings into mindless animals trained to unleash their rage on a set target – namely, the Jews.  He took this notion and metaphorically turned it into the curse of the werewolf: a man who would normally be a decent person, but, when afflicted by the lycanthropic curse (Nazism), would mindlessly attack whomever he saw bearing the mark of the pentagram star… a star which was in fact an analog to the yellow Star of David that Jews were required to display in Nazi Germany.  I still may find the use of the star off-putting as a face value story mechanic, but after understanding the true meaning behind it, I can certainly no longer call it silly.

As for what goes on behind the camera, director George Waggner sets a tone of brisk efficiency, getting strong performances out of his cast without spending a lot of time on long looks and meaningful pauses to do so.  The Wolf Man moves along at incredible speed, and only moves faster once Larry Talbot becomes infected by the werewolf as a means to impress his maddening spiral of anxiety on to the audience.  While this does work in theory, to me, the film gets to moving too quickly, and ends up feeling like something gets missed along the way, even though nothing really does… unless one counts the fact that Talbot’s ill-fated romance seems to happen only because the script says so.  A few more scenes to flesh that out certainly wouldn’t have hurt the film, at any rate, and at the end of the day, the breakneck pacing of The Wolf Man and its shaky handling of its love interest subplot are the reasons why even though I do consider it a very good movie, I can’t personally consider The Wolf Man to be one of Universal’s greatest movies, much less the greatest.

Of course, the line between “very good” and “great” is a thin one in this case, and should in no way be looked upon as a barrier between any potential audience and seeing this movie.

Bottom line, The Wolf Man is considered one of the all-time horror classics for a reason, and should definitely be looked upon as required viewing.  The work Lon Chaney, Jr. alone would make it so, but when it all comes together… yeah.  Nevermnd the flaws. This is real Classic Hollywood.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2012

You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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