The Wolf Man (1941)

The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (1941) – Creighton Chaney decided to follow in the footsteps of his father Lon Chaney, the legendary “man of a thousand faces” famous for such films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. The studio rechristened Creighton as Lon Chaney, Jr. and he often, as in The Wolf Man, went credited just as Lon Chaney. While he had an earlier success as the man-child Lenny Small in Of Mice and Men (one that was repeatedly parodied on Looney Tunes), he is most famous for his Universal Monster films. He played Frankenstein’s monster (Ghost of Frankenstein), the Mummy (The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost, The Mummy’s Curse), and a vampire of some famous lineage (Son of Dracula). His most famous creation, however, is Lawrence “Larry” Talbot the man cursed to become… the Wolf Man! Along with make-up genius Jack Pierce, he created one of the most iconic horror characters of all time that equaled, if not surpassed, his father’s work.

Larry Talbot (Chaney, Jr.) returns to his home in England after 18 years away in America (hence his total lack of an English accent) after the death of his older brother in a hunting accident. His father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains from The Invisible Man), is eager to men his fractured relationship with his son and Larry is happy enough to oblige. He also begins to woo the already-engaged daughter of the local antique shop owner, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). Larry, Gwen, and Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm) go to get their fortunes read by traveling gypsies. The gypsy fortune teller Bela (Béla Lugosi from Dracula) freaks out when he sees a pentagram in Jenny’s hand and tells her to flee. She does. Larry comes upon Jenny being killed by a wolf and bludgeons the wolf to death with his silver-handled cane, but not before he is bitten. When he gets the authorities, Bela’s lying dead next to Jenny with his skull caved in. The other gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) explains that Larry now bears the curse. By the light of the full moon he will become the Wolf Man, doomed to see the pentagram on the hand of his next victim…

The original script by Curt Siodmak remained ambiguous as to whether or not Larry was actually transforming into a wolf, or just going mad. Indeed his father tells him that while the idea of a man becoming a wolf is ludicrous, but that in a man’s mind anything can happen. However, Universal knew what the public wanted: monsters. So the Wolf Man in the script is very much real. As Larry, Chaney, Jr. is charming when he needs to be and terrified when he should be. It’s one hell of an internal conflict. Most of the Universal Monsters are somewhat sympathetic but in the end they’re still making a choice to kill or (as in the case of Franekstein’s monster) don’t even realize what they’re doing. While the Wolf Man is a mindless killing machine (and Chaney, Jr. plays him appropriately feral), Larry is burdened with knowing what he is doing. He does not want to, but he is powerless to fight it. As the rhyme (that is repeated three damn times in this movie and at least once in every sequel): “Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayer at night/May become a wolf when the wolf’s bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” Larry is good man who suffers under the weight of knowing he does terrible things and can’t do anything to stop it. Skip that god-awful remake with Benecio Del Toro and check out the classic original.

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