Universal made an early attempt at a werewolf film in 1935, with WEREWOLF OF LONDON starring Henry Hull. The film didn’t quite hit the mark, seeming more like a Jekyll and Hyde variation than a full-blooded supernatural horror. Hull’s werewolf was a semi-civilized monster, who donned a sporty looking cap before going out for a night’s stalking. Something stronger was needed.
Their second attempt, 1941’s THE WOLFMAN, which gave us the ever tormented Lawrence Talbot, remains for many the definitive werewolf film. Not drawing upon any literary source, screenwriter Curt Siodmak basically invented his own mythology, including the famous poem:
Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.
Stars such as Lugosi and Karloff had dominated horror during the 30s, but it was a new decade and time for new blood. Universal recruited Lon Chaney Jr., son of the legendary silent star known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” to play Talbot. Chaney, fresh off a triumphant turn as the intellectually challenged but physically powerful Lennie in 1939’s classic OF MICE AND MEN, was groomed by Universal as a new horror attraction and his father’s successor.
Lawrence Talbot, returning to his ancestral Welsh estate after 18 years of (largely unexplained) exile in America, is a role neither Lugosi or Karloff could have played. In fact, the part seems tailor made for Chaney. Talbot, as the story begins, is an amiable, American-bred galoot, unsophisticated and humble but ready to help his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains of INVISIBLE MAN fame), manage the estate after the tragic death of an older brother.
There’s some kind of unresolved tension between the reserved and proper Sir John and the much more down to earth Larry, and that tension will provide a dramatic spark for the tragedy that’s about to unfold.
Larry tried to fit into village life by taking a pretty local girl, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), out for an evening stroll to have her fortune read at a gypsy camp.
As fate would have it, fortune teller Bela, played by Bela Lugosi, is a werewolf who transforms and attacks Larry, biting but not killing him. Larry kill his attacker with a silver tipped cane, but is shocked to be told next morning that no dead wolf was found at the scene, only the dead gypsy.
Soon Larry is transforming into a full-blown wolf creature himself, in fearsome makeup devised by the great Jack Pierce. Unlike Henry Hull’s character, Talbot loses all semblance of humanity in his lupine guise. It’s an utterly bestial performance, benefiting from Chaney’s imposing size and the great relish he seems to bring to his performance as a remorseless predator.
Siodmak claimed he was following the lead of Greek tragedians in imposing a dire fate upon a man who neither asked for nor deserved it. At any rate, our hearts go out to Larry, who begs for anyone, including his stiff-necked dad and the local medical man, to believe that something supernatural is going on. All he gets in return are some half-baked Freudian homilies and lectures about the responsibility of being a Talbot.
It turns out that Talbot’s two important relationships in the film — his budding romance with Gwen and his desire to reconnect with this father — are both thwarted by his werewolf curse.
Only Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the wise gypsy woman and mother to the late Bela, understands what’s happening to Larry, but she can offer little help.
Larry finds peace, but only through death, via a beating from his own silver-tipped cane, now wielded by this father, who is devastated to find he has not killed a wolf but his own son. (Rains’ look of shocked horror elevates the tragedy of the scene.)
It was to be a short rest, for THE WOLFMAN, issued within days of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, was a huge success. Lawrence Talbot would be resurrected four times, first in 1943’s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, and finally in the 1948 monster romp, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN.
“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, Bela my son. Now you will find peace.” — Maleva
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