Claude Rains

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DAY 8 OF 31: THE WOLF MAN (1941)

Published October 8, 2019 by Philip Ivory

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.

Lon Chaney Jr. as the doomed Lawrence Talbot.

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.

Shopkeeper’s daughter and the object of Lawrence Talbot’s affection, Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), threatened by a looming lupine apparition.

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.

Claude Rains as Sir John Talbot discovers he has killed his own son, not a wolf.

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.

DIALOGUE

“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

 

UP NEXT:

“A Kiss Could Change Her Into A Monstrous Fang-and-Claw Killer!”

DAY 6 OF 31: THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933)

Published October 6, 2019 by Philip Ivory

Yesterday we looked at ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. Now we turn to another adaptation of an H.G. Wells novel, one that was greeted more warmly by the public and the author himself.

Universal, continuing its roll of superior horror productions in the early 30s, released THE INVISIBLE MAN in 1933. It starred Claude Rains as scientist Jack Griffin, who, dreaming of doing something no man has ever done, injects himself with a drug of his own creation that turns him invisible. All this he does to impress his lady love, Flora, played by Gloria Stuart.

At the beginning of the film, Griffin has secreted himself away in a country inn, hoping to reverse his invisibility so he can return to Flora. Wrapped in bandages, prone to temperamental fits, he brings disaster upon himself by throwing the innkeeper down a flight of stairs.

In a famous scene, Griffin, confronted by a gawking band of locals including a thick-headed constable, raves as he unwraps his bandages, bewildering his onlookers as he reveals himself to be invisible. Then he goes on a murderous rampage. You see, a side effect of the drug — one Griffin is unaware of — is madness.

“You’ve driven me near madness with your peering through the keyholes and gaping through the curtains, and now you’ll suffer for it! You’re crazy to know who I am, aren’t you?! All right! I’ll show you!!”

James Whale, director of FRANKENSTEIN, brings his usual romantic panache for the love scenes and touches of dark wit. Witness the scene in which horrified villagers run from a bicycle that rides itself through the village square, or the vignette in which a seemingly empty pair of trousers skips along a country lane as Griffin sings “Here we go gathering nuts in May.”

But the touches of humor are balanced by sheer terror. Under Flora’s influence, Griffin can recover some semblance of his humanity. He is gentle and loving in his scenes with her. But out of her influence, he is a maniac, bashing policeman to death and derailing trains, causing hundreds of deaths. (He may be the most prolific murder among the classic monsters.)

Claude Rains’ face remains unseen until the final moments, when Griffin becomes visible, proclaiming his famous final line before dying: “I meddled in things that man must leave alone.” Rains’ wonderful vocal tones and rich, theatrical delivery of the excellent dialogue, as well as his powerful use of hand gestures, result in an unforgettable portrayal.

DIALOGUE

“We’ll begin with a reign of terror. A few murders here and there. Murders of great men, murders of little men, just to show we make no distinction. We might even wreck a train or two – just these fingers around the signalman’s throat, that’s all…”

“There is a way back, Flora! And then I shall come to you. I shall offer my secret to the world, with all its terrible power! The nations of the world will bid for it – thousands, millions! The nation that wins my secret can sweep the world with invisible armies!”

“Power, I said! Power to walk into the gold vaults of the nations, into the secrets of kings, into the Holy of Holies. Power to make multitudes run squealing in terror at the touch of my little invisible finger. Even the moon’s frightened of me! Frightened to death! The whole world’s frightened to death!

 INTERESTING FACTS

  • The special effects, which included such techniques as dressing Rains all in black against a black backdrop before combining that footage with the scene’s actual background, were groundbreaking for the time and much praised by critics.
  • The film spawned a number of sequels, all missing Claude Rains and the Jack Griffin character, although sometimes a Griffin relative would show up to resurrect the invisibility formula. A few of the sequels got pretty far from the source, including INVISIBLE WOMAN and INVISIBLE AGENT, a wartime story showing an invisible patriot parachuting into Germany to play havoc with the Third Reich.
  • Gloria Stuart almost disappeared from film screens starting in the 1940s, but made a memorable return decades later as the older version of Kate Winslet’s character in 1997’s TITANIC.

UP NEXT:

“You must be indulgent of Dr. Werdegast’s weakness. He is the unfortunate victim of one of the commoner phobias, but in an extreme form. He has an intense and all-consuming horror of cats!”