Friday, November 15, 2013

The Wolf Man ( 1941 )

" Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers at night, may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright "

Larry Talbot may not have been a man “pure in heart” but he was a man who certainly didn’t expect to be turned into a howling beast when the wolf bane bloomed. Who does for that matter? Poor guy….he was just a luckless lump who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

After 18 years spent abroad in America, Larry Talbot returns to his ancestral home in Llanwelly, Wales only to find that a dangerous date with Destiny awaits him. 

While escorting his sweetheart - the lovely Evelyn Ankers - through a gypsy encampment, he hears the scream of her friend Jenny in the woods, runs to rescue her from a wolf….and gets bitten in the process. Eek! 

With his newly purchased silver handled wolf-carved cane, he had bludgeoned the wolf to death. But lo! the next morning he finds his wound has disappeared and the police questioning him about the death of Bela ( played by the inimitable legend of horror, Bela Lugosi ) …..the GYPSY he had supposedly mistaken for a wolf. 



To make matters worse, Bela’s mother ( Maria Ospenskaya ) tells him that he too will become a wolf. But being our everyday all-American disbelieving film hero he promptly disregards the wise old gypsy’s warning and the protective charm she gives him. Oh dear, won’t these guys ever learn? 

Filming on The Wolf Man began just before Halloween 1941. It was completed and released in December and went on to become one of the top grossing pictures of the year. 



Dick Foran, a popular B film and cowboy star, was originally intended for the role of Larry Talbot but was replaced one week prior to filming. A good thing too, for Lon Chaney Jr. was very fond and proud of the Wolf man character and made a career of playing him. He welcomed the opportunity of starring in the many sequels such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and the really horrifying classic, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. 

Evelyn Ankers - who played Gwenn Conliffe in the film - was known as the “scream queen” of the 1940s and was very busy that decade making horror films such as The Ghost of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge and starred in a few of the popular Universal Sherlock Holmes series : The Pearl of Death and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror. 



When Lon Chaney Jr., the son of the famous "Man of a Thousands Faces" Chaney Sr, was offered the lead role in The Wolf Man, he was not yet known for being a horror film actor. He had enjoyed success on stage in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and had appeared in the film adaptation in 1939. Chaney was up for the lead in Universal's remake of The Phantom of the Opera in 1940, but alas..it was his Wolf Man father, Claude Rains who won that choice part. Instead, Chaney starred in Man Made Monster ( 1941 ) and director George Waggner was so pleased with his performance that he quickly plopped him into his next picture, The Wolf Man. A legendary horror icon was born! 

Although he played an innocent victim of circumstances on screen, off-screen Chaney was quite a hooligan. He had vandalized studio property one day, while drunk, and as punishment, Waggner assigned his star dressing room to Ankers. After spending grueling hours having Jack Pierce apply yak hair and a rubber schnozz to him every morning, and then another 45 minutes after shooting having it removed, Chaney was upset at having his dressing room taken. He had a fondness for playing practical jokes, and Ankers quickly became the prime recipient of them. He enjoyed sneaking up on her in full makeup and scaring her. One incident however, was not Chaney's fault....a 600 pound bear, which was used in an eliminated sequence, escaped one afternoon from its trainer and chased Ms.Ankers up a ladder. 



The Wolf Man was not the first film to feature hairy lycanthropes…. six years earlier Universal had made The Werewolf of London starring Warner Oland and Henry Hull as a botanist who receives that notorious wolf bite while hunting for a rare flower in Tibet. Warner Oland was better off sticking to playing that famous Hawaiian detective, Charlie Chan, because in this movie he came to a beastly demise. Ouch. 

This film didn’t gross much for Universal so they gave it another “go” and in 1941 the viewing public was much more gullible and embraced The Wolf Man. Especially since it was released just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was escapism at its finest. To this day it remains a classic and justly so; with its smothering foggy atmosphere, superb supporting cast ( including Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Warren William and Patric Knowles ), and excellent set design it leaves a lasting impression. And when the autumn moon is bright, our thoughts naturally turn to the Wolf Man of the night.



This post is our contribution to The Chaney Blogathon, a celebration of father-and-son and the memorable ( and forgettable ) films that they made. The Last Drive-In and Movies Silently have teamed up to host this event, so don't linger around here...head on over to either of their blogs to view a complete schedule of posts!

9 comments:

  1. It's so grand to have you both contribute to our Chaney shindig... What a wonderful lycanthropic homage to Chaney Jr... Cheers Joey

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    1. We're so glad that you and Fritzi decided to host this event...there's nothing quite like a good horror flick every once in awhile ( make that more than once in a while ), and a good horror film would not be complete without one of the Chaneys.

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  2. Do you know the alternate title for "The Wolf Man"? In our family we call it "Our Beloved Larry". You just can't help but pity the poor fellow. At age 6 my daughter Janet dressed as a gypsy for Hallowe'en and I taught her the prayer ("Even a man...). She dutifully would repeat the line at a the odd house and receive nothing but odd looks. She was ready to give up when I spotted theatre masks on the wall in one place and told her to go ahead. The man of the house applauded and asked her to do it again for his wife and mother while he called them from a back room. They gave Janet all the candy they had left and we called it a night.


    Psst. It was Warner Oland in "The Werewolf of London". He shares an October 3rd birthdate with Henry Hull and I watch the movie every year to celebrate.

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    1. That's a great story! Shame on those other people for not knowing those immortal words. And thanks for the heads up on the Chan flub! Everytime I begin to type Warner Oland it magically turns into Sidney Toler. Methinks I secretly deem him the best Chan. ;-)

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    2. Chan fans are an incorrigible and devoted lot, are we not?

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  3. Thank you for writing about one of my favorite movies. Lon did a wonderful job of portraying his torment when he knew the full moon was coming. I speculate in one of my posts that perhaps he was worried that his mother's madness would afflict him.

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    1. We're glad you enjoyed our post! It's one of our favorites too. I think the overall "atmosphere" of the film is what gets me every time. The Wolf Man was made during a special time in Universal's history, when monster films were at their peak, and it is a shame we won't see films like this again. Good thing they made alot of them that we can savor now!

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  4. This may come as a shock, but I haven't seen this classic yet. It's curious because I saw House of Frankenstein and liked it very much, partly because of Lon's great metamorphic performance.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!

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  5. I didn't realize this was released so soon after Pearl Harbor. As a result, yes, I can see how this would be escapism.

    It's been a long time since I've seen this film, and you've made me want to see it again ASAP.

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