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!