Clap for The Wolf Man, folks: no Universal monster has endured the solitary pain of a cursed table for one like Larry Talbot; Dracula has his brides, and Frankenstein’s monster has his creator in his corner. Not so Larry, and especially not in the first of his adventures, The Wolf Man (1941), George Waggner’s classic tale of a lovable guy with an extreme follicle condition.
This wasn’t Universal’s first draw in the werewolf sweepstakes, however; that honor goes to 1935’s Werewolf of London starring Henry Hull, but his muted appearance kept audiences away. (Go full wolf or don’t show up at all, Hank.) But after the success of their other monster franchises, they decided to give the lycanthrope another chance. This time it stuck.
The Wolf Man was such a big success that it finally launched star Lon Chaney Jr.’s career in horror after several years of bit parts as part of his Universal contract; it also set up several sequels, all with Chaney: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (’43), House of Frankenstein (’44), House of Dracula (’45), and the nail in the coffin, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (’48). (Once the parodies start, it’s over.)
It is important to note that poor Larry Talbot and his hairy alter ego is only mentioned in the title of the first sequel; Universal was still hedging their bets against a lesser-known monster; forever a groomsman and never a groom, I guess?
Perhaps the reason for the reticence is this: Dracula and Frankenstein both came ready-made for the screen—their franchises were built on the backs of literary works from Stoker and Shelley, respectively. In other words, they were already brands in a way; they came with built-in lore that was more or less kept for the films. The Wolf Man, however, created its own mythos, thanks to screenwriter Curt Siodmak (The Invisible Man Returns) who came up with the pentagram, the moon, the silver, the whole nine yards. But where are my manners? For those unfamiliar with the foibles of Mr. Talbot, a story first:
Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr. – Spider Baby) heads back home to the Talbot estate in Wales in the early part of the 20th century after the death of his brother. Long estranged from the family, Larry attempts to reconnect with his father (Claude Rains – The Invisible Man) and readjust to the quieter stead of his birthplace. A trip into town nets him a date with a shopkeeper’s daughter, Gwen (Evelyn Ankers – The Ghost of Frankenstein), and she, along with a friend, escort Larry to have their palms read by local gypsy Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya – Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) on the outskirts of town. When Gwen’s friend is attacked by Maleva’s son Bela (Bela Lugosi – Dracula) in werewolf form, Larry kills him with his silver-handled cane he bought from Gwen’s shop. Larry is hailed as a hero, except he was mauled by Bela—and told by Maleva that he, in turn, will become a werewolf. Bummer.
Larry is not pleased with his new lot in life; he tries to find a way to stop the curse, but the only surefire method is death. (So much for shaving.) As Larry gets closer to Gwen, he feels the pull of the moon and its insidious implications. Can he save Gwen from dying at the (hairy) hand that loves her?
The duality of man: it’s been around a long time, and explored vigorously in print and film horror, most famously with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. So the theme of The Wolf Man wasn’t exactly new in 1941—nor should it matter. What we have is a monster movie with its own rules, an auto-canon ready for the masses. And it’s different from the other franchises by virtue of the protagonist, Larry Talbot. A man. While we feel for the monster in Frankenstein, and grant sympathy to the Count in Dracula, we feel worse for Larry because we’re given a taste of the life he could have without the curse: a relationship with Gwen, fancy digs, and a reputable status. While Frank and Drac have no say in their situation, seeing Larry denied happiness adds a layer of melancholy—doomed to a life of uncontrollable rage and terror, with happiness a lunar cycle away, and always out of reach.
This all comes down to Chaney’s performance; if we don’t care for Larry in human form, we’re doomed to root for his darker counterpart, and he gives us nothing but bloodshed to work with, sympathy laid to waste. He’s very amiable; his searching eyes and pleading demeanor practically beg you to like him. And it works. The rest of the cast is solid (although Bela isn’t around long enough), with Ouspenskaya offering up a mix of foreboding and exposition at a perfect pitch—she sells the material without lapsing into camp.
Director George Waggner (Man Made Monster) imbues the film with enough atmosphere for ten films; the scenes on the moors, under the moonlight as Larry in wolf form prowls, are magnetic and feel culled from a fevered and beautiful nightmare. Jack Pierce (Frankenstein)’s makeup work goes a long way towards selling the illusion; while we really only see a transformation of his feet (with a slow face dissolve at the end), this was immediately the look that the werewolf would be associated with for decades to come.
The Wolf Man and Larry Talbot will forever be associated with Universal’s first wave of terror titans, and though he could only find peace through perish, Larry will never truly be alone as long as people pay witness to his moonlit malady.
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