Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Wolf Man (Universal, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

We ran the movie The Wolf Man — I wanted to show it to him and he wanted a movie that wouldn’t be too long (73 minutes) — and it turned out to be better than I’d remembered it. My tape of it was from 1991 or thereabouts, from American Movie Classics, with Bob Dorian doing an intro about how the screenwriter, Curt Siodmak, was given 10 weeks to write it, told it would star Lon Chaney, Jr., Ralph Bellamy and Claude Rains, and would be called The Wolf Man — aside from that, it could be anything he wanted it to be. What Siodmak came up with was an all-star horror film in which Rains is the owner of a landed estate in Wales, Chaney is his second son (just returned from America to claim the heritage after his older brother was killed in a hunting accident — that’s the backstory), Bellamy is the head of the local police department, Warren William is the local doctor, Evelyn Ankers is the daughter of the proprietor of the local antique shop, Patric Knowles is her fiancé, Bela Lugosi is a Gypsy fortuneteller who’s really a werewolf and Maria Ouspenskaya is Lugosi’s mother, who’s full of old-fashioned aphorisms including the stanza that made this movie famous: “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.” (In the Universal Horror documentary on Turner Classic Movies, Curt Siodmak mentioned his irritation when this is cited as an old folk verse, when in fact he made it up as part of his script — just the way Raymond Chandler was upset when Eugene O’Neill ripped off the phrase “the big sleep” and said it was an old gangland expression meaning death, when Chandler had in fact invented it for the final scene, and the title, of his first novel.) This is as close to an all-star horror movie as Universal ever made, especially post-Laemmle, without the silliness of the multiple-monster extravaganzas that Siodmak (Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man), Edward Lowe (House of Dracula) and both Siodmak and Lowe (House of Frankenstein) had to write later — and the all-star nature of the cast was reinforced by Universal’s unusual adoption of the old Warner Brothers gimmick (which Warners themselves had abandoned by this time!) of showing the cast members in clips from the film, with their names and their character names as subtitles, during the opening credits. (I wish some filmmakers would do this today!)

When I first saw The Wolf Man in the 1970’s, it seemed disappointing. Leslie Halliwell called it “dazzlingly cast, moderately well staged, but dramatically very disappointing,” and that was about how I reacted to it as well. This time, though, I liked it better. Siodmak’s script is actually unusually well constructed for a horror film; as a German expatriate (and brother of Billy Wilder’s close friend Robert Siodmak) he had learned the principles of the well-made screenplay Wilder also used, in which all the elements needed to resolve the plot line are introduced early on (like the cane Lon Chaney, Jr. buys pre-transformation — a wooden stick with a silver handle in the shape of a wolf’s head — which he uses to kill Bela Lugosi in the attack in which Lugosi bites him and turns him into a wolf-man, and which his father, Rains, later uses to kill him in the climax). George Waggner’s direction (he also produced) is slow, but it’s clear he was aiming for a sinister mood rather than either suspense or shock, and — aided by superb photography by Joseph Valentine (who follows the rule, a good one in these productions, never to have the camera standing still when there’s the slightest excuse to have it moving) — he achieves it. And the musical score, a three-way collaboration between Frank Skinner, Hans J. Salter and Charles Previn, actually aids the film instead of impeding it. Randall D. Larson in Musique Fantastique calls it “a breakthrough score, elements of which were later used in further sequels” (they certainly were!), and adds, “In The Wolf Man, Skinner and his colleagues contrasted a series of frenzied string horrifics, punctuated by a repeatedly climactic, three-note brass phrase [which signifies Chaney’s transformation into the title character], with a poignant string melody. The music, like Karl Hajos’ earlier Werewolf of London [the Laemmle-era Universal werewolf movie, originally written under the title The Wolf Man in 1932 and intended for Karloff and Lugosi, with James Whale directing — and what a movie that would have been! — but ultimately directed by Stuart Walker with Henry Hull and Warner Oland in 1935], conveyed both the horror and the pathos embodied in Larry Talbot’s [Chaney’s] dual nature.” The Wolf Man has its flaws — the werewolf isn’t seen nearly enough to make this especially credible as a horror piece (and John P. Fulton, Universal’s effects photographer, did the man-to-wolf transformations with simple double exposure — the colored-gel technique used in the Mamoulian Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would have been a far better way to manage them), and there’s a major plot hole — when Lugosi attacks Chaney we see him as an actual wolf, whereas when Chaney appears later he may be barefoot but he still walks upright, wears clothes, looks (in Carlos Clarens’ phrase) “like a bearded Cossack” and his only wolf-like characteristics are paw-like toenails and all the yak hair Jack P. Pierce plastered him with to achieve the transformation. — 10/22/98


The Wolf Man remains a movie I respect more than I actually like; it’s brimming with Gothic atmosphere (looking at the furniture in the Talbot family mansion — actually a set Universal recycled over and over again, including the house the principals rent in San Diego, I Love You, where its Gothic-to-the-nines look seems out of place in a Capraesque comedy — Mac said if we had all those pieces we’d never have to work again) and beautifully staged and filmed, and has an excellent cast of actors for what was pretty much a standard horror “B” — not only Lon Chaney, Jr. as the star but Claude Rains as his father (who eventually kills him in self-defense by striking him repeatedly with a silver-handled cane), Bela Lugosi as the gypsy werewolf who infects him in the first place (and gets killed all too early on), Maria Ouspenskaya as Lugosi’s mother (who gets all the doggerel but surprisingly memorable poetry with which Curt Siodmak filled the film’s script — the “Even a man who is pure in heart … ” and “The path you walked was thorny … ” lines, which much to Siodmak’s life-long irritation kept getting cited in reference books as old Romanian proverbs when in fact he made them up for his script), Warren William as a psychiatrist and Ralph Bellamy as a cop, as well as Universal’s favorite lady-in-distress at the time, Evelyn Ankers (a much better actress than her reputation and one who probably would have achieved broader-based stardom if she’d been at a studio that really knew how to build up its talents, which Universal did not; for all her famous battles with Jack Warner, Bette Davis always acknowledged that getting fired by Universal and picked up by Warners was the best thing that ever happened to her professionally). It also has some great standing sets — not only that house but also the gnarled trees that served on the backlot — and atmospheric cinematography by Joseph Valentine, as well as a marvelous wolf-man makeup by Jack P. Pierce (it was actually yak hair applied to Chaney’s face in stages so special-effects man John P. Fulton could do the dissolves that signaled the transformation) and a surprising montage sequence during one of Chaney’s transformations that was obviously inspired by the one in the 1941 Victor Fleming/Spencer Tracy Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the same year. Jekyll and Hyde clearly remains the plot template for this story (as it does for The Invisible Man as well; H. G. Wells published his book only 12 years after Stevenson’s was released and it pretty clearly influenced him!), and the Universal version (produced and directed by George Waggner — he usually was just a producer but this time he took actual control on-set as well) seems a bit stodgy and dutiful, well staged but nowhere nearly as imaginative as some of the previous Universal horrors; though The Wolf Man is a better-made film than its 1935 predecessor, The Werewolf of London, I’ve always liked the earlier film better; its star, Henry Hull, out-acts Chaney; there are some deliciously Whale-ian high-camp bits (notably the two old women who run the rooming house where werewolf Hull tries to wait out one of the deadly full moons); and Pierce’s makeup, though sketchier than the one he did for Chaney since Hull didn’t have the same patience for long waits in the make-up chair, seems for that very reason to be more genuinely frightening. — 10/26/04


After that Charles wanted to watch The Werewolf of London, the very interesting 1935 movie that was Universal’s first foray into lycanthropy (and to my mind a far better film than the better known The Wolf Man from 1941), but alas the disc that was supposed to contain it on my copy of the Wolf Man Legacy collection was defective and wouldn’t play on either of the two DVD players I tried it on. Instead we ended up watching The Wolf Man when it came on TCM, and as often happens when you see a movie you’ve seen many times before a new aspect you never noticed before jumps out at you. The Wolf Man is a film I’ve always found a bit stiff despite an excellent script (by Curt Siodmak, who told David J. Skal that his secret for getting his stories filmed exactly the way he wanted them was very simple: he merely waited until the absolute deadline to turn them in, meaning that the film was about to go before the cameras and the Universal producers had no time to have them rewritten), a fabulous cast — Lon Chaney, Jr. as Lawrence Talbot a.k.a. The Wolf Man (oddly the credits do not indicate the name of his human incarnation, and they also drop the “Jr.” from his name — making me wonder if Universal was hoping credulous moviegoers would think it was Lon Chaney, Sr. on screen and forget that he’d already been dead for 11 years when this film was made); Claude Rains as his father, Sir John Talbot (if Chaney, Sr. had still been around when The Wolf Man was made it’s possible he would have taken this part himself; Chaney, Sr. would have relished the artistic and commercial appeal of a real father and son playing father and son on screen); Warren William as Dr. Lloyd (essentially doing the Edward Van Sloan schtick as the rationalist); Ralph Bellamy as Captain Montford, head of the police department in the small Welsh village where the action takes place (its name is not given in this movie but in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the immediate sequel, it was called Llanwelly); Evelyn Ankers as Gwen Conliffe, the daughter of antiques dealer Charles Conliffe (J. M. Kerrigan) and the girl Lawrence Talbot finds himself attracted to; Patric Knowles as Frank Andrews, Gwen’s (not surprisingly) jealous boyfriend (he’s the gamekeeper on the Talbots’ estate and he’s understandably miffed that the newly arrived Talbot may be pulling, however unwittingly, the droit de seigneur on him); Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, the Gypsy woman who’s in charge of a caravan that’s parked nearby (though I don’t recall having heard her referred by name in the movie and I suspect the name “Maleva” also came from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man instead of this film); and Bela Lugosi as Bela (the only time I can recall him playing a character with the same first name as his own), Maleva’s fortuneteller son who’s a werewolf, and is the one who “puts the bite” on Lawrence Talbot and changes him into a werewolf.

The aspect of The Wolf Man I hadn’t noticed until last night is how closely Siodmak and director George Waggner (who also produced) paralleled the story to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even though Talbot’s transformation, unlike Jekyll’s, has nothing to do with anything he did consciously. Universal threw The Wolf Man together right after MGM had released the Victor Fleming/Spencer Tracy version of Jekyll and Hyde, and Siodmak filled his script with abstract reflections on the nature of good and evil (and according to some message board posters there was an epilogue on the original release prints that had the other characters philosophizing on Larry Talbot’s tragic fate), while Waggner shot an elaborate montage sequence, complete with a spinning spiral image obviously copped from the montage in the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to dramatize the turmoil in Larry Talbot’s mind as he came to grips with the fact that he’d been turned into a werewolf and would mindlessly kill at least one person each night of the full moon. Maybe part of my problem with The Wolf Man is the Wolf Man’s makeup, which one critic described as making Chaney look like a “hirsute Cossack” and, despite the five or six hours it took Jack P. Pierce to put it on the actor (something Universal emphasized in the publicity for the film, even though for the transformation scenes Pierce had to put on the makeup — the hair was actually yak wool — in stages so cinematographer John P. Fulton could do his double exposures to make it look like Chaney was metamorphosing on screen), he really doesn’t look credible as man, wolf or any believable hybrid of the two. This is one sort of scene in which modern-day digital effects do make a difference; as I wrote about the first Underworld movie, “It’s fun to see the digital effects work turning the human characters literally into feral creatures of the night, able to climb up walls and on ceilings in images Hieronymus Bosch would have loved to have painted — we’ve gone a long way since the days when John Fulton had to wait patiently for his double-exposure shots while Jack P. Pierce progressively plastered more and more of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s body with yak wool!”

The Werewolf of London has been criticized because Henry Hull lacked the patience of Karloff or Chaney in enduring hours-long transformations in Jack Pierce’s makeup lair, so Pierce had to use a far simpler and less extensive makeup than the one he’d envisioned — but I actually regard that as a point in Werewolf of London’s favor: it’s precisely because his makeup was so much thinner that Hull was able to keep the character’s humanity and even do pathos the way Chaney couldn’t. Of course it also helped that Hull was a much better actor; for the wide range of parts Universal gave him (he was the only person to play all four of the studio’s classic monster characters: Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Mummy and the Wolf-Man), Chaney, Jr. was a surprisingly limited performer, though the anguished self-pitying angst of his Wolf Man role was right up his alley and his acting no doubt helped turn the film into a blockbuster hit. (One “trivia” report says the part of the Wolf Man was originally intended for — of all people — Dick Foran, but fortunately he was replaced one week before shooting started.) There are some weird inconsistencies in The Wolf Man — when Bela Lugosi turns into a werewolf he’s an actual wolf (actually “played” by Lon Chaney, Jr.’s real-life German shepherd dog) while when Chaney does it he’s a wolf-man hybrid; and though the script says that Larry Talbot has spent the last 18 years in the United States to explain his total lack of a British accent, we’re never told why the other American actors playing Welsh people in the film (Ralph Bellamy, Warren William and Evelyn Ankers) don’t have British accents either. The Wolf Man has a classic reputation and it’s a fun genre piece, but it’s hardly the movie The Werewolf of London is (with werewolves, as with vampires, mummies, invisible people and the Frankenstein mythos, Laemmle-era Universal did better than “New Universal,” the marvelous  Son of Dracula excepted) and even farther from the movie The Werewolf of London could have been if the original plans for it (James Whale as director and Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as stars) had been followed! — 11/1/12