Friday, October 31, 2014

Stubs – The Wolf Man

The Wolf Man (1941) Starring: Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenkaya, Lon Chaney. Directed by George Waggoner. Produced by George Waggoner. Screenplay by Curt Siodmak. Run Time: 70 minutes. U.S. Black and White, Horror.

During the early 1930s Universal had been the dominant Hollywood studio when it came to the horror genre. In three short years, they introduced four iconic monsters in such films as Dracula (1931)Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and the Invisible Man (1933). They then spent most of the decade making sequels: Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Dracula’s Daughter (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). It wouldn’t be until 1941 before they would add a new monster to the roster: The Wolf Man.

This wasn’t the first werewolf film nor was this the first film Universal would make on the subject. Werewolf of London (1935), starring Henry Hull and directed by Stuart Walker, was considered to be too similar to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), starring Fredric March, and did not do well at the box office. Jack Pierce’s original makeup design, which would be used in The Wolf Man, was rejected in favor of a minimalist approach which didn’t hide facial expressions. Further, the werewolf, while it would become progressively more monstrous with each transformation, was still very human, even going so far as to wear a hat, scarf and coat.

Having found early success with the horror genre, Universal had been financially in the red for most of the 1930s. The Laemmles, father and son, had been bought out and the studio needed a hit to start off the new decade. They turned back to their tried and true genre and resurrected the lyncanthrophy concept. But who to star? Bela Lugosi’s star had tumbled since starring in Dracula a decade earlier and he was no longer considered a bankable actor. Boris Karloff felt he was too old to play monsters and no longer wanted to; his last monster film was Son of Frankenstein (1939).

Universal turned to an unlikely choice, but one who had horror films in his blood, Lon Chaney, Jr. During the silent era, his father, Lon Chaney, was known as the Man of a Thousand Faces for his ability to change his look, using makeup to appear as different characters, including some of the biggest silent horror films, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). It was Chaney’s death in 1930 that led Universal to look at actors like Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff for films like Dracula and Frankenstein.

At the time of The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr., who by now had dropped the Jr., had appeared in only one horror film, Man Made Monster (1941), in a part originally intended for Karloff. Prior to that, Lon Chaney, Jr., born Creighton Chaney, had appeared in small roles in such films as the Wheeler and Woolsey version of Girl Crazy (1932). He had been approached about playing Quasimodo in a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), a role that would go to Charles Laughton. That same year though, Chaney would get some positive reviews for his role as Lennie in Of Mice and Men. But it was Chaney’s performance in Man Made Monster that brought him to the attention of the film’s producers, Jack J. Gross and George Waggner. Waggner had been the director of Man Made Monster and would be the director on The Wolf Man as well.

Like The Mummy, The Wolf Man did not have a literary source. Curt Siodmak, a Polish born writer of books and screenplays, fashioned a story drawing upon European folklore and legends and along the way created several werewolf "legends" such as being marked by a pentagram; being practically immortal apart from being struck/shot by silver implements/bullets; and the famous poem used in the film. (The poem would reappear in future Wolf Man films and even in the film Van Helsing (2004), though some of the lines have been changed slightly over time.)

Curt Siodmak would invent much of what we know about werewolves.

One aspect Siodmak didn’t invent or use was the idea that a werewolf is transformed under a full moon. As the poem implies it happens when the wolfbane blooms in autumn. (The connection with the full moon wouldn’t be made until the first sequel. The poem was also changed to specify when the moon is full and bright.)

With a budget of $180,000, the film, with the working title Destiny, began shooting on September 8, 1941 and was finished on November 25th of that year. The shooting was not without incident, especially for Evelyn Ankers, the actress cast as Gwen, the movie’s love interest.

To begin with, Chaney had it out for her. As punishment by the studio for vandalism committed while he was drunk, Ankers was given his dressing room. He called her “Shankers”, played practical jokes on her and loved to sneak up behind her, in full makeup, and scare her.

Then there was the thick chemical fog that was used on the set, the fumes of which made breathing difficult. For one scene, Ankers was to faint and fall to the misty ground. Unbeknownst to the director and crew, Ankers passed out from the strong fumes. She lay there unnoticed until studio technicians began to break down the set.

Ankers was also chased up a ladder by a 600-pound bear who escaped his trainer. The scene would later be cut from the finished film.

In 1934, Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney) returns to his family estate, Talbot Castle, in the Welsh countryside. Larry, as he’s been known in the U.S. for the past 18 years, has returned because of the recent death of his older brother John (seen only in a portrait) in a hunting accident.

Talbot Castle as seen at the beginning of The Wolf Man.

Larry is greeted by his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), and his childhood friend, Paul Montford (Ralph Bellamy), who is now the town Constable. After Paul leaves, Sir John apologizes to Larry for having neglected his youngest son for so long and the two resolve to be more open with one another. (Years of expensive psycho-therapy avoided with a handshake.)

Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney) comes home after 18 years and is greeted by his father,
 Sir John (Claude Rains) and his boyhood friend, now Constable Paul Montford (Ralph Bellamy)

A package arrives containing a lens for Sir John’s telescope and Larry helps put it together. Testing the telescope, Larry spies Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) in her room above her father’s antique store and goes almost immediately to meet her.

Larry helps his father finish setting up his telescope.

Larry goes into the store under the pretense of looking for earrings. When he doesn’t like the ones Gwen is showing him, he tells her that he liked the half-moon ones she was wearing in her room and asks her to go get them. She is suspicious of how he knows about them and he claims to be psychic when it comes to pretty girls.

When he’s not making headway with the earrings, he decides to buy a walking cane and after looking at a few chooses one he thinks would make a good putter, a silver handled wolf’s head with a pentagram. Gwen explains that it is the sign of the werewolf, being the first one in the movie to recite the 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.

Larry buys a walking stick from Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) when he strikes out on the earrings.

At that moment, a gypsy troupe arrives in town. Gwen tells Larry that they read fortunes and Larry, seeing that as an opportunity for a date, asks her out. She tells him no repeatedly, but he is insistent on picking her up at eight o’clock.

When he arrives, he is nonplused to find that Gwen has invited her friend, Jenny Williams (Fay Helm), to accompany them as a chaperon. Along the way, they find the wolfbane in bloom and while she picks some, Jenny recites the same poem Gwen had earlier.

Arriving in the gypsy camp, there are only two at this point, Bela (Bela Lugosi) and Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya). Bela is the one that reads fortunes and Jenny, knowing she’s the third wheel, volunteers to be first, taking her wolfbane with her. While reading her fortune, Bela, who has a pentagram on his right temple, begins to react to the wolfbane and sees the sign of the werewolf, a pentagram, on Jenny’s palm, meaning she’s the next to be attacked. Bela tries to get her to leave, but she is not fast enough.

Bela Lugosi as Bela the Gypsy.

While Larry and Gwen are off talking in the woods, they hear a wolf howl and a woman scream. Larry runs off to investigate and Gwen, not wanting to be left alone, follows. Larry comes upon a wolf attacking Jenny and tries to fight it off. In the fight, Larry gets bitten, but he manages to turn the tide and beats the wolf to death with his silver-topped cane.

Gwen and Maleva help Larry back to Talbot Castle, where Sir John and Paul are. Maleva slips away before a villager comes to inform Paul of Jenny’s murder. Paul hurries off to investigate the murder, while Larry is helped up to his room.

At the murder scene, Paul is joined by Dr. Lloyd (Warren William), who determines Jenny’s cause of death. Nearby, they find Bela’s body and the murder weapon, Larry’s walking stick.

Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) examines Jenny's dead body.

The next morning, Larry is greeted in his room by his father, Paul, and Dr. Lloyd. Paul confirms that the walking stick is Larry’s and he tells him that they found Bela’s body, not a wolf’s, next to Jenny’s. To prove his story, Larry tries to show Dr. Lloyd the bite mark, but it isn’t there. While Paul wants to question Larry further, Dr. Lloyd intercedes, saying Larry needs his rest.

Paul, Dr. Lloyd and Sir John question Larry the day after Jenny and  Bela were killed.

Later, Paul is still convinced Larry killed Bela. Sir John tries to make excuses, that perhaps Larry and Bela both came to Jenny’s aide and in the confusion and fog, Larry killed Bela by mistake. But there are still unanswered questions: Why was Bela barefooted? If Larry wasn’t bitten, then why were his clothes bloodied?

Larry is there when they take Bela’s remains to the church and he watches while Maleva speaks to her son in his coffin saying, "The way you walk 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. Now you will find peace for eternity."

Larry gets emotional over Bela's coffin.

When Larry goes into town to see Gwen, he walks into their shop while some of the town’s women, including Jenny’s mother (Doris Lloyd), are confronting Gwen’s father (J. M. Kerrigan) about his daughter's role  in the murder. Mrs. Williams blames Gwen for Jenny’s death and is about to make an accusation when Larry comes in and scares the women away.

While he’s talking to Gwen, her fiancé, Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles), the games keeper on the Talbot estate, also arrives. His dog starts to bark incessantly at Larry and has to be removed.

Later that night, Gwen and Frank go back to the gypsy camp, which has turned into a carnival of sorts, as the gypsies gather, as they traditionally do, to celebrate Bela’s funeral. Trying to show there are no hard feelings, Frank sees Larry and insists that he attend with them. Nearby, Sir John and Paul are observing. They go to a shooting gallery, where Larry is a crack shot until the next decoy is a wolf. At that point, he freezes, unable to fire.

Larry runs into Maleva. She confirms that Bela was the wolf Larry killed; that he was a werewolf and that having been bitten and lived, Larry is now a werewolf, too. She offers him a pendant with a pentagram on it as a charm to ward off the curse. At her request, he shows her the wound that Paul couldn’t see earlier. After they’re done talking, Maleva tells the other gypsies that there is a werewolf in camp and they quickly pack up and leave. On his way home, Larry bumps into Gwen and gives her the charm to keep her safe before hurrying away.

Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) gives Larry a charm to help ward off the curse.

That night, back at Talbot Castle, Larry watches in horror as he slowly transforms into a werewolf. Outside, he attacks and kills Richardson (Tom Stevenson), a grave digger, ironically working the graveyard shift at the cemetery. Paul and Dr. Lloyd arrive at the murder scene and find wolf tracks near the murdered body.

Larry transforms into a werewolf back at Talbot Castle.

The next morning, Sunday, Larry wakes to find wolf tracks leading from the window ledge to his bed. He asks his father about the legend of the werewolf, who tells him it is about the good and evil in a man's soul and that anything can happen in a man’s mind.

Father and son go to the church, where we see villagers discussing the murders. Mrs. Williams suggests aloud that Larry is the killer, since there were no murders before he arrived. Larry can sense the ill will and doesn’t sit down, but rather flees.

Later, Frank, Dr. Lloyd, Paul and Sir John discuss what to do next. Paul and Frank decide to place traps out for the wolf, which snag Larry when he’s out looking for victims. He apparently passes out from the pain and transforms back to his human form. Maleva, who has not fled with the other gypsies, comes by and releases Larry.

Back in town and limping from his wounds, Larry awakens Gwen and tells her that he’s leaving. Despite being engaged to another man, Gwen offers to go with him. But when he sees the pentagram mark on her hand, he refuses.

Rather than leaving then and there, Larry goes back to the castle and tells his father he’s leaving. Sir John thinks it’s all in Larry’s head and, trying to help him get over it, he takes him to his room and ties Larry down to a chair before locking him inside. He might have stayed, but Paul and Frank have come for Sir John to join the hunt. Before he leaves, Larry implores his father to take the silver topped cane with him.

Sir John ties up his son and, at Larry's request, takes the silver-topped cane with him when he leaves.

Outside in the foggy countryside, villagers take their places to wait for the werewolf to attack. Sir John sees Maleva, who tells him as long as he has the cane, he will be safe. Gwen arrives looking for Larry and goes into the woods looking for him, despite Maleva’s warnings.

Maleva tries to warn Gwen; if only she would listen.

Somehow, we’re never shown, Larry transforms, breaks free from his bindings and escapes from the castle. Naturally, as the werewolf, he attacks Gwen. Hearing the attack, Sir John goes to save her and kills the werewolf with the cane. Maleva is there too and they watch as the werewolf transforms back into Larry.

Sir John tries to save Gwen from the clutches of the Wolf Man.

The others arrive and Constable Paul surmise that the wolf that attacked Gwen and Larry must have been killed saving her.

Overcome by the events, Gwen collapses into Frank's arms.

The film had the misfortune of being released on December 9, 1941, only two days after the day that will live in infamy, the attack on the U.S. fleet in Pearl Harbor. The film would go into general release on December 12th and, despite mixed reviews from the critics, turned out to be a surprise hit for Universal.

While the Wolf Man character would continue in films, unlike Frankenstein, he would never have sequels that were all his own. Talbot is awakened from the dead in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), in which Talbot finds the Monster (Bela Lugosi) instead of the doctor; he returns again in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). While he is cured of the curse in the latter, Talbot once again gets bitten in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

Universal, which can’t stop itself from remaking their classics, tried The Wolfman (2010) starring Benicio del Toro, in which the Puerto Rican born actor returns to his English hometown. If you didn’t buy it you’re not alone. The film did not do well; budgeted at $150 million, it grossed about $140 million worldwide at the box office. In 2014, the Los Angeles Times listed the film as one of the most expensive box office flops of all time; not a distinction anyone wants to have.

In The Wolf Man, Larry’s transformation from man to wolf is shown through lap-dissolves and progressive make-up and then only sparingly. The transformation was laborious and the makeup was designed by Jack Pierce, the wizard behind how the monsters looked in Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Bride of Frankenstein. For this movie, he used the same make up he had originally designed for Henry Hull in Werewolf of London, but which Hull refused to wear.

While Lon Chaney, Jr. was very proud of the Wolf Man, frequently stating in interviews: "He was my baby", after this film, he would be forever linked with the horror genre. Chaney would be the only actor to portray all four of Universal’s major monsters, playing the Wolf Man in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948); playing Frankenstein's monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); playing Kharis the mummy in The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost (1944) and The Mummy's Curse (1944); and Count Alucard—Dracula spelled backwards—in Son of Dracula (1943). He would also appear on television in a live performance of Frankenstein on Tales of Tomorrow (1951-1953).

Lon Chaney as he appeared as Larry Talbot. His career would be forever changed by The Wolf Man.

Producer Stanley Kramer took a liking to Chaney and had him appear in High Noon (1952), Not A Stranger (1955) and The Defiant Ones (1958). He would continue to act in horror films, including Roger Corman’s The Haunted Palace (1963), and low budget Westerns for Paramount producer A.C. Lyles. Chaney would also appear in guest roles on everything from Wagon Train to The Monkees. One of his memorable appearances was on an episode of Route 66, in which Chaney would appear as the Wolf Man and Mummy along with friends, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.

One of the great movie actress names belongs to Maria Ouspenskaya, who played the role of Maleva, an old Gypsy fortuneteller in The Wolf Man. Russian-born, Ouspenskaya was travelling with the Moscow Art Theatre when it landed in New York in 1922. She decided to stay and performed on Broadway. In 1929, she formed the School of Dramatic Art in New York City with a colleague from the Moscow Art Theatre, Richard Boleslavsky.

Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva the gypsy.

She came to Hollywood in the 1930’s to start the Maria Ouspenskaya School of Dance and eventually ended up in movies. Her first appearance in a Hollywood film was in Dodsworth (1936) and earned an Academy nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She would receive a second nomination for Love Affair (1939). She would also appear in The Rains Came (1939), Waterloo Bridge (1940), Beyond Tomorrow (1940), Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and The Mortal Storm (1940) before her role in The Wolf Man. She would appear in Kings Row (1942) before reprising Maleva in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943).

Evelyn Ankers was a British actress, who after having made films in the UK came to the U.S. under contract to Universal in 1941. Her first film here was Burma Convoy (1941), an early War film released prior to the U.S. entrance in the war. The Wolf Man was her next film and after that she played in many of the sequel and B-horror films Universal produced, including: Hold That Ghost (1941) with Abbott and Costello; The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942); The Mad Ghoul (1943); Son of Dracula (1943); Captive Wild Woman (1943); Jungle Woman (1944); Weird Woman (1944); and The Invisible Man's Revenge (1944).

Evelyn Ankers as Gwen.
She did play other roles including Kitty in Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942); Black Beauty (1946) for 20th Century Fox; and The Texan Meet Calamity Jane (1950), a western for Columbia. After that last film, Ankers, at the ripe old age of 32, would retire from films. She made some appearances on TV and made one more film, No Greater Love (1960), with her husband, Richard Denning.

My first thought upon seeing him is what is Ralph Bellamy doing in a horror film? I associate him with sophisticated comedies, like the Awful Truth (1937) and His Girl Friday (1940), not horror. But Bellamy played a wide range of characters in various genres throughout his career. And while I was surprised to see him in this film, his next was another horror film, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942).

Ralph Bellamy was a bit of a surprise.

Warren William was an American actor who was known for playing villainous characters in such pre-code films like: The Match King (1932). He also appeared in several series of films throughout his career, including four films as Perry Mason (the first actor to play the character), two films as detective Philo Vance and eight films as the reformed jewel thief The Long Wolf.

Warren William plays Dr. Lloyd.
Of all the films we’ve reviewed as part of our Halloween salute to Universal films, I have to admit The Wolf Man is my least favorite. While I would watch it many more times before I would want to watch MGM’s Freaks again, this is a flawed film.

To begin with, the casting seems to be a bit of a stretch. Lon Chaney, Jr. doesn't seem like the right choice to play Claude Rains’ son. Not only don’t they look anything alike, Chaney towers over him and while Rains is obviously English, Chaney is clearly not. They look more like people who would avoid each other at a party rather than father and son. And while some think he can act, I don’t find myself in that camp.

Sometimes it seems as if the screenwriter, Siodmak, has written the story into a corner he can’t write it out of. The whole story of the werewolf seems to have problems. Unlike Dracula, who literally feeds on the weak, the werewolf seems to kill for the sake of killing. The pentagram on the hand seems to mark the victim, but there seems to be no motivation for the attacks. He’s not trying to right a wrong or feed off their flesh, the werewolf, whether it is Bela or Larry as the Wolf Man, he kills whoever is convenient.

The dialogue that Larry says in order to woo Gwen the first time they meet comes off sounding more like a stalker approaching his subject. It is no wonder Gwen doesn’t jump at the chance to go out with him, but a real wonder why she doesn’t call for Constable Paul or at least for her father. The fact she goes out with him at all, even with a chaperone, seems implausible.

And the charm that is supposed to protect Gwen from attack doesn’t prevent her from being a victim of the Wolf Man. A story should at least follow its own logic. Siodmak would even change some of the conventions he sets out for werewolves in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) when it became a full moon that caused the transformation of the Wolf Man, not the wolfbane in bloom.

For the casual horror film watcher, I would almost recommend skipping The Wolf Man altogether. I don’t find Lon Chaney (Jr.) to be a compelling presence, the way Boris Karloff was in Frankenstein. And I’m sorry to say I don’t find The Wolf Man to be a compelling film.

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