Silverscreen standards: The wolf man (1941)
When asked to choose a favorite from among the classic Universal monster films, I always choose The wolf man (1941). As much as I love Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in their iconic monster roles, there’s something deeply tragic about Lon Chaney Jr. as the involuntary werewolf, and the story always seeps into my psyche and roams there in the dark corners, sniffing my suspicions that the monster I fear most is the one that lives inside me. Unlike its monstrous counterparts, the wolfman is a living, righteous human being, as horrified by his transformation as anyone else, but utterly unable to stop it or prevent his bestial alter ego from wreaking havoc . What could be more frightening? It is this deeply sad and horrifying premise that matters The wolf man such a great horror film and an inspiration for the many stories that have followed it.
It’s true that The wolf man has its flaws as an image, and Lon Chaney Jr. isn’t the cruel chameleon his father was in silent horror masterpieces, but Chaney’s ordinary face and demeanor remind us that this is the story of an everyman, not an extraordinary devil or Madman driven by his unholy passions. Larry Talbot is the Americanized prodigal son of an old English family; The discrepancy between Chaney’s height and accent compared to those of Claude Rains, who plays his father Sir John, can seem a bit absurd, but it also underscores their emotional disconnect. As modern viewers, we are rightly disturbed by the story’s stereotypical portrayal of Roma characters, but Maria Ouspenskaya nonetheless moves and captivates us with her portrayal of Maleva, a compassionate mother who mourns her son’s fate and struggles to defy Larry all odds are against him. Maleva’s doomed son Bela, played by none other than Lugosi himself, is no more willingly responsible for his actions than Larry. The “wolf” we see occasionally may not fool anyone who has ever seen a wolf or a German shepherd, but these scenes take a lot of trust between human and canine, and it’s oddly heartwarming to know that Chaney’s dog is Moose is , replacing the fearsome predator.
The message from The wolf man is best expressed through the ominous verse we hear throughout the picture: “Even a man of pure heart / And says his prayers at night / May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms / And the autumn moon is bright. ” The lines have the ring of an old nursery rhyme but were written by Curt Siodmak, who wrote the original screenplay. As a German-born Polish Jew, Siodmak knew all too well how fate forces people into outrageous situations; He had fled Europe to the United States in 1937 when the Nazis intensified their anti-Semitic aggression. Siodmak may have had his own impotence in the face of fate in mind when writing the screenplay, but it speaks to the general fear we share of not being able to prevent terrible things from happening. Even more disturbing is the fear that we can’t stop ourselves from becoming the monsters we loathe.
Siodmak’s story also takes up the medieval meaning of the wheel of fortune and by Kasibus Tragedy in which people fall from the auspicious heights of happiness into the worst of suffering. Larry Talbot is such a person tied to Fortune’s relentlessly turning wheel. He comes home, reconciles with his father, meets a girl he likes and is ready to inherit his father’s estate, but the werewolf’s deadly bite ruins everything. Larry commits no crime to deserve such a fate; He’s just in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to do the right thing by rushing to the aid of the werewolf’s latest victim. He’s not a mad scientist playing god, an adulterer performing profane rituals, or a bloodthirsty earl enjoying his immortality. This makes Larry’s story both moving and terrifying. He’s a normal person just like us, living his normal life until something terrible takes everything away from him.
The tragic power of The wolf man has been cast many times since Chaney first donned the iconic werewolf makeup and pursued Evelyn Ankers through the misty, moonlit forest, with Chaney herself reprising the role numerous times. He played Larry Talbot again Frankenstein meets the wolf man (1943), House Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945) and Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein (1948) and proves that one of Larry’s worst torments is his inability to die and end the curse. Simone Simon offers a feminine interpretation of the story in cat people (1942), while David Naughton plays a younger but no less tormented lycanthrope An American werewolf in London (1981). Also the cult horror comedy classic monster squad (1987), understands that the werewolf is best understood as a victim of his fate. For a precursor to the 1941 image, see Werewolf of London (1935) starring Henry Hull. If you are interested in the medieval roots of werewolf lore, read Volume 12th The French lay song “Bisclavret” written by Marie de France in the 19th century.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen writes our monthly silver screen standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic films on her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifelong learning groups and senior communities. She is the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its continuation Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watchingand she is also co-editor of two books on the works of Jim Henson.