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Since the birth of the motion picture industry, the horror film has always encountered varying degrees of success with audiences. But an undeniable peak period for the genre was the thirties when Universal created a number of memorable screen monsters (Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), The Mummy, 1932). The Forties, on the other hand, was a low point that saw a trend toward low-budget programmers (Valley of the Zombies, 1946) and uninspired sequels (The Mummy's Curse, 1944) that culminated in a parody of the genre, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). There were a few high points, however, such as the atmospheric thrillers of Val Lewton (Cat People, 1942, The Body Snatcher, 1945). And the most popular horror film of the entire decade - The Wolf Man (1941), directed by George Waggner - added yet another frightening creature to Universal's gallery of monsters.
Like Universal's earlier exploration of lycanthropy, Werewolf of London (1935), Waggner's film drew upon European folklore and legends for inspiration and screenwriter Curt Siodmak fashioned an increasingly paranoid narrative around an American, Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), returning to his father's estate in England after an eighteen-year absence. Shortly after Larry's return, he accompanies Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) and her girlfriend Jenny (Fay Helm) to a gypsy fair deep in the woods. The evening ends in a horrific incident - Jenny is killed by a wolf and Larry is badly bitten while trying to save her - but the worst is yet to come. During the next full moon, Larry falls prey to a terrible curse, one which the gypsy fortune-teller foretold.
Lon Chaney, Jr., son of the famous silent actor who specialized in grotesque characters and masochistic melodramas, was not yet known as a horror film actor when he was offered the lead role in The Wolf Man. Previously he had enjoyed some critical success as the mentally-challenged Lennie in both the stage play and the 1939 film version of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men but it wasn't until he starred in Man Made Monster (1941) for director George Waggner that he began to gravitate toward horror roles. Initially he was up for the lead in Universal's remake of Phantom of the Opera (which wasn't released until 1943) but Claude Rains won that part and Chaney ended up making Man Made Monster, paving the way for what would become his most famous role.
Unlike Henry Hull in Werewolf of London, Chaney was willing to subject himself to long, grueling hours in a makeup chair while Universal's expert in these matters, Jack Pierce, meticulously added yak hair, fangs, a rubber snout and other uncomfortable features to Chaney's face and body. The actor didn't exactly enjoy the process and once complained, "What gets me is after work when I'm hot and itchy and tired, and after I've got to sit in that chair for forty-five minutes while Pierce just about kills me, ripping off the stuff he put on me in the morning."
The filming of The Wolf Man also wasn't any picnic for co-star Evelyn Ankers who had difficulty working with Chaney. Already peeved at Ankers because she was given his dressing room (the studio was punishing him for vandalizing studio property while drunk), the actor would constantly irritate her, nicknaming her "Shankers" while playing juvenile, practical jokes; he liked to sneak up on her in full makeup and scare her. Even more troublesome than Chaney's behavior was the thick, chemical fog that permeated the set daily and made breathing difficult. For one scene, Ankers had to faint and fall to the misty ground but the fog fumes were so strong she passed out. Unnoticed by the director and crew who were concentrating on another aspect of the scene, she remained there unnoticed until a studio technician began breaking down the set. Ankers also suffered a bad scare when a 600-pound bear (his sequence in the film was later cut) escaped its trainer and chased the actress up a ladder where she was pulled to safety by an electrician.
Other interesting behind-the-scenes trivia: The film's original title was Destiny; Bela Lugosi had hoped to play the title role in The Wolf Man but ended up fifth billed as "Bela the gypsy"; Dick Foran was originally slated for the role which Patric Knowles ended up playing; in earlier script treatments, the werewolf was rarely glimpsed and Larry Talbot was not the son of an English nobleman but an American mechanic; the atmospheric sets were designed by Jack Otterson who created the German Expressionist look of Son of Frankenstein (1939).
The Wolf Man opened just two days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and despite mixed reviews from the critics turned out to be a surprise hit for Universal. Over the years the film's reputation has steadily improved with horror buffs and film scholars noticing the strains of Greek tragedy (the grim trajectory of Talbot's relationship with his domineering father) and old world superstitions that run throughout the movie. The Wolf Man, more than Werewolf of London, is also responsible for establishing the mythology and on-screen representation of werewolf lore that followed in subsequent imitators from the pentagrams to the wolfbane to the full moon transformation scenes. In the end, though, The Wolf Man is Lon Chaney, Jr.'s finest hour, and it's certainly Maria Ouspenskaya's most memorable role as well. As Maleva, the gypsy fortune-teller who shares Talbot's pain, Ouspenskaya's soothing recitations still haunt many a young viewer who saw the film at an impressionable age: "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."
Producer: Jack J. Gross, George Waggner
Director: George Waggner
Screenplay: Curt Siodmak
Cinematography: Joseph A. Valentine
Film Editing: Ted Kent
Art Direction: Jack Otterson
Music: Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner
Cast: Claude Rains (Sir John Talbot), Warren William (Dr. Lloyd), Ralph Bellamy (Col. Paul Montford), Patric Knowles (Frank Andrews), Bela Lugosi (Bela), Maria Ouspenskaya (Maleva).
BW-70m. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford