and says his prayers by night
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.”
George Waggner’s 1941 version of The Wolf Man is so entertaining in so many ways that I suspect audiences often forget that, amidst the fur and frights, the twisted tale of Larry Talbot is at its heart a Shakespearean tragedy. In most versions, the story still catches us off guard by the time it reaches its inevitable conclusion. I remember audiences in 1982 gasping and groaning at the final shot of John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London; surely there has been some mistake.
Avengers: Infinity War. But in 1941, audiences didn’t have the assurance of a contractually obligated sequel to reanimate their dead hero.
Of course, Universal Studios still obliged them with Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, House of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, all starring the Wolf Man, magically revived from the last installment!
The Plot in Brief: Jaunty American Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to his ancestral home in England for the funeral of his brother. He reconciles with his estranged father Sir John (Claude Rains) and meets beautiful Gwen (Evelyn Ankers). While flirting with Gwen in her antiques shop, Larry buys a cane with a silver wolf’s head handle. Gwen tells Larry about the local legend of the werewolf.
As time goes by, Larry begins to think that something is askew. With the next full moon come many mysterious changes… Is Larry a werewolf? Is Gwen in danger? What is the antique shop’s return policy on slightly used canes?
“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, my son.
Now you will find peace.”
There’s more to like about this movie than just a strong script. Because The Wolf Man was made ten years after the first string of Universal Monster films, it has never looked quite so beat up and dupey as its 1930s celluloid cohorts. The recent Blu-ray of The Wolf Man is beautiful to behold, but the film has never been an eyesore. There is so much going on in this film (iconic story, breathtaking special make-up by the great Jack Pierce, the sweeping score written primarily by Hans Salter) that it is not until you are re-watching it that you are reminded of all the terrific performances, especially in the supporting roles. Ralph Bellamy even shows up, improbably playing in a horror film the iconic role he plays in so many screwball comedies, “The Guy Who Doesn’t Get The Girl.”
The Invisible Man; he’s one year away from playing wily Captain Renault in Casablanca and only two years from playing the title role in Universal’s remake of The Phantom of the Opera.
I would say that Rains gives the performance of the film, if it were not for Maria Ouspenskaya’s performance as Maleva. In much the same way that Bela Lugosi’s performance as Dracula and Boris Karloff’s performance as Frankenstein’s Monster quickly became iconic cultural touchstones, so too did Ouspenskaya’s. In movies, television, theater, and the routines of countless stand-up comedians in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s (including, but not limited to, the great Lenny Bruce), her gypsy woman became THE gypsy woman, and no wonder. She brings such a realism and depth of feeling to the role, it’s a little acting class in miniature. Years ago, I learned that Maria Ouspenskaya (I spent my teenage years mispronouncing her name.) supplemented her acting income by teaching acting classes that were considered without peer.
And of course, there’s Bela.
The Wolf Man is the complete package for us fevered Monster Kids. Sweeping drama, cool monsters, tragic romance, silver wolf’s head canes, and Bela Lugosi… this film has it all. There is but one week of Scary Movie Month left. We all had better watch The Wolf Man again before next Wednesday… and say our prayers by night.