You Can’t Keep a Good Wolf Man Down!

the-wolf-man-1941-lon-chaney-jr-evelyn-ankersFiguratively speaking, when they get near members of the opposite sex, some guys turn into wolves!

However, Lon Chaney Jr. became the real thing in a classic 1941 horror film called The Wolf Man. And even though it features some decidedly questionable acting on the part of its star, The Wolf Man is considered a classic of its type. Indeed, it is so well remembered, a big budget remake starring Benicio Del Toro was produced in 2010. Unfortunately, that remake is a notoriously awful film! Therefore, we shall ignore it in favor of the life and times of Larry Talbot as portrayed by Chaney Jr., aka the Wolf Man.

Briefly, The Wolf Man opens with Lawrence Talbot (Chaney) returning to his boyhood home in Wales after living in the United States for some years, thus explaining his American accent. When Larry falls in love with a young lady (Evelyn Ankers) who operates an antique shop, she gives him a cane sporting a silver wolf’s head. Shortly thereafter, he actually survives an attack by a decidedly oversized wolf. As a result, once the Moon is full and bright, Larry turns into a wolf man! After killing a number of people, the wolf man ends up attacking his own father (Claude Rains), but, since the old man happens to be carrying the cane with the silver wolf’s head, he effectively wields it to beat his attacker to death. To say the least, dear old dad is not just a little surprised when the dead wolf man slowly morphs into Larry Talbot, his own son. But fear not! It really isn’t the end of the Wolf Man. There’s always a sequel!

Wolf-Man-Chaney-title-screenAs I say, Lon Chaney Jr. wasn’t much of an actor. Unlike Lon Sr., he simply wasn’t comfortable in front of a camera. But somehow, Chaney’s awkwardness seemed to fit Larry Talbot’s character. On the other hand, I was never able to accept the decidedly sophisticated Claude Rains as Chaney’s father. It’s more than the fact that Chaney is a much taller man (which makes the notion that Rains could successfully fend off an attack by the wolf man just a bit silly). Mannerisms and behavior make it plainly obvious that these two men cannot be related to each other. Be that as it may, after all is said and done, the problems with casting hardly matters. It all comes down to atmosphere. The Wolf Man lives in a dark, foreboding, “film noir” world. Menacing shadows offer the threat of death with every footstep. Moonlight struggles to penetrate the treetops. A foggy mist hugs the ground; you can’t see whoever (or whatever!) may be following you. And try as you might, you cannot escape your fate! There is no hope when the Wolf Man is on the hunt.

You watch in horror…as a normal man slowly turns into a wolf! And you are horrified again…when he changes back! In the end, you pray that you’re dreaming or watching a movie!

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Fortunately, neither Lon Chaney’s bad acting nor the silver-tipped cane was able to put an end to the Wolf Man. At least, not when the studio bigwigs demanded a sequel. Thus, in 1943, Lon Chaney Jr., aka Larry Talbot, re-enters the dark, foreboding, “film noir” world when the wolf man actually awakens in his coffin! Realizing he cannot die, he goes in search of a way to end his own life! Eventually, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man when Larry arrives at Baron Frankenstein’s castle and revives the Frankenstein Monster (Bela Lugosi). Big mistake! A crazy scientist (Patric Knowles) conducts experiments on the monster when he agrees to help Larry enter the hereafter! Of course, it isn’t long before all heck breaks loose as the monster escapes and Larry turns into the Wolf Man! The ensuing battle between the two supernatural creatures is, to say the least, tremendously entertaining. But it all comes to an apocalyptic end when the townsfolk destroy a dam to flood the castle! So once again we ask: Have we finally seen the last of the Wolf Man?

Wanna bet?!

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The next two films in which the Wolf Man appears, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, are exceedingly silly affairs commonly referred to as monster mashes. Both films offer all three major Universal Studios’ boogeymen: Dracula, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster! Thus, the dark mood is completely discarded in favor of action and excitement. Basically, the stories are irrelevant. It all comes down to kid appeal. But don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting the two films have no merit. In their own outrageous way they remain tremendously entertaining. F’rinstance… Even though Larry Talbot is apparently shot and killed by a silver bullet at the close of House of Frankenstein, his return in the next film tells us that he’s actually immune to every type of silver weapon! Therefore, his supposed cure near the end of House of Dracula makes perfect sense! After a mad scientist finally relieves Larry of his wolf man curse, Larry happily escapes the mayhem that closes the film! But despite this turn of events, we can’t help but wonder…if we have truly seen the last of the Wolf Man?

Wanna bet?! 

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Uh-oh. Wait a minute. I guess the cure was temporary. The Wolf Man returned in 1948 to appear in one more monster mash called Bud Abbott Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein! (Yes, that is in fact the onscreen title—Ed.) One of the greatest comedies ever made, the film is also a reasonably decent thriller. It seems that Dracula (the second and final time Bela Lugosi played the bloodsucker in a film) wants to replace the supposedly damaged brain of the Frankenstein monster (Glenn Strange)…and needless to say, Lou’s gray matter is the perfect substitute! Our hero Larry Talbot (Chaney Jr. of course) is determined to stop the vampire from achieving his goal. Naturally, Larry isn’t very successful until he finally turns into the Wolf Man near the end of the film! Within a hilltop castle, Dracula and the Wolf Man play catch-me-if-you-can, while Bud and Lou play hide-‘n’-seek with the Frankenstein Monster (after the monster throws Dracula’s attractive female assistant through a plate glass window several stories above the ground). It all comes to a very exciting climax when the vampire and the Wolf Man plunge hundreds of feet into the ocean, and the Frankenstein Monster is apparently destroyed by fire! Finally, Bud and Lou are able to relax and breathe a sigh of relief. That is until the Invisible Man suddenly pops-up to scare the Dickens out of them! Trust me when I say that it’s an entirely logical development in this type of film!

But truth be told, logic really wasn’t part of the world inhabited by the Wolf Man, which made such supernatural goings-on so very entertaining. Thank God creatures like Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Wolf Man really don’t exist. That would make our reality unbearable. But I’m certainly very glad that they inhabited the dark corridors of our neighborhood movie theater. And of course, we should never forget the most important thing when they appear on the silver screen…

It’s a Universal picture!

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Blair Kramer is a widely published writer for various publications, including “Velocity: Chicago,” “A Guide to Art in Chicago,” “Comic Book Collector Magazine,” “American Metal Magazine,” and the “Jewish American Historical Society.” He also dabbles in screenplays and comic books. There are only two things in his life that he loves more than good movies. They are his wife and family.

 

  • maxfabien

    An entertaining article. But I have strong disagreements on two points. First, The 2010 remake of “The Wolf Man” was a very good film. The additional twists that were added to the story brought new thrills and edge-of-your-seat excitement surprises. And, of course, the state-of-the-art transformation from man to monster and the Oscar-winning make-up by Rick Baker help to make this an exceptionally good retread, unlike past efforts such as Coppola’s “Dracula” and Branaugh’s “Frankenstein”,. Secondly, Lon Chaney’s acting in “The Wolf Man” hit just the right pitch of innocence and torment. To say he was a bad actor in general is rather harsh. Mostly it was a case of bad films. Check out his acting in major productions such as “Of Mice and Men” or “High Noon”. The man was no Olivier, but when the role called for it he held his own.

    • Blair Kramer

      I suppose some people liked the remake with Benicio Del Toro. It just seems to me that it fell apart when the previously loving father suddenly tries to kill his son. As for Lon Chaney Jr.’s acting, I stand by my opinion. But you’re absolutely right about his work in OF MICE AND MEN. I would call it the crowning achievement of an actor with limited ability.

  • ganderson

    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.

    • KarenG958

      I was hoping someone would quote that!

  • Wayne P.

    Good piece Blair, but I also think he had a tough act to follow being the son of possibly the greatest actor of all time (IMHO) and using his name to boot. He should’ve stuck with his real name: Creighton Chaney. His part in The Wolf Man is much more substansial and serious than is his fine supporting role in Of Mice and Men, both of which helped typecast him for his looney monster bits to come. As a result, I would have to give TWM the nod for an overall better quality performance of his. Movies were just supposed to entertain us until the next film came out back in the studio age. And they did that very well…Lon Jr. might’ve said: hey, somebody had to play in all those sequels! He had a good feel for comedy too as evidenced by his hilarious playing of the male nurse at the funny farm, and the bad guys henchman antagonist to Bob Hope, in My Favorite Brunette.

    • Blair Kramer

      Actually, I agree with your view of Chaney Sr. I think he was the best dramatic film actor who ever lived. But we all have to sink or swim on our own, don’t we? Some of us are a chip off the old block, and some of us aren’t. Lon Chaney Jr. wasn’t. I enjoyed some of his work in more than a few films, but after all is said and done, I just don’t think he was a very good actor. At least, not for the most part. But that’s OK. He will forever be remembered as THE WOLF MAN, and that’s something worth holding on to.

  • eludio

    I believe I remember reading that originally, Lawrence Talbot was supposed to come from America to install the telescope in THE WOLFMAN, but somehow it was changed to make him the son of Claude Rains. Bela Lugosi played the werewolf who attatcked him. Kurt Siodmark did the scripts for this and FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, and Jack Pearce did a great job with makeup. I really enjoyed the village “Festival of New Wine” in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN.

    • Blair Kramer

      Of all the films that features THE WOLF MAN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN is my personal favorite. But I have enough insight to recognize the fact that the first film, THE WOLF MAN, is the best of the lot.

  • Tiffany Fontaine

    I first saw Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein when I was 9 – it was on TV on Halloween afternoon, and I think my parents let me watch it to shut me up until evening. LOVED IT! And just saw it again recently – “some” years later – every bit as good – holds up perfectly!

  • Gary

    The Wolf Man is truly a classic horror film. And you are right, the 2010 remake was just awful.

  • Pat S

    I interveiwed Curt Siodmak, the screenwriter of “The Wolf Man” and “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” for the Writers Guild magazine in 1999. Siodmak created much of the Wolf Man myth that many believed was Gypsy folklore including the famous “Even a man who is pure in heart…..” line. Siodmak revealed his inspiration for the story and in 2010 I wrote an article that describes that fascinating story. I’ve included the link for anyone who cares to read it. Why the Original Wolf Man Howled | Film | Jewish Journal‎ -

  • Phil M

    As a long time fan of the Universal monster flixs, I appreciate the article. These films take their lumps over the years and people make fun of them by trying to compare them to today’s films. What they often forget is that these films were pioneers in the art of horror flixs. Watching Frankenstein in an unbias way and you can see and even feel a sense of the horror of The Monster. You watch The Wolfman and you can see a man, Lawrence Talbot, who is to be pitied and one that you can feel a sense of sorry for a man doomed and no where to turn. Dracula becomes for many the first cold blooded and no conscience killer. A true horror.

    These films were not made as Academy Award nominees but they stand up through time as great movies with great characters and, mostly, great actors like Lugosi, Karloff, and Raines (who does a fantastic job in The Invisible Man despite only seeing him in the last ten seconds of the film.)

    I hope people don’t forget these films; they are a great piece of history and a film legacy,

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Daisy-Brambletoes/846520385 Daisy Brambletoes

    Whattya mean, “notoriously awful”? I thought it was a great film, and a decided improvement over the original.

  • jumbybird

    I think he gave a very good performance in Abbott and Costellos’ version as a man afraid of what he is.

  • Leo

    A&C MEETS FRANKENSTEIN was the second time Bela Lugosi played DRACULA in a film? You’re forgetting HOLLYWOOD ON PARADE in which a wax statue of the Count (played by Bela Lugosi) comes to life to menace a live action Betty Boop. You can see it on YouTube.

  • Roger Lynn

    my all time fave of werewolf movies,,Lon Chaney was wonderful in this,he was a good actor……..next fave is abbot and costello meet frankenstein ,wolfman,dracula

  • Alan Scouser

    Great post. Lon Chaney Jr. was the greatest wolfman of all time. He portrayed the character with all the awesome style and pathos that Karloff portrayed the Frankenstein Monster with.