Wednesday, October 21, 2015

BAB Review: The Wolfman (1941)




Karen: Tis the season for spooky stuff, and certainly around here that includes the Universal Monster films of the 30s -50s. One of my favorites is The Wolfman, starring Lon Chaney Jr. Like all of its brethren, it's an atmospheric piece, with more mood than mayhem. It also has a tragic lead, in Larry Talbot, the hapless lead who is transformed into the Wolf Man. But I feel the film is often overlooked in the Universal ranks. It's actually a very good movie, with a terrific cast and an intriguing plot. Lon Chaney Jr. may have had a limited range, but as Larry Talbot, he comes off as likable and the viewer sympathizes with his feelings of discomfort, returning to  his birthplace in Wales after spending most of his life in America (and yes, it's probably the only way anyone could explain having the very English Claude Rains as his father). Later, when he begins to realize what has happened, Chaney's fear for his own sanity, and then fear for those around him, is handled well. Whenever watching a film from this time period, it would be easy to dismiss the much larger and more melodramatic acting style as a lack of talent, but this was how things were done then, as actors transitioned from stage to film. 

The rest of the cast, including Rains, Evelyn Ankers as Chaney's love interest Gwen, Bela Lugosi as the gypsy/werewolf Bela, and particularly Maria Ouspenskaya as the wise Gypsy woman Maleva all bring depth to their roles and give Chaney solid support. 



Writer Curt Siodmak, who wrote many screenplays from the 30s through the 50s, developed many of the concepts that would become 'modern' werewolf lore, although interestingly in the film, the full moon is never directly shown or referenced as being the cause of Talbot's transformations. The transformation itself is also initially left as something of a mystery -was Talbot truly physically transforming, or was it all in his mind? The people of the village all seem to know the lore and joke about it before Talbot is attacked by Bela, and the town doctor states that mass suggestion could make a man believe he could become a beast. Poor Talbot is completely confused about what is happening to him, and as a viewer, there's a level of uncertainty until near the end. At only an hour and ten minutes the film doesn't have a lot of time to play with this theme, but it's there.

Whether a wolf or not, Talbot is implicated in the attacks purely by being an outsider, and there's a wonderful scene in a church where you can feel the entire town turn their suspicion on him, and Chaney's fumbling, guilt-ridden reaction is perfect.

Although a minor detail, when Talbot goes to stop the werewolf's attack on a woman, although partially obscured by trees and mist, we can see that the beast is in a four-legged form (legend has it that the role was played by Chaney's dog, Moose). Was it a lack of money that caused this, or a desire to keep the werewolf makeup hidden til later? Or something else?

The Wolfman was Chaney's alone -no other actor played the character in a Universal film, something that can't be said of Frankenstein or Dracula, or the Mummy. Talbot spent the rest of his Universal life trying to find a way to die and rid himself of his curse, making him the most tragic of the monsters, and perhaps the most endearing too. 


17 comments:

Colin Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Humanbelly said...

PERFECT gift of a post for the Halloween Season, Karen-!
I've a deep, DEEP affection for this film. It has a big ol' jumble of nostalgic late-night Creature Feature (or, yeesh, DOUBLE Creature Feature-- which sometimes went until 3:30a.m. or so!) associations, but is also a movie that I've always delighted in for its own sake.

Free-association thought #1:

Our local station that had the late-night Saturday Creature Feature slot (either WNDU-16, or WSJV-28-- can't quite recall. . . ) was all over the map on the movies it acquired-- and I suspect that it purchased cast-off prints of several and just ran them periodically, regardless of the condition they were in. The original Dracula and Frankenstein popped up fairly regularly, as well as Bride of Fr. and the Wolfman. Huge, badly-spliced gaps (presumable from broken film); loooooong continuous scratches in the prints that would scroll right along for several seconds at a time; occasional reels being shown out of order (and never caught as such); and audio tracks that often sounded like they were recovered from an Edison wax cylinder that had spent time on the ocean floor and only been partially de-barnacled. The latter, there, is the reason for one particular mote of memory. Maria Ouspenskaya was a flippin' cinematic TREASURE-- but that was one thick accent she was sportin'. And twice during the film, she has that haunting little eulogy-poem, which begins, "The way you walked was thorny. . . through no fault of your own. . ." I'm sure I saw this movie three or four times between the ages of 11 and 14 (ha! probably all from that same print!), and despite being absolutely sure it couldn't really be what she was saying, it simply never sounded like anything EXCEPT, "Da vey you talked vas corny, t'roo no fault uff your own. . . (crackle,scratch,crackle,warble,rumble,scratch,crackle. . . )" And by the third time I just gave up and decided, no, that really was what she was saying, and it was either wildly bad script-writing, or there was a homonym for "corny" that meant something entirely different, or that "corny" itself had a different meaning in 1941. It wasn't until I was an adult that I finally saw the movie in a beautifully clean VHS format, and could at last HEAR the darned words correctly. And the last chapter was finally closed on a question that I then realized had been subconsciously lingering for decades. . .

(end of Free-Association #1)

HB

Garett said...

I haven't seen this film, but I like Claude Rains. Great as Prince John opposite Errol Flynn in Robin Hood. Also in Casablanca with Bogey.

J.A. Morris said...

Thanks Karen, Universal Horror movies were always on TV this time of year when I was growing up. For some reason, 'The Wolfman' was rarely shown in areas where I lived, I think I only saw it once as a kid. But I've watched it several times on dvd and Turner Classics, it holds up pretty well today.

It's got a pretty good cast too, even if Chaney's range is limited. My introduction to Maria Ouspenskaya was this very short segment from a Lenny Bruce album:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QvdgrHf-JJo

Humanbelly said...

Free-Association thought #2:

Yep, going along w/ J.A.'s observation about Chaney,Jr's limitations--
My first thought, even as a kid seeing the movie for the first time, was that trying to squoosh Chaney into the mold of Leading Man was an awfully tall order-- and not altogether a successful one. He reads a touch too old, he's really big and beefy (even though this is about the slimmest I think we ever see him), and bless his heart-- he's NOT a handsome guy-- although they did get his hair looking pretty darned good. BUT-- I honestly think that very element goes a long way toward making the movie work. Instead of a handsome, charming, heroic-but-tragically-doomed central character, we're given a rather ordinary but likable, big, average-looking lug of a fellow who is not only a fish out of water in his town of origin, but is completely out of his depth in the awful circumstances he finds himself in, and doesn't hold up well under the them at all. In spite of the nobility of his birth (who the heck did tiny little Claude Rains supposedly marry to produce this behemoth, anyhow? Lady Sasquatch??), he truly is a terrific Everyman figure, and performs that function wonderfully. And that gives us an emotional connection to this film that's generally hard to find in horror movies.
Is he a great actor? Nnnno, not exactly (although his Lenny in OF MICE & MEN is a great, great performance; the one all Lennys could be measured against). He doesn't have a great natural delivery in the way he speaks (but neither did Gary Cooper, so go figure), although that was how he always tended to talk, really. He was more a "type" actor than a character-chameleon (but so was Cary Grant, so go figure). But what you can see even in the clip that Karen posts is that he was very good at being emotionally involved, connected, and fully in the moment when the cameras were rolling. Even though he may have been technically limited, that's the quality that will bring an audience along more than anything else and make them care, y'know?

End of free-association #2

HB

Karen said...

HB, I appreciate your points about Chaney Jr. He gets knocked about his acting all the time -and sometimes, rightly so. But he really seems to invest himself here (and in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, which I just re-watched this weekend). He comes into the village feeling nervous, after having been away so long (and the suggestion being that he was out of favor compared to his older brother, recently killed by you know what), then comes on strong to Gwen (wolfish), and then is attacked by Bela and spends the rest of the film in anguish. He creates a compelling, sympathetic character and you do feel for him -something that I felt was profoundly lacking in the del Toro remake of a few years back.

In FMTW, he is mysteriously resurrected and spends his time trying to find a way to die. His best scenes are with Ouspenskaya, his surrogate mother. His desperation might seem heavy handed but geez, if you were unable to stop turning into a murdering monster, you'd probably be pretty distraught too. Chaney's physicality worked well for this role too.

The one thing that cracks me up now is how feeble the Wolfman is! In my child's memory, I always saw him prowling around, leaping, tearing things and people apart, but in reality, in these films, he does very little! At one point he hops up on a crate a couple of feet high -that's about the extent of his athleticism! Even the stunt doubles in FMTW aren't much better. I guess we had lower expectations in those days. Of course now they would go to the other extreme, and Wolfman would jump a 100 foot chasm...

pfgavigan said...

Hiya,

Thanks for featuring one of my favorite classic films. Larry Talbot was always one of the more sympathetic figures in horror and, due to Mr Chaney, one of the most easily identifiable with. As others have stated and I agree with, he wasn't the most versatile of actors but in this role he shined.

Hey Karen, in the original script, which was catchly titled 'Lycanthropy', the only time Talbot transformed was when he was looking in a mirror and his reflected image changed in his fevered mind. I much prefer the final version.

I would also like to suggest that the makeup design, product of Jack Pierce, plays a large part of the success of the film. State of the art for its time, it still succeeds where more modern techniques fail. The classic Wolfman retains a horrible parody of the humanity now trapped within the beast while something like An American Werewolf in London has a man completely submerged within the monster. It's just more shocking, for me at least, to see something that retains vestiges of humanity committing such heinous acts.

Humanbelly; I guess I really lucked out when I saw these films for the first time. The copies shown on Lenny's Inferno featuring Mr. Mypisto weren't pristine but I could certainly hear everything and understand it.

Has anybody here seen the remake? I heard so much about it that I haven't even been able to work up the interest to watch it on DVD.

Seeya,

pfgavigan

pfgavigan said...

hiya,

Oops, I was typing up my comments while Karen was posting.

Thanks for info on remake. Pretty much confirmed my suspicions.

seeya

pfg

Edo Bosnar said...

I've actually never seen this one, although I did see Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman when I was a kid (where I lived, monster movies were shown on Saturday afternoons). Don't remember much of it, but I do remember thinking it was pretty good.
I saw the remake (well, not the whole thing, I missed about the first third) on TV a few months ago. I think Karen's right, you really can't feel too much for the main character - or any of the characters, really. It makes me want to see the original, though.

The Prowler said...

I've seen this movie before, perhaps in the afternoon. Prolly on USA Network during the 80s when everything was on TV. Never caught the lack of a full moon till Karen pointed it out. When did that become part of the canon?

When we look at the troika of monsters, I wonder when vampires and werewolves became linked. Most of the major modern treatments have used them as enemies. Twilight, Underworld, Being Human and so on and so forth and et al.....

Also, while vampires/Dracula has stayed fairly steady, it seems that Frankenstein's Monster and the Werewolf have had their ups and downs in popularity.

Free association on HB's comment: Wanda and Pietro speak with accents but they never had Natasha use one. I think, in hindsight, if she would have always had one, it would have been great to have had her accent and Wanda's accent be exactly the same to everyone else but neither would could hear it. It would have been a running gag between them like Pietro's and Clint's "You didn't see that coming?".

(I got the ways and means
To New Orleans
I'm going down by the river
Where it's warm and green
I'm gonna have a drink and walk around
I got a lot to think about).

The Groovy Agent said...

This movie is why I'm having "Were-Week" on my blog. The Wolfman was, hands down, my fave of the Universal Monsters when I was growing up. Still my favorite (now followed by Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein--wonder why?)!

Anonymous said...

After super-heroes & dinosaurs, Universal monsters were my 3rd favorite thing during childhood. I caught this movie once or twice. I never got into the character as much as Dracula or the Frankenstein monster, but I enjoyed the movie. Maybe if Lon Chaney Jr. was as charismatic as Lugosi or as talented as Karloff... Speaking of, I was a Lugosi fan through & through. Karloff was a better actor, but nobody had as much pressence as Bela.

- Mike Loughlin

Redartz said...

Haven't seen this in years...warning, flashback alert:

12 year old me, with a friend over for the night. Sleeping bag on the floor in front of the console tv, Coke and chips close at hand. It's Friday night, about 11:30 pm. Channel 4 news is over, and now it begins: Nightmare Theatre , featuring "Sammy Terry"! "The Wolfman" is the first film of tonight's double creature feature (every Friday night was a double feature for Sammy).

They may be showing the same print that HB saw, or else it's simply the shaky reception that channel 4 had in our area. We didn't mind, though; just loved the chills watching such films while the rest of the house was DARK and the parents long asleep.

Thanks for the memories, Karen! Jeez, I may have to 'scare' up a copy and enjoy it again...

Humanbelly said...

Ha! And here's why I love HBGirl so much, in spite of her contrary teenage-actress-tude:

I mentioned in passing on the way home (frommmmmm her voice lesson) that we'd been chatting about the original Wolf-Man today, and she immediately lets fly (in a creaky Slavik dialect) Ouspenskaya's whole "Even a man who is pure of heart, and says his prayers by night. . ." sing-song poem. I'll wager she's the only 17-year-old girl in her school who could gleefully pull that one off---

"She's so far out, she's in-!"

Heh. . .

HB

Redartz said...

Obviously she was well raised, HB!

Edo Bosnar said...

Excellent, HB (although: Slavik?)

And Redartz, I find it amusing how you, and occasionally others here, seem to feel the need to apologize for flashbacks to Bronze Age times past, strolls down memory lane, and so forth ... heck, that stuff is the food of this blog I would think. Don't be sorry, reminisce proudly!

Humanbelly said...

Slavic, perhaps?
Coming from HBGirl, though, the dialect/accent definitely lacks clear specificity. Kinda Russian, kinda Hungarian, kinda Polish-- lotsa rolled R's and serpentine diphthongs, making it sound exotic and dramatic. Pretty much what I imagine Dr. Doom's accent to be, y'know? (Which, I might point out, I have never heard attempted by anyone in the few instances of Doom being given a "real" voice-- it makes me crazy. . . )(Wait-- maybe in the Ultimate Alliance games. . . ?)

HB

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