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.