Even a Man Who is Pure in Heart:
The Wolf Man
“A gentleman is simply a patient wolf.”
Over the course of the ‘thirties—that Golden Age for we lovers of classic horror movies—Universal Studios had established a solid base for a Mythos that gave us several iconic creatures. To this day they remain archetypes of what has become the traditional horror movie monster, albeit now in an often altered form. From their initial, slightly surprising success with Dracula (1930) and Frankenstein (1931) Universal went on to unleash The Mummy (1932); and then in 1941 came what is generally regarded as the fourth in their enduring line-up, The Wolf Man.
I say that The Wolf Man (directed by George Waggner) is considered to be the fourth of their recognised monsters, but surely there’s a case to be made for including The Invisible Man (1933). He even ended up in the continuity—such as it is—when the creatures began to mix and match in the forties.
Anyway, the film at hand really is a classic of its kind.
Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) returns to his Welsh ancestral home after the death of his brother. He has grown up in the States–thus neatly explaining the accent—after a falling out with his father, Sir John (Claude Rains), but is now ready to take up his responsibilities. Well, after a fashion. He has a bit of rather creepy voyeuristic ogling to do at the local talent first, especially after he discovers a very handy telescope in his dad’s study; and soon he is descending on the rather attractive Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers).
I was going to say that as well as being very attractive Gwen is also very engaged, but she’s not really. Very, I mean. At least, it doesn’t stop her from responding pretty enthusiastically to Larry’s heavy-handed flirting. Jesus, this guy’s chat-up lines will kill you.
His behaviour is interesting, though. Since this is gentle giant Lon Chaney Jr. he is instantly likeable; but it is also clear that he is a bit of a wolf, even before he becomes a wolf, if you get my meaning. By the manner in which he spies on Gwen—what else are you going to call it when a man is peering into an unknowing ladies bedroom?—and proceeds to chase her in a very forward manner, he is clearly comfortable in the role of hunter and predator already.
Whilst in her father’s antique shop Larry makes a big issue out of buying a cane. Gwen suggests that one with the head of a dog might suit him. I’m not sure if the term ‘dog’, when applied to a man, had the same connotation in 1941 as it would have today but it does seem appropriate, although not as much as the one on which he settles: a cane with a sliver wolf’s head.
They visit a gypsy camp and there the fortune-teller Bela, played by a very well-fed looking Bela Lugosi, attacks and kills Gwen’s friend Jenny after he takes the guise of a wolf. Talbot beats the animal to death with his silver-headed cane but it is the body of the man that is found the next morning.
A Village Obsessed with Werewolves!
Larry has been bitten in the attack and Maleva, an elderly Gypsy travelling with the caravan, tells him that Bela’s affliction has now been passed on to him. In saying her farewells to the late fortune teller (who obviously didn’t see Big Larry in the cards) she recites:
“The way you walked was a thorny one, 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. “
This is quite a nice little sentiment and Curt Siodmak, the legendary screenwriter isn’t one to waste a goodie when he comes up with one. So we get to hear it a total of three times in all, but that’s OK. I can live with that.
He knew that he was on to another winner with probably the most famous rhyme in classic horror movies:
“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.”
We get this one three times as well; and all within the first twenty minutes. Everyone knows the ditty because this small Welsh conclave appears to be obsessed with werewolves.
None of the lapses in logic matter too much in these wonderful movies. You can always find a way to accommodate them. Even the fact that Larry is wearing a white vest during the first transformation and a black shirt after he starts loping around the countryside doesn’t bother the viewer. (Well, not this one anyway.) Why does Bela take the form of a real wolf whilst Larry takes the form of a two-legged hybrid? Who cares?
The cast are a pure delight and I particularly enjoyed Ralph Bellamy as the Chief Constable who looks as if he would have to be surgically removed from his pipe. It also makes you realise that the decades hadn’t significantly changed him until he ended up as one of the avaricious old scoundrels in John Landis’s Trading Places.
And of course the setting is Universal’s usual never-never land where modern motor cars mix comfortably with horse-drawn carriages. And if you’re in the right social strata like Larry it’s unlikely that you’ll be questioned too seriously, even if all the evidence—plus a silver-headed cane found next to a corpse—points in your direction.
Ralph Bellamy snaps at the doctor at one point: “After all, two people are dead and I am Chief Constable after all!”
“Oh, that’s no reason to make a great mystery out of it”, says the doctor. “You talk like a detective in a novel.”
It’s all grist to the mill, though. Murders galore, wolfs stalking the countryside, gypsies roaming around reciting poems and walking sticks being handed back to the owner instead of being held as ‘Exhibit A’…none of this matters because Ralph isn’t letting go of that pipe.
This is great stuff and can be watched over and over again. You’ll always find something new and delightful in it. And if it is your introduction to big, sad-faced Lon Chaney Jr. then you’ll find that he went on to be the only actor to portray all of Universal’s main monsters: he donned the yak hair for the Wolf Man five times; he was the Frankenstein Monster and the Mummy. As to Dracula; well he appeared as Count Alucard in Son of Dracula. But there’s a school of thought that he was in fact the original Count. (Read it backwards.)
Truly, that shining period between 1930 and 1948 when the Monsters all teamed up for one final outing– in the surprisingly good Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein– was a glorious time for fans of the black-and-white horrors. And for people like me that time has never been bettered.
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