Silver Screen Standards: The Wolf Man (1941)
When I’m asked to choose a favorite among the classic Universal monster movies, I always pick The Wolf Man (1941). As much as I love Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in their iconic monster roles, there’s something profoundly tragic about Lon Chaney Jr. as the unwilling werewolf, and the story always gets into my psyche and prowls around there in the dark corners, sniffing at my suspicion that the monster I most fear is the one who lives inside me. Unlike his monstrous peers, the Wolf Man is a living human being, guilty of no wrong, who is as horrified by his transformation as anyone else but utterly unable to stop it or prevent his bestial alter ego from wreaking havoc. What could be more terrifying? It’s this deeply sad and terrible premise that makes The Wolf Man such a great horror movie and an inspiration to the many stories that have followed it.
It’s true that The Wolf Man has its weaknesses as a picture, and Lon Chaney Jr. is not the gruesome chameleon that his father was in silent horror masterpieces, but Chaney’s ordinary face and manner remind us that this is the story of an everyman, not an extraordinary fiend or a lunatic driven by his unholy passions. Larry Talbot is the Americanized, prodigal son of an old English family; the disconnect between Chaney’s size and accent when compared to those of Claude Rains, who plays his father, Sir John, can seem a bit absurd but also emphasizes their emotional separation. As modern viewers we’re rightly troubled by the stereotyped depiction of the story’s Romani characters, but still Maria Ouspenskaya moves and compels us with her portrayal of Maleva, a sympathetic mother grieving the fate of her son and striving to help Larry even though the odds are against him. Maleva’s doomed son Bela, played by none other than Lugosi himself, is no more willingly culpable for his actions than Larry. The “wolf” we occasionally see might not fool anyone who has ever seen either a wolf or a German Shepherd, but it takes a lot of trust between man and dog for those scenes, and it’s weirdly heartwarming to know that Chaney’s pet dog, Moose, substitutes for the fearsome predator.
The message of The Wolf Man is best expressed by the ominous verse that we hear repeated throughout the picture: “Even a man who is pure of heart,/ And says his prayers by night,/ May become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms/ And the autumn moon is bright.” The lines have the ring of an old nursery rhyme but were written by Curt Siodmak, who penned the original screenplay. As a Polish Jew born in Germany, Siodmak knew too well the way fate forces people into monstrous situations; he had fled Europe for the United States in 1937 as the Nazis ramped up their anti-Semitic aggression. Siodmak might have had his own powerlessness against fate in mind when he wrote the screenplay, but it speaks to the universal fear we share of being unable to stop terrible things from happening. Even more troubling is the fear that we cannot stop ourselves from becoming the monsters we abhor.
Siodmak’s story also taps into the medieval sense of the Wheel of Fortune and de casibus tragedy, in which people fall into the worst suffering from the promising heights of happiness. Larry Talbot is such a person, tied to Fortune’s relentlessly spinning wheel. He comes home, is reconciled with his father, meets a girl he likes, and is poised to inherit his father’s estate, but the werewolf’s fatal bite turns everything to ruin. Larry commits no crime to merit such a fate; he is simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying to do the right thing by rushing to the aid of the werewolf’s latest victim. He’s not a mad scientist playing God, an adulterer performing profane rituals, or a bloodthirsty count enjoying his immortality. That’s what makes Larry’s story both moving and terrifying. He’s a normal person, just like us, living his normal life until something horrific snatches it all away.
The tragic power of The Wolf Man has been harnessed many times since Chaney first donned the iconic werewolf makeup and stalked Evelyn Ankers through the foggy moonlit wood, with Chaney himself revisiting the role numerous times. He played Larry Talbot again in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), proving that one of Larry’s worst torments is his inability to die and end the curse. Simone Simon provides a feminine take on the story in Cat People (1942), while David Naughton plays a younger but no less tortured lycanthrope in An American Werewolf in London (1981). Even the cult horror comedy classic, Monster Squad (1987), understands that the werewolf is best understand as a victim of his fate. For a precursor to the 1941 picture, see Werewolf of London (1935), starring Henry Hull. If you’re interested in the medieval roots of werewolf lore, read the 12th century French “Bisclavret,” written by Marie de France.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.