“A disease of the mind in which human begins imagine they are wolf-men. According to an old legend which persists in certain localities, the victims actually assume the physical characteristics of the animal. There is a small village near Talbot Castle which still claims to have had gruesome experiences with this supernatural creature. The sign of the werewolf is a five pointed star, a pentagram, enclosing a…”
The above, is a description of Lycanthropy (Werewolfism), as well as a brief set up, shown to the viewer, before the beginning of the film “The Wolf Man.” In the first scene, Larry Talbot, portrayed by Lon Chaney Jr. (High Noon), has returned to his ancestral home, Talbot Castle, in Llanwelly, Wales after spending the better part of two decades abroad in America. The reason for his return, is because his older brother has passed away. According to Larry’s father, Sir John Talbot, a role acted by four time Oscar nominee Claude Rains (Casablanca), he will one day function as the head of the Talbot estate. Larry’s relationship with his father, it is made known to the viewer, has been strained over the years. The two, however, immediately agree to put the past behind them, and move forward. The first thing the two men do is head upstairs to the conservatory, where Sir John has asked Larry, who is good with his hands and fixing things, to work on his telescope. While fixing the telescope, Larry spots the attractive Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) through the lens. He is drawn to her, and makes a trip into the local town, where her father, Charles (J.M. Kerrigan), owns a shop that buys and sells antiques.
While in the shop, Larry purchases a silver, wolf’s headed cane, that features a wolf inside a pentagram. Afterward, for the first time, the following poem, regarding the myth of the werewolf, which is repeated several times during the film’s 70 minute runtime, is said to him by Gwen: “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.” Larry, however, is more interested in getting to know Gwen, but each time he asks her if she’ll spend time with him later that evening, she rejects him. What he doesn’t know, but will soon learn, is that Gwen is engaged to be married to Frank (Patric Knowles). Coinciding with Talbot’s arrival, is the annual appearance of a group of gypsies; they arrive every autumn, and hold a fair for the townspeople. Gwen and Larry spot them, when Gwen shows Larry out of the shop. One of the gypsies is played by Bela Lugosi (Dracula), who coincidently is named Bela in the film. His is a small but, as it will turn out, important role in the movie. The other gypsy, who receives an ample amount of screen time, is Bela’s mother, Maleva, who is portrayed by two time Oscar nominee Maria Ouspenskaya (Dodsworth).
Not taking no as an answer to his earlier requests, Larry waits for Gwen to lock up the store for the evening. She agrees to accompany him but, she will not go alone with him; her friend Jenny (Fay Helm), will be joining them. The three make their way to the gypsy camp. Once there, Jenny gets her palm read by Bela, and Larry asks Gwen to take a walk with him, and she agrees. While Jenny is having her palm read by Bela, he becomes very disturbed, when he sees a pentagram appear on her palm. Jenny can’t see it, but Bela can, because he is a werewolf, and he knows, according to legend that Jenny will become his next victim. He insists that she run away, but it does no good. He soon catches up to her, and kills her off screen. Larry and Gwen hear Jenny’s screams, and Larry rushes to help her, but he is too late. For his efforts, he is attacked by a wolf. Larry manages to kill the wolf with his cane, but in the process, he has been bitten.
Maleva and Gwen get Larry back to his home, surprising Sir John, and his friend Colonel Montford, played by Oscar winner Ralph Bellamy (War and Remembrance). Gwen starts to tell the men what happened, but is interrupted by Twiddle (Forrester Harvey), who informs Montford of Jenny’s murder. When he arrives at the crime scene, there is not one, but two dead bodies. Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) examines both bodies, and states that Jenny’s throat has been cut. In addition, Bela, who has turned back from a wolf into his human state, has been bludgeoned to death. The prime suspect is Larry, because his cane is found next to Bela’s body.
The next morning, Larry awakes to find Sir John, Dr. Lloyd, and Colonel Montford in his bedroom. Montford gives Larry his cane back, informing him that it was found at the crime scene. Larry doesn’t hesitate to state that he used his cane to kill the wolf. When Sir John lets him know that no wolf’s body was found, but instead Bela’s body, Larry is utterly confused. He offers to show the men the bite he sustained from the wolf, but the bite mark has mysteriously vanished. Larry goes to the gypsy camp to speak to Maleva, to find out what is going on. She informs him that he has been bitten, and now he has the werewolf curse. The only thing that can protect him, and those that he cares for is silver. From that moment forward, and for the rest of the film, Larry struggles with his new found existence, wanting desperately to keep his inner beast from harming anyone.
“The Wolf Man” was directed by George Waggner (77 Sunset Strip), with a screenplay written by Curt Siodmak (Invisible Agent). Siodmak wrote the screenplay, while keeping in mind the vile behavior carried out by the Nazis, that he had witnessed, in his native Germany, which he had fled several years earlier. The poem, that Larry Talbot first hears spoken by Gwen, in the antique shop, was made up by Siodmak, although it took a long time for him to receive the credit. Furthermore, unlike Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” published in 1823, and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” published in 1897, Siodmak didn’t have a particular piece of literature to draw from. He created, for example, the concept that only a silver bullet can kill a werewolf. The makeup, that helped to transform Lon Chaney Jr. into the werewolf, took six hours to put on, and an additional three hours to remove. The makeup was done by Jack P. Pierce (Frankenstein), a brilliant makeup artist, and a catalyst for those who would come after him. In addition to a rubber nose, in order to get the desired effect for the werewolf’s appearance, Pierce used yak hair which he singed with a curling iron, and then attached to Chaney’s arms and legs using gum. (As an aside: “The Wolf Man” premiered on December 12, 1941, in Los Angeles, California. Universal Pictures was apprehensive about releasing the film, because two days prior to its scheduled release, Pearl Harbor had been bombed).
In closing, “The Wolf Man,” like a number of the Universal horror films from the 1930s and 40s, has an enduring charm to it, which is why it has stood the test of time. There is nothing remotely scary about it, and suffice it to say, the entire family can sit down to watch the film; parents won’t have to worry about anything objectionable being shown on screen. I think, however, that most children and young adults today would find it much too slow and tame, however, those who grow up to be movie buffs, once they’re older, will probably appreciate its historical place in cinema, and enjoy it much more. For those who love classic horror films this is worth revisiting.