On December 12, 1941, a horror legend was born, and it couldn’t have come at a better time for Universal Studios, which had ruled the roost in the first half of the ’30s with such iconic monster movies as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Invisible Man. It wasn’t until the success of 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, though, that the studio caught the sequel bug, resulting in the production of Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Frankenstein, The Mummy’s Hand and The Invisible Man Returns — films that may have looked good in the ledger books, but lacked the spark of originality that a wholly new monster would create. Enter Curt Siodmak.
Along with his brother Robert, Curt Siodmak had been part of the mass exodus of talent from the German film industry during the ’30s, and the fact that they ultimately landed in Hollywood was no accident. Robert found steady work as a director, most notably on some of the signature noir films of the ’40s, but Curt primarily earned his keep as a screenwriter, getting his start in horror with 1940’s The Invisible Man Returns, which he tailored to Vincent Price’s talents, and a pair of films for Boris Karloff — Black Friday and The Ape. It was with The Wolf Man the following year, however, that he struck pay dirt, creating the iconic character of reluctant lycanthrope Larry Talbot and inventing much of the mythology that comes to mind when people think of werewolves today.
For the benefit of audiences who weren’t up on their werewolf lore (after all, Universal’s previous man-beast yarn, 1935’s Werewolf of London, had pointedly failed to become a hit), The Wolf Man helpfully opens with an encyclopedia entry on lycanthropy (or “werewolfism”) before establishing the “backwards” old-world locale where such superstitions are still whispered about in earnest. We’re then introduced to the unmistakably American Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr. in his defining role), the prodigal son and heir to Talbot Castle who has been away in America for 18 years and only returns after his older brother has been killed in a hunting accident. Chaney’s father (Claude Rains), a noted astronomer with a rigidly scientific mind, encourages him to get to know the people of the town, but the only one Chaney wants to make time with is antiques shop proprietress Evelyn Ankers, who just so happens to be engaged to Rains’s pipe-smoking gamekeeper (Patric Knowles). That, however, doesn’t prevent Chaney from pressing his suit and taking Ankers to visit the gypsies who have rolled into town to tell people’s fortunes.
At the gypsy camp they meet Bela (Bela Lugosi), the afflicted son of old gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), who sees tragedy looming but has no way of preventing it. In short order, Chaney kills Lugosi while he’s in wolf form, but Chaney is bitten in the process and becomes the prime suspect when Lugosi’s body (returned to human form and also with clothing on, but strangely no shoes) is discovered along with Chaney’s recently purchased wolf-headed walking stick. The curious thing about the murder investigation is the way the chief constable (Ralph Bellamy, another pipe smoker) actually leaves the murder weapon behind when he questions Chaney. Bellamy is also saddled with a bumbling assistant named Twiddle (Forrester Harvey), who provides the excruciating comic relief. One can only assume this character was foisted upon Curt Siodmak and producer/director George Waggner. After all, the Universal horror films of the ’30s had their over-the-top characters — why not this one, too?
Anyway, it takes a while for Chaney to come to terms with what he’s become (thanks to Jack Pierce’s incredible makeup job), reconciling his supernatural plight with his rational mind. (He also has to figure out how he can sit down in a chair in an undershirt, transform into a wolf man, and then be wearing a dark, long-sleeved shirt without having had time to put one on — or the dexterity necessary to do up the buttons.) And he isn’t helped much by his skeptical father, who dismisses lycanthropy as “a variety of schizophrenia” and refuses to send Chaney away despite his doctor’s recommendation. The sad thing is Rains has to lose both of his sons before he is able to accept that there are some things that can’t be explained away by science and reason. The look of devastation on his face at the end of the film tells the whole story.
It didn’t take long for Universal to realize it had a major hit on its hands. (I’ve often wondered whether its release less than a week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war helped propel audience into The Wolf Man’s escapist fantasy set in a Europe completely untouched by military conflict.) Eager to capitalize on it, and prove that you can’t keep a good (or even a conflicted) werewolf down, the studio resurrected Larry Talbot two years later — with the help of Curt Siodmak, now their go-to monster man — for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. After 1942’s The Ghost of Frankenstein, it was clear that Frankenstein’s Monster needed a playmate if it was going to continue to be a viable property. This led to further monster match-ups with Dracula and others in House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, until the end of the line was reached in 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which rather surprisingly managed to be more respectful to all three of them than either of the House films had been.
After that, six decades went by — and countless werewolves loped across movie screens — before Lawrence Talbot’s tragic story was revived with Universal’s 2010 remake The Wolfman (which has once been slated to be its 2008 remake, and then its 2009 remake). But that, my fine, furry friends, is a story for another time. For now, in this festive holiday season, take a moment to let out a howl for the most famous wolf man of all.