‘The Wolf Man’: Universal’s King Beast
by Sam Gafford
“Even a man who is pure of heart,
and says his prayers by night,
may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.”
One of Universal’s most enduring and well-loved of their monster cycle is the original 1941 production of The Wolf Man. Featuring the talents of Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains and Evelyn Ankers, the movie was a smash hit when it was first released on a double bill with The Mad Doctor of Market Street with Lionel Atwill and has since become a beloved classic. The details of the movie are well known to even the most casual of horror movie fans. Prodigal son Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) returns to his hometown and father’s estate after the death of his older brother. As the only other surviving heir, Larry is now destined to inherit his family estate. His father, Sir John (Claude Rains), welcomes Larry home but, no matter what he does, Larry feels an outsider in his own hometown. On a walk with Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), Larry kills a wolf that has killed Gwen’s young friend but is bitten himself. The wolf was actually gypsy fortuneteller Bela (Bela Lugosi) and Larry is now cursed to become a werewolf himself. Fighting against the curse, Larry finds that Gwen is destined to be his next victim. Despite all precautions, the Wolf-Man breaks free and attacks Gwen only to be killed by Sir John, his own father bringing to a conclusion one of Universal’s most tragic monster movies.
Strangely enough, the movie that was made was not at all what Universal first intended.
In 1932, as he was directing The Murders of the Rue Morgue for Universal, Robert Florey wrote a treatment entitled, “The Wolf-Man”. This story was dramatically different from the later Lon Chaney, Jr. version in many ways. The main character (Kristoff) was a boy who had been stolen and suckled by a she-wolf in the Perollean Alps who becomes a werewolf when he grows up. The treatment was originally considered to be a new vehicle for Boris Karloff whose Frankenstein had opened to such thunderous success the year before. But it was a story that just wasn’t what Universal was looking for. Included in the treatment was a scene where Kristoff transformed while in a confessional in a Catholic Church. Fearing that the movie would upset Catholics and simply not sell, it was abandoned.
Until, that is, Curt Siodmak was hired to write a new script. According to Siodmak, “I was given the title and a deadline: seven weeks for the screenplay.” He was told who would be in the cast but little else. It fell to him to make up everything else. Undaunted, Siodmak went to his books and researched the European werewolf myths. Siodmak had also been studying Freud at this time and the psychological aspects would show up in his script.
Siodmak’s first script, known as “The Larry Gill Script” is different in many ways from what was finally filmed. ‘Larry Gill’ is an American come over to install Sir John’s new telescope. He is not the missing son and has no previous connection to Sir John or the town at all. But perhaps the most significant difference is the fact that this first script is much more psychological than what we see in the final version. Gill is attacked by the Bela gypsy and bitten but he is NEVER shown to be transforming in the movie. Instead, when he ‘changes’ the camera shifts to his perspective and we see everything through his eyes. The question then becomes “is Larry a real werewolf or does he just THINK that he is?” This version is much more psychological and less dramatic than the Talbot version and it is easy to see why the studio had Siodmak rewrite it.
When the final script was approved, it was much different from the Gill script. Larry has become the prodigal son of Sir John who returns to claim his inheritance but is very much out of place in his own home and village. The transformations of Larry into a wolf-man are explicitly shown and there is no doubt at all that Larry is cursed and his sanity, although questioned by others in the film, is never in doubt to the viewer. The final version is much more of a ‘monster’ movie whereas the first version questioned if it was the human Larry Gill that was a ‘monster’ and not creature.
Siodmak essentially created the entire Wolf-Man mythos as is seen in this movie. The Wolf Man was unique at this time in that it was not based on ANY novel or short story. Nothing like the werewolf mythos had been in the earlier Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man would set the rules for all werewolf movies to come. Despite many people’s belief, the infamous poem, “Even a man who is pure of heart…” was not an old European chant. Siodmak made it up. In addition, Siodmak added the aspect of the pentagram on the victim’s palm and the deadly aspect of silver. In the Larry Gill draft, Gill melts down the charm given to him by the old gypsy woman, Maleva, and makes it into bullets. He then gives them to his rival for Gwen’s affections (Frank Andrews) with the warning that if she were to be attacked then Andrews should shoot with the silver bullets. Later, when something does attack Gwen, Andrews shoots it and Gill’s body is found with gunshot wounds. Was it the silver that killed Gill, or the belief that silver could kill a werewolf.
The Wolf Man began shooting on October 27, 1941, and wrapped on November 25, 1941, after only three weeks. Up until two and a half weeks before shooting began the film was actually entitled Destiny but was finally changed to the more logical and classic title. Universal had assembled a stellar cast for this film making it one of it’s most powerful casts yet. Claude Rains as Sir John would garner four Academy Award nominations including one for Casablanca. Warren William as Dr. Lloyd had been a star at Warner Brothers during the 1930’s and Ralph Bellamy was one his way to becoming one of Hollywood’s most respected actors. Bela Lugosi was already a star for Dracula although, by 1941, he was already having trouble landing choice roles. Patric Knowles was a well known leading man who, in later years, would not speak well of The Wolf Man. Having just come off of John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, he considered the movie to be a come down for him. Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva gave the movie immense credibility. Born in Russia, Ouspenskaya had emigrated to America to escape political pressures and founded a successful acting studio in California. As an actress herself, she would receive two Academy Award nominations. Ouspenskaya was a notorious chain smoker, however, and it would eventually be the cause of her own death. In 1949, she would set fire to her home after falling asleep with a lit cigarette. She died of a stroke three days later while in the hospital.
The two principal leads of The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers, were near the beginning of their careers and would be matched together in later movies. Chaney, of course, was the son of legendary Lon Chaney who had begun the tradition of Universal horror movies. Despite his son’s desires, Lon refused to let his son follow him into the acting profession. Lon Jr. (then known as his birth name Creighton) became a plumbing contractor but always had his eye on acting. It was not until the elder Chaney died in 1931 that Lon Jr. finally had a chance to achieve his dream but it was slow going. For many year, Lon Jr. was confined to extra roles that were often uncredited. It wasn’t until his breakout role as Lenny in Of Mice and Men that he became a star. Still, for the rest of his life, Lon Jr. would often end up playing secondary roles in minor movies. It was during his time at Universal that he became the most known but, even though he played the Wolf-man five times at Universal, he would end up sharing the screen with other monsters in all but the first movie.
Evelyn Ankers was born in Chile to English parents in 1918. The family repatriated back to England in the 1920’s and Evelyn became acting in the 1930’s gaining some success in British films and plays. She emigrated to America as war loomed in Europe and was signed by Universal in 1940. Evelyn reportedly had little interest in acting but was pushed into it by her mother after Evelyn’s father deserted the family. Evelyn quickly became the source of the family’s financial support and she had to continue to act whether she liked it or not. Her first Universal film was Hold That Ghost with Abbott & Costello in 1941 before going to work on The Wolf Man.
Ankers and Chaney would go on to appear in The Ghost of Frankenstein and The Frozen Ghost despite the fact that they really did not care for each other. Before filming began on The Wolf Man, Ankers was given a larger dressing room by Universal as thanks for her work. She was startled to be confronted by Chaney who accused her of stealing his dressing room from himself and Broderick Crawford! Confounded, Ankers would later learn that Chaney and Crawford would sneak to his dressing room with a couple of liquor bottles, get drunk, move the furniture aside and fight! The cleaning women would find the room later looking like a WWII battle-sight.
After such an auspicious beginning, things could only get worse. During filming, Chaney was in the habit of walking up behind Ankers and scaring her. Such conditions must not have made Ankers like acting any more than she already did. Ankers would later marry matinee idol Richard Denning in 1942 and would later retire from acting. During the making of Son of Dracula, Lon Jr. got into a fight with Denning in the cafeteria. Decades later, Denning would be playing the Governor of Hawaii on Hawaii Five-O and the producers offered Ankers an opportunity to play the Governor’s wife. She turned them down flat.
The Wolf Man was unique in several different ways. It was the first Universal movie to show the actors in an opening montage and the dark, foggy forest background would later be used in Ghost of Frankenstein, Night Monster and The Mummy’s Curse. In addition, many of the interior sets would also be used in other movies. The interior of Talbot Castle, for example, was used as Dr. Frankenstein’s house in Ghost of Frankenstein as well as being used in Night Monster and other films. More significantly, the steps to the cathedral that are seen in The Wolf Man were the same that had been created for the cathedral in Lon Chaney’s 1923 Hunchback of Notre-Dame marking the only time that senior and junior acted on the same set.
The forest scenes in The Wolf Man were created by the art director, Robert Boyle, who went out into Universal’s backlot and found trees and stumps. Once the fog was added with the proper lighting, the effect was complete. In order to get the proper mood, the trees were painted black and coated with glycerin. When they filmed different scenes, the crew would simply move the trees and stumps around and film from a different angle.
The fog itself was a problem. It was a thick, clinging substance that smelled and was hard to breathe. During the shooting of the final scene where the Wolf-Man attacks Gwen, Ankers was required to lay on the floor while the rest of the scene was filmed. At the end, no one noticed that Ankers had not gotten up yet and they had to search for her. Eventually they discovered that Ankers had passed out waiting for the scene to finish.
The casting of the movie actually brought out some very strange coincidences. It is difficult to accept diminutive Claude Rains as hulking Lon Chaney Jr’s father. What is even stranger is the fact that, if one accepts the 1887 birth year for Ouspenskaya, that would make her 54 at the time of filming which is five years younger than Bela Lugosi who played her son. This did not make a difference as Ouspenskaya LOOKED so much older than everyone else in the movie.
During the beginning of the film, the tone is set. A book is opened to reveal the ‘Legend’ of the Werewolf. According to director George Waggner, a Universal executive had specifically demanded that the word ‘Legend’ would be emphasized to highlight the ‘fairy tale’ nature of the story. This gave the movie a type of ‘fable’ aspect despite the fact that modern fashions and cars are shown and every appearance is made to make one think that the movie is taking place in modern times.
With the arrival of Larry Talbot, the movie takes on an ‘outsider’ aspect. Larry was born and raised in this village but he sticks out like a sore thumb. He mannerisms are not the same as the villagers and he is awkward and clumsy in his dealings with both them and his father. There is little love shown between Larry and Sir John. Larry is welcomed back with a handshake and a ‘well, there it is, then’ but there is no warmth or affection shown for the returning son. Sir John is detached and even when his son is suffering from the curse, he remains the strict and removed father. Larry can never truly win his father’s love and it is implied that this could have been one of the reasons that he left home all those years before. So, at the end of the movie, when it is Sir John that kills the wolf, is he in fact killing that part of Larry that defied and deserted him years ago? Or is he acting out his anger at the unspecified death of his other son whom he obviously loved more than Larry? Despite having to make his script more ‘monsteriffic’ Siodmak still manages to include psychological elements to the movie.
For that matter, how much did Chaney identify with his role? Both were men who were emotionally seperated from their fathers and both of them had to wait for someone to die in order to get what they wanted. Chaney’s father had to die before he could act and Talbot’s brother had to die before he could have a part of the estate. It was clear that Chaney regarded Talbot as one of his best and favorite roles. In his later years, he would claim that it was his best role because it was his all alone. No one else played Larry Talbot before or after him so Chaney had the role all to himself. It was his cinematic legacy and, by all accounts, he was much prouder of the Wolf-Man than he was of his other roles including his many turns as the Mummy.
There are still many interior inconsistencies within the final version of The Wolf Man. Why is the location of the movie never mentioned? In the script, it is set in Wales and is often said but never in the filmed version. Maleva gives Chaney a charm to protect him from the curse. Why didn’t she give her own son the charm? Why was Bela telling fortunes so soon before he changes into a wolf? After the carnival scene, the gypsies cut and run because there’s a werewolf in the village. Didn’t they know about Bela? When Lon transforms for the first time, he is wearing an undershirt but when we see the Wolf-Man for the first time, he is wearing a neatly buttoned shirt. Did he stop and put on a nice, clean shirt before going out hunting?
Much has been made of the fact that Bela turns into a wolf and Lon becomes a Wolf-MAN which does not make much sense. Many scholars contend that the difference came from the fact that Siodmak made two separate scripts and that the second one wasn’t changed to reflect the actual ‘Monster’ scenes. In the original script, the Bela-wolf kills a woman but the Wolf-MAN is never actually shown. But would Siodmak actually be that lazy? Siodmak was a working man’s writer in that he knew he had to write to make money. However, he also had a strong sense of responsibility about what he wrote except for some of his Hollywood work. In the special material sections of the Wolf Man DVD, Siodmak gives the impression that he did not care much for Hollywood or the way he was treated. Perhaps he did not care if the error existed at all. Or, did Siodmak mean to show that Chaney was still fighting the change and that this resistence halted the transformation halfway through whereas Bela had given in completely to the curse and becomes a wolf in full? Despite the thought, it is more likely that it was the executives at Universal who made the decision to have Chaney made up as a Wolf-MAN so that he would be more easily identifable and there would not just be a wolf running around for half of the movie.
It was the transformation that really gave The Wolf Man it’s impact. Despite the earlier Werewolf of London, this Wolf-man was much more ferocious and animalistic. It was designed by the great make-up artist, Jack Pierce, to frighten and it did it’s job admirably. Much, however, has been made of the techniques behind the transformation. Chaney often would say that the first scene required him to sit in a chair for over 22 hours at a time and not being allowed to move, get up or even go to the bathroom. Research, however, has cast serious doubts on this anecdote. Noted filmmaker Bob Burns (who knew Pierce) and Pierce fan extraordinary Michael Thomas contend that although the process was laborious, it was not the torture that Chaney claimed. According to Burns and Thomas, the scene was shot with three separate cameras that were in a triangle pointed to Chaney. A headrest was placed behind Chaney to stabilize his head. In front of each of the cameras was a piece of frosted glass. For each scene, Pierce would put down makeup and then an artist would draw an outline of Chaney’s head. After the cameras took their shot, Chaney would be allowed to move around while the crew adjusted. When they came back, the cameras would line up Chaney’s head to match the outlines on the frosted glass, Pierce would make his adjustment, the cameras would take their shot and the outlines would be changed. This would go on until the entire sequence was filmed. Because there are no existing papers showing the exact details, there is no way to determine just how long it took to film the transformations. However, the papers do exist for the transformation in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and that took 10 hours to film. It is important to remember though that Jack Pierce did not do the make up for that later movie.
But Chaney continued to claim that the times spent in the make-up chair was brutal. Much of that could have been from the famous antagonism between Chaney and Pierce. Each were strong, dominant personalities and neither liked the other. There could have been many reasons for their dislike. Perhaps Chaney acutely felt that he was not the make-up genius that his father was and Pierce would remind him of this and subject him to even more laborious sessions than he would other people. In either case, the venom between the two men would eventually grow to the point that Pierce refused to make up Chaney for House of Frankenstein and then Chaney would also refuse to have Pierce do his make-up. Reportedly, Chaney suffered so greatly at the hands of make-up men that he attempted suicide a few months after filming Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Friends said that he was depressed and ill after the ordeal but Chaney would often blame his personal problems on his professional ones.
A significant scene that was in Siodmak’s final script but was never filmed occurred when Bela’s body is brought to the church. Talbot is there and goes to the coffin. The top of the lid has a hole cut through which we can see Bela’s face. His eyes are open and he has a pentagram on his forehead. He is staring at Talbot evilly. When the gravediggers come back to move the coffin out, Talbot hides in the background. The camera angle then changes to Bela’s and we see from inside the coffin. The change is meant to give the impression that “bela is alive but unable to move”. After the coffin if placed into the crypt, Maleva enters with a sprig of wolfbane. As Talbot watches from the shadows, she takes a flower from the wolfbane and rubs it on Bela’s mouth and the grin disappears. She rubs Bela’s eyes and they close peacefully. Finally, she rubs his forehead and the pentagram vanishes. “Bela lies there with a happy smile on his face, as if he’s found peace at last.”
There is another significant scene in the script that was filmed but edited out. During the carnival, when Talbot meets Gwen and Andrews, a gypsy comes along leading a tame bear on a chain. He challenges anyone to wrestle the bear, promising a florin if anyone could throw him. After a moment, Talbot throws down his cane, takes off his coat and takes on the bear. The bear is in mortal terror of Talbot who begins to pound on the animal ferociously. He knocks the bear down and, as if in a trance, rushes in to finish the beast when Gwen shouts and breaks the spell. The bear runs off in mortal fear and hides under a carnival wagon. The crowd, quiet throughout the fight, leaves quietly knowing that they have seen something unnatural.
The scene was cut for unknown reasons. Possibly the director Waggner felt that it showed Talbot acting too animalistic in his human form. It is also possible that it was cut because the filming did not go as planned.
An article in the Saturday Evening Post which appeared after the movie opened stated that it took two days to film the scene because the bear wasn’t cooperating. It had been hibernating when the trainer woke it up for the movie and was cranky and acted up. The bear broke loose and, supposedly, it was Chaney who ended up running and hiding under a wagon. The bear went after Ankers who ran “faster than she ever had before” up a ladder where an electrician helped her aboard his platform. He blinded the angry bear with a floodlight which gave the trainer enough time to catch up and restrain the animal.
The bear wasn’t the only animal that gave them trouble. After trying several dogs that looked like wolves for the scene where Chaney kills the wolf, they could not get any to work right. They were simply too timid. A nearby security guard had a police dog named Moose and Chaney suggested that they use him. The animal worked well because, according to Chaney, “he knew just what to do.” Apparently he knew very well what to do as he clamped onto Chaney’s hand and broke the bones between Chaney’s thumb and forefinger. This didn’t put Chaney off the dog, however, as the two had formed an instant bond to the extent that Chaney bought the door off the security guard and made Moose his personal dog.
Chaney wasn’t above taking his lumps himself. During the final scene, where Claude Rains pounds on Chaney with the wolfshead cane that Talbot had given his father, Rains got into the part just a little too much. Even though the cane head was made of vulcanized rubber instead of real silver, it was enough to give Chaney a black eye and to be sent home for the day.
The Wolf Man was an immediate success although you would not have known it from the reviews. It was typical of reviewers in that period to look down on the horror movies. They were the orphans of the cinema and The Wolf Man was no different. Reviewers complained that the acting was wooden, that the story was absurd and that it was more likely for an audience to laugh than scream. Thankfully, the viewers did not listen to those reviews for the movie made over a million dollars in three months. Something interesting happened then. Director George Waggner was given a diamond ring for his wife. The executive producer received a $10,000 bonus. While writer Curt Siodmak asked for a $25 raise. Universal said ‘No’ to the man who essentially created their entire werewolf franchise.
Larry Talbot would weave his tragic journey through four more movies: Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. After the A&C movie, the Universal monsters were pretty much retired and that ended the Wolf-Man’s torment. For many of us, there will never be another werewolf to compete with Chaney’s Talbot. No one else combined that sense of emotion and tragedy that dripped off of Talbot. Thankfully, Universal never let anyone else play the role of Talbot and diminish Chaney’s talent. SEVENTY ONE years later, The Wolf Man is still the leader of the pack and every bit as powerful and thrilling as it was then.