As I’ve said, the basis for these posts, and for my taking the time to watch these rather primitive films from the dawn of the movie era, is to revisit the predecessors of the earliest science fiction films; I have no particular interest in horror films per se. Except for Metropolis (in 1927) and Things to Come (in 1936), there were no true science fiction films, in the modern sense, until 1950. (And my interest in those is how they presumed misunderstandings of how the world, the universe, actually works.) Rather, the 1930s and 1940s were dominated by horror films, beginning with the iconic films about Dracula and Frankenstein.
So yes it’s mostly because the subjects of these films have become iconic. No matter how obscure the original novels were, the films made in the first and second decades of the film industry, about Frankenstein and Dracula and the Wolf Man, have rooted themselves into popular culture. That’s why we see new versions of them every decade or so.
So here we are with The Wolf Man, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wolf_Man_(1941_film), the 1941 film starring Lon Chaney Jr., along with Claude Rains and Ralph Bellamy.
I’d never seen it before. What I knew about was mostly from comments by Harlan Ellison – the famous, firebrand short story and TV writer and anthologies, profoundly influential in the 1960s and 1970s, and who died in 2018 – who spoke of Lon Chaney Jr., and Bela Lugosi, in their famous roles, as if they were some kind of gods. Ellison grew up in the 1940s, and these movies and performances were imprinted on him, in a way I suppose like Star Trek and 2001 imprinted on me, in both cases in our teenage years. He would speak of those actors, those movies, in his appearances, in his essays.
So then, Lon Chaney, Jr.? He’s big, he’s tall, and the word that came to mind to describe him as I watched the beginning of this movie was galoot. Right at home in one of those old American TV series set in the south, e.g. Mayberry R.F.D. Big and dumb and with a dopey grin. The plot of the movie is there on Wikipedia, but let me observe, again, how the mansions these people live in, in these early 1930s and ‘40s films, are improbably large and luxurious. Talbot Castle is in Wales, supposedly, and we see the same kind of charming village as we saw in some of the Frankenstein films. So Larry Talbot returns to his father’s estate in Wales, is attracted to a local shopworker, Gwen. Nearby is a camp of gypsies. What is the premise here? That werewolves, men who transform into wolves “at certain times of the year,” turn others into werewolves by biting them [much like vampires].
And so Larry Talbot (Chaney) is bitten by one of the gypsies (played by Bela Lugosi, because of course), and becomes a werewolf himself.
And the fascination, even redemption, of this film, compared to the other early horror films, is that Talbot is horrified by this transformation and how it affects those around him. Chaney, the galoot, becomes a sympathetic, tragic character; he understands what’s happening to him and tries to overcome it. He seems to die at the end – in an ironic scene that mirrors an earlier scene – and yet Chaney came back to play the Wolf Man in a number of sequels.
The DVD I watched has a long feature about the life of Lon Chaney, Jr.; a bit character, in the shadow of his father’s reputation, until he stuck the audition for this movie, and played the character in all the sequels, and did well in many other films through the 1950s. Sometimes the stories of these actors are just as interesting as the movies they played in.