It’s always telling when the “star” of the film as we think today isn’t the one who gets top billing. You can see this throughout the ages, for example when Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman get top billing over Christopher Reeve in Superman, or when Jack Nicholson headlines Batman over Michael Keaton. Back then, the star of The Wolf Man was considered to be Claude Rains, who featured in the title role of Universal’s The Invisible Man in 1933. He was a secure commodity in those days, one who would appear in Casablanca about a year after The Wolf Man was released, alongside Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. So great was his name recognition that he would soon star in Universal’s 1943 remake of The Phantom of the Opera. But even then… Universal well understood by this point that the one playing the monster is the one who would be the true star.
So it is that Lon Chaney, Jr. (“Jr.” being added by pop culture to separate him from his famous father), took billing in the slot that “saved the best for last” and left a lasting impression on the audience. And just to ensure that there would be no question as to who was behind the makeup, Universal opted for title cards to introduce their players, again with Chaney bringing up the rear.
After years of lobbying for and being denied monster roles such as that of Quasimodo, this became Chaney’s opportunity to follow in his father’s legacy, forging a path in this new golden era of Hollywood horror. Little did he realize this role and two he picked up from Boris Karloff would forever cement his typecasting as a horror actor, so much so that Chaney would go on to play four of Universal’s top monster roles in an entire string of films before landing supporting and villain roles in a variety of westerns and crime films. As a twist, Chaney is the only one to have played the Wolf Man, and the Wolf Man remains the only monster in Universal’s lineup to be played by a single actor (other variations on this character were considered to be “merely” werewolves, not the Wolf Man himself). The problem of typecasting would be further magnified when Chaney became a favorite with baby boomers as in 1957, Universal opened their entire catalog of creature features to television. The rest, as they say, is history.
While Rains would be able to break that mold thanks in part to a versatile career and his role in Casablanca, there was another name in the lineup of The Wolf Man who would not be so lucky. In a cameo appearance, Universal harnessed one of their past glories in the form of Bela Lugosi as the gypsy fortune teller who would pass on his curse to our title character.
Despite not being the first of Universal’s werewolf movies, The Wolf Man set many of the standards and classic bits that would be used time and again in werewolf movies for ages to come, to the point where most people don’t realize the separation between folklore and Hollywood. Consider this poem, which is repeated frequently:
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.
I don’t know about anyone else, but I read that poem in a book about werewolves when I was 8 years old, and much like most people, I thought it was part of the folklore. Not so much. It actually originates in this script. Incidentally, that same book gave step by step ritual instructions about how to become a werewolf, thus answering a nagging question for me regarding the origins of monster lines. And yes, I seriously considered trying this out for myself, but being 8 years old, I didn’t have the means at the time. It’s not to say I didn’t try to make do with what I had! Why? Because I watched this movie and a bunch of others just like it as a kid. Transformation fascinated me something fierce.
The movie’s plot is pretty straight forward, as you might imagine. Larry Talbot returns to his family home upon the death of his older brother. The legacy of the Talbot line is much as it is in English nobility where you have “the heir and the spare.” Rains plays Sir John Talbot, the father who will teach his son the role he will someday play in how to serve the community. The younger Talbot isn’t very good with people, however he reveals how easily he works with tools when he fixes his father’s telescope. Through that telescope he gets a look at the woman who holds his attention through the rest of the film, Gwen Conliffe, the daughter of a local antiques dealer.
The interactions between Larry and Gwen are… awkward to say the least, and by the standards of this day and age outright stalker-ish. And even though she’s engaged to be married, she agrees to meet with him, with her friend in tow, to get their fortunes read by some local gypsies outside of town as something of a lark. This is where we meet Bela, who will be killed by Talbot’s silver cane during the fateful werewolf attack. From here, the story is split between two standard monster storytelling devices of the era. The first is those around the victim / monster tell him he’s nuts, that everything that’s happening is all in his head. It’s the essential scientific rhetoric that modern audiences of the age needed to hear in order to suspend their disbelief enough to buy the folklore elements of the tale. It’s a taste of the real world intruding on the one audiences are there to see and know to be true.
The second device is, of course, the old gypsy woman confirming for everyone that she’s wise enough to know the truth, which is that Talbot is cursed.
Ultimately it comes down to mob vs. monster, as it does in many of Universal’s classics, with Sir John putting a bullet in his son to stop the werewolf attack.
It’s often believed that, given the sheer amount of time it took for the transformation sequences, that the climax of the movie almost didn’t play out. Some critics will tell you it was an afterthought, which is why the monster barely appears on screen until the very end.
There may be some truth to this. Chaney often stated that he would be forced to sit motionless for hours to film the transformation sequences step-by-step, sometimes remaining in pose while the crews took lunch breaks. If this is the case, the last minute idea to include the final scenes is ultimately what saved the movie and propelled it to immortality.