“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.” - Gwen Conliffe
The times, they were a-changing. Universal was churning out more monster movies to a receptive wartime audience. This was the silver ago, their previous stars were either working at other studios, as in the case of Karloff, or were fading into movie obscurity like Lugosi. New, younger stars were needed to carry the torch (a torch undoubtedly left by a frightened villager) and as fate would have it – one was right there, good to go. He even had a recognisable name and full horror pedigree.
Lon Chaney had been the studio’s horror star in the silent era, famous for his stunning portrayals of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and Erik, The Phantom of the Opera (1925). It was intended that Chaney played Dracula in the studio’s first talking horror movie, but the actor succumbed to throat cancer and passed away before filming began, and as we know, Bela Lugosi was cast and a legend was made.
Chaney had a son, Creighton. A Simple first name change, and Lon Chaney Jnr was ready to take on the mantle of his father. His first horror movie was Man Made Monster, but that was a tooth cutting exercise. The studio needed a proper launching pad to skyrocket their new star’s career. And they needed another recurring monster for their line-up.
Universal had, of course produced a moderately successful werewolf film six years earlier in Werewolf of London (1935), now it was time to properly launch a film series. Writer Curt Siodmak whose work would practically form most of the Universal Silver Age wrote the script and included, as he had done with The Mummy’s Hand, some made-up “folklore” that the public seized upon and took to be part of a pre-existing legend. A prime example is the “Even a man who is pure in heart…” poem, and the werewolf’s aversion to silver, the sighting of a pentagram on a victim’s hand and so on.
Bela Lugosi lobbied for the starring role in the Wolf Man, but he had no chance. Universal wanted their new boy, and poor Lugosi was once again side-lined, cast in the pivotal, but small role of a gypsy – imaginatively named “Bela”.
This is a Universal Monster Movie set in Wales, incredible as that seems. Or…. Wales, as depicted on the Universal Studio “European village” standing set on the back lot in Hollywood. I freely admit that I didn’t really know this when I saw the film for the first time. When I heard that the film was set in “Llanwelly” – a Welsh village, I scoured maps looking to find out how close to my town this place was. Yeah, disappointingly, “Llanwelly” was also a figment of Curt Siodmak’s fertile imagination. (Trust me, the disappointment was crushing.)
Mind, if it WAS set in a Welsh village, it would have one hell of an impressive village church. The scenes set on the steps of the church made good use of the studio’s standing set of the exterior of the Notre Dame cathedral that was built for Chaney senior’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.
But whether it’s set in Wales or not really doesn’t make a bit of difference. No Welsh village had that many American accents, nor did any Bavarian, German or Transylvanian one, I suspect. I like to think of it as being set in some imaginary Universal Neverland where the woods are always foggy.
The film opens with the homecoming of Laurence Talbot, Larry to his friends (Lon Chaney Jnr) to his ancestral estate after eighteen years away working as an engineer in America. He is warmly greeted by his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). Poor guy hasn’t been home for more than a couple of minutes when he’s put to work by his father, putting a new refractor on a large telescope in the attic, which is being used as an observatory. The observatory set is really impressive, but curiously under used. In fact, the whole telescope/astronomy angle is dropped as soon as we’ve suffered the early-on scene where Larry tests the telescope, peering at the nearby village and homing in on the bedroom window of Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers). So, what we take from this is that Larry Talbot is a Peeping Tom.
Noting that she lives above an antiques shop, he makes his way there and introduces himself, asking her to wear the earrings he saw on her dressing table upstairs. (Yeah, Larry – good going. That’s not creepy at all….) Even his impulse purchase of a cane with a silver wolf’s head handle doesn’t quite get him off the hook. But it gets him (and the audience) told the legend of the werewolf as written by Curt Siodmak.
Larry asks Gwen for a date that evening and as he leaves, they notice a pair of gypsies driving through the village in their horse drawn carriages. They apparently come this way every autumn and tell fortunes at their camp.
That evening, the pair go and have their fortunes told by the gypsies, along with a third wheel, Jenny Williams (Fay Helm). Jenny stops to pick up some wolfsbane as they walk in the dark woods and becomes the third person in the film to recite the famous but rapidly becoming tedious “Even a man…” poem to Larry in the first fourteen minutes of the film.
While Jenny has her fortune told by Bela, Larry and Gwen wander off into the woods so she can have some privacy (yeah, right). Gwen drops the bombshell that she’s actually engaged to be married to the Gamekeeper at the Talbot estate. Meanwhile, Jenny has problems of her own – Bela seems troubled and we can see why – he sees a pentagram in her hand.
As they’re strolling back, Larry and Gwen hear Jenny’s screams as she is attacked by a wolf – actually, Chaney’s beloved German Shepherd named Moose and Larry braved goes to the rescue a little too late, and wrestled and bludgeons the beast to death but not before he’s bitten.
The police, represented by the dashing Colonel Paul Montford (Ralph Bellamy) along with Gwen’s fiancé Frank Andrews (Partic Knowles) find Jenny’s body – but not a wolf (there aren’t any in Wales) instead they find the body of Bela. (Yes, he’s clothed. No, I don’t know how). The theory being that a wolf attacked Jenny (again, there aren’t any in Wales) and both Larry and Bela went in to rescue her. In the excitement, confusion and darkness – Larry struck Bela a few dozen times accidentally and fatally. But he doesn’t seem to be in any danger of facing charges for the gypsy’s death, strangely.
Anyhow – Frank decides to set some traps for the wolf that’s in the area (guys, seriously now…we don’t have…oh, never mind). Facing charges might be the last thing on Larry’s mind, because that night, he succumbs to the bite of the wolf and begins to transform into the classic Wolf Man we know and love. BUT this begs a question – why was Bela a full-on wolf, while Larry is a half-wolf, half man, bipedal, walking around on tiptoe?
Interestingly, the full moon doesn’t seem to play a factor in the wolf transformation in this film, it seems to be tied in to the time of year and the fact that the wolfsbane is in bloom. The poem was altered slightly in future films to account for the moon. But Larry’s on the prowl and manages to kill a local gravedigger who seems to like working at night. (We might have some of THOSE in Wales…)
Still prowling and skulking around, Larry gets his paw caught in a bear trap, (which is interesting as we don’t have bears in Wales either) and is released before one of the hunting parties can get to him by Bela’s mother, Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya).
Despite Larry’s pleas that something is seriously wrong with him, Sir John insists that he face this schizophrenia head on, and ties him to a chair to face his demons while he and the rest of the men go wolf hunting that night.
Of course Larry transforms and despite the edict from the earlier Werewolf of London that a werewolf instinctively seeks to kill the things that it loves best never being mentioned here, the Wolf Man finds Gwen Conliffe wandering in the woods alone – which is a perfectly sensible thing to do when there are armed, trigger happy locals around (We certainly have THOSE in Wales) as well as a suspected killer wolf. As the Wolf Man attacks his prey, Sir John arrives on the scene with Larry’s silver topped cane and clubs the Wolf Man with it, over and over again. Even when the poor thing is laid out on the ground, he’s still pounding away at him like he’s tenderising a steak. (Amazingly, the censors allowed that.)
As he dies, the Wolf Man transforms back into Larry, as Gwen and Sir John look on incredulously.
The last words come from Maleva, who has my favourite lines in the film…
“The way you walked was thorny through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity.”
Peace for eternity – or at least until the sequel.
Copyright © 2010 - 2020 Robin Pierce. All Rights reserved.