Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.
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This beautiful little poem recited several times in The Wolf Man (1941) is said to have Eastern European folk roots. However, Curt Siodmak wrote it for this film and has joined the werewolf lore along with many other elements from this movie. The poem, be it somewhat change was quoted in Van Helsing (2004) as well as in every Universal film Wolf Man appearances.
The Wolf Man had an all-star cast by any standard.
Lon Chaney, Jr. played the role of Lawrence Talbot and the Wolf Man. I don’t know if Chaney Jr. was the greatest actor ever or that was real pain that he shows in every seen. Chaney was the son of legendary actor Lon Chaney, of such films as The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and about another 160 movies. Juniors is perhaps best known for playing the role of Lennie in Of Mice and Men (1939).
Perhaps the best well-known star in the movie was Claude Rains who played Sir John Talbot, the father of Lawrence AKA the Wolf man. Rains had so many good roles it is hard to sum them up without reading a laundry list. But I will try to highlight what I feel are a few of his best. He may be most commonly know from the movie Casablanca (1942) where he utters the lines “Major Strasser been shot, round-up the usual suspects” and “I’m shocked, shocked to find out gambling is going on in here” as he is handed his winnings. He was also the principal of Humphrey Bogart line ” Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship?
I have narrowed it down to seven more films. Rains had a role in the epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962). You must watch this movie even though it will be a challenge. I recommend that you begin early on a Sunday morning and watch Lawrence of Arabia (1962) first and then watch Doctor Zhivago (1965). This will stretch your emotions and your temperature from desert heat to frozen Siberia and you will have two must see epics out-of-the-way.
Notorious (1946) is a spy thriller set in Rio De Janeiro during WWII with lots of Nazis and other unsavory characters. Rains along with his co-stars Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman are on fire. I found myself sitting on the edge of the couch watching this film.
The next film, though not really in my favor genre is Mr. Skeffington (1944). However, this move is an excellent love story. Rains for nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his work on this movie.
In The Sea Hawk (1940) and Episode 80 – The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Rains plays a couple of real slimy roles. In Robin Hood, he is so slippery that you want to go to the back yard and start practicing your bow skills.
Between the tow previously mentioned roles he was a leading character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). As good as Mr. Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, Rains, playing the Senator Joseph Paine is evil. Evil that was good and maybe could be again.
Finally in The Invisible Man (1933) Rains takes on his best know horror role. Logically he is missing from the screen a lot of time during this flick.
Veteran actor Ralph Bellamy played Colonel Paul Montford the local chief of police. Patric Knowles was cast as Frank Andrews and help track the Wolf Man. Knowles played the role of Will Scarlett in Episode 80 – The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and the unrequited love in Auntie Mame (1958). Rosalind Russell is fabulous in this movie and takes you on an emotional roller coaster while making you laugh at the same time. But whatever you do, don’t watch the 1974 Mame starring Lucille Ball and Bea Arthur. Remember that once time is lost you can never get it back.
Three supporting characters carry the story line of this movie. They are Bela Lugosi as Bela (very creative), Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, the gypsy, and mother of Bela, and the beauty Evelyn Ankers as Lawrence Talbot’s love interest Gwen Conliffe. Because of the roles, she took on Ankers was known as “the Queen of the Screamers” way before Jamie Lee Curtis.
Ouspenskaya was a 90-pound dynamo that was born and trained in Russia and had a great stage career and only started doing movies to keep her drama school going. She was a devout astrologer and in many ways echoed the part she played. Ouspenskaya was only six years older than Bela Lugosi, who played her son.
Now onto the plot – when Lawrence heard that his brother John had died he returns from America. To get past a knighted Welshman having an American son they simply added the information that he had been in American for 18 years working on the Mt. Wilson Observatory in California. I guess dialogue coaches were unknown in those days. Siodmak said the first version of the script had a non-related Lawrence coming to work on Sir Talbot’s telescope.
Eventually Lawrence AKA The Wolf Man AKA Larry makes his way to the observatory where he uses the massive telescope to spy into the bedroom of Gwen Conliffe played by Evelyn Ankers. Larry then heads to town to meet the shopgirl and eventually tells her the story. Given modern sensibilities about stalking the movie if made now would end at that point. But she decides to go to the gypsy camp on the night of a full moon. Is that a good idea anytime?
That night Bela turns into a wolf or a wolf man and attacks Larry and his party. Larry beats the wolf to death with a silver wolf’s head cane. However, he is bitten by the wolf. When Larry talks to Maleva, the old gypsy tells him the wolf was Bela and now that his is bitten he will turn into a wolf as well. The “wolf” that Larry fights was his German Shepherd.
At one point in the shooting, The Wolf Man battled a bear but unfortunately the bear ran away during filming. What few scenes were filmed were put into the theatrical trailer.
When Larry and his father attend church in the quaint little village. However, the church steps seem much too large and appear to be a cathedral. It is in fact part of the Universal set built for the silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), which of course starred Chaney’s father as Quasimodo.
Silent film actor Gibson Gowland appears in the Wolf Man as a villager and was present at the death of the Wolf Man (Junior). He had also been in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and saw the death scene of the Phantom (Senior) and was the only actor to appear in death scenes performed by both Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney Jr.
There are three scenes where Larry transforms into the Wolf Man. It is quite odd that he was never referred to as the Wolf Man in the movie. In the first two scenes, only the werewolves feet are shown changing. This is a very good trivia question. In the final shot, they use 17 continuous face shots that take him from Larry to the Wolf Man.
Larry kills a few more people and goes after his love interest, as werewolves do. He does a pretty poor job of covering his tracks (see what I did there). A group of villagers, including his father, track him down and kill him freeing him from the curse at last. During this final scene, Gwen faints and lays in the smoke. When they finished the scene the actress Anker was found passed out in the fog.
While I have mentioned the Nazis a few times in this podcast already, I have one more note that must be made. Siodmak said the Wolf Man story was reminiscent of his time in Nazi Germany going from a normal life into a life out of control just like Larry’s life is changed
Also, the wolf man can be seen as a metaphor for the Nazis: a good man is transformed into a killer who his victim will be when he sees the symbol of a pentagram (i.e., a star) on them.
Many of the modern myths of werewolves originated from this film, such as a person becoming a werewolf through a bite, the only way to kill a werewolf is with a silver bullet, and changing into one during a full moon. These are concepts created by writer Curt Siodmak.
However, silver, according to legend, was first used to slay a werewolf in the Beast of Gevaudan, dating from the late 19th century. Novels recounting the legend appeared in the 1930’s and featured the slaying of the werewolf with a silver bullet. The Wolf Man was the first to show these elements on the screen.
World-Famous Short Summary – Rich country boy returns to the country, falls for girl. Things end badly for the boy.