Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Wolf Man (1941 version) (4 Stars)

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.

When people reminisce about the great actors of American horror films the first names they mention are Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Not many people will remember Lon Chaney Jr, the actor who played the Wolf Man. Even the film freaks who remember and love the Wolf Man might not know that Lon Chaney was the only actor who played the role of all of Universal's major horror characters. Apart from the Wolf Man, he also played the part of Count Dracula ("Son of Dracula", 1943), Frankenstein's Monster ("Ghost of Frankenstein", 1942) and the Mummy ("The Mummy's Tomb", 1942, "The Mummy's Ghost", 1944, and "The Mummy's Curse", 1944). Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi were definitely good actors, each in their own way, but Lon Chaney had greater all round talent, and it could be argued that he was the greatest star of Universal's horror films.

Clocking in at 69 minutes, "The Wolf Man" only qualifies as a short film. (By modern definition, to be considered a full length feature a film has to last at least 70 minutes). It isn't an accident that the film was so short. It was intended to be a B-Film, i.e. the minor film in the days when it was usual to show two films together. I still remember those days. I think it continued until the mid-1970's. First the B-Film was shown, then there was an intermission in which a lady served ice cream at the front of the theatre, and then the main film was shown. I don't know what the main film was when "The Wolf Man" was shown. I doubt it was anything that people still want to watch. It was the B-Film that made history.

Lon Chaney Jr. was born as Creighton Chaney in 1906. His father was Lon Chaney, one of the most famous actors of silent movies. As a teenager he wanted to follow in his father's footsteps, but his father forbade him to become an actor. Maybe he considered acting to be too risky as a career? Whatever the reason, those were the good old days when children did what their parents told them to do. Creighton Chaney worked as a plumber. When his father died in 1930 Creighton felt he was free of his promise and turned to acting. Not only did he change his career, he also changed his name to Lon Chaney Jr. The name change probably wasn't a good idea. For the next 10 years he had to listen to people telling him he wasn't as good as his father. The first role that won him respect was as Lennie in "Of Mice and Men" (1939). This was soon followed by "The Wolf Man" (1941), and he was now considered to be the equal of his father.

This 1941 short film defined the werewolf genre more firmly than vampire mythology has ever been fixed. There were old legends about people morphing into wolves, but the legends usually involved a person becoming a wolf as the result of a witch's curse, or through eating an enchanted fruit. The screenwriter Curt Siodmak abandoned all these ideas and said that people become a werewolf by being bitten. He also invented the full moon mythology, and added that the ones most likely to become werewolves are those who are pure of heart. I don't believe that any films have strayed from Curt Siodmak's ideas since.

The make-up girl took no risks while she was preparing Lon Chaney for the film. She kept him in handcuffs while she was trimming his hair.

Lon Chaney Jr
February 10, 1906 – July 12, 1973

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