Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Wolf Man (1941)

The Wolf Man (1941) unlike Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) had no direct literary source and was purely the invention of screenwriter, Curt Siodmak. Much of the Hollywood folklore regarding werewolves and wolf men can be attributed to Siodmak’s screenplay The Wolf Man (1941). Many of the modern myths concerning werewolves, such as a person becoming werewolf after being bitten by one, changing into a werewolf during a full moon, the concept of a silver bullet being the only way to kill a werewolf and the famous poem repeated throughout the film were all the products for Siodmak’s imagination.

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.

This poem, contrary to popular belief, was not from Eastern European folklore but was actually written by Siodmak.

The Wolf Man (1941) was produced and directed by George Waggner and stars Lon Chaney, Jr. as "The Wolf Man" and features Claude Rains, Béla Lugosi, who would play a very minor role, and Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya. 

The makeup created by  Jack Pierce was originally intended for Henry Hull’s  character in Werewolf of London (1935), but Hull refused to submit to the tedious hours required apply the makeup. Pierce, therefore developed a less hairy version for Werewolf of London (1935), saving the more elaborate version for The Wolf Man (1941) this version of course would be honored years later by becoming part of US Postal Services monster stamp collection.

In the original screenplay there was a scene of the wolf man fighting a bear. However this scene was never finished due to the fact that the bear ran away during filming, but not before chasing actress Evelyn Ankers up the soundstage rafters. Chaney added to Ankers anxiety during production by sneaking up behind her in full wolf man makeup and scaring her. But Chaney had his own problems with the makeup application which required six hours in the chair and removing the makeup required an additional three hours.

Despite the difficulties with the grueling make up process, Chaney gave an outstanding performance as both Larry Talbert, the prodigal son and the monstrous wolf man.  The wolf man was a role for which Chaney will forever be associated with, a role which he will reprise in four additional films for Universal. Chaney has the distinction of being the only actor to play the wolf man during Universal’s horror cycle and is also the only actor to play all four of Universal’s top classic monsters, the Wolfman, the Mummy, Dracula, and Frankenstein’s monster.

Universal had worried that The Wolf Man (1941) would flop at the box office, since the film had not been based on a direct literary source and the Werewolf of London (1935) released six years earlier had been a disappointment. To make matters worse, The Wolf Man (1941) was released just five days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Universal had doubts whether or not the American movie audience would have an appetite for horror films after the bombing.

But thanks to Siodmak’s screenplay, Lon Chaney Jr.’s performance, and Jack Pierce’s iconic werewolf make-up The Wolf Man (1941) became one of Universal’s biggest hits for 1942 and firmly established Lon Chaney Jr. as a horror film icon.

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