Welcome to Wolfman Week at CHUD. Over the next five days I’ll be bringing you exclusive interviews with the folks behind the new version of the classic Universal monster; look for Benicio Del Toro, Hugo Weaving, Joe Johnston and Rick Baker, as well as my review of the movie.
But before we get to the new stuff, let’s remember the classic. Even though I liked the new The Wolfman, here are five reasons why Lon Chaney Jr’s version of Lawrence Talbot will always be the best.
5- Silver bullets. 1941’s The Wolf Man is where the idea of silver as a werewolf’s weakness originated. Before that film silver had been a problem for vampires, but has now become inextricably linked with lycanthropes. Larry Talbot meets his end here when his dad smashes his skull in with a silver-tipped cane; later he’d take a silver bullet in House of Frankenstein. Interestingly The Wolf Man doesn’t truck with the full moon – Larry’s love interest Gwen tells him that a werewolf is a man who changes into a wolf at certain times of the year, and the famous poem (which was made up by screenwriter Curt Siodmak and not actually folklore, as some believe) specifies the autumn moon as triggering the change.
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.
In later films ‘the autumn moon is bright’ is changed to ‘the moon is full and bright.’
4 – He’s got class. The original Lawrence Talbot may have changed into a wolf that walked on two legs and committed murder, but he always had his shirt tucked in. He’s also impeccably quaffed. Jack Pierce, the genius who designed all the classic Universal Monsters, always made sure to comb the Wolf Man’s hair nicely and to keep his beard trim.
3 – He’s undead. At least in the sequels. Interestingly, The Wolf Man never had his own sequel and had to always share the screen with other monsters, starting in the amazing Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. In the opening scene of that film grave robbers break into the Talbot tomb during a full moon and accidentally bring Lawrence back to life. How? It’s not really clear, but at this point he’s been dead long enough that the robbers expect to find nothing but bones, so he’s been in there a long time. As soon as he comes back to life at the start of that film Larry Talbot goes on a quest to finally get cured or to stay dead forever, and he actually tries to commit suicide.
2 – He’s bitten by Bela. When Larry Talbot returns to his family’s English estate, he’s bitten by a werewolf. It turns out that the wolf is actually Bela, son of the local gypsy woman Maleva. Bela is played by none other than Bela Lugosi… or at least by Bela when he’s a gypsy. When he’s a wolf he’s played by Lon Chaney Jr’s actual dog. Why Bela turns into a full wolf while Larry turns into a hybrid is never explained.
1 – He’s Lon Chaney Jr. The Wolf Man was the only classic Universal Monster to be played by the same actor in his every appearance. That’s key, because Larry Talbot is just as important to the character as the werewolf part. Chaney’s hangdog features really bring Larry’s torment to life, even in the delightfully frivolous Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Chaney was the only actor to play all four of the major Universal monsters; besides the Wolf Man he played Frankenstein’s Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, the Mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb (among others) and Dracula (or at least his son) in Son of Dracula. Chaney was also an incredible tale spinner, making all sorts of crazy claims about his work, such as saying that they used carpenter’s nails to keep his hands in place during the arduous photography of Larry’s transformations. He also drank too much, famously appearing tanked on live TV in an adaptation of Frankenstein, so drunk that he thought it was a rehearsal and mimed breaking a chair instead of actually smashing it. Out of the holy trinity of Universal actors (which included Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), Chaney was probably the most gifted. But even though he ended up typecast (his last role was in the wretched 1971 Dracula vs Frankenstein), he always referred to the Wolf Man as his baby.