Leader of the Pack


The Wolf Man - 1941
Written by Curt Siodmak
Directed by George Waggner

Among the Big Three Universal Monsters, well, okay, Frankenstein is still my favorite, but the Wolf Man is really more interesting in a lot of ways.  Dracula, I'm afraid it must be said, simply is not as good a movie as the other two.  Frankenstein is a wonderfully tragic story, but the monster himself has a limited range.  The Wolf Man, however, combines the best of both worlds.  He's a savage monster, and a tortured soul.  It's kind of a shame that he was never as highly regarded as the other two, and I chalk that up to the difficulty of creating a credible monster design with the tools they had available, and some burdensome monster rules.  That full moon thing tends to leave a monster with a lot of time on his hands to not kill.

A number of things struck me as I watched the original werewolf movie once again.

The first was the hilarious casting choice of Claude Rains as Lon Chaney Jr's father.  Born 17 years apart, Rains was barely old enough (and looked younger) to have a child Chaney's age, much less for him to be his second son.  The older brother, we're told, has passed away, thus accounting, evidently, for the next factor.  Rains was a slender man of all 5'6" with a sophisticated European accent.  Chaney, meanwhile, was a hearty slab of Oklahoma beef ringing in at 6'2" and looking even taller next to Rains.  A quick bit of exposition explains that resentment over that older brother taking preference in managing the Talbot Estate in England accounted for Larry's flight to America and thus, it is implied, their vastly different accents, but that still doesn't account for the genetic disparity.  It really doesn't take anything away from the film, but added a good laugh and some eye-rolling exercises.

"Well, hello ladies!  Larry is ON THE PROWL!"
Another thing I noticed was the dual meanings of "wolf man."  Obviously there's the werewolf aspect, but there's also the vernacular of the day of a sexually aggressive man being called a "wolf."  Indeed, what sets the series of events into motion is Larry spying a shopgirl in the village through a telescope and truckin' on into town to hit on her without relent.  And not just coy flirting, either.  He sees her in her bedroom and when he meets her, asks about the earrings she has on her dressing table and won't admit how he knows about them until she goes out with him.  She declines repeatedly, but he shows up at closing time nevertheless.  Something like this would have internet feminists spitting fire nowadays but at the time it would have been the kind of meet-cute that people could tell their grandchildren about.  Is it any wonder some people get overwhelmed with the rate of cultural change, why others pull their hair out in frustration with its glacial pace?

The more character-relevant thing I noticed was that, while this first Wolf Man appearance certainly puts Chaney through his paces as the overwrought victim of a curse, it's actually in some of the later crossover films that the curse takes on deeper meaning.  While Frankenstein and later Dracula feel largely wasted in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, Larry/the Wolf Man is a more dimensional character, not only cursed to become the werewolf, but not to die, thus being much more a prisoner of his curse.  At one point, there's even an element introduced that he can only be killed by someone who loves him, which makes things ALL kind of complicated.  Imagine trying to get a hit on OkCupid with:

"But... I hate all my selfies."
"Husky (and I mean husky), sexually aggressive SWM, 36, seeks love with someone who doesn't mind me trying to kill them during a full moon.  Must be willing to kill me later.  Must love dogs.  No fatties."

Good luck getting anyone to read past "husky," Larry.

There's also a part of me that still pulled for Larry, even though I know how it's going to end, just to spite the sour-faced mother of the girl killed by the werewolf that bit him.  When things start falling apart for the guy, she crows so arrogantly.  I'm not saying I wish suffering on a grieving mother, but poetically speaking, it would have been satisfying if he'd chewed her face off.

I really like The Wolf Man.  The more I think about it, the greater a shame it seems that filmmakers haven't successfully done more with the concept.  If you haven't seen it, you really must.  It's vastly entertaining and really rather short -- only 70 minutes!  You'll piss away more time than that on Candy Crush this week, or whatever it is you people do with those phones of yours.

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