Late Night Movie House: The Wolf Man

30 Oct

October 30, 2022

The Wolf Man, 1941, directed by George Waggner, written by Curt Siodmak, starring Lon Chaney Jr., Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, and Bela Lugosi.

The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the lycanthropy-stricken Larry Talbot, is often considered a tragedy. Lon Chaney was the accidental victim of a werewolf bite. Just a nice guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even the old gypsy saying points out that:

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.

Talbot is presented as a sympathetic, tragic figure, who wants a cure and, failing that, just wants to die. He comes back in four more films, each time sadder than the last, more desperate than the last, only looking for peace.

Poor guy.

I say tough luck. He got what he deserved.

What is interesting about this curse it that it wasn’t inflicted on an innocent victim. All this did was supply a bit of poetic justice and bring out the inner nature that was obvious for all to see from the start of the film: Larry Talbot was already a wolf.

From the beginning, Talbot was presented as a wolf in the classical 1940’s sense- a man who goes after women. In a more modern turn of phrase, he’s a predator. And also a bit of a perv as in an early scene he’s using his father’s telescope to spy on Evelyn Ankers (Gwen) in her bedroom. Soon, he goes after her.

He goes into her shop and hits on her, hard. Even by 1940’s standards it is cringey. This is a guy who does not take no for an answer. And why would he? He is the entitled rich son of local gentry. His father was Sir John Talbot and his recently deceased brother was a well-known town patron. The fact that Gwen is engaged to be married very soon is not enough to stop him from badgering her into a date.

I am not looking at this from a modern lens and I am not pretending that Gwen is pure herself. Not only is she not exactly breaking but certainly bending her soon-to-be-wedding vows, but she claims to have no idea who Larry Talbot is. (Did I mention that he is hitting on her and not even telling her his name?)

I say she “claims” to not recognize Larry Talbot but he is the spitting image of his brother, whom everyone in town is more than familiar with.

Gwen agrees to go with Larry later that night (albeit with a girlfriend as a chaperone) to a local gypsy camp to have their fortunes told. There, the gypsy sees the evil mark of the pentagram and refuses to tell their fortunes. As they are leaving the camp, Larry is bitten by a werewolf and turned into one himself.

Larry is horrified and disconsolate at what he has become but of course cannot control himself and attacks Gwen, which is pretty much what has already done, sans fangs.

All the gypsy curse did was to hold a mirror up to Talbot and reveal his true persona. He was no “man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night.” He was a rogue and a womanizer. Nice guy in other respects, maybe, but still a cad who should have respected Gwen from the first, not forced himself upon her, appreciated her impending marriage and maybe he would have lived a normal life.

In the end it is respectable Sir John, Larry’s father, who, unknowingly, kills his son in wolf form and puts all back to rights. And that, tragic as it may be to lose a son in that way, is poetically correct as it is classically the father’s role to correct the errors of a wayward son’s ways.

No review of the Wolf Man would be complete without pointing out the glaring continuity errors of Larry Talbot beginning a werewolf transformation in one outfit and somehow completing the transformation in another. There’s nothing to read into it but it is too obvious to ignore.

4 Responses to “Late Night Movie House: The Wolf Man”

  1. T E Stazyk October 30, 2022 at 1:59 am #

    They say horror movies reflect the anxieties of the era. If your analysis is correct, what does it say about society from the (relatively short) time between King Kong and the Wolfman! Imponderable?

    Like

    • bmj2k October 30, 2022 at 12:33 pm #

      Hmm. Denham, who loves Ann, has a completely opposite attitude toward Ann. He’s playing the strong silent type, and pretending he doesn’t feel anything at first.

      Like

      • bmj2k October 30, 2022 at 12:34 pm #

        I wonder when they started calling that a wife beater?

        Like

  2. Matt Cowan October 30, 2022 at 8:58 am #

    One must look presentable before going out werewolfing! A werewolf in a wife-beater would be too horrific for audiences of the day.

    Like

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