Dear Readers and Fans of Lycanthropy,
Last time, I asked the question, “To which character from classic horror films did Maleva, the old ‘Gypsy’ fortuneteller, speak these words: ‘Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night, may become a ??? when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright’?” If you guessed “The Wolf Man,” you are correct, so get ready to howl!
But first things first. You might be wondering what lycanthropy is. It is defined on Google as, “the supernatural transformation of a person into a wolf as recounted in folk tales. It is also a form of madness involving the delusion of being an animal, usually a wolf, with correspondingly altered behavior.” Clinical lycanthropy does exist! It is a rare psychiatric syndrome where some believe they are changing into a wolf. It has been associated with altered states of mind that accompany psychosis where transforming into a wolf seems to happen only in the affected person’s mind and behavior. It is thought that clinical lycanthropy is caused by an imbalance in the brain. Turning to literature, some literary scholars mark The Epic of Gilgamesh as the debut of the werewolf, as it was called, in Western prose when a person was turned into a wolf. Werewolves can also be found in ancient Greek mythology in the Legend of Lycaon.
Of Universal Pictures’ most successful monster triumvirate from the 1930s and ’40s–Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man–only The Wolf Man did not originate from a novel. It came from a screenplay written by Curt Siodmak (1902-2000), a German-American novelist (Donovan’s Brain, Black Friday, et.al.), who was also a screenwriter (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, I Walked with a Zombie, et.al.) His first name was sometimes spelled “Kurt” in movie credits, a holdover from his days in Germany. He was the younger brother of Hollywood film noir director Robert Siodmak. For his plots, Curt Siodmak drew from the latest scientific findings coupled with pseudo-scientific ideas, like the Jekyll and Hyde complex.
Siodmak emigrated first to England after hearing anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda in his native Germany. He next moved to the United States in 1937, continuing to make his living as a screenwriter. His big break came in 1941 when his screenplay became the Universal Pictures horror film, The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. For that movie, Siodmak created many legends–pieced together from lycanthropic and superstitious folklore, witchcraft, and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. These include the pentagram, which is a five-pointed star and the sign of the werewolf. A werewolf supposedly sees it in the palm of his next victim’s hand; that a werewolf can only be killed by a silver bullet or some large silver implement; and, the famous verse mentioned above about becoming “a wolf when the wolfbane blooms, and the autumn moon is bright.” We continue to associate such legends and images with werewolf films. It is interesting to note that in the 1941 Wolf Man movie, the full moon neither appears nor is mentioned. That’s because the full moon motif hadn’t occurred to Siodmak yet; he changed that last line for his sequels. It became, “and the moon is full and bright.” The full moon and any season, not just autumn, became the catalysts for the man-to-wolfman metamorphoses in subsequent werewolf pictures.
Universal Pictures Hollywood made four more movies in which the Wolf Man appeared due to the popularity of the 1941 film: Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Again, Lon Chaney, Jr. proudly played the Wolf Man in all of them. His incredible werewolf makeup was created by Hollywood makeup artist and perfectionist Jack Pierce, a Greek immigrant who was famous for transforming actors into apes and fantastical creatures. He incorporated his research into anatomy, ancient burial customs, and electrodynamics into his designs. As much as Chaney loved his monstrous character, he was quite vocal about not enjoying sitting for long hours daily while Pierce transformed him into the Wolf Man. In fact, the two men developed a hatred for one another with Pierce purposely taking extra time to remove Chaney’s makeup after a long day of shooting!
Siodmak’s autobiography Wolf Man’s Maker (2001) was published posthumously. He died in his sleep at his home in Three Rivers, California, in 2002 at the age of 98.
In 1941’s The Wolf Man, good-guy Larry Talbot, played by the 6’2″, 220-pound Lon Chaney, Jr., returns from California to his ancestral home, Talbot Castle, in the foggy woods of Llanwelly, Wales. Older brother, John Talbot, the erstwhile heir apparent, had been killed in a hunting accident. Larry and his father, Sir John (Claude Raines), use the tragic occasion to reconcile after an eighteen-year separation over family issues. On the day of his arrival, Larry meets beautiful Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers, Hollywood’s “scream queen”), an antique shop worker in the village. He buys a silver-handled wolf’s head cane from her. That same night, Larry kills a wolf with it, only later learning it wasn’t a wolf but a man, Bela (Bela Lugosi). Bela’s mother, Maleva, the old “Gypsy” fortuneteller (Maria Ouspenskaya), tells Larry that her son was a werewolf and that now, he is one, too, since Bela bit him. This sets in motion Larry’s battling of the curse of the werewolf. He attends a “Gypsy” carnival and is given a spell-breaking charm to wear by Maleva (which he gives to Gwen to protect her from himself), falls in love with Gwen, and argues with his logical-minded father and the local constable (Ralph Bellamy), who refuse to believe Larry’s lycanthropic experiences–much to his father’s eventual woe.
American actor Lon Chaney, Jr. (1906-1973) was born Creighton Tull Chaney, the son of stage and silent movie star, the “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney, Sr. (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Phantom of the Opera, et.al.). Young Chaney’s early life was troubled by his parents’ divorce, his mother’s suicide attempt, and the resulting scandal. His father remarried and continued his career while the boy worked hard to emerge from his famous father’s shadow. The senior Chaney adamantly discouraged his son from becoming an actor, so the young man became a plumber. When his father died in 1930, the junior Chaney experienced two turning points: that his mother hadn’t died when he was a boy; and, that he was now free to pursue his acting career. In 1931, he starred in his first film, The Galloping Ghost, using his own name, Creighton Chaney. In 1935, he began being billed by Universal as Lon Chaney, not “Jr.” In 1939, after many bit parts in numerous films, Chaney starred as Lennie Small in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, his first major role and a critical success for him. In 1941, Universal gave him the title role in The Wolf Man, which would somewhat typecast him as a horror film actor for the rest of his life. Unlike Karloff and Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Jr. played not only his “baby,” the Wolf Man, but also Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, and the Mummy. Later, he succeeded at breaking through his monster typecast, playing a variety of roles until 1971, when he retired due to illness. He always remained protective of his beloved Wolf Man character.
Chaney was befriended by some coworkers, but he was capable of intense dislikes. Despite the onscreen chemistry between him and Evelyn Ankers, they didn’t get along. It is reported that near the end of The Wolf Man, when the werewolf has Gwen (Ankers) by the neck, then throws her to the ground in the woods, that Chaney really did that. When we see Gwen “come to” in the scene, she wasn’t acting! Ankers said that she really did pass out and was lost in the set’s creeping chemical fog until found by some costars. Because Chaney could become belligerent on a set, there was frequent bloodshed.
Toward the end of his life, Chaney’s voice became raspy from throat cancer, contracted from lifelong smoking. He died in San Clemente, California, from heart failure at age 67 in 1973. In 1999, a Golden Palm Star was dedicated to him on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars. He had two sons, now deceased, but his grandson, Ron Chaney, frequently appears as a guest at horror movie conventions.
Sources: “Curt Siodmak,” “The Wolf Man,” “Lon Chaney, Jr.,” and “Jack Pierce” from Wikipedia; Google–lycanthropy; “When the Autumn Moon Was Bright” (2009) universalmonsterarmy.com; IMDb.com; behindthe thrills.com
So get a clue, Readers. I hope you enjoy some classic Universal monster movies to get you in the spirit of things for Halloween. Fortunately, there is no full moon this October 31st. Happy fun and safe Halloween!