"No Turning Into the Wolfman Until Your Homework Is done"

Bruce Dettman

Photos courtesy of John Antosiewicz

by Jan Alan Henderson

This update comes to us from our good friend and top flight writer Bruce Dettman, and brings back happy memories of golden sunsets, autumn moons when the wolfbane blooms on my 19" black and white television set.

My mother had a friend named Dorothy Simmons. her former husband was none other than Lon Chaney, Jr. One day my mother casually mentioned that I was watching old horror movies on the weekend TV monster marathons, and that my favorite actors were Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney, Jr. Dorothy recoiled in true horror, and told my mother in no uncertain terms that her Ex's movies were trash, and so was he! She instructed my mother to forbid me to watch this morally eroding type of entertainment or else I would surely rot in Hell.

Well, mothers being what they were in the 50s and 60s, mine tried in vain to dissuade me from my monsterious delights. Too late, Hell and pentagrams were already ingrained in my future.

So I said to my mother, with all the wisdom of a 14 year old spud, "Mom, it's just a movie!" I lied!

Bearing this in mind, let's take a walk down Lycanthropy Lane with me. Dettman and Mr. Chaney, in LARRY TALBOT AND ME

As a kid who was introduced to the classic monsters of Universal Studios in the late 1950s when they were first released to television, my loyalty quickly switched from Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster, the first two cinematic fiends I had been exposed to, to the saga of Larry Talbot, better known to his legion of fans as The Wolfman. While my best friend Mike, two years older and therefore taller and better suited to imitate Dr. Frankenstein’s neck-bolted offspring (when doing his impression he would wear an old corduroy sports coat, two sizes too small, which exaggerated his size), I couldn’t have been more pleased to accept the role of my hairy idol in our countless backyard recreations of Universal’s storylines, all of which climaxed in a great brawl between the two raging monsters. An interruption of sorts occurred one day when my father came home early from work only to discover Mike and I at play in our garage with my friend laid out on the long workbench and I, momentarily portraying Doctor Frankenstein, pretending to bring him back to life with the help the laboratory-like sounds of assorted power tools. Our game plan was for me to switch characters from the scientist to The Wolfman and then engage in our traditional donnybrook, but we didn’t get that far. Banished from the garage (except for the punishment of cleaning the floor of sawdust for what seemed like the rest of my life) we retreated across the street to Mike’s place to pick up where we left off, sans the band-saw accompaniment.

If there were occasions when Mike wasn’t available to assume the part of the Monster this was no problem either since I was quite content emulating The Wolfman on my own. Alone in my room, surrounded by issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland and World Famous Creatures, I would gaze at myself in the bathroom mirror, contort my facial muscles, squint my eyes, bare my teeth and growl and howl with great enthusiasm, a performance which understandably confused my three-legged Dalmatian. And to help further put me in the proper mood, I had even audio taped film composter Hans Salter’s familiar signature Wolfman theme on my mini-recorder. My mother, who eventually became accustomed to these peculiar bathroom sounds, would calmly yell from the nearby kitchen with absolutely no attempt at humor, “No turning into The Wolfman until your homework is done!”

For me there was nothing quite as fun as pretending to be The Wolfman, not even playing Davy Crockett at the Alamo, Custer at the Little Big Horn, Flash Gordon on Mongo or Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. These were all satisfying escapes of fantasy as well, but somehow just not in the same league as shedding my restrictive human form, running around in the neighborhood shadows, growling and menacing when the moon was full (and often not). The question, of course, is why. What was the allure, the attraction of this character to me as well as to thousands of Baby Boomers for according to all the monster mags I devoured I was certainly not alone in my admiration and devotion to the hirsute Mr. Talbot? What struck such a chord in all of us and was responsible for his immense popularity? Why did we like and actually admire The Wolfman so damn much and even wish to emulate him? After all, he was a monster, a killer. But before we get into theory a bit of cinematic history might be advisable.

Despite his elevated status in the pantheon of classic horror monsters, The Wolfman actually came late to the game. It was a full decade after the celluloid debut of Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) that the studio created the character but his furry star rose instantly and as they say, he never looked back. The film that introduced him (The Wolfman – 1941) was a smash hit and in his second outing he was paired with the Frankenstein Monster, Universal’s best-known celluloid fiend. Few performers in mainstream films, not a Clark Gable or Spencer Tracy, could boast of such an overnight success.

Another thing which differentiated The Wolfman from his fellow monstrous co-stars was that only one actor portrayed him. Whereas the Frankenstein Monster would be impersonated by Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange, the Mummy by Karloff, Tom Tyler and Chaney Jr., The Invisible Man by Claude Rains, Vincent Price and John Hall and Dracula by Lugosi, Chaney Jr. and John Carridane, The Wolfman and his human alter ego Lawrence Talbot would be played by one actor and one actor alone, Lon Chaney Jr. (who on more than one occasion referred to the character as “My baby”). This set him apart from the studio’s other monsters whose changing looks and personas over the years -- not to mention situational and character modifications by screenwriters and directors -- could often alter the creatures, sometimes drastically, from one picture and storyline to the next. Try to imagine, as an example, more different interpretations of the Frankenstein Monster than Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi’s.

But The Wolfman, despite certain minimal shifts in the physical appearance made throughout the character’s five picture history ( but which we fans could always spot in a second), would always be Chaney, who gave the part consistency and allowed loyal fans to relate and commiserate with the familiar and tortured Talbot.

One of the reasons it took The Wolfman longer to be brought to the screen and established as a viable addition to Universal’s stable of horrors is that he was the studio’s second stab at creating a lycanthropic character. The first, 1935’s Werewolf of London starring Henry Hull as Wilfred Glendon, a scientist bitten by a werewolf (Warner Oland) in Tibet who returns to his native England to discover his affliction, left little room for sequels even if Universal had wanted to produce some. Moreover, Glendon, even if resurrected, was hardly the sort of character one would like to emulate or that audiences could easily take to. He was frosty, unfriendly, a bit of a prig, aristocratically distant and not particularly likable. As has been pointed out many times before, Hull’s performance as the doomed lycanthrope was more Jekyll and Hyde-like than loup-garou. The first heavier and more bestial makeup created by makeup man extraordinaire Jack Pierce was eventually discarded -- over the years many reasons have been given for this, the most popular being that Hull refused to sport such an appearance-altering look -- and replaced by a more conservative one which, with its pointed ears and severe widow’s peak, lent a more bat-like visage to the design. The coat, scarf and hat which scientist Glendon also sported during his deadly nocturnal escapades -- and the fact that he was actually able to speak during his death scene -- also contributed to the strong Jekyll/Hyde parallels.

All or at least most of this was jettisoned and a completely new concept was instigated when Universal, seeing horror star potential in Lon Chaney Jr., decided to create a new screen monster. Creighton Chaney had been knocking around Hollywood for years, appearing in all manner of B programmers, serials and westerns, trying his best to make things on his own and to distance himself from the immense professional shadow and legacy of his father, silent screen great Lon Chaney Senior. He was later to concede that they [the studios] had finally broken him down, starved him into taking on and exploiting the Lon Chaney Jr. moniker for marquee power. And it worked.

Although The Wolfman wasn’t his first horror assignment (that would have been 1942’s Man Made Monster) it was the role which certainly established him as heir apparent to his father’s hallowed cinematic tradition even if it became obvious quite quickly that the lumbering, slightly awkward Chaney (who until then had been most associated with the role of Lennie from the film version of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men) was a capable actor, even likable and effective in the right role, but a somewhat limited one as well.

The role of Larry Talbot, however, was perfectly tailored for him, a fact that always annoyed the film’s cantankerous and argumentative screenwriter Curt Siodmak who with some justification found the notion of the hulking all-American Chaney cast as the son of aristocratic Englishman Claude Rains being one of Hollywood’s greatest stretches. For the record, in Siodmak’s original treatment Talbot was Larry Gill, an American ex-patriot and no relation to Rains’ Sir John Talbot. In the finished film, however, it is explained that Larry Talbot has been away from his ancestral home for many years, living and later working in America, and has only returned following his older brother John’s accidental death in a hunting accident. Although visibly uncomfortable and tentative with his painfully stiff upper-lipped parent, it also becomes obvious from the very start that Larry Talbot is a personable, approachable boy-next door type, very good with his hands (he explains that he worked for a time on California’s Mount Wilson Observatory) but not overly cerebral or articulate. In short, Larry is a regular guy who we immediately like and relate to, a fact which makes what eventually befalls him all the more tragic for both the character and for we the audience. Larry becomes a werewolf not by accident or by design but because he is brave and a hero when he tries to save the life of a young woman named Jennie (Fay Helm) who has been attacked by Bela (Bela Lugosi), the gypsy son of Maleva (Maria Ospenskia), himself a lycanthrope (although in full wolf form – portrayed by Lon’s real-life mutt Moose).

The time frame of The Wolfman is a short one. The action is played out over a period of just a couple of days. Although later films would decree that he can only turn into a werewolf when the moon is full, there is no such reference in this first movie. There is, however, a poem (created by Siodmak although some later books on horror films have actually attributed this to a medieval source):

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 ditty would be altered down the cinematic road to include the full moon but in his first outing Lon changes with no direct relation to the lunar cycle.

His first transformation comes after attending a gypsy carnival where he runs into Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) and her fiancé Frank (Patrick Knowles). It is odd to me that Gwen goes out for some light-hearted fun just days after her best friend Jennie has had her throat torn out by a wild animal, but, you never know about people. Having returned to his room when he first turns into The Wolfman, we only get a glimpse at his feet and legs sprouting fur prior to his exiting the room and going out on his first nocturnal prowl. What we don’t see is him stopping long enough to dress in a dark shirt and pants. All through the series, but primarily in the first and second film (Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman,) Larry changes his wardrobe when in his lycanthropic state but this is something that we Baby Boomers never allowed to bother or bewilder us. All we really cared about is that we liked nice guy Larry and thought The Wolfman was very cool.

The next time we see The Wolfman we have a real chance to examine Jack Pierce’s incredible makeup job. This is a werewolf in a far different league than Henry Hull’s Werewolf of London, hairier, more wolf-like, with a kind of matted head piece about the forehead region, a short animal snout, jutting fangs, and fur covering nearly every ounce of his face.

Naturally Larry, in animal form, dies at the film’s conclusion, battered to death by his father wielding a silver sword cane that ironically he [Larry) had purchased for himself just a few days before. Audiences of the time might have thought this production a one shot deal, the true end of the line for Larry Talbot, but we Baby Boomers who read monster magazines and haunted our TV Guides for monster and sci-films knew better. We knew that somehow The Wolfman survived his father’s beating because we were aware of another film called Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman, perhaps the most mouth-watering sounding title any of us had ever heard of. I recall on one frustrating occasion the film being showcased in the television section of our daily newspaper with an advertisement depicting the now familiar picture of Lon Chaney in his lupine form battling the Frankenstein Monster (the woefully miscast Bela Lugosi) but that it was to be shown on a channel my family didn’t receive. Nonetheless, the night the movie was aired I sat by our 1953 Packard Bell and although knowing the impossibility of it, tried everything I could think of to make that selector knob bring in the film. It was one of the darkest moments of my youth.

My disappointment didn’t last long though and within the year I had not only caught up with Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (on our own local “Nightmare Theatre”) but Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which also featured Dracula and The Wolfman. What made these later Wolfman appearances even more gratifying were the scenes depicting the physical transformation of man into wolf, the work of Universal’s brilliant special effects department head John P. Fulton. These took grueling hours to film and Chaney is reported to have hated the experience but they added much to the visual excitement of the films. Larry Talbot’s other two occasions as the lycanthrope, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula, would have to wait a bit as for some odd reason they didn’t seem to be a part of the original horror package that Universal had released to early TV. When I finally viewed these, however, I was a bit disappointed. If footage of Larry as The Wolfman was limited in HOF, it was not only near non-existent in HOD but at the film’s conclusion mad scientist Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens), trying to remove the curse of lycanthropy by re-molding Talbot’s skull cavity, actually does appear to cure him. Showing up four years later in A&C Meet Frankenstein still sprouting hair when the full moon rose proved that the scientist’s cure certainly wasn’t a lasting one, but nonetheless it was extremely deflating to see Larry, watched by his latest love interest (Martha O’Driscoll) stand under that autumn moon in HOD and not sprout a single whisker. Obviously, The Wolfman and all the other Universal monsters were running out of gas.

Nonetheless, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, released in 1948, although signaling the death knoll for the classic monsters, was still their best effort in years. The Wolfman -- who appeared slightly different due to Universal having let Jack Pierce and his more time consuming makeup process go and creating a new and more flexible design for him -- was in top form. One does have to wonder, however, what fate befell his lady friend from House of Dracula when the man of her dreams turned back into the man of her screams.

In A&C Meet Frankenstein all three of the monsters are given extensive screen time with The Wolfman strutting his stuff in four scenes. The comedy elements aside, this was a good ending for the threesome with Larry no longer bemoaning his fate (his bouts of self-pity, understandable or not, had become a bit heavy-handed and tiresome in later films in the series) but simply the good guy, albeit a very dangerous one, out to purge the world of Dracula and the Monster.

These five films then formed the template for The Wolfman’s career which would be expanded upon throughout the country in backyards, garages, bedrooms and schoolyards. I would spend untold hours drawing The Wolfman, assembling Wolfman models, eating my tuna sandwiches from a Wolfman lunch pail, and of course, locking myself in the bathroom and turning into The Wolfman on a regular basis.

For me The Wolfman was just as important to the imagination of my youth as Superman, the Lone Ranger, Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes, but there was something else that separated him from my impersonations of these other famous and beloved characters. The Wolfman suggested in an exaggerated way the dark and evil underbelly of man and the extreme duplicity, always possible, in all of us. To be The Wolfman was a freeing experience, an abandonment of rules and society’s constrictions. No parents, teachers, other adults, older brothers or bullies could touch you when you were The Wolfman. They either got out of your way or they were history.

Even for a ten year-old, who probably wouldn’t have been able to articulate any of these sensations and feelings, this was a definite attraction, an appealing alternative to the predictability of school and chores and the physical restraints of ones own little world, an attraction shared by thousands of other small boys of that era who also sprouted imaginary fur, howled at the moon and hid in the shadows waiting for imaginary victims.

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