Whatever George Waggner’s The Wolf Man is or isn’t, it was for me a kind of rite of passage. It not only was one of the first late night horror movies I saw, it was the first that I saw alone. The week before I had tried to stay up for Dracula (1931), but fell asleep sometime during the 11 o’clock news and woke up — very unhappy indeed — about three a.m. to a snowy screen and white noise. (Yes, children, TV starions weren’t always on 24 hours a day.) I was determined that this week — a double feature of The Mummy’s Tomb (1942) and The Wolf Man would be different. It was. I was there for every moment of the movies — sitting in the floor (I had deemed this safer than lying on the couch) about two feet from the screen. I liked it all — from the lucite Universal globe with its twirling stars and exciting music (has there ever been such a cool logo?) on. I wasn’t especially discerning at that point in my life, so I thought The Mummy’s Tomb was fine, but fine didn’t begin to cover The Wolf Man. I thought it was easily the best thing I’d ever seen. Of course, I was also about 10 years old.
It would be a while before I realized that The Wolf Man wasn’t the best thing I’d ever seen, but I make no apology for my youthful enthusiasm. As I noted earlier, it probably is the best thing for a kid. It really speaks to you at that age because it’s almost impossible not to relate to Lon Chaney, Jr.’s Larry Talbot, who is little more than an overgrown kid himself. While later on — especially in the inevitable sequels this spawned — you might well find him pretty tiresome and prone to whining, when you’re young you identify with him and have nothing but sympathy.
Now, the film has certain doubtful aspects. I mean, it scarcely seems Larry could possibly be the son of Welsh castle-holder Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains). (In the original script, he was just an American who’d been sent over to install a telescope.) Explaining that Larry ran away to America covers the reason for his accent easily enough, but it does little to explain why Larry is about a foot taller than his father. (Perhaps oversexed gardeners weren’t the exclusive province of D.H. Lawrence.) Oh, well, Larry has returned to Wales because his older brother has been killed in a hunting accident, meaning he needs to take over as next in line for the castle and the estate.
Larry is a good-natured, if somewhat oafish fellow (in other words, much like the actor), who does his best to be agreeable and fit in—especially with Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers), whom he first spots while testing out his father’s telescope. It is, in fact, she who sells him the now famous walking stick with the pentagram and the wolf’s head on it. And the stick comes in pretty handy that night when he rushes in to save Gwen’s friend Jenny (Fay Helm) from what he thinks is an attacking wolf. He kills the beast with the stick, but, of course, it was actually the werewolf form of Bela the Gypsy (Bela Lugosi). He’s also been bitten and we all know what that means. And what follows is a predictable tragedy—as all werewolf stories have to be.
What makes the film retain its popularity is that broad kid appeal—especially for adolescent boys who not only identify (however subconsciously) with the body changes Larry goes through, but also with the character’s basic awkwardness. Larry Talbot is clearly out of his element just being in Wales, but being in Wales and embroiled in something he completely doesn’t understand is the clincher, because that’s an almost perfect description of adolescence. (It also works as a commentary on how Americans don’t know what they’re getting into in Europe—a hard-to-ignore parallel, since the film was written by Curt Siodmak, a refugee from Nazi Germany.) If the movie gets ahold of you at the right age, it has you for life—and nostalgia takes care of the rest.
Looked at dispassionately, it’s an atmospheric B movie that surrounds its limited star with an A list of talent that neither he nor the movie are really worthy of. Of course, since they’re all pros—including Bela Lugosi, who a few years earlier might have been the lead—they give their all and make it a pretty fun time. And from Universal at this point in Universal’s history, that’s about the most you can reasonably hope for. Certainly, if you’ve never seen the film, you should. And if you have, well, a little nostalgia isn’t a bad thing.
The Thursday Horror Picture Show will screen The Wolf Man Thursday, Oct. 23, at 8:45 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.