“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”
—Curt Siodmak, “The Wolf Man”
Screenwriter Curt Siodmak was a German Jew of Polish descent who fled Europe for Hollywood in the 1930s to escape persecution from the Nazis. So there’s little wonder that his 1941 Universal horror classic “The Wolf Man” parallels the experiences of Jews in Europe before and during World War II.
“The Wolf Man” revolves around an everyman, Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), who arrives at his father’s mansion in England after years of living in America. One evening, he’s bitten by a werewolf in the forest and finds himself turning into a vicious beast whenever the moon is full.
Filled with self-loathing for what happened to him, Talbot fears not only what he might do to his friends and family but also being hunted down and killed.
Siodmak “understood drama and pathos,” says Constantine Nasr, producer of the documentaries on the new two-disc DVD of “The Wolf Man,” which came out Tuesday in conjunction with the Feb. 12 release of Universal’s new version starring Benicio Del Toro as Talbot.
“The original title was ‘Destiny’ because he believed it was the story of an outsider whose destiny was cursed by forces he could not control,” Nasr says. “There was going to be no way out for him.”
Even the pentagram in Talbot’s hand signifying a werewolf is a “very obvious substitute for the Star of David, and if you had that symbol you were going to be cursed,” Nasr says.
“That is not how Siodmak felt as a Jew but how he felt others perceived him. Larry Talbot was an interesting substitute for what was going on with the Jewish people in the early 1940s.”
From 1925, Universal had been the major monster movie factory in Hollywood beginning with Lon Chaney in “The Phantom of the Opera” and continuing with 1931’s “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” 1932’s “The Mummy,” 1933’s “The Invisible Man” and 1935’s “The Bride of Frankenstein.” But in 1936, Universal founder Carl Laemmle and his son Carl Jr. were forced out and the horror genre went dormant.
But the new regime, realizing that horror films were big box office, resurrected the genre in 1939 with “Son of Frankenstein” and soon began to make sequels to its popular characters.
“The Wolf Man” was the first original monster movie the studio produced in the 1940s. Though its other famous monsters were based on books and plays, “The Wolf Man” came from the imagination of Siodmak.
Scott Essman, the author of the book and DVD project on the famed Universal makeup artist, “Jack Pierce — The Man Behind the Monsters,” says “The Wolf Man” was “an aberration for the studio at the time because it was an original.”
The studio had produced a werewolf movie, though, in 1935 called “Werewolf of London” with Henry Hull as the man bitten by a wolf. There had also been a werewolf project in the works for the studio’s superstar Boris Karloff, but it had been scuttled.
By 1941, Universal resurrected the idea. Siodmak was under contract to the studio and given the task. “It was all the magical kind of thing where all the elements came together in one film,” Essman says. Siodmak established the werewolf lore on screen, including pentagrams, wolfbane, the full moon and that a werewolf can be killed only by a silver bullet.
Director George Waggner got great performances from his cast, including Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Bela Lugosi as the gypsy werewolf who bites Talbot, and Maria Ouspenskaya. Pierce supplied the brilliant makeup, which included yak hair, fangs and a rubber snout.
The film made a star out of Chaney, son of the Man of a Thousand Faces, who starred in Universal’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “Phantom of the Opera.”
Though he hated the grueling hours in the makeup chair, Chaney Jr. relished the role of Talbot.
“He called it his baby,” says the actor’s grandson, Ron Chaney.
In fact, he was the only actor to play the role at Universal, resurrecting Talbot four more times at the studio. Years later, he played a werewolf in the 1960 monster/horror comedy “House of Terror,” and in 1962 Chaney reprised the Wolf Man for a “Route 66” episode.
Ron Chaney loves to tell of his father’s relationship with Moose, a big shepherd mix owned by the night watchman at Universal. Chaney insisted the hound be cast as the wolf who bites Talbot.
The scene was shot in the shadows, so it’s really a fake dog that attacks Chaney in the close-up. So there were no hard feelings between them. In fact by the time the film was completed, Ron Chaney noted, “the dog had switched his alliance to my grandfather. He purchased Moose from the night watchman.”