The Wolfman at the Movies

The following is an article from Bathroom Readers' Institute's Uncle John's Great Big Bathroom Reader.

The werewolf is one of the most recognized movie monsters in history, thanks in large part to the 1941 film The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at the making of that classic film.


The early 1930s was the golden age of movie monsters. In 1930, Universal released the classic Dracula, starring Bel Lugosi; a year later it had another huge hit with Boris Karloff's Frankenstein. Inspired by their success, Universal decided to make a movie about a werewolf.

In 1931, they handed writer/director Robert Florey a title -The Wolf Man- and told him to come up with an outline. A few months later, Florey submitted notes for a story about a Frenchman who has suffered for 400 years under a witch's curse that turns him into a werewolf during every full moon ...unless he wears a garland of wolf-bane around his neck. The studio approved the idea and scheduled the movie as a Boris Karloff vehicle for 1933. A shooting script was written ...and rewritten ...and rewritten several more times. By the time it was finished, the script was about an English doctor who was bitten by a werewolf in Tibet, then turns into one himself on his return to London. Universal renamed the pictures Werewolf of London.


By now, however, Boris Karloff was too busy to take the part ...So it went a Broadway actor named Henry Hull. Werewolf of London hit theaters in 1935. The movie wasn't very good: One critic has called it "full of fog, atmosphere, and laboratory shots, but short on chills and horror." That was largely because Hull didn't look scary. He refused to cover his face with werewolf hair, complaining that it obscured his features. Makeup man Jack Pierce -already a legend for creating Bela Lugosi's Dracula and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein- had no choice but to remove most of the facial hair, leaving Hull looking like a demonic forest elf. Werewolf of London was a box office disappointment. It was also Hull's last werewolf film.


In the early 1940s, Universal launched a second wave of horror films featuring Dracula, Frankenstein, and other classic monsters. They decided to give the werewolf another try, too. This second werewolf film started the same way the first one did: with the title The Wolf Man. This time the scriptwriter was Curt Siodmak. He started from scratch, researched werewolf legends himself, and used what he learned to write the script. The story he concocted was about an American named Lance Talbot who travels to his ancestral home in Wales and is bitten while rescuing a young woman from a werewolf attack.

Once again, the studio wanted to cast Karloff in the lead ...and once again he was too busy to take it. They considered Bela Lugosi, but he was too old for the part. So they gave it to newcomer Lon Chaney, Jr., son and namesake of the greatest horror star of the silent movie era. Chaney, Sr. was known all over the world as the "Man of 1000 Faces," for his roles in The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Chaney, Jr. had recently starred in Man Made Monster, and Universal thought he had potential in horror films.


Jack Pierce was still the makeup artist at Universal, and he welcomed the chance to use his original designs; a hairy face complete with fangs and a wolfish nose, plus hairy hands and feet. The makeup took a total of four hours to apply, most of which was spent applying tufts of fur -authentic yak hair imported from Asia- one by one, and then singeing them to create a wild look. Chaney's wolfman didn't talk -all it did was grunt, growl, and howl- and that was no accident: when Chaney was fully made up, he couldn't talk and he could only eat through a straw. As he recounted years later, the only thing worse than wearing the makeup was taking it off.

What gets me is when it's after work and I'm all hot and itchy and tired, and I've got to sit in that chair for forty-five minutes more while Pierce just about kills me ripping off the stuff he put on in the morning! Sometimes we take an hour and leave some of the skin on my face!


Most actors would probably have refused to wear such difficult makeup, but Chaney (whose real first name was Creighton) had no choice: he was desperate to make it in the film business. When he was alive, Lon Chaney, Sr. had fought Creighton's attempt to become an actor. He even forced his son out of Hollywood High and into a plumbing school when he asked to take acting lessons.

As Chaney, Sr.'s career soared to its heights in the late 1920s, Chaney. Jr. was working as a boilermaker. The elder Chaney died of throat cancer in 1930; Creighton Chaney signed with RKO Studios two years later. After moving from bit part to bit part for more than two years, he reluctantly changed his name to Lon Chaney, Jr. to cash in on his father's fame. "They had to starve me to make me take his name," he groused years later. Finally, in 1939 -only days after his car and furniture were repossessed by a furniture company- Chaney scored a hit in a stage version of Of Mice and Men. That led to a starring role in the movie version, and in 1940, a contract with Universal.


The studio had modest hopes for The Wolf Man. They scheduled its release for December 11, 1941, right before Christmas. But on December 7, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II. Universal was sure the movie would become a box office disaster. After all, who was going to take time out for the movies when they were going to war? 

Good vs. Evil

To their surprise, it was hit. The film played to packed movie houses all over the country, and was the studio's biggest money maker of the season.It established the Wolf Man as an important movie monster, along with Dracula and Frankenstein. It almost singlehandedly made werewolves a part of the popular culture, and it turned Lon Chaney, Jr. into one of the best known actors in the country.

World War II probably had more to do with making The Wolf Man a hit than any other factor. What Universal had failed to realize was that the war fueled a need for the kind of escape that horror films provided. Inside a darkened theater, moviegoers could forget their troubles, at least for a while, as they watched ordinary mortals triumph over seemingly insurmountable evil. As David Skal writes in The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror:

Talbot's four-film quest to put to rest his wolf-self is, in a strange way, an unconscious parable of the war effort. The Wolf Man's crusade for eternal peace and his frustrated attempts to control irrational, violent, European forces... The Wolf Man's saga was the most consistent and sustained monster myth of the war, beginning with the first year of America's direct involvement in the war, and finishing up just in time for Hiroshima.


* The hardest scene to shoot was the final "metamorphosis" scene, in which Chaney turns from a werewolf to a human as he dies. Chaney describes the process:

The way we did the transformation was that I came in at 2:00 a.m. When I hit the position, they would take little nails and drive them through the skin at the edge of my fingers, on both hands, so that I wouldn't move them anymore. While I was in this position, they would take the camera and weigh it down with one ton, so that it wouldn't move when people walked. They had targets for my eyes. Then, they would shoot five or ten frames of film in the camera. They'd take the film out and send it to the lab. While it was there, the makeup man would come and take the whole thing off my face and put on a new one. I'm still immobile. When the film came back from the lab, they'd put it back in the camera and then they'd check me. They'd say, "Your eyes have moved a little bit, move them to the right..." Then they'd roll it again and shoot another ten frames. Well, we did 21 changes of makeup and it took twenty-two hours. I won't discuss about the bathroom..."

* For the rest of the cast and crew, the worst part of filming The Wolf Man was breathing the special effects fog that was used in the outdoor scenes. "The kind of fog they used in those days was nothing like the kind they have today," cameraman Bill Lathrop remembers. "It was greasy stuff made with mineral oil. We worked in it for weeks and the entire cast and crew had sore eyes and intestinal trouble the entire time. Besides that, we were all shivering with cold because it was necessary to keep the temperature below 50 degrees when using the fog." Female lead Evelyn Ankers fainted on the set after inhaling too much fog during a chase sequence.

* The Wolf Man made a lot of money for Universal, but not much of it filtered to the writers and actors who actually brought it to life. "My salary was $400 a week," scriptwriter Curt Siodmak recalls. "When the picture made its first million, the producer got a $10,000 bonus, the director got a diamond ring for his wife, and I got fired, since I wanted $25 more for my next job."

LON CHANEY'S WOLFMAN SEQUELS Chaney made four wolfman movies for Universal during the war years ...more than Universal made of Dracula or Frankenstein. The others were:

* Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943). Chaney travels to Castle Frankenstein to see if he can find a cure for his wolfman condition in Dr. Frankenstein's notes. All he finds is the Frankenstein monster, played by Bela Lugosi, who had turned down the original Frankenstein in 1931 because there wasn't any dialogue.

Movie Note: Lugosi played a particularly stiff Frankenstein, not just because he was growing old, but also because in the original version of the film, Frankenstein is left blind and mute after a botched brain transplant. In the version released to theaters, all references to blindness, muteness and the brain transplant were removed, so he just looks old.

* House of Frankenstein (1944). Mad scientist Dr. Gustav Neimann (Boris Karloff) escapes from an insane asylum with the help of his hunchback assistant Daniel (J. Carrol Naish) and flees to castle Frankenstein. There he teams up with Dracula (John Carradine), Frankenstein (Glenn Strange), and the Wolfman (Chaney) to terrorize the countryside until they are finally killed by villagers.

* House of Dracula (1945). Dr. Franz Edelman (Onslow Stevens) finds a way to cure Dracula (John Carradine) of his vampirism, but Dracula refuses to submit. Instead, he bites Dr. Edelman and turns him into a vampire; then Edelman raises Frankenstein from the dead, just as the wolfman arrives on the scene.

Movie Note: Originally titled The Wolfman vs. Dracula, the movie had to be renamed because the Wolfman and Dracula do not actually meet in the film.

* Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Bud Abbot and Lou Costello team up with the Wolfman to prevent Dracula (Lugosi) and a mad female scientist (Lenore Aubert) from transplanting Costello's brain into the Frankenstein monster. Critics say the film is symbolic of the decline of Universal's horror classics in the late 1940s -fans say it is one of the best films Abbot and Costello ever made.


Chaney would reprise the wolfman role in movies and television for the rest of his life, including appearances on The Pat Boone Show, and Route 66. He also played the Frankenstein monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Count Dracula in Son of Dracula (1943), and the Mummy in three Mummy movies. A heavy drinker, by the 1960s he was reduced to appearing in low-budget schlock like Face of the Screaming Werewolf (1965); Hillbillies in a Haunted House (1967); and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1970). He died of a heart attack in 1973. But the wolfman lives on.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Great Big Bathroom Reader This 1998 edition is so big it covers topics from your own backyard to the farthest reaches of the globe, such as the world's tallest buildings, the world's strangest beer, and more.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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