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06 February, 2010

Creighton’s Creature: THE WOLF-MAN and Lon Jr.

Following the departure of the Laemmles from Universal Studios in the mid-1930’s, Standard Capital, which was headed by J. Cheever Cowdin and was the studio’s new owners, made a conscious decision to avoid Horror films, hoping to become known for a more “upscale” product. They failed, as would a so-far unbroken line of their successors, to give the studio’s iconic Monsters the respect they were due, and fans of the Monsters credit for knowing what they wanted.

By 1939 however, the studio was dealing with both a lack of mainstream success and a hurting bottom line. The continued popularity of both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN in Los Angeles-area theaters convinced the studio that maybe Horror Films weren’t such bad ideas after all, and before the year was out, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, starring Karloff, Lugosi, Rathbone, and Atwill marked the return of Horror to Universal. That, and the debut in 1940 of the studio’s other great cash cow, the comedy duo of Abbott & Costello, insured that the Monsters would find gainful employment for some time to come.

But they needed fresh material to work with, not just sequels to existing properties. They needed a new Monster. And a script by Curt Siodmak gave them a great one: Larry Talbot, aka—the Wolf-Man.

The first article to carry the Unimonster’s byline said this about Siodmak’s creation, “One of Universal’s most popular movies, THE WOLF-MAN came on the scene just as the second half of Horror’s Golden Age was beginning to take off. The war in Europe, increasing economic prosperity, and changing tastes were going to put the monsters out of business, according to the critics. Instead, they were entering the period of their greatest popularity, due primarily to Universal’s first truly sympathetic monster [Larry Talbot]. [C]ursed by the bite of a werewolf to an eternal, nightmarish existence, more beast than man … it provided a fresh perspective on the monsters; one from the monster’s point of view” [The Universal Monsters: How Universal Studios Created the Horror Film, 6 February, 2010]. The werewolf make-up would be designed and executed by Jack P. Pierce, Universal Studios master craftsman of Monster-Making, based upon designs he created for 1935’s THE WEREWOLF OF LONDON. And to play Talbot, the studio cast the son of the first icon of the Horror Film—Lon Chaney, Jr.

Born Creighton Chaney in 1906, the younger man was estranged from his father and raised by his mother, whom Lon had abandoned. Creighton had no intention of following in his father’s Horror footsteps; indeed, his breakthrough came in the role of Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s 1939 version of John Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN, for which he won critical acclaim. However, pressure from studio executives meant an end to his dreams of a straight dramatic career, and to his public identity as separate from his father. He had occasionally been billed as “Lon Chaney, Jr.” since 1935, and in 1940, Creighton appeared in ONE MILLION, B.C. under that name. Creighton Chaney, at least as far as the movie-going public was concerned, ceased to exist.

Though in retrospect this outright manipulation of an actor’s career may seem callous and overbearing, in the context of the times it was accepted practice for studios to make decisions such as this. The Hollywood “Studio System” completely dominated the film industry—it was the closest thing this country’s ever had to a tyrannical despotism—and if you desired to work in Hollywood, then you paid obeisance to the system. The studio had a legitimate need, and no one felt any qualms about using Creighton to fill that need.

For along with Universal’s requirement for fresh material with which to work, they also needed a new star, a Horror icon to replace both Karloff and Lugosi, who had faded to supporting roles. Who better to fill the void than the son of the “Man of a Thousand Faces?”

Lon Jr.’s Horror debut came on 28 March 1941, in MAN-MADE MONSTER, a B-grade programmer, directed by George Waggner. Co-starring Lionel Atwill, Anne Nagel, and Samuel B. Hinds, the plot concerned a sideshow performer (Chaney, Jr.) with an unusual immunity to electrical shocks. He agrees to be studied by a pair of scientists: One benevolent, played by Hinds, and one evil, played to perfection by Atwill. Unbeknownst to everyone, Atwill begins treating “Dynamo” Dan with increasingly powerful electrical impulses, transforming him into a mindless automaton with a deadly touch. The movie was well-received, if a little ahead of it’s time. A mere decade-and-a-half later, it would have fit perfectly on a Drive-In Double-bill with THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN or MONSTER ON THE CAMPUS. In fact, it probably did, as it was reissued in 1953 under the title THE ATOMIC MONSTER.

Later that same year would come the film that would strengthen Lon Jr.’s status as a Horror star, and it, like MAN-MADE MONSTER, was to be directed by Waggner. THE WOLF-MAN, released five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, would become one of Universal’s most beloved Monster movies, and one of it’s most successful.

Scripted by Siodmak, and starring Claude Rains, Ralph Bellamy, Bela Lugosi, Evelyn Ankers, and Maria Ouspenskaya, THE WOLF-MAN gave Universal its first truly original monster, and the star that would carry Universal’s Monster franchise through to it’s end. From 1941 to 1945, Lon Jr. appeared in all of Universal’s first-class Horror Films, and a large number of their second-class Horrors, such as the series of Inner Sanctum pictures that began in 1943. He would play every one of Universal’s “Fab Four” of Monsterdom—Frankenstein’s Monster, in GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN; Dracula, in SON OF DRACULA; the Mummy Kharis, beginning with THE MUMMY’S TOMB; and of course Larry Talbot, the Wolf-Man.

After the success of THE WOLF-MAN, Universal wanted a sequel, and a chance remark by Siodmak, intended as a joke, became 1943’s FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF-MAN. The studio had found the formula for Horror success in the ‘40’s—Multiple Monsters, formulaic plots, a beautiful girl or two to menace, some knock-down, drag-out Monster fighting, and a happy ending. A simple prescription, true—but it kept theaters packed.

Lon Jr. would play Talbot three more times: 1944’s HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1945’s HOUSE OF DRACULA, and the 1948 pairing of the Monsters with Universal’s other moneymaking property of the ‘40’s, Abbott & Costello, in ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. That film would mark the beginning of the end of the Classic Monsters of Universal, relegated to the status of comedic props. It would also mark the end of Lon Jr.’s association with the studio that had made him an icon, and which he, in turn, carried on his furry shoulders throughout the war years.

The end of the war meant the return of millions of GI’s to the Home Front, as well as revelation of the true suffering visited upon the tens of millions of victims of totalitarianism and fascism throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim. True horrors, revealed and remembered, left little room in the minds of moviegoers for the Monsters of fantasy and fiction. Universal Studios, ten years removed from the days when Carl Laemmle, Sr. ran the show as a ‘family’ business, where the head of the make-up department could be hired on a handshake, fired Lon Jr. in 1948. Nor did they stop there. Jack Pierce, the same make-up artist who had created the image of every one of the studio’s iconic Monsters, from Dracula, to Frankenstein’s Monster, to the Mummy, to the Wolf-Man, the head of the make-up department who had been hired on the basis of a handshake, without a contract, was just as unceremoniously canned.

Recently however, the titular descendants of the men who so callously sacked Lon Jr., Jack, and others found a renewed attraction in the Monsters of Universal; an interest that had never waned among their devoted fans. Beginning with 1999’s THE MUMMY, directed by Stephen Sommers, Universal has resurrected most of the studio’s great Monsters of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. So far, there’s been little interest in revisiting the Invisible Man, first realized by James Whale and Claude Rains in the 1933 classic. And plans for a remake of the studio’s greatest Horror Film of the 1950’s, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, have been up in the air for years now.

But this month will see the return of Larry Talbot to theaters nationwide, as Universal unveils THE WOLFMAN, directed by Joe Johnston and starring Benicio Del Toro as Talbot, Anthony Hopkins as his father, Sir John Talbot, and Emily Blunt as Gwen Conliffe. A big budget reimagining of the original story, the trailers promise a movie that looks beautifully filmed and exquisitely designed, with the requisite amount of dazzlingly spectacular special effects. It remains to be seen whether or not it has managed to capture the spirit, the essence of what made the original film one of Universal’s most loved Monster movies. One thing it has most certainly done is render invalid one of Lon Jr.’s proudest claims. As he once told an interviewer, he had played all the Monsters—from Dracula to the Mummy. But he—Creighton Tull Chaney—was the only actor to ever play the Wolf-Man. No longer is that true.

Lon Jr. would continue to play monsters, maniacs, and murderers for another 25 years, until his death in 1973. He would play many memorable characters in his later years, most notably Bruno the caretaker, from Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY or, THE MADDEST STORY EVER TOLD. But he was destined to be forever defined by his greatest role—that of a Welshman cursed to become a snarling, murderous beast, driven to bloodlust by the brightness of an autumn moon.

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