18 November 2017

Unconquerable Mae West: She Done Him Wrong

Mae West's battles with censorship began before she ever hit Hollywood. In 1928 she had gained about a million dollars worth of free publicity when a play she wrote, entitled Sex (because it was about... sex), was closed by the New York City police on the grounds of indecency; she was arrested, charged, and tried in a spectacle that made the prosecutors look ridiculous, especially when they allowed themselves to be drawn into a courtroom debate about the nature of certain articles of women's underwear. She was convicted and sent to jail for ten days, during which time she dined every night with the warden and his wife, and it was somehow revealed to the press that her skin was so sensitive that she had to wear her own silk undergarments rather than prison issue; she also endowed the prison with a library upon her departure. Mae's cheerful and gracious demeanor in the face of all this earned her the respect, admiration, and future support of practically everyone of influence in New York. The City of New York in the 1920's and 1930's was not in the mood to return to 19th century values; the city's intelligentsia, opinion makers, and beautiful people prided themselves on sophistication and modernity. Raiding Broadway theaters and arresting actors was simply an embarrassment. So Mae became a celebrity. She really hit the jackpot with her next play, Diamond Lil, having hit on the happy notion of setting the story in the 1890's, which took edge off the sexual content. It was a popular and critical success, and a personal triumph for Mae. Hollywood beckoned.

Mae created a sensation in her first film appearance in a self-penned supporting role -- at least it was supposed to be a supporting role -- in a 1932 George Raft vehicle, Night After Night. And when she did, studio head Adolph Zukor took notice, because although it was one of the oldest established movie studios, by 1933 Paramount Pictures was in serious financial trouble. The very astute Zukor decided to take a chance and make a movie of her play Diamond Lil. The studio's plans for filming Diamond Lil disturbed the Hays Office, and to placate code enforcers it was agreed to change the title, the name of the main character, and a few minor plot points. This seems particularly senseless now, when it is perfectly clear to the viewer that the newly re-named Lady Lou is the mistress of Gus, the saloon owner, and that she has known many other gentlemen very well in her time, for which she is not the least bit sorry. The actual cuts in dialog that were insisted upon turned out to be an improvement, because Mae replaced exposition with wit. Her particular style of innuendo couldn't be as easily pinned down by censors as the scandalous events in the original play. There was something about Mae that drove proponents of purity to make fools of themselves, probably her positive attitude towards sex. Sex was not an occasion for guilt, shame, self-denial, regrets, or blame for Mae; sex was good clean fun. This was extremely difficult for the censorious mind to grasp.
A painting of Lady Lou - - right over the Free Lunch counter!

The title itself is a joke on the censors. It is little remembered now, but the song "Frankie and Johnnie," which was based on a sensational real life 1900 murder of a pimp by a prostitute, was considered extremely shocking through the 1930's; it was not mentioned in polite company, and was the sort of song a man wouldn't sing in front of his mother or sister. Not only does Mae sing it in the movie, as she did in the stage play, but, obviously, the film's title is a play on the lyrics; instead of "...he was her man, but he was doing her wrong," it became "she done him wrong." (Although of course the character, Lil, or Lou as she is now called, does not actually do any guy wrong.) But just playing the tune during the opening titles suggests risque doings to come, in a sly wink at the audience. But it also says something about Mae -- she flipped the emphasis of the popular melodramatic stereotypes she used to construct her play to showcase herself and the new kind of female character she invented. Although sexy, and certainly not anti-man, she did not play a traditional female role; she was the actor, not a re-actor, and she propelled the story. Her character the hero. She is never passive and she is never a victim.

She Done Him Wrong is a short movie, clocking in at just over an hour. (This turned out to be a good thing, because exhibitors could put on more showings.) The story is straightforward, and doesn't seem that raunchy today. Very intelligently directed by Lowell Sherman, it opens with nostalgic scenes of the Bowery in New York in the 1890's and moves on to a group of men reverently discussing the beauty and allure of Mae's character. Lady Lou is the mistress of Gus Jordan (Noah Beery Sr.) the owner of a saloon and dance hall, where she also performs. Unknown to her Gus and Rita, besides running a counterfeit money ring, have been enticing down-and-out girls to San Francisco's Barbary Coast to work as pickpockets and burglars (one of the changes from the original, where the girls were obviously being forced into prostitution).

Rafaela Ottiano as Russian Rita

We first see Lou being driven up the street in her own carriage, with a coachman and a footman, clad in skin-tight lace with a feathered hat and parasol. We also see two stuffy ladies sniff and look away, as several gentlemen raise their hats to greet her enthusiastically. She descends and proceeds to Gus's place, greeted by admiring passers-by, and as she enters she chats kindly with the scrubwomen at work in the saloon. Lou welcomes Russian Rita, obviously completely innocent of Rita's wicked ways. She is particularly happy to greet Rita's new assistant, Sergei, too, since he is played by a mustache-less but extremely hot Gilbert Roland, who makes his admiration plain, fervently kissing her hand.

"Take a look at this, Gus, and learn something," Lou says, though Rita looks none too pleased.

Lou gathers up her skirts and mounts the stairs to her private luxury apartment, with every male eye following her progress. As she enters the apartment, she calls to her devoted maid, Pearl, played by Louise Beavers. (Mae and Beavers had a decades long friendship; Mae had her reprise this role in her stage act, wrote specialty material for her, and made sure she was cared for when she became ill.) 

"Yes'm, I's coming," Pearl replies.

"Well, come on, honey," Lou says.

As they chat, and Lou begins to change her clothes, They hear a sudden scream and commotion from downstairs -- a young girl has tried to commit suicide. Lou has the fainting girl, Sally Glynn (Rochelle Hudson), brought to her rooms by Gus' henchman Spider, and cares for her, with smelling salts, a sip of brandy, and a rest on her luxurious divan. Then, in a scene of female solidarity, Lou and Pearl find her some new clothes, style her hair, and Lou shares some of her philosophy of life.

With Dewey Robinson as Spider and Rochelle Hudson as Sally

"The guy's not dead, is he?"

"How did you know it was a man?"

"It takes two to get one in trouble," Lou says.

"Oh, you know everything about me."

"Next time, pick a good one," Lou advises.

"Who would want me after what I've done?" Sally asks mournfully.

"Say, listen," Lou tells her, "when women go wrong, men go right after them."

Sharing a laugh with the gals

Pearl suggests that Sally needs more petticoats, and Lou says none of them would need petticoats if the furniture wasn't stuffed with horsehair.

"If there was an accident, I wouldn't want no policeman to catch me without any petticoats," Pearl says.

"No policeman?" Lou says. "How about a nice fireman?"

The three of them all laugh at this, and Lou tells Sally,

"There, you see? Just keep smiling and you'll do all right, sister!"

Sergei demonstrates his technique

Just then Rita and Gus come up, and Rita offers to find a job for Sally. When her visitors leave, Lou changes into her stage gown. Pearl observes that Lou has become fascinated by Captain Cummings, a handsome young man who runs a mission nearby to help alcoholics, petty criminals, and the poorest of the poor (he wears a uniform but is never officially called a Salvation Army man), played by the magnetic young Cary Grant.

"I'm surprised at you, Miss Lou, with all your spirit, casting eyes at a preacher. You know, preachers ain't giving away no diamonds. You ain't thinking of reforming, is you?"

"He ain't a preacher; he just runs the Mission."

"He ain't gonna run that for long, from what I hear. I hear they're gonna take it away from him 'cause they can't pay the rent."

Spider tells Lou about her old boyfriend Chick

Spider comes in to talk to Lou about her former boyfriend, Chick Clark, who is now serving a stretch in prison for armed robbery. Lou agrees to visit Chick. As Lou goes downstairs wearing in her stage dress, she finds Captain Cummings in an altercation with a policeman, who has pursued one of the down-and-out petty criminals into the bar. Cummings gives the man an alibi, and Lou, standing on the stairs in a knockout gown of shimmering flame-colored sequins, breaks in and confirms it. Cummings thanks her, and she invites him to come up and see her anytime -- she's home every evening. He puts up quite a bit of resistance, saying that he's busy every evening.

"Say, what are you trying to do, insult me?" she replies.

She likes a man in a uniform

We see Lou and Spider traveling upstate to visit Chick. When she gets there she finds a disconcerting number of old acquaintances behind bars, causing her to complain, "What is this, old home week?"

When she talks to Chick, played with scary intensity by veteran film actor Owen Moore, whose career began with D.W. Griffith in 1909, and incidentally was MaryPickford's first husband. Chick  seems to have lost a few marbles since she last saw him. He demands that she swear to be true to him, which she does, knowing that his sentence still has at least a year to run, and hoping she'll think of something by then.

Owen Moore as Chick Clark

Lou sends her friend Frances to get Jacobson, the landlord (Lee Kohlmar, a very experienced and useful actor, in a stereotyped characterization that was not seen as, nor intended to be, anti-Semitic) of the building the Mission is housed in. Lou knows him, and he knows her, and she points out that she is known for honesty and fairness, which he agrees with. They bargain a little bit, and eventually Lou buys the building for cash in the form of a diamond necklace, saying "Take care of it, it's only my heart!" and asks him to keep her purchase a secret and make it look like the Mission owns the building now.

The audience is chanting "We want Lou!" and Lou takes the stage, following a performance by singing waiters and an enthusiastic if uncoordinated chorus line. She takes the stage in shimmering black satin, an ostrich feather boa, and a large feathered hat, and launches into "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone?", thus causing more palpitations amongst the censors. Though the song seemed to tell a story about horseracing, which was bad enough, they knew there was some sort of euphemistic reference to sex going on, but they couldn't quite put their finger on it. They had to let this one pass. But her later rendition of "A Guy What Takes His Time" was heavily edited -- even the Hays office could figure that one out, and the actual "Frankie and Johnny" barely gets started before it is interrupted by some major action.

There's actually a lot of action for such a short movie; as a playwright, Mae had a pretty strong grasp of how to establish character quickly, and how to set up conflicting motivations. She was also skilled at using the conventions of melodrama as a kind of shorthand that the audience would understand without a lot of talk. The plot winds up pretty fast. first, the handsome Captain Cummings comes tofound her a job, and goes on to challenge his philosophy. He leaves, but not before demonstrating that he's just as attracted to her as she is to him.

Spider comes to tell Lou that Chick actually has escaped, and warns he to look out for him. chick does arrive, and to put him off Lou promises to meet him later. Then Sergei arrives, bringing Lou a gift of a diamond brooch; while they are flirting, Rita bursts in, angrily berating Lou.

A brief but stunning fight between Rita and Lou

"So, this is where I find you -- making love to another woman!"

"What did you expect he'd be doing?" Lou says. "Why, a boy with a gift like that should be working at it!"

Lou sends Sergei away, and Rita furiously attacks her with a knife, which Lou wrests away from her. But in the struggle, Rita falls on the knife and dies (a very striking moment from Rafaela Ottiano), collapsing into a chair next to the dressing table . Lou stands horrified and Gus comes in; thinking fast, Lou pushes Rita;s body forward so her dead face can't be seen, and pretends to brush her hair for her.

A job she never did before. Notice the extremely cool mirror shot.

"Just doing a job I never did before," she remarks to Gus.

Next Lou has to make her way to the stage for her next number, and on the way arranges wit Spider to get rid of Rita's body. She sashays out to center stage and launches into "A Guy What Takes His Time," which is missing a couple of verses. such as "A hurry-up affair, I always give the air/Wouldn't give any rushin' gent a smile/ I could go for any singer who would condescend to linger a while."

Lou's next song is actually "Frankie and Johnny" but she has just begun when a commotion erupts upstairs -- Chick, on the lam from the police, has come back for Lou and, discovering his worst enemy Dan Flynn, shot him dead. The audience screams and flees for the exits, and just at that moment police whistles are heard and officers raid the premises. In short order, Gus, Spider. and Sergei are arrested and bustled out to waiting paddy wagons. Lou goes up to her apartment and finds Chick there, and he attacks her -- only to be shot by Captain Cummings, who is revealed to be not a Salvation Army man, but an undercover police investigator known as The Hawk.

Lou is very angry at being deceived -- especially since she was successfully deceived,

"Stealing the confidence of people!" she says. "The lowest kind of a thief!"

"I'm sorry you think so," he replies calmly.
"Hands ain't everyhing,"

He takes out some handcuffs, and she says, "Are those absolutely necessary? You know, I wasn't born with them."

"A lot of men would have been safer if you had," he says.

"I don't know... hands ain't everything."

Assuming he's taking her to jail, Lou stalks out, but instead he hails a cab and the two of them get into it. She's still irate, but she's beginning to suspect he might have  something else in mind. Cummings attempts to take her hand, but she pulls away.

"Can't I even hold your hand?"

"It ain't heavy. I can hold it myself."

He takes her left hand in his and removes several enormous diamond rings, replacing them with one small one with a modest solitaire.

"Where'd you get that?" she says.

"I'm your jailer, and I'm going to keep you locked up for a long, long time," he says, "You bad girl."

"You'll find out," Lou purrs.

This movie was a huge smash hit, and is credited with actually saving Paramount Pictures from bankruptcy. It was one of the top-grossing pictures of the year, and also made many critics top ten. It was held over much longer than even the average hit movie, and some theaters even instituted midnight showings. This is not so surprising -- it's funny, it's exciting, it's sexy, it's fast moving, and it's good to look at.

Some commentators, then and now, tend to ascribe Mae's success to raunchiness, but this is silly. She wasn't a porn star. Her approach to sexiness, like her approach to everything, is good natured. No one could call this or any other of her scripts nasty, demeaning, or mean spirited. In fact that was the problem she presented to censors -- sexual freedom was her character's only sin. Apart from that, she was kind, honest, loyal, and generous.  So when they insisted on repressing her, what they were saying was that sex was bad in itself, an idea that became less widely believed as the 20th century moved on.

Letters and notes between those officials charged with deciding how exactly to make She Done Him Wrong fit for public viewing show that they were divided among themselves about what, exactly, was acceptable drama, and what the public must be protected from. On the one hand, they declared that the play Diamond Lil itself was banned; but on the other hand, the film had essentially the same characters and the same plot, and was allowed to proceed. One official wrote disapprovingly that the film contained "ribald comedy," yet another wrote that Mae gave "a performance of strong realism." The New York Times warned that. ""to be convinced that she is a breeder of licentiousness and an exponent of pornography is to be unusually blind to her precise qualities as an actress."

Despite the film's success, the Joseph Breen, of the Production Code Administration, succeeded in the end, because when She Done Him Wrong was presented for re-release in 1935, it was denied credentials and banned. The same thing happened to Mae's next huge hit, I'm No Angel. These two films went unseen after their initial release in 1933 until they were finally allowed to be shown on television in the early 1970's, when a whole new generation began to discover Mae West, the auteuse.

12 November 2017

Egalitarian Dream: Sergeant York

Sergeant York is patriotic without being jingoistic, idealistic without being starry-eyed, clear eyed about the deprivations of a background like Alvin York's without being condescending.   

Director Howard Hawks, star Gary Cooper, and a great supporting cast (including Walter Brennan and Ward Bond, two of the finest actors ever to work in Hollywood -- don't miss Ward Bond's paean to large women!) obviously took the greatest care to present York, his family, and his neighbors as intelligent, responsible people, despite their grinding poverty and illiteracy.
Noah Beery, Jr. Gary Cooper, and Ward Bond

The film is largely concerned with Alvin York's early life which prepared him for his later heroism. York's story was simple, and the script follows it closely (with the addition, of course, of a romance). A native of Pall Mall, Tennessee, he was the oldest son of a widowed mother, and worked to support her and his 10 younger siblings. Among the ways he found to put food on the table was hunting, and he was locally famed for his marksmanship. A carouser in his early  years, he underwent a religious conversion. When the United States entered World War 1, he at first declared himself a conscientious objector, but was drafted anyway. His marksmanship was a distinct asset in the Army, and in one incident during the battle of the Somme, he took part in a mission which led to his completely destroying an enemy machine gun nest and capturing 125 prisoners, saving scores of lives.
His marksmanship fed his family

Cooper was the perfect actor for this role; he portrays York as a gentle but extremely determined man, uneducated but thoughtful. Again, there is no condescension in his portrait of this shabbily clad, ungrammatical hero whose early life was one of endless backbreaking labor.

Cooper as York

The film aims to show that York's life in the Tennessee mountains prepared him for the daunting struggle that awaited him and his comrades at the front lines in France -- his physical skill and strength of will underlay his heroism. And it does that without wordiness or preaching.
The real Alvin York

I love this movie not just for what it is -- extremely well-acted. beautifully written -- but what it stands for. During the 1930s President Roosevelt formed a coalition of ALL disadvantaged people, whatever color, whatever religion, whatever ethnicity, and this included poor whites (the sharecroppers and mountain people often stigmatized as "white trash"). This was where Alvin York came from, and this movie followed the President's lead in treating them with dignity and respect.

Part of this country's strength during WW2 came from the fact that all Americans could work together, which was an ideal put forward during the Depression years, and reinforced by films like this, which portrayed a group of people most Americans knew little about as decent and respectable, despite their odd accent and minority religious beliefs.

25 October 2017

The People's Monster: the Moonlit Doom of the Wolf Man

The Wolf Man is the saddest monster. The dreadful doom of Larry Talbot, a regular guy who, through no fault of his own, becomes a ravening, murderous beast when the moon is full, speaks to such primal fears that it immediately entered the culture as if it were real folklore. He is also the people's monster-- what's scary about the Wolf Man is not that he could kill you -- it's that you could become him. For who doesn't fear loss of control? Who hasn't seen sudden tragedy and loss strike without warning? Who hasn't made awful, unalterable mistakes? Larry's inexorable fate, despite his struggles against it, is as tragic as any Greek myth. The trappings supporting the tale -- the pentagram, the power of the full moon, the simple words of the explanatory doggerel -- all seemed rooted in the dark, ancient forests of old Europe, told in whispers by our ancestors.

In fact, the entire legend was the brilliant invention of screenwriter Curt Siodmak. Siodmak, born in Dresden, Germany, in 1902, was a mathematician, novelist, and screenwriter who emigrated from his homeland in the mid 1930's to escape Nazi persecution, going first to England and then to Hollywood. In the early years of the decade, before it became clear that the Third Reich would seize total control of the country, he worked with a group of progressive German filmmakers, including Fred Zinneman, Edgar G. Ulmer, Billy Wilder and his brother, director Robert Siodmak; all of them eventually ended up with successful careers in Hollywood. In Britain, Siodmak worked as a screenwriter; when he reached Hollywood with both an impressive resume and contacts, he was signed by Universal Studios, where he proved his worth with an inventive (but not too expensive) script for The Invisible Man Returns, which was a critical and popular success. Universal happily turned to him for more genre scripts.

Siodmak's screenplay for The Wolf Man has a straightforward structure, expertly adorned with a wealth of exotic and powerful characters whose interactions with the protagonist, the unfortunate Larry Talbot, define his story. The Wolf Man is unique among monsters in that we, the audience, see things from his point of view, not his victims. No one identifies with Frankenstein's monster, exactly; you feel sorry for him, perhaps, but you aren't likey to share his experiences. And no one is afraid of becoming Count Dracula or even the Invisible Man. But anyone could be Larry Talbot, and we know all about his terror, frustration, and despair. Every scene is about Larry; when he is not actually present the other characters are reacting to or discussing him. We follow his fall step by step; there are no flashbacks or extended point of view changes. A particularly terrific cast includes A-list actors appearing briefly in minor roles, adding depth and credibility; no matter how powerful Sir John is, he can't help his son. No matter how perceptive the doctor, or how brave the police chief, Larry is doomed.

Talbot is played by Lon Chaney, Jr., the son of Lon Chaney, the spectacular silent star known as the Man of 1,000 Faces because of his extraordinary versatility and artistic skill at transforming himself with makeup. Chaney Jr. conspicuously lacked these talents, though he did possess a unique quality of intensity. He was not a flexible actor, but could be very effective, as when he played the part of Lenny in the wrenchingly tragic Of Mice and Men.

Coming home -- Larry's last happy moments

In Larry Talbot he found the perfect role. Tall and broad shouldered, his bulk, clumsiness and inarticulateness added even more pathos to an already anguished character. Larry often struggles to express himself, which grows even more difficult as he begins to experience supernatural events that nobody else believes.

We first see Larry as he returns home (to what appears, from the names of the people and places, to be Wales -- or some other country where the trees grow straight out of the mist-shrouded ground with no roots) from Canada, where he was a successful engineer, on the occasion of his older brother's death. (This also explains his American accent in a story set in Britain; after this. however, the script decides to forget the whole thing and British and Americans accents are mixed willy-nilly with no explanation.) He is greeted by an old friend, the bluff but shrewd Col. Mondfort, now a local magistrate (Ralph Bellamy). His father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), tells him that since he is now the heir, he should get to know the tenants and start running he estate. Sir John is an award winning astronomical research scientist, and is in the process of setting up a new telescope. Sir John's devotion to rationality and skepticism does not serve him well in the events soon to follow.

Larry helpfully offers to set up the telescope, and as he checks the lens he sees beautiful blond Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) serving in her father's antique shop in the town below, and is immediately smitten. He hustles down to the shop and starts chatting with her, eventually buying a cane with the silver head of a wolf on it, and she is the first one to tell him the legend of the werewolf (which you would think he knows already since he grew up there, but anyway).

"Even a man who is pure in heart,
and says his prayers by night,
may become a wolf
when the wolfbane blooms,
and the moon is shining bright."

She also fills him in on the other details of the legend, like the fact that the werewolf in human form will see a pentagram in the palm of his next victim's hand.

As he leaves the shop, some gypsy wagons pass by, heading for a fairground outside town to set up a fortune telling tent. Here we see the other most important characterizations in this movie, Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva, often referred to as the old gypsy woman, and Bela, her tormented son, played by Bela Lugosi. Both of them were top-notch actors who never "walked through" anything, and they discuss the werewolf myth with a conviction that is part of what makes the whole movie compelling. (And it must be said that the authentic Russian and Hungarian accents help.)

The fatal walking stick

Larry convinces Gwen to go out to the fair with him, but when they meet that evening she has a girlfriend, Jenny (Fay Helm) with her. They all go to see the gypsies, and Jenny (who clearly has "dead meat" stamped on her forehead) wants to have her fortune told. As Larry and Gwen chat outside, she sits across a table from a tense and distraught Bela. When he looks into her palm he sees a pentagram, and drops her hand, saying he can tell her nothing that night. Frightened, Jenny asks, "What did you see?", but Bela tells her forcefully to go and go quickly.

Bela Lugosi as the unforunate Bela the Gypsy

We see Maleva in her tent reacting to the horses neighing and rearing in fear. Then we hear the howl of a wolf, and a woman's scream. Larry runs into the foggy marsh to see what has happened, and is attacked by an animal that he identifies as a wolf. Maleva and Gwen arrive simultaneously and find Larry lying on the ground, injured. They drive him home to the manor house in Maleva's wagon. A message arrives that Jenny has been found dead.

Montford and the local doctor, Dr. Lloyd (Warren William) investigate the scene of Jenny's death, finding that she had been killed by the bite of a large animal. But they also find the body of Bela, who has been killed by blows from Larry's silver wolf's headed walking stick. Both the Chief Constable and the doctor have questions but conclude that Larry imagined the wolf, and it must have been a wild dog that attacked Jenny, and that Bela's death was just a terrible accident caused by confusion in the fog and darkness.

In the local churchyard, Larry sees Maleva praying over Bela's coffin, and is overcome with remorse over having killed Bela. He goes to see Gwen while he's in town and meets her fiancee, Frank Andrews (Patrick Knowles), the manager on the Talbot estate. At this point, Larry seems to accept that Gwen is not for him, and leaves. Looking after him, Frank says solemnly, "There's something very tragic about that man."

Sir John insists on a  rational explanation

A few days later, Frank and Gwen are attending the fair, meet Larry, and invite him to join them. He does, and they decide to try the shooting galley, but when Larry sees that the targets are pictures of wolves he shies away. He leaves his friends and passes Maleva's tent; she calls out to him. Reluctantly, he enters her tent and she explains to him that her son Bela was a werewolf, and that he could be killed only with a silver weapon -- like Larry's new walking stick. Desperately, Larry denies that the wolf he killed was Bela. (Chaney is sitting down in this scene and tiny little Maria Ouspenskaya can look him straight in the eye standing up.)

Maleva explains

Maleva gives Larry a pentagram charm on a chain, saying that it will break the evil spell. Larry rushes away. He meets Gwen, who has had a fight with Frank and offers to see her home. He gives Gwen the charm, saying it will protect her -- just in case. The gypsies all pack up and leave, as Maleva has passed the word that there is a werewolf in the camp.

Larry rushes home and tears off his jacket and shirt to check for fur; at first nothing seems to be happening but then the change begins -- and we see, right onscreen, the transformation from man to wolf. Makeup artist Jack Pierce designed the complex werewolf face, and the gradual transformation actually took hours to film, but it was well worth it (for the audience, anyway -- it was rough on Chaney!). He also somehow changes into his werewolf shirt, a darker color shirt open at the neck that he is not wearing when he starts to change. However this happens, the werewolf slips out of the house and you hear its howls and snarls.

Destroying the incriminating footprints

The next morning Larry wakes up and finds wolf footprints leading through his window up to his bed -- straight to him. Furtively he brushes the prints away, and when he goes downstairs he asks his father what he thinks of the legends. A rational scientist, Sir John says he believes that a man can truly believe he is a werewolf -- but not that he can actually transform physically. They go together to the village church, but when Larry enters everyone stares at him with distrust, and he leaves. Chaney is very good at showing the ever increasing weight of the villagers' doubt and suspicion; every eye seems hostile, yet none of his friends actually believe him. When he returns home, he finds the Dr. Lloyd, Mondfort, Frank, and his father discussing the reality of werewolves.

The doctor agrees with Sir John that a man can believe he is a werewolf. Sir John seems to feel that if they all try to reason with Larry, they will be able to talk him out of his delusion; he angrily tells the doctor that if Larry's mind is affected, he should stay home where they can care for him. Meanwhile, Frank and Mondfort set traps in the woods. That night as the werewolf prowls, he is caught in one. Maleva finds him and tells him she has come to help him; as the moon goes down he frees himself from the trap and heads home. However, Montford's hunting dogs are on his trail, and he wakes Gwen to say he's going away for good. She offers to go with him but he rushes away in horror after seeing the pentagram in her palm.

He confronts his father who still insists that it's all in his mind. To prevent Larry from giving himself up, the next night Sir John ties him to a chair in a room and bolts the door. Larry begs him to take the silver-headed cane with him when he joins the wolf hunt, and he reluctantly agrees. Sir John meets Maleva, and she chides him for leaving Larry alone.

This appears to give Sir John second thoughts, and as he hurries back towards the castle, Gwen appears, looking for Larry. The werewolf attacks her. Sir John runs to her rescue, and kills the wolf with the cane. Maleva arrives and prays over the body, and the film ends as the werewolf transforms back into Larry, dead, at peace at last.

Or so it appears. We know, of course, that the unfortunate lycanthrope will be resurrected again and again. And poor Larry will continue to fight against his fate, struggling to find someone, anyone, who will believe him before it's too late. But they never do. 

Technically, I suppose, this is a B-movie; the cast has more power than usual, more through sheer numbers than calls on their acting skills. But all of them seem to approach the movie with sincerity, knowing perhaps that this is the only way a monster movie can work. You can't camp it up. Chaney's portrayal of Larry's increasing desperation as everyone who knows him tells him his perceptions must be wrong, and that his life cannot be what he thinks it is, works well here and in all the sequels, too. Universal achieved real style, with nighttime scenes of velvety dark and silver light, and through the combination of set design, lighting, and music (including the beloved rootless forest as fondly parodied in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein). And Jack Pierce's superb makeup design still looks good today -- better, in fact, than many (or most) computerized special effects. It's hard to see how this story could be better done.

He'll be back

Vdeo clips:

The first change

1941 Trailer

The end -- or is it?