Sunday, May 20, 2012

When the Autumn Moon is Bright: The Tragedy of Lawrence Talbot

Like a lot of horror fans of my generation, one of my earliest exposures to Gothic Horror was through the classic Universal monster films. For kids growing up in the 1960s, the monsters were readily available on Saturday afternoon TV shows and were routinely trotted out for double and triple features at local theaters and drive-ins at Halloween. We went to the movies, waited impatiently for them to show up on horror shows on TV, bought Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and assembled Aurora model kits.

Today, it’s easy to see the allure of these old movies. The wizardry of combining studio sets and matte paintings was revolutionary in the 1930s, the stories mesmerizing in their power of suggestion, and the actors, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and others, delivered some of the best performances ever committed to film. To me, Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster compares to Brando’s Don Corleon as one of the greatest performances of the 20th Century.

I can’t say the same for Lon Chaney, Jr. His name is as well known as those of Lugosi and Karloff, but his acting is clumsy and awkward. Which is exactly what makes his reading of Larry Talbot so poignant. Larry Talbot is the 1940s equivalent of the All American Guy. He is Everyman, horror filmdom’s Henry Fonda. He’s a loveable schmuck who snitched apples when he was a kid, is handy with tools, and a snappy dresser. Girls go crazy for a sharp dressed man, and in The Wolf Man (1941), Talbot gets not one, but two… the alluring Gwen Conliff and her good-times gal pal Jenny Williams.

If Chaney was a second rate actor, what makes The Wolf Man my all time top favorite of the Universal Monsters franchise? Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is at once dreadfully seductive and horrifying in his ruthless desire for human blood. Karloff’s Monster is an unloved child with an abnormal brain. He has no sense of right or wrong. When it is time to kill, he kills without remorse. But what happens to Larry Talbot could happen to anybody. His tragedy is as much bad luck as is being struck down by cancer or being killed by a drunk driver. And who better to represent this sort of hapless victim of circumstances than a loveable lug, a bumbling, happy-go-lucky Everyman?

While Universal’s The Wolfman (2010) remake scores high on the Gothic Eye Candy scale, the character as written, and Benicio  del Toro’s lifeless performance of Larry Talbot, are one of the movie’s many shortcomings. The script is more or less the same with a bit of visceral updating, but here Talbot has more of a cynical edge, as is evident in the opening scenes showing Talbot backstage after a performance of Hamlet. (Here he is an actor, not a mechanic who works on astronomy equipment.) It’s well documented that del Toro is a huge fan of the original film and was eager to play the part, which leaves me curious why he would turn in such an uninspired performance.

I enjoy watching the 2010 remake. It’s not uncommon for me to watch both films back to back. While the early version presents a more precise story and is single handedly responsible for creating a specific mythology that carries on in werewolf stories to this day, the remake excels on the production values, from the location shots of Chatsworh House standing in for Talbot Hall, to the misty woods and the Victorian interiors bathed in dusty shafts of filtered sunlight. Some days I can’t get enough eye-candy, and both movies deliver in spades.

The good news is that, while the 2010 version under performed (with good reason) at the box office, Universal realized they were onto something, and in 2011 announced that they would reboot the story, meaning they would return to the 1941 source film rather than create a direct sequel to the 2010 film.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t resist returning to the misty, gypsy infested forests surrounding the Talbot estate… especially when the autumn moon is bright.


  1. On the contrary - Lon's performance as Lawrence Talbot turns out to be the most moving of all the Universal protagonists. . .While it seems as if you may be confusing cultural pedigree (the British Karloff, the Hungarian Bela) to native goods (the affable Chaney), accents and cultures do not a brilliant actor make. Even now, many Americans equate the British accent with culture & erudition, when in fact it is simply a regional vocal reflex - i.e., 'either, 'eye-ther', neither, 'nigh-ther'. . .And, as the spouse of an Englishwoman for many years, I can attest to the many conceits inherent in the English predilection for what might be called 'attitudinally exaggerated' languaging. . .giving it the illusory patina of greater learning, higher art. In fact, it is almost all a matter of excessive inflections, producing the impression - such as Olivier's fraught & febrile performance in 'Wuthering Heights' ( and that, only after Wyler severely chastised his overacting and reigned him in so as not to sink the film in Thespian overkill).

    You, as many, my friend, have been the victim of dramatic affect, so belovedly iconicized in Lugosi's Dracula & Karloff's Monster. Yet, against them I would easily & confidently counterpose Claude Rains' finely nuanced,infinitely more harrowing, but no less effective, Invisible Man and Chaney's profoundly poignant Larry Talbot, and, on the flip side, perhaps most terrifying creature-evocation of all, the Wolf Man. And he did this over the course of - not just 3 - but a canon of 5 films - adding, in each, depth & dimensionality to his 'baby,' and maintaining character and mythos even through the rigors & chicanery of 'Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein'; whereas, much as I adore the film, the venerable Boris began to pall visibly even throughout the lengthy narrative of 'Son of Frankenstein,' where, at times, he seems visibly more to be in danger of wanting to take a snooze than wreaking vengeance on his oppressor - the unfortunate result of a 52-year old attempting to embody the brute vigor & menace of an ageless and superhuman character.

    (Part 2 forthcoming)

  2. In defense of Lon - Part 2

    As an admirer of 'The Wolf Man' above all else in the Universal canon - like myself- you will, I'm sure be able to forgive my devoted rant on its - and Chaney's - behalf; but it's always been my sense that Lon has been victim of several anomalies having virtually nothing whatever to do with his dramatic gifts, but rather his personal history and his exploitive handlers. . .alas, a painful (and seemingly abusive – as he was ritually beaten by his father) childhood caused him to drink, and so to misbehave at times, in later years coarsening both his appearance and compromising his ability to do justice to his art - but the same might be said of Bela and even the avuncular Boris, the latter in particular walking through many latter day roles purely by virtue of his Brit discipline and second-nature manners. While perhaps these may arguably be preferable to Lon's periodic binges & excesses, they cannot be considered to in any way be more authentic or deeply felt from an artistic point of view. . .
    Perhaps a few true anecdotes may soften the edge of your bias: 2 Hollywood kids - fans of Lon's - decided one day to look Lon's number up & call him. They did and he happily chatted with them, readily agreeing there and then to come down to the local soda fountain and treat them to a milk shake while they got to fulfill their dream of meeting their idol. Do you really think Karloff would have ever countenanced anything so trifling, cast his privacy and pedigree to the wind and done the same? I strongly wager he would not. On another occasion, a close colleague reports that Karloff showed himself to be completely incapable of simple human responsiveness in the face of an emotionally fraught young woman whose behavior, he said, was decidedly 'inappropriate,' - a typical Brit response to any deemedly 'excessive' emotionality or socially challenging situation, leaving the young lady completely without support, alas. For that matter, it would be almost as difficult to imagine the patricianly, often narcissistic Lugosi ever contemplating responding as humanely as did the generous Lon, about whom House of Frankenstein’s heroine Elena Verdugo could only share the most beloved and warm memories, as did the lovely Patricia Morrison – of a kind and caring soul throughout. . .no tantrums, no binges

  3. In defense of Lon - Part 3

    Likewise his acting, his characterization, was equally generous, humane, open, natural. This is why we could so believe him and his character, and take them to the most intimate recesses of our heart - whether as Larry, as Dan, 'the Electric Man,' as the iconic Lennie in 'Of Mice and Men,' or even, I chanced to notice on a recent re-viewing, in his last 'appearance,' (along with Boris) as his 'baby' in the Route 66 homage to the fellows, 'Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing,' in which, of all the characters on stage, ordinary or stars, he was by far the most believable as, yes, a heart-on-sleeve, emotionally immature, latter-day Lon, alternately laughing & weeping, pathetically growling at his intended victims in fervent, yet pathetic, hopes of scaring them out of their nubile skins, and, when successful, watching his adolescent tears turn to gleeful delight - all of this against the predictably pallid Victorian backdrop of the inassailably correct Boris, whose most touching moment was when scriptwriter Stirling Sillipant brought him out of character to gently inquire of a wildly philosophizing love-sick ingenue, after patiently listening to her ratiocinations, '. . .What's his name, my dear?'
    And there you have it. . .the true source of Boris & Bela's preferential treatment revealed - * not * as commonly believed, a result of superior Thespian skills or training 'in the theater' (for, as you may know, Lon's theatrical training began even earlier, and much closer at home, as the son of who was arguably the greatest evocateur of human emotion who every strode the star-studded lanes of filmdom - Lon Chaney, Sr., himself the son of deafmutes, whose every expression was, of necessity 'mimed,' 'acted out,' in a manner which completely bypassed the shallow potentials of speech and reached directly into the human soul via facial expression, nuance, contortion. This is clearly evident in Chaney's breathtaking ability to, on a dime, so to speak, shift from humanity to insanity, as we see him do when,in 'Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,' he hears the fateful refrain, '. . .for life is short, and death is lo-o-ong. . .l' or, in the frightening arc of his man-to-WolfMan transitions - or, for that matter,his sudden rage in the council hall rampage scene in 'Ghost of Frankenstein,'. . .
    Indeed, there is a fascinating TV interview from 'You Asked for It,' in which Lon explains the origins of his art in the circumstances of his personal life.

    Desert island finale? -- With Bela on the desert island, we would likely get various European refinements, deep philosophical dialogue,but, unfortunately, a bit too much self-preoccupation and mirror-gazing. . . with Boris, when on, the ever-proper Brit on good behavior, but, unfortunately, difficult sailing once attempting to move beyond the gracious facade and into deeper waters of bonding and intimacy. . .and with Lon, when not under the influence, a ready hand on the shoulder, pat on the back, an enthusiastically shared personal generosity - and, let it be noted, an almost complete lack of guile or professional conceit, as readily evidenced by his two more patricianly colleagues - to use an unfortunate contemporary term - as subtle but palpable 'social distancing.'

    So here's a big, affectionate hug for the man-bear-boy-intuitive dramatic genius of Lon (Creighton) Chaney who, even to us ordinary mortals, would be as human, honest and believable as director Stanley Kramer always felt he was when choosing him for key parts in his dramas.

    Because, 'Even a man who is pure in heart,
    And says his prayers by night. . .'