Tag Archives: Warren William

The Wolf Man (1941, George Waggner)

The Wolf Man‘s most lasting influence–beyond the advantages of using Larry Talbot as a synonym (Pynchon did it in Vineland) and the endlessly suffering protagonist–has to be the music. I noticed parts both John Williams (for The Empire Strikes Back) and Danny Elfman (for Batman Returns) lifted. The music is an essential part of the film, as many of Lon Chaney Jr.’s scenes are almost silent film style solo ones, where Chaney visualizes his internal turmoil.

Director Waggner’s style works for the film and against. There’s little attempt to create any sense of the uncanny. Between the booming music and Waggner’s fast-paced chase scenes, the film rushes toward its conclusion. All subtlety is lost in the last act, which is unfortunate, since the film started with so much.

Behind the film’s big story and special effects is the quiet one between Chaney–as returning, long absent son–and Claude Rains–top-billed as the father (and seventeen years older than Chaney). Rains has some lengthy monologues, which he’s good at delivering, and some other scenes involving Chaney, but at the end, when the two of them finally have a talk, The Wolf Man reveals itself. Rains then gets another nice scene on the same subject, only without Chaney. Had the film followed Rains, through his conflict over his son returning to his concern for the son’s sanity, to the fear the son might be right, The Wolf Man would have been high psychological drama.

Similarly, had it followed just Chaney, it would have been a stranger entering stranger and stranger lands.

As a mix of the two, it’s awkward. The big script holes don’t help either. There’s no consistency on how to prevent werewolf transformations or how often they occur. The film’s in a hurry to get done and it plays way too loose with the time it covers.

The other primary aspect of the film–the romance between Chaney and Evelyn Ankers–actually gets enough attention. Though Chaney and Ankers infamously did not get along, they appear to have lots of chemistry in the film, to the point Ankers’s absolute devotion (in the third act, after being off-screen for a while) makes perfect sense. Chaney’s transition through the film from utterly assured to abjectly despondent is one of the more fluid character progressions I can remember. Ankers helps out quite a bit.

Curt Siodmak’s script is best during those scenes with Ankers or Rains. The overuse of the gypsies is questionable as is the wasted supporting cast. The film’s filled with characters–Universal apparently needed roles for Ralph Bellamy, Warren William and Patric Knowles–and it doesn’t have room for them. While Bellamy’s got a great, unintentionally absurd line, the film never–after mentioning it–discusses he and Chaney being childhood friends. William’s a superfluous doctor and Knowles should form a third side in a love triangle (for Ankers’s affection) but strangely does not.

There are a lot of ideas in The Wolf Man, but few of them are explored. Even the ending is strangely undercooked. The film stops rather than ends, but as it’s more in the hands of non-characters Bellamy and William, there’s really nothing else it can do.

Waggner’s got a gimmick he uses–blocking some of the frame with a lamp base or a tree–and, though it gets obvious, he uses it to great effect occasionally. The sight of Rains striking the unknown, even though the music is too bombastic, is haunting.

I was going to end there, but realized I haven’t really lauded Chaney enough. From his first moment on film, there’s nothing he can’t do here–and the script asks for a lot. He’s got to have all that turmoil in the middle and the end, but the beginning requires him to be completely different. Chaney does it all–and those silent-but-for-music scenes, as he discovers his feet getting furry or the wolf tracks in his bedroom, are amazing. He’s under-appreciated.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by George Waggner; written by Curt Siodmak; director of photography, Joseph A. Valentine; edited by Ted J. Kent; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Claude Rains (Sir John Talbot), Warren William (Dr. Lloyd), Ralph Bellamy (Col. Montford), Patric Knowles (Frank Andrews), Bela Lugosi (Bela), Maria Ouspenskaya (Maleva), Evelyn Ankers (Gwen Conliffe), J.M. Kerrigan (Charles Conliffe), Fay Helm (Jenny Williams), Forrester Harvey (Twiddle) and Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man).


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Upperworld (1934, Roy Del Ruth)

Upperworld starts incredibly strong–Warren William and his son (I knew I’d seen Dickie Moore’s name in credits before–he’s in Out of the Past) feeling abandoned by Mary Astor, who’s more interested in throwing costume parties than spending time with her husband and son. The scenes with William and Moore are great throughout, even after the change I’ll get to in a second… but it’s the whole film for the beginning. The scenes with William and Andy Devine are fantastic, even the scenes with William going to work are great. Upperworld sets itself up as a traditional story–successful businessman becomes unhappy with his disaffected life–and does it real well.

Even the scenes with William and Ginger Rogers are excellent, because neither of them play it as a romance until, obviously, the script forces them to do so and then Upperworld turns in to something else entirely. It turns in to a goofy movie with William running around trying to destroy evidence, pursued by angry ex-traffic cop Sidney Toler. Toler’s performance is ludicrous, but so is his dialogue; it might not be all his fault.

Where Upperworld was interesting and unique was the friendship between Rogers and William… the resulting changes to both characters (she all of a sudden has a seedy boyfriend, played by a fun J. Carrol Naish, while William becomes a villain–except for the scenes with Moore) do irreparable harm to the film. I also was expecting, from the opening titles, Mary Astor to either have a big part or a glorified cameo. Either would have worked well, but they went for in between and, while she’s quite good, her role’s dumb and unbelievable.

The first half was so solid, I thought I’d be more depressed by end of Upperworld (the last half’s badness simmering itself), but the film closes with Andy Devine and he closes it well.

Del Ruth does a real nice job directing too, which might have made the second half more palatable than it would have been without him.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Roy Del Ruth; screenplay by Ben Markson, based on a story by Ben Hecht; director of photography, Tony Gaudio; edited by Owen Marks; music by Bernhard Kaun; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Warren William (Allexander Stream), Mary Astor (Mrs. Hettie Stream), Ginger Rogers (Lilly Linda), Andy Devine (Oscar), Dickie Moore (Tommy Stream), Ferdinand Gottschalk (Marcus), J. Carrol Naish (Lou Colima) and Sidney Toler (Officer Moran).


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