Saturday, September 10, 1977: The Wolf Man (1941) / Secret of the Blue Room (1933)

Synopsis: Lawrence Talbot returns to his family’s estate in England after a self-imposed exile of nearly two decades. He is welcomed back by his father, Sir John Talbot (Claude Rains), and talk quickly turns to Lawrence’s elder brother, who was recently killed in a hunting accident. Now that he is the eldest, Lawrence is heir to the estate, as well as heir to his father’s limited capacity for affection.

Lawrence has spent a good deal of time in California, and it shows: by the standards of his home town he is distressingly informal and decidedly frivolous, taking more interest in local shopgirl Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) than in the more serious matters surrounding the family estate. Nevertheless Sir John is happy about the prodigal son’s return, believing that Lawrence (or “Larry”, as he has taken to calling himself) has spent enough time in the New World to benefit the stodgy old ways of Talbot Castle. Larry is certainly good with tools and machines; it’s when he is working with modern contrivances that he seems happiest and most self-assured.

In an attempt to get on Gwen’s good side, Larry purchases an unusual item from her family’s shop: an ornate cane with a silver wolf’s head. The wolf, we learn, is a potent and fearful symbol of the supernatural in these parts, as is the pentacle, which is also etched on the handle of the cane.

It turns out that Gwen is engaged to Frank Andrews, a decent fellow; nevertheless, Gwen accompanies Larry to a Gypsy camp, where they hope to have their fortunes told. At the last minute, Gwen invites her friend Jenny (Fay Helm) to join them.

Alas, poor Jenny! She really ought to have known better. As Gwen and Lawrence walk together under the light of the full Moon, Jenny has her fortune read by Bela (Bela Lugosi). What the fortune-teller sees in Jenny’s future alarms him, and he urges Jenny to go home — immediately. Terrified, Jenny runs away into the woods.

Moments later, Jenny is set upon by some sort of animal. Larry, hearing her screams, rushes to her aid, and attacks the creature with his cane. He manages to kill it, but not before it mauls his chest. Larry staggers away, collapsing only a few yards from Jenny’s body.

Larry is taken home. The next morning he learns several disturbing facts: Jenny is dead, her throat ripped out. While a wolf clearly attacked her, no wolf carcass was found in the area; instead, the body of Bela the fortune-teller was found nearby, his head smashed in, presumably by Larry’s cane. Moreover, Larry’s chest shows no animal bites whatsoever.

Larry is at a loss to understand what happened, but Sir John offers a rational explanation: Jenny was indeed attacked by a wolf. Larry and Bela ran to her aid at the same time, and in the confusion Larry killed Bela, thinking that he was attacking the wolf. But Larry is unconvinced: how could anyone mistake a man for a wolf, even in the dark? How could the wounds on his chest only have been the work of his imagination? And why wasn’t Bela wearing his shoes?

That night, Larry Talbot undergoes a terrible transformation: he becomes a werewolf beneath the full Moon, and murders a gravedigger. The next morning, Larry confesses everything, but no one believes him.

No one, that is, except the Gypsy woman Maleva, who reveals that her own son Bela had suffered from the same curse….

Comments: Aside from introducing one of the great characters of the Universal horror pantheon, The Wolf Man offers something extra to devoted viewers of Horror Incorporated. The movie is simply loaded with actors we’ve seen again and again on the show. In addition to the ubiquitous Lon Chaney Jr, we also have Claude Rains (The Invisible Man), Evelyn Ankers (The Frozen Ghost), Ralph Bellamy (The Man Who Lived Twice), Bela Lugosi (Dracula) , Patric Knowles (The Strange Case of Dr. RX) and Fay Helm (Night Monster).

Sometimes movies that are lauded as classics prove disappointing to the modern viewer, but not The Wolf Man. It is, quite simply, a ripping good story. Much of its power comes from an insistence that modern logic offer no protection against ancient fears.

From the very beginning Sir John Talbot is depicted as a progressive fellow, insisting that Lawrence’s time in America can only benefit the locals. Throughout the movie, Sir John’s confidence in modernity and rationality never wavers. Yet for all his soothing speeches, he is absolutely powerless to prevent the mayhem that is to come. In the end this rational man loses his own child to the same irrational force that took Maleva’s. The only difference is that Maleva understands the ancient forces at work, and can at least make peace with them.

Curt Siodmak’s brisk screenplay wisely makes Larry a proxy for the viewer: he has been away so long that he is essentially a stranger in his home town (though, if he grew up in the area, it’s unlikely that he would be so ignorant of the werewolf lore everyone else seems to know by heart). Unlike the frosty Dr. Wilfred Glendon in Werewolf of London, Larry is depicted as a regular guy, someone who’d rather be buying a pretty girl a soda than peering through a microscope.

The screenplay rarely falters in making Larry a decent, likable fellow, but Siodmak arranges an unfortunate meet-cute between Larry and Gwen. Larry is setting up his father’s telescope at Talbot Castle and, peering into the eyepiece, just happens (cough, cough) to see Gwen through her bedroom window; smitten, he goes to her shop and asks for the earrings he knows are on her nightstand. This was probably considered fun and light-hearted stuff in 1941 (hey, he wouldn’t be spying on you with a telescope if he didn’t like you), but today it makes Larry seem rather unsavory.

Of course, this might be a hint of what’s to come, if you are willing to regard the werewolf as Larry’s repressed id running amok; but the metaphor of hairy-wolfman-as-the-animal-we-carry-inside-us seems too shopworn and dreary to go into. So let’s sidestep the issue and assume the telescope scene was meant to be innocent fun — in an era when any women who said otherwise would be accused of being no fun at all.

This was probably Lon Chaney Jr’s best performance, and the role seems to have been written with him in mind: Larry is good-natured, gentle in most circumstances, but capable of great anger when he feel he’s been wronged. This plays greatly to Chaney’s strengths as a soft-spoken but physically imposing actor. Similarly, Evelyn Ankers is not entirely forgettable here, as close to an acting triumph as she is likely to get.

Patric Knowles excelled at playing stuffed shirts named Frank, and he is perfectly serviceable here; but what Ralph Bellamy is doing as the local prosecutor, it isn’t easy to say.

Maria Ouspenskaya is brilliant in her first film appearance as Maleva. She brings a somber dignity to her character, as she would later in the less-dignified Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.

Secret of the Blue Room

Synopsis: Robert Von Helldorf (Lionel Atwill) is a wealthy man whose beautiful daughter Irene (Gloria Stuart) is just turning 21. Three would-be suitors have gathered at the Helldorf estate, partly to wish Irene a happy birthday, but mostly to elbow their romantic rivals out of the way.

Thomas Brandt (William Janney) is the youngest, and brashly asks Irene to marry him the moment the two are alone together. He says that he’s not a decorated officer like Capt. Walter Brink (Paul Lukas), nor a worldly newspaperman like Frank Faber (Onslow Stevens). But gee whiz, he’s quite sincere, and seems crushed when she takes his proposal less than seriously.

It is a dark, windy night, an ideal night for ghost stories, Frank jokes; and in that spirit Thomas brings up a legend associated with the Helldorf estate — the mysterious Blue Room, which has been locked for 20 years because of a curse. Robert is reluctant to discuss it at first, but finally admits that the room has been closed for two decades after a series of mysterious deaths took place there.

Hoping to impress Irene, Thomas proposes that each of the men test their bravery by spending a night alone in the Blue Room. Thomas will go first; then Frank the next night, and then Walter.

So it is agreed; that very evening, Thomas retires to the Blue Room. But when Frank and Walter knock on his door in the morning, there is no answer. Breaking the lock on the door, they find the third-story window standing open. Thomas has disappeared.

Helldorf implores the others not to bring the police into the matter. They search the grounds and, finding no trace of Thomas, they decide that Frank will spend the night in the Blue Room. But this time, he will be prepared: he loads a revolver that he keeps with him.

Just after 1 am, Walter and Irene hear a gunshot from the Blue Room. Rushing inside, they find Frank dead of a gunshot wound. But when Walter examines the revolver Frank had been carrying, he finds that no bullets had been fired from it….

Comments: Like all of Universal’s horror films of the early 1930s, The Secret of the Blue Room boasts impressive production values and a solid cast. Its screenplay (derived, apparently, from countless Victorian mysteries) sports a locked-room puzzle that you will probably figure out immediately, in spite of an enormous number of red herrings — some completely nonsensical — that are thrown into the mix.

Nonetheless, it’s an enjoyable movie. It has the kind of agreeably spooky atmosphere you want to find on a late-night creature feature, and it’ll hold your attention. As a bonus it takes place in a castle complete with suits of armor and secret passages, and I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. I suspect I live in a house with a number of secret passages, though none that I have managed to discover yet.

Gloria Stuart would appear in Universal’s hit The Invisible Man a few months after this film was released. Stuart was never much of an actress, with a stagey manner that was common in the early talkies. She comes across as a tremulous, simpering cipher — which shouldn’t surprise us, since that was her style as an actress.

The movie was also made in an era where Paul Lukas, not exactly a lantern-jawed action man, can credibly be cast as the lead. I found it somewhat refreshing that the leading man doesn’t precisely look like one.

In spite of an improbable ending, The Secret of the Blue Room holds up pretty well, and it should come as no surprise that Universal remade it twice over the years — first as The Missing Guest and later as Murder In the Blue Room.

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