Back before film makers started turning out gruesome and bloody slasher movies, Hollywood’s Universal Studio frightened the dickens out of me. Okay, maybe I was only nine at the time. Still it made me look under the bed before climbing in it.
I can watch the same movies today and wonder why they were so scary at the time. Very few showed blood or even the actual terror scene. A fade-away would save us. Still this method allowed the viewers to imagine what was taking place.
The before mentioned Universal begin the big push toward the horror theme back in the 1920s. It struck the payload in 1931 with the release of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein”. Both caused heart-skipping panic in darkened movie houses as Bela Lugosi starred as the Count and Boris Karloff as the Monster respectively.
A year later “The Mummy”, also starring Karloff, joined the previous two. It would be until ’41 when Universal’s monster Fab Four would be complete.
The fourth one would be my favorite of the bunch.
“EVEN A MAN WHO IS PURE OF HEART
AND SAYS HIS PRAYERS AT NIGHT
MAY BECOME A WOLF WHEN THE WOLFSBANE
BLOOMS AND THE AUTUMN MOON IS BRIGHT”
That’s when “The Wolf Man” first made the scene. Both Dra’ and Frankie were created in novels in the 1800s exactly 80 years apart, both the mummy and wolf man came from studio writers.
In the title role of “The Wolf Man” was Lon Chaney, Jr. From the very start he was my favorite character actor. I was introduced to him and the others on late night television. The timing was perfect. Any other would not approach the creepy midnight hour.
Channel 6’s Plenty Scary Movie played every Friday night. There were other offerings from other studios, but Universal was tops. Filmed in black and white added to the atmosphere. The full orchestra background music certainly didn’t hurt.
The verse is stated by the old Gypsy woman near the beginning of “The Wolf Man” movie. Maybe the poisonous real plant wolfsbane had some effect, but the plot has the lead being a werewolf after being attacked by one.
Today very few movie and TV fans who do not watch the Turner Classic channel may recall Chaney. During a career that begin in 1932 and didn’t end until his death in ’73 he appeared in some 150 movies. Later he had roles in countless TV series. They ranged from almost all the weekly Westerns to I Love Lucy and even The Monkees.
He could play ‘good guys’ and villains with equal success. Regardless of his role, still to this today I cannot take my eyes off him when he is in the scene.
The first time I recall seeing Chaney was the mid-50s Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans. He was Chingachgook, the last of his tribe from the James Fennimore Cooper early American novel. When The Wolf Man came along for me in the late night horrors, I was hooked.
I started seeing him more and more. Maybe the role of Larry Talbot/The Wolf Man was his most noted, he could be believable in both serious and comedy roles. From “Of Mice and Men” and “High Noon” to the likes of “Hillbillies in A Haunted House” and “San Antonio Rose” teamed with Shemp Howard (one of the Three Stooges).
Another one of his movies was appropriately named, “The Boy From Oklahoma” starring another Junior, Will Rogers, Jr.
Creighton Tull Chaney was born in 1906 in Oklahoma City. His father was the famous Lon Chaney of silent movie fame. The son did not take on the ‘Junior’ tag until after his father’s death in 1930. He did so only after being forced to by studios.
His birth could have been a movie plot in itself. His parents were touring on stage and appearing in Oklahoma City when their first child was born premature weighting two and a half pounds. Chaney would later say he was “black and dead” at the time of his birth.
Seeing the unmoving baby, the father apparently picked his son up and ran to nearby ice-coated Belle Isle Lake. He dipped the child in the freezing water and jump- started his breathing.
Did that really happen? Lon, Jr.’s son and daughter would later say no. Of course they were not there at the time. Even if it didn’t take place, what a great story for a future horror movie star!
I wish I could report Lon Chaney, Jr. lived a long, happy life. He died at the age of 67. Diabetes and alcohol ism, among other illnesses led to his death in 1973. During the last 10-15 years he looked much older. Even with his well-known drinking he never lacked for work. Directors knew they had to film his scenes before lunch because later he wouldn’t be in shape to do so.
Most of his noted roles dealt with his character being sympathetic and tormented. His deep baritone voice and teddy bear face with heavy eyebrows were a perfect fit.
Off camera he was noted for his kindness to children and younger actors and actresses.
In 1997 the U.S. Postal Service honored Universal’s monsters with a four-stamp set. Lon, Jr. was pictured as The Wolf Man, Lugosi as Dracula, and Karloff as both Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy.
It was my guy who was the only American to play all four roles. He did so in “The Wolf Man” (41), “Ghost of Frankenstein” and “The Mummy’s Tomb” (both ’42), and “Son of Dracula” (43).
An interesting trivia note is Chancy actually appeared as the Wolf Man, his main role, and the Monster in the comedy-horror movie “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein”. He filled in for actor Glenn Strange for one scene while Strange was being treated for a foot injury.
Over the years Claremore’s Yale and Cadet Theatres presented countless features with Lon Chaney, Jr.
Pardon me if I am out of touch this Halloween night. A big bag of popcorn, an endless supply of Diet Dr. Pepper, and a line-up of my guy’s horror greats will be occupying my full attention. The best will probably come during the midnight hour.
Larry’s Note: In honor of fast approaching Halloween when all the spooks and goblins roam at night the kind folks at The Progress have allowed me today to share some memories of my favorite movie monster.