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The Wolf Man

Universal Monsters Minimates
by yo go re

Their classic versions of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy had been huge hits for Universal Studios in the early '30s, but the money dried up as the decade went along, and the studio was operating in the red. Bela Lugosi was no longer considered a bankable star, and Boris Karloff felt he was getting too old to play monsters. Enter Lon Chaney Jr., following in his famous father's footsteps - just as Senior had kickstarted Universal's horror business with 1923's Hunchback of Notre Dame, Junior would reinvigorate the studio with 1941's The Wolf Man.

The Wolf Man played by Lon Chaney Jr. was introduced to audiences in 1941 in the horror film "The Wolf Man". Larry Talbot becomes infected with the werewolf curse when trying to save local girl, Gwen Conliffe's friend Jenny, from an attack.

Universal had planned an earlier werewolf movie as a vehicle for Karloff, but our hero Curt Siodmak didn't use any of it in his version. Siodmak's first version didn't have Larry Talbot in it, either: the hero of the story was Larry Gill, an American called to repair the telescope at Talbot Castle who got sucked into the werewolf curse - it was the studio that decided a father/son relationship would work better.

Larry is wearing a fine grey suit, and his jacket is a new piece. It's a double-breated suit, with the requisite two rows of buttons, fairly wide lapels and the shirt collar and necktie as a sculpted detail at the top. These chest caps often serve to make the figures look bulky, but Chaney was a big guy, so it works. It does make it funny that tiny little Claude Rains played his father, Sir John Talbot, though: Larry's mother must have been a giant of a woman!

The shape of Lon Chaney's head lends itself very well to the standard Minimate cylindrical noggin. We get a very strong likeness, particularly around those sleepy eyes. Chaney was only hired a week before filming began; until then, the role belonged to Dick Foran, a guy best known for playing singing cowboys. His hair is the same style seen on a lot of Minimates - that sort of slicked-back thing with a bit of a widow's peak.

The set includes only one accessory, the wolf-headed cane Larry bought so he could creepily stalk flirt with the daughter of the village antiques dealer. It's the same piece that was in the black and white two-pack, just under 2" long and detailed incredibly for its size. The body is black, while the head and tip are silver.

In the first draft of Siodmak's script, much more emphasis was placed on psychological elements - it wasn't even clear whether the werewolf was real, or just in Larry's mind. Was he really turning into an animal, or did he just believe it so fervently that he was running around on all fours and biting and snapping and baying at the moon? Some of those elements were retained even when the monster became more blatantly "real" in later drafts, which is why The Wolf Man is deeper than the average "killer on the loose" monster movie.

Like Rustin mentioned in his Funko Force Frankenstein review, Universal has two different licenses for their products - one full, and one with genericized faces (to avoid likeness rights). However, they both wear the same outfits, so why is this figure in a blue shirt and black pants? The usual combo is a green shirt and brown pants, so why the change?

By modern standards, the Wolf Man's design is pretty weird. I mean, he doesn't even look like a wolf! Of course, there is a good reason for that, even beyond the fact that the makeup was hand-stitched yak hair: the MPPDA (precursor to the MPAA you're familiar with) forbade the makeup from looking "too bestial," so Jack Pierce, the makeup artist respsonsible for the design, was limited in what he could do.

The implication, of course, is that Larry would have eventually reach the point where he turned into a full wolf, not a wolf-man: after all, Bela, the gypsy who bit him, was indistinguishable from a wolf when it happened (actually, it was a German shepherd, Lon's beloved pet "Moose," because they couldn't find a real wolf who could safely wrestle with the actors). The figure gets furry, clawed hands and feet - new molds for this figure, just like the hirsute head.

Another restriction placed on the film by the MPPDA was that they couldn't show any man-to-wolf transitions. Why? Oh, who knows? The Hays Code was just as idiotic as the original Comics Code. Anyway, when we see him transforming into a wolf, all we see are his feet: we don't see his face until the end, when he's going from wolf to man (a direction allowed by the Code).

This figure, the awkwardly named "Transformation The Wolf Man," represents that first monstrous change. He's wearing light pants and has stripped to his undershirt. Alone in his room, he pulls off his shoes and sees that his feet have already begun to change - and then, by the time he gets outside, he's got his shirt back on again, which suggests that he got dressed as a wolf. Whoops!

Minimates don't have noses - it's part of the design aesthetic. In fact, when one did get a nose, it caused something of an uproar among the fandom. There's no skipping the nose on the Wolf Man heads, however: his little black snout is just too strongly identified with the design. In an excellent piece of design work, the face on this one shows more evidence of Larry Talbot - the shape of the eyes, the eyebrows, the lines around his mouth - than the completed head does.

Another difference between this figure and the other Wolf Man is one not at all evident from the promotional photos on the back of the packaging: his hands, feet, face and several spots on his arms are all a light tan, much closer to Larry's pink skintone than the Wolf Man's final brown. Again, this is something that would have been easy to overlook, but is a very smart inclusion.

Finally, we have this box set's exclusive figure, Gwen Conliffe. The other three are available in various two-packs at Toys Я Us, but the film's female lead can only be had in this set. Gwen's father runs the antique shop, and Larry decides to go meet her after watching her in her bedroom through his father's telescope. Told you he was kind of a stalker.

Gwen was played by Evelyn Ankers, who never got along too well with Chaney. They had great chemistry onscreen, and appeared in many more films together, but in real life they reportedly got off on the wrong foot when the studio gave her his dressing room (he was something of a drunk, and they wanted a tenant who wasn't going to break things). The figure is wearing the dress she's first seen in, with two silver clasps at the top and a belt with too-long ties in the front. Her legs are a darker shade than her hands and face, suggesting she's wearing stockings.

Gwen has a new hair piece, to properly re-create the awesomely complex 1940s hairstyle. Ever wanted to make a Silk Spectre Minimate? Here's your base! She has a bright, happy smile on her face, so this clearly isn't from the end of the movie, when the actress had to faint and lay on the floor, then passed out from the fog and was forgotten by the crew. Ankers had a British accent and had to learn to speak like an American - then, for The Wolf Man, she had to reverse the process: even though it's never mentioned in the film, the story is set in Wales.

The Wolf Man took only 30 days to shoot in 1941 - October 27 to November 25 - and it was scheduled to open on December 12. There was some question whether audiences would want to see a horror picture when The Wolf Man opened; you may remember that December 7, 1941 was a fairly important date. But as the definition seen in the opening scenes reminds us (in large capital letters) that this is just a legend: it was set in the present (the '40s), in Europe, but there was no war going on. It was a fairytale, and its brand of horror was precisely the kind of thing people needed to forget the real horror going on in the world. This set goes deeper into the movie than any Wolf Man toys have before, and does it very well.

This set was provided for us by Luke's Toy Store - yes, they do more than just create cool decal kits. So if you didn't preorder this set from your comicstore, you can still get it from them.

-- 10/16/10

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