Until I recently re-watched The Wolf Man (1941), I would have told you it was the best of the Universal Monsters classics. Now I'm not so sure. I think I was confusing my memory of a great character with that of a great movie. Lon Chaney, Jr.'s performance as Larry Talbot gives us the most personal and sympathetic creature in Universal's history and single-handedly raises the movie itself to something more impactful than it ever should have been.
Chaney is the primary reason this wolf man become a legend when six years earlier, a werewolf of London did not. But there are others. Remember that earlier Universal monsters were based on literary works: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" by Victor Hugo, "The Phantom of the Opera" by Gaston Leroux, "Dracula" by Bram Stoker, and "Frankenstein" by Mary Shelley. There was no road map for a werewolf. So it's also Curt Siodmak's original screenplay that not only made The Wolf Man special, but also established a fundamental mythology for the creature.
Also, the wolf man was a home-grown monster. The Hunchback and Phantom were from Paris; Dracula was from Transylvania; the Mummy was from Egypt. Yes, he returns to his ancestral home in Wales where the action takes place, but it is after spending much of his adult life in California. For all intents and purposes, the wolf man is an American monster. Larry Talbot speaks like an American and, except for his great wealth, is an everyman figure.
Finally, the wolf man was a monster that we could become. Yes, if Dracula bit you, you'd become a vampire, but you'd still be under his control. A werewolf is fiercely independent and must live with the consequences of its actions as a human during an average day. As Larry's father, Sir John (Claude Rains) tells him, a werewolf is a psychological explanation for the dual personalities that live in all of us. It's the physical expression of good and evil in every man's soul, with evil taking the form of a wolf.
What of the movie itself? Its structure is pretty typical. The story has the same love triangle of nearly every other Universal horror. Here, after Larry has already taken the lovely Gwen Conliffe (Evelyn Ankers) on a moonlight stroll, we learn that she's engaged to Frank Andrews (Patric Knowles). It's always the odd man out, though. Gwen's attraction to Larry is obvious and after an unseen quarrel with Frank, we don't see much else of him.
The story also has the same crowd of non-believers, even when faced with overwhelming evidence that the supernatural exists. Here, it's harder to believe because everyone in town knows werewolf lore and seems to be able to recite the poem:
Even a man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolf bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.