Every horror movie needs a good scream queen and the Universal Monsters movies had quite a few, but none have been more iconic than Evelyn Ankers of “The Wolf Man”.
“Oh, I’m psychic. Every time I see a beautiful girl I know all about her. Just like that.” – Lawrence Talbot
I try to watch one Universal Monsters movie a day and over the past few months I’ve spent a great amount of time with the classic films of the early 30’s to mid 50’s. This past week I re-watched The Wolf Man and was reminded of just how talented and beautiful Evelyn Ankers was. It was her performance as Gwen Conliffe that made that particular character just as iconic as any of the classic monsters and in 2010, Emily Blunt was the next actress in line to carry on that legacy. Despite the numerous scream queens of Universal, like Helen Chandler and Zita Johann, none have been quite like Evelyn Ankers.
Evelyn Ankers was born on August 17, 1918 in Valparaiso, Chile. The South American born actress was born to British parents and she was raised in England and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She made over 50 films between 1936 and 1950 and it was her work with Universal that earned her the title of “Queen of the Screamers.” In many ways, Ms. Ankers was the first scream queen and her performances in movies like Hold That Ghost, The Ghost of Frankenstein, and Son of Dracula went on to cement her Hollywood status. But there wasn’t any other film or role quite like Gwen Conliffe in 1941’s The Wolf Man!
The Wolf Man is the werewolf movie above all others for many reasons. The screenplay by Curt Siodmak was brilliant and it was many of his ideas that have gone on to become gospel for lycanthropy lore. The film, beautifully directed by George Waggner, with cinematography by Joseph Valentine, offered us a vision of everything a horror movie could and should be in just the same way as Tod Browning‘s Dracula. Above all, the Larry Talbot character and something we could once again attribute to Curt Siodmak, is that he is a top tier character and monster within the Universal Monsters line-up that does not have literary ties. Yet the character would be included in John Logan’s Penny Dreadful, along the likes of Dr. Frankenstein, his monster, Dracula, and Dorian Gray.
It was Evelyn Ankers endearing performance as Gwen Conliffe, the female lead and love interest to Lon Chaney Jr’s Talbot, in The Wolf Man that adds to the film’s excellence and uniqueness among the Universal Monsters. Unlike the other movies, Talbot is decent, well-meaning, and an ordinary type of guy who ends up becoming a were wolf. It’s his overall downfall in the movie that makes him such a sympathetic character and one that Gwen Conliffe falls for and even defends.
Despite the on-screen chemistry between Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr, this “dynamic duo” reportedly and infamously did not get along. In a biography on Lon Chaney Jr by Don G. Smith, it was written:
“According to Patsy Chaney, Lon referred to the actress as “Shankers.” Evelyn, on the other hand, objected to Lon’s insistence upon sneaking up and grabbing her from behind while in his Wolf Man makeup.”
I’ve personally always found this to be surprising as the rare behind the scenes photos and publicity images of Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr always showed them to be having some sort of fun with one another. And the chemistry they had in their movies was quite amazing.
However, the “animosity” between Evelyn Ankers and Lon Chaney Jr could possibly be explained in the following quote that Ms. Ankers once said about her co-star:
“He seemed to have a need to be liked by people. When he wasn’t drinking, he was the sweetest. Sometimes he hid it [the drinking] so well, that one couldn’t be sure. But, if a dress were destroyed or a hair-do by the Pierce crew, then he heard from the front office; for they were afraid production would be held up and that meant money lost.”
Evelyn Ankers was a true professional and star. Her thoughtfulness and approach to her “craft” (which truly was a craft in that era of movie making) was matched only by her amazingly stunning presence on screen. She also happened to be quite tall, standing at 5’8″.
So what happens when the Queen of Screams meets The Wolf Man? Maybe it’s time to re-watch The Wolf Man and find out!
(Steven Biscotti – @reggiemantleIII)