In August 1957, Columbia Studios made available a package of 52 films—most of which were horror or
sci-fi movies—from their and other studios to television stations. Called Shock!, it allowed many of the
classic monster movies to be shown on television for
the first time. For many of us in the TV-imbibing Baby
Boom generation, it was our first exposure to the bolt-necked Frankenstein, the opera-caped Dracula, and
the white-bandaged mummy. Among these cultural
icons was the werewolf, which was introduced in the
1941 film The Wolf Man.
Upon rewatching this film, I noticed something
interesting: The character of the wolf man—named
Lawrence Talbot in his human incarnation and
played by Lon Chaney Jr.—was an optical engineer!
The son of the Welsh Lord Talbot, he spent several
years in the United States, working at an unnamed
optical company in California, where he helped
install equipment at the Mount Wilson Observatory.
He also helped to install and align the telescope in
the attic-turned-observatory that his father used for
There really aren’t many examples of optical
scientists in popular media, so it’s worth looking
at how our profession is portrayed. Although I
suspect that most people don’t recall this facet of
the character, it is certainly part of the story.
Like most of the script elements, Larry and his
profession were the creation of scriptwriter Curt Siodmak, a relatively unsung novelist and screenwriter
who was personally responsible for propagating, if
not creating, many of the traditional horror tropes,
from the werewolf’s howl to the vampire dissolving
Making Talbot an optical engineer was a deliberate choice, and it’s pretty clear from the film that
Siodmak wanted to contrast supernatural forces with
modern knowledge. Talbot isn’t much of a theorist,
but he’s good with his hands and he understands
mechanical devices. Later on, frustrated with lycanthropy, he exclaims that he can understand things
with wires and tubes (so he’s an electronics dabbler,
too), but talk of pentagrams and the weird world of
the mind are too much for him.
Siodmak’s original title of the film was Destiny,
and he wanted to show a man being driven about by
the winds of fate. His original script told a far subtler story than the film as released. His protagonist
Only in Hollywood: How a
humble optical engineer
became a werewolf.
I Was a
Stephen R. Wilk