Thursday, April 5, 2018

Review: The Monster and the Ape

ext and live photos © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2018
Film images from the Internet

The Monster and the Ape
Directed by Howard Bretherton
Cheezy Flicks / MVD Visual
450 minutes, 1945 / 2010

Serials came and went along with the cinema stage shows, and eventually double features. But in 1946, when these 15 installments were released to an post-war audience, still reeling from the scare of spies and the technology of an emergent atomic age, it was expected, along with the newsreels. The timing of these serials in it's cultural context is worth noting.

Howard Bretherton had a long history of directing B-films, mostly westerns, but he definitely moves into the industrial spy / sci-fi / horror genre without missing a mark, since they end up being pretty much the same: central villain, his henchmen bad guys in black suits, the hero from out of town dressed in a lighter color (gray, rather than white), the pretty heroine, and her victim father. Add in the dizzy driver to replace the dizzy wagon train cook, a robot and gorilla (in place of the cows and horses. perhaps?), and there ya go. Bretherton would also direct a couple of episodes of The Adventures of Superman in 1958.

The plot is nonsensical, but so what, this isn’t supposed to be rocket science (pun intended), but rather a way to keep the audience coming back to the theater for a 30-minute episode over 15 weeks. The production cost is kept to a minimum, and it kept the cash rolling in. Those times as is now, it is not the average film that brings in an audience, but the schlock. People would rather see Friday the 13th Part XLI than just about anything with Judi Dench. Adam Sandler outsells Robert Dinero. People just like mindless entertainment. Fortunately, depending on the genre, I’m one of them (gabba gabba we accept you, one of us!).

The monster, in this story, is a robot (uncredited), and the ape is, well, a guy in a gorilla suit. Let me stop here a sec and comment on them. The robot (called a “rob’t” by one of the henchmen, and a “rabbit” by the good guy’s driver / servant / etc. – to the extent of commenting he wanted it to get back into its “hutch”). The ‘bot doesn’t move much through the series, though he is often carried by the bad guys. Six feet of metal, and they carry it like it’s the hollow shell that it actually is. When it moves, it makes exaggerated movements, making knee-high steps, and moving its arms up and down. And, of course, there is a buzzing, electrical sound whenever it is in motion. My guess it was really hard to move in the thing, and whoever was inside (when it wasn't being carried) did the best he could. Speaking of which, the ape, Thor, is played by an uncredited Ray “Crash” Corrigan (the box for this release wrongly identifies him as the robot), who did a spectacular job at both being a gorilla and stealing the scenes, grabbing at hats while people are talking, and generally being a nuisance to the actors, but a joy to the audience. My commendations. Corrigan would play apes in many other films, such as Nabonga, The Monster Maker, The White Gorilla, and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. He also made a bunch of westerns and classic D-grade films like The Zombies of Mora Tau and as the title creature in It! The Terror from Beyond Space (from which the plot of Alien was – er – inspired).

I also want to touch on the fight scenes, in which there are usually two per half hour episode. Most of the time, it’s our hero, Ken Morgan (Robert Lowery) against two or more of the thugs, with fedoras rarely leaving the heads while the punches fly, and certainly no bruising or other side effects from the action (except for a slight limp after a run-in with Thor). There seems to be a set series of types of fight moves: for example, there is the leap as one fighter jumps at the opponent, the wait as the puncher hesitates and gives a second for the punchee to either get up, or retrieve his hat, or brace himself for the next punch, and there is the play-through punch where the hand comes way back to the point of a question of balance, and then it is thrown. Then there are the moments when the punches actually miss (unintentionally), yet the person air-punched falls. These are my favorite ones, and I actually played a couple of them back in slo-mo. At one point, a villain hits our hero on the head with a gun, and then fights with him. Why would he not have shot him, other than needing him to be around for more episodes?

Logic and consistency is not something that is prevalent in serials, generally, which makes them all the more amusing to watch. They exist in their own world of physics. For example, in one episode a machine is discovered to find a metal called metalogen that is found in meteorites that have fallen (which is needed to make the robot run), but in another, all there is in the world is located at one spot under a car garage in the town where the story takes place, but then there is more, but then there isn’t… And if that’s all there is, how did they get the metalogen man (robot) to work in the first place, and why would a scientist somewhere else invent a machine to find the stuff is it’s only in one spot, and…well, you get the idea.

The basic premise is that four scientists invent the robot, but only one wants the claim, so he kills off two of them right away, and the third one he keeps around because that's the one who has the robot in his possession; apparently the only way to get it is through him. The ape is controlled (somewhat) by one of the henchmen, who is also a zookeeper, and is often brought to the villain’s home via a tunnel connected to Thor’s cage at the zoo.

The thugs kidnap just about everyone in the cast, at one point or another, and yet all of them either escape or are released by one of the other cast members just in time. Rarely, though, are the cops involved onscreen; usually, the main characters go to investigate by themselves (flashlight always at the ready), finding themselves in a pickle (or at least a fist-fight) of some sort. The one time a police inspector actually is around the bad guy’s house is near the end of one episode and is never seen again, nor is his disappearance explained.

The main theme of any serial is the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. [Note: One spoiler alert in this paragraph.] It is so funny to see the end of the chapter, where it is clear that someone is injured or killed, e.g., a rock falls on one… well, a dummy dressed as him, at the end of one episode, but when you see the next chapter, he dives out of the way before the rock hits him.

There is a lot of use of then-new technology in this storyline, such as television signals and robotics, but it is not fully explored as a sociological phenomenon as much as “look at all the cool high-tech stuff we know about.” It would be like someone using Twitter a couple of years ago in a movie, but now would be looked on as everyday.

As I stated, the hero is played by Robert Lowery, who visits the Bainbridge Laboratory where the robot was created – as an investigator from a company who wants to mass market the creature to save us all from toil. He is straight-laced as they come, a handsome figure yet hardly romantic (never makes a move on the only female in the cast). He’s hardboiled, though, enough to make a grab for his hat before leaving a building about to explode; very noir detective-like in his demeanor. Lowery would have a long career, as would most of the cast, moving on to golden age television appearances from an episode of Superman to the likes of Playhouse 90. He was also a regular in the 1966 western series, Pistols ‘n’ Petticoats.

Ralph Morgan plays Professor Arnold, the lead scientist of the group who invent the robot. He is often found to be misled, though not confused, and makes many mistakes (thinking the hero is with the villains, giving up the robot to the wrong people, etc.). Morgan embodies him as intense, and yet he remains likeable despite all his mishandlings. With a career of character acting that dates back to the silent era, Morgan also had his share of roles in exploitation films, such as Night Monster, Hitler’s Madman, Weird Woman, The Monster Maker, and Black Market Babies.

His daughter-secretary, and seemly not love interest for Ken, is Babs, played with a soft Lauren Bacall feel by Carole Mathews. She is often whiney (“I’m so worried about my father!”), easily fooled, and most of the time very jovial (“Oh, that’s wonderful!”). She is definitely a post-war poster woman, wearing suits and working in the lab with her father, as well as assisting him. But she sees more physical action from Thor than Ken. Mathews would also go on to character acting on early television, though her last credit is dated 1978.

As the villain, Professor Ernst, George Macready had the most luck in television, even appearing regularly on the soap opera, Payton Place. His face is definitely recognizable to me for appearances on the likes of Get Smart, Night Gallery, and both County Yorga films, but in this serial, his evil Ernst comes across more as a Dr. Evil than a Blofeld. At one point one of his henchmen says, “This is your fault” after a scheme backfires, and he actually agrees!

However, the one person in the cast who achieved the most fame is the driver / servant, played in total “yah-suh” mode by Willie Best, the man who made the line “Feets don’t fail me now” famous (though he doesn’t say it here). He plays timid through the whole series, which makes watching a bit of a winching fest for the viewer. There is even a racial epitaph stated by his character about himself. From what I understand, Willie was a nice man, a total professional, and was aware of what he was portraying, publicly acknowledging that he did what he had to do to keep getting work (Paul Robeson had the same dilemma, though he was able to rise above it that’s to that voice). A drug conviction led to the end of Willie’s career, further heaped upon as a symbol of “Uncle Tom” during the ‘60s social revolution, which is a shame. To me, his character is actually the most human and likeable of the bunch, with the rest being a bit stiff in their character. Willie’s characterization of Flash gets to roll with the punches, and has the last word. I’m willing to bet much of his dialog is ad libbed, such as often referring to the robot as a “rabbit.” He is a wonderful comic relief.

Serials were from a specific period of time, and the whole pastiche of them had a quality of their own. They were quick and dirty, from writing to acting to filming (some scenes here are shot one camera for relatively long shots).

There are a many of ways to make it through the two discs of all 7-1/2 hours of film and the different extras (trailers, intermission clips) that are on both, including as a marathon, or watching one episode per night. Despite the occasional cringe-worthiness of the series, it is enjoyable, so grab some friends, a few bowls of popcorn, perhaps even some libation (coffee for me, please), and spool away.

This review was originally published in

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