(4/10) In 1941 Universal still had a few good monster movie shots in it before it all went to hell in a handbag, but unfortunately Man Made Monster wasn’t one of them. The film is best known for introducing Lon Chaney Jr. some nine months before his smash hit The Wolf Man. Chaney gives some good and some bad performances in this lower-than-low budget movie that quickly runs out of steam in the script department.
Man Made Monster. 1941, USA. Directed by George Waggner. Written by George Waggner, Harry Essex, Sid Schwartz, Len Golos. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Lionel Atwill, Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds. Produced by Jack Bernhard for Universal. IMDb score: 6.3
While the Frankenstein saga was still holding up its head with the last film, The Son of Frankenstein, stacking up giant box office numbers in 1939 (review), Universal introduced yet a new monster in 1941, and again considered putting Boris Karloff in the lead. But for one reason or the other, perhaps that Karloff had been seen so frequently in the recent string of Columbia mad scientist films, the idea was scrapped. Instead, a new star with an old name was on the rise in Hollywood, by the name of Creichton Chaney, better known by that time by the stage name borrowed from his prematurely deceased father, Lon Chaney. This was Lon Chaney Jr’s first horror film, a film that led him to be cast in his most famous role ever later the same year, The Wolf Man.
Now if Lon Chaney doesn’t ring a bell for you, you have probably wandered in on the wrong page, but very briefly: Lon Chaney Sr. was one of the biggest stars of Hollywood during the twenties and a good part of the tens. He is perhaps best remembered today as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and the titular role in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), but was the star of dozens of both artistically first class and commercially successful films. Known as ”the man of a thousand faces”, he became famous for developing his own gruesome makeups and going through painful ordeals to play many disfigured and disabled characters, sometime without legs, sometimes without arms, and sometimes with completely horrible faces (sometimes achieved with the help of metal wires and fish hooks). Lon Chaney was the first real monster of Hollywood, rivalled perhaps only by Conrad Veidt’s harrowing performance in The Man Who Laughs (1927).
Lon Chaney Jr, on the other hand, or Creichton, was discouraged by his father to enter showbiz and had a successful business career at age 24, when his father passed away, just 47 years old. Senior’s death seems to have had a profound impact on his life, as he quit his job at a plumbing company to enter the movies, which he did in 1932, first under his own name, but later adapting his father’s famous moniker, perhaps on insistance of the producers, who thought it would sell well. In 1939 he played what may well remain his finest role, as Lenny in Of Mice and Men directed by legendary Russian immigrant Lewis Milestone/Lieb Milstein. He apparently caught the eye of Universal, for which his father had made both the Hunchback and the Phantom in the silent era, with his third-billed role in the caveman movie One Million B.C. in 1940. After Karloff was scrapped as the lead in a film called Atomic Monster, Universal called in Lon Chaney Jr.
Because another film in the pipeline in Hollywood was already called Atomic Monster, the title was changed to Man Made Monster, and the line-up included veteran horror actor Lionel Atwill and jack of all trades George Waggner as both screenwriter and director. The original idea of the story was credited to Harry Essex, Sid Schwartz and Len Golos. This was Essex’ first script, but he would later gain fame for penning films like It Came from Outer Space (1953, review) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review).
The film follows Dan McCormick (Chaney), the sole survivor of a horrible accident where all the passengers of a bus were electrocuted to death. All but ”Dynamo Dan the Electric Man” who apparently had built up a resistance to electricity through his job as a sideshow performer tinkering with electric shocks, much like later MTV generation dimwits Jackass and The Dudesons. The jolly, but rather slow Dan agrees to run a few tests of his amazing ability for the kind-hearted Dr. John Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds), and lives a comfortable life for a few days at Lawrence’s estate, where he befriends the professor’s daughter June (Anne Nagel) and the family dog. These first fifteen minutes are some of Chaney’s best minutes throughout his film career, as he is splendid as the ”aw, shucks” personality, with a laid-back everyman charm about him.
Unfortunately, while Lawrence is a way the guinea pig Dan is taken over by the slimey, possessed Dr. Paul Rigas (we know he’s the bad guy because he is played by Lionel Atwill and has a name that sounds like the capital of an Eastern European country). He bombards Dan with ever-increasing doses of electricity, expanding his tolerance and practically makes him an electricity junkie who can’t survive without his daily fix. Finally he reaches his goal of breaking Dan’s mind, in essence turning him into a glowing zombie without a mind of his own as long as he is jacked up on electricity (exactly how this science works is conveniently left untold). As long as he is glowing, he can also electrocute people just by touching them. To prevent this from happening, and to prevent the electricity from ”leaking” from his body, Rigas has designed a rubber suit for him to wear while fully charged. He basically becomes a human battery. When the effects wear off, he can still survive, but only as a shell of a man. This is where Chaney gets a taste of much of what was to come in his career – playing the downtrodden, tragic antihero turned monster. Unfortunately he isn’t as good at this (The Wolf Man being an exception, perhaps) as his predecessor Boris Karloff, as he simply hasn’t got the right demonic edge that Karloff was able to conjure up. I’m sure Chaney fans will hate me for saying this, but I always thought the apple fell quite a bit away from the tree when it came to playing villainous characters. He has his moments, but he’s simply a bit too awkward and clumsy to be intimidating. Even in The Wolf Man, it is his performance as Larry Talbot, rather then the werewolf, that makes his portrayal so memorable.
After this we get a pretty convoluted story. Rigas orders Dan to kill the returning Dr. Lawrence, and then makes him confess, so that he will be put to the electric chair. As Rigas suspects, the chair only supercharges him, and once in his rubber suit, he sets out terrorizing the countryside with the police giving chase. Rigas’ idea and motive behind it all is to create a new race of supercharged electro-zombies controlled by men such as himself. One can ask oneself how he intended to keep control over thousands of glowing supermen with superstrength that can kill with a touch, when he seems to have problems controlling even one of them, to the extent that the creature seeks out and kills its creator. In the end he gets tangled up in barb wire, rupturing the suit and causing all the electricity to leak out into the steel wires, killing him instantly (yes, now that he is supercharged running out of electricity will kill him, apparently). The end.
Ah no wait. There is also the ”male leading man”. For some reason studios in this age were adamant to give their anti-heroes turned monsters and sympathetic but doomed mad scientists love interests in the form of young beautiful actresses. But they were similarly adamant to give all these young beautiful actresses secondary love interests in the forms of young, handsome actors. For some reason it just wasn’t kosher to have the female lead love the monster and have it die in the end without another man there to comfort her, and take the mad scientist’s/monster’s place. The same thing went for mad scientists’ daughters – there always had to be a fiancée involved, never could there be a single woman in the female lead, being robbed of her father. This was a rule. A very strict rule. So we get Mark Adams, a young, hotshot reporter, played by Frank Albertson (another bloody goddamn wisecracking reporter … 😛 ) Together June and Frank try feebly to help Dan, but their roles are more or less inconsequential and their only real contribution is to drag the pacing of the story down, as no-one is really interested in their romance, nor do they really have anything to do with the main plot.
Although not completely incompetent, this is not one of Universal’s best sci-fi horror efforts, and it had a low priority, as it had a shoestring budget. This is notable in the absence of anything resembling real set design, apart from the lab, which more or less reuses old Strickfaden gadgets from earlier films. The film was also shot in only three weeks, making it a rushed movie, even by Universal standards. In fact, it was Universal’s cheapest movie in the whole of 1941, a year that included such timeless classics as Bachelor Daddy, Swing It Soldier, Tight Shoes and Cracked Nuts. Writer, actor, producer and director George Waggner was not exactly a classy replacement for James Whale, but he did prove later the same year that he could direct, when he made the blockbuster The Wolf Man. Even at the lightning speed of the production he manages to produce a few pretty effective sequences. Some of the lab shots of Atwill are stunning works of gothic cinema, and he especially handles the beginning of the film well, but ultimately the direction is uninteresting and slapdash.
This is as run-of-the-mill as you would get with Universal horror movies – the nods to Frankenstein (1931, review) are obvious, only here the good and the mad scientists are split up in two characters. The stumbling, speechless monster that Dan becomes is a clear homage to Karloff’s performance in the the 1931 classic. Like in both Frankenstein and Dracula (1931) we have a girl in danger, and like in The Invisible Man (1931, review), there’s a scientist bent on world domination. Karloff already killed people with a touch (and he glowed, too) in The Invisible Ray (1936, review), here the filmmakers have just substituted radiation with electricity. If there’s one bit of novelty to this, then it is that this is the first time in the Universal catalogue that an innocent person gets turned into a monster, although that had been around in other studios’ productions, like some of the early proto-zombie films like Revolt of the Zombies (1936) and The Devil-Doll (1936, review).
However, considering the rushed process, it’s not completely unimpressive that such a mediocre, rather than bad, film ended up on screen. Credit for this partly goes to the seasoned horror sci-fi crew on hand, many of whom had been around since Frankenstein or earlier. These fellows and ladies include Art direction duo Jack Otterson and Russell Gausman, costume designer Vera West, makeup legend Jack Pierce and composer Hans Salter. The effects of the glowing Dan were created by visual effects guru John P. Fulton, although they don’t rank among his finest achievements. While the audience in the forties may have been quizzical about how they were made, these sort of highlights and shadows created by double exposure were by no means novel at the time. The effect looks extremely hokey today, and probably did even in 1941. Remember that this was the guy who made Claude Rains disappear in The Invisible Man. In fact, the exact same effect was used for Boris Karloff in The Invisible Ray.
In one sense the film does succeed: after the first 15 minutes we spend the rest of the 50 minutes longing to see the jolly old Lon Chaney again, and unfortunately he isn’t on screen long enough to make us really care for the lethargic, overacting slob that is the junkie Chaney in the rest of the proceedings. So for Chaney this is a mixed bag – it contains some of his best acting, and at the same time an example of what he could be like at his worst.
Lionel Atwill could be a marvellous actor in his prime. His one-armed police inspector in The Son of Frankenstein is one of the best characters Universal ever created, and he also shone in Doctor X (1932, review). Here he is on one hand brilliantly creepy, but on the other hand he sort of oversells the role. There’s not a single doubt in our minds that he is the bad guy from the very first glimpse we get at him, so there really is no need for all the stereotypical mad scientist frowning and leering. This is also partly to blame on the script. We’re not really given a proper motivation for Dr. Rigas’ maniacal pursuit to destroy the loveable Dan McCormick, other than a sick desire for fame and power, and so I suppose one must portray the character as a single-minded madman. But then that begs the question of why the wonderfully kind Dr. Lawrence puts up with having this obnoxious creep in his lab (in his home!). Samuel S. Hinds as the doctor is one of the best actors in the film, and unfortunately killed of at an early stage.
Anne Nagel is pleasant as June Lawrence and brings some lightness to the movie, but as stated earlier, her role is underrwritten. Nagel had a fairly long and moderately successful career as far as female B actresses go. She appeared in almost ninety films over a period of 25 years, including the female lead in the serial The Green Hornet (1940, review), a supporting role as a model in The Invisible Woman (1940, review), The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942), and another lead in The Mad Monster (1942, review). Frank Albertson has few connections with sci-fi, but he did manage to catch a few lead roles in B pictures, and actually played some substantial supporting parts in big A films like It’s A Wonderful Life (1947), and most notably Psycho (1960). There is absolutely nothing wrong with his acting in Man Made Monster, it’s just that his part is completely tacked-on and only serves as dead weight.
Ben Taggart in a supporting role was a serial bit-part staple, appearing in The Green Hornet, Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940) and Captain America (1944, review), as well as the Columbia Karloff picture Before I Hang (1940). In a small supporting role we see prolific character actor Byron Foulger, who also appeared in The Spider’s Web (1938, review) and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, as well as the sci-fi films The Man They Could Not Hang (1939, review), The Man With Nine Lives (1940, review), Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review), The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), The Rocket Man (1954), and as a guest star in the TV series Space Patrol (1952), The Twilight Zone (1959) and The Time Tunnel (1967). Frank O’Connor was an extremely prolific bit-part player, or should we say extra, who appeared in over 600 movies, serials or TV series, mostly credited as ”spectator at the race”, ”policeman”, ”prison guard”, and the likes. He appeared in a shitload of serials, including several sci-fis, as well as the films King Kong (1933, review), Super-Speed (1935), The Invisible Man Returns (1940, review), Flight to Mars (1951, review). Legendary stunt man David Sharpe turns up in a tiny role as a passenger in a hay waggon that catches on fire, presumably the guy who makes a somersault when he flings himself out of the cart, as we have seen his aerial leaps as Captain Marvel earlier.
Director George Waggner was a man who made it into Hollywood the hard way, through trial and error. He dropped out of college in the early twenties to become an actor, and got a break when he landed a small part in the successful Rudolph Valentino film The Sheik in 1921, but despite a handful of films, his career didn’t take off, so instead he tried his hand a songwriting, getting a few of his lyrics recorded in films in the late twenties and early thirties (he kept writing songs throughout his career). But as this didn’t pay the bills, he also started contributing to screenplays, the first one being Gorilla Ship in 1932. After a couple of dozen films, Universal started letting him direct under the studio’s B movie unit, starting with cheap westerns, many of which he wrote himself, in 1938.
After also producing a couple of films, Universal gave him control over their next big monster rollout, The Wolf Man, as both producer and director in 1941, which turned out to be a massive hit, and Waggner’s best remembered film to date. One could argue that the film’s success had more to do with screenwriter Curt Siodmak’s creation of the modern werewolf myth and the seasoned Universal crew than Waggner’s direction, and in any rate he was never able to match the success of the film, neither as director or producer, and in the fifties he found himself without film offers and instead moved to TV, where he, among other things, directed some episodes of The Green Hornet (1967) and Batman (1967-68), which stand as his only sci-fi directions apart from Man Made Monster. He did, however, produce The Ghost of Frankenstein, Invisible Agent (review, both 1942) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, revew).
In 1956 Allied Artists borrowed the basic idea of Man Made Monster for the movie Indestructable Man, again with Lon Chaney Jr. in the lead, and although not a straight remake, it can certainly be viewed as a blatant ripoff, coupled with Frankenstein tropes. By this time Chaney was drinking so heavily he could hardly remember his lines, so the production team made him a mute. That’s how good that movie is, but we’ll get to that later.
Man Made Monster. 1941, USA. Directed by George Waggner. Written by George Waggner, Harry Essex, Sid Schwartz, Len Golos. Starring: Lon Chaney Jr, Lionel Atwill, Anne Nagel, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds, William B. Davidson, Ben Taggart, Constance Bergen, Ivan Miller, Chester Gan, George Meader, Frank O’Connor, John Dilson, Byron Foulger, John Ellis, David Sharpe. Music: Hans Salter. Cinematography: Elwood Bredell. Editing: Arthur Hilton. Art direction: Jack Otterson. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman. Costume design: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Sound: Bernard B. Brown, Charles Carroll. Special effects: John P. Fulton. Produced by Jack Bernhard for Universal.