(6/10) In a nutshell: A stylish B production from 20th Century Fox and one of the early science fiction ape-man films in sound, this 1942 production has great acting, especially from horror staples George Zucco and J. Carrol Naish. Hampered by a somewhat jumbled script that gives too much away too early and a sense of ”we’ve seen this before”.
Dr. Renault’s Secret. 1942, USA. Directed by Harry Lachman. Written by William Bruckner & Robert F. Metzner. Based on the novel Balaoo by Gaston Leroux. Starring: J. Carrol Naish, George Zucco, Shepperd Strudwick, Lynne Roberts, Mike Mazurki. Produced by Sol M. Wurtzel for Twentieth Century-Fox. IMDb score: 6.2
It’s yet another mad scientist film from the golden age of bad mad scientist films, the early forties. But this one is slightly different, although we see both actors and tropes from the films it was surrounded by. This was the first horror film made by 20th Century Fox, that had edged its way up the ladder to becoming Hollywood’s most profitable studio with an output consisting mainly of light entertainment during the early years of WWII. 1942 marked a time of change, as the returning studio head Darryl F. Zanuck wanted to push Fox in a more serious direction, and also increased the number of B films the studio put out.
Unlike many of the super-cheap mad scientist films that studios like Universal and Columbia had put out during the first years of the forties, Dr. Renault’s Secret wasn’t just a programmed ripoff of previous films, but actually used a novel for inspiration, although it was allegedly inspired by the script of a 1927 film called The Wizard. The Wizard was a film made by Fox Studios, one of the three studios that ultimately merged into 20th Century Fox in 1935. The Wizard was a moderate success, and is today considered a lost film. Directed by Richard Rosson, the film followed Dr. Coriolos, who turns an ape into a man-like being and uses him to take his revenge on four people who have wronged him. The role of the ape man Balaoo was played by Greek boxer, wrestler and actor George Kotsonaros.
The Wizard, again, draws its inspiration from a 1911 novel called Balaoo, written by Gaston Leroux, best known for writing The Phantom of the Opera. Balaoo concerns the ape-man Balaoo who was created by Dr. Coriolos and lives in a tree house and is forced by three thugs to do evil shit. The second part of the book concerns Balaoo fighting for the love of Dr. Coriolos’ daughter Madeleine against his rival Patrice, and it ends in a dramatic chase over the rooftops of Paris, much like a later cinematic version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame would. The book Balaoo was made into a film with the same name in 1913 in France, and only fragments of it remain, so neither of these films can unfortunately be reviewed on this blog.
The novel Balaoo may or may not be inspired by H.G. Wells’ novel/pamphlet The Island of Dr. Moreau, concerning a mad scientist called Moreau who surgically tries to turn animals into human beings. What is clear is that 20th Century Fox (henceforth: Fox) was trying to evoke the name of Moreau when renaming Coriolos to Renault. It may also be a way of cheating away copyright claims. The novel is not mentioned as a source of inspiration in the credits, neither is The Wizard, although Fox owned the script and could point to it, should questions arise.
The film follows a young American Dr. Larry Forbes (Shepperd Strudwick) who arrives at an inn in a small French village where he is greeted by a strange-looking man called Noel (J. Carrol Naish) who is the manservant of Dr. Renault. Forbes is in town to marry his fiancée Madelon Renault (Lynne Roberts), the niece of Dr. Renault (George Zucco). He switches rooms with a local drunk, who gets strangled in the night, and the suspect is ex-convict and gardener to Renault, Rogell (Mike Mazurki), although director Harry Lachman leaves the camera lingering on a guilt-stricken Noel too long for the audience to have any doubt as to who actually killed the drunk, who insulted Madelon earlier in the evening.
The film the basically follows the old dark house formula. We have two presumable murderers, a mad scientist, a loving couple and a nervous butler in liege with Rogell couped up in a mansion and police officers sniffing around. A dog gets killed and some strange things occur, but the film’s real point of interest is Noel. Noel is a mild-mannered, but brutally strong ”native” who speaks bad English and is treated more as a pet than a human being, as his mental capacities are that of a child’s. He is in love with Madelon, who treats him kindly, and Forbes also takes a liking to him, but has suspicions over his origin. At a night out at a festival, he finally snaps after being constantly bullied by two local assholes, and kills them in a fit of rage.
For the viewer Noel’s origin is no mystery as we early on get a scene of Noel being shouted at by Renault, who threatens to punish him, to which Noel calmly replies that Renault can only punish him, because Noel allows him to. This is one of the great scenes of the film, with Noel questioning Renault’s motives of turning him into a man, ”to make me happy? No. To make you big doctor”. Renault then uses a bull whip to cage up Noel for the night. Bull whips seem to be the mad doctor’s method of choice for controlling man-made monsters.
Eventually Forbes sneaks in to Renault’s lab and finds a photo journal of how Renault turned a gorilla (Crash Corrigan in his ape suit) into Noel. When confronted by Renault holding a gun on him, Noel comes to the rescue, but for some strange reason Forbes turns on Noel who saved him, rather than Renault. Noel then hears Madelon screaming, as she is kidnapped by Rogell, who wants to blackmail Renault, and takes chase, ending in a dramatic fight atop a water mill. The giant Mike Mazurki against the small Naish would be an uneven match, had not stunt man Crash Corrigan come to take Noel’s shape, which is given away by some very Corriganesque wrestling moves, not exactly what you would expect from a gorilla. Noel finally kills Rogell, but dies from his gunshot wounds after seeing Madelon one last time.
This was most certainly a B production from the wealthy Fox studio, immediately clear from the cast. Although George Zucco was a noted character actor, most of his work was done in B pictures, and he certainly wasn’t a pick for helming an A movie. The same goes for J. Carrol Naish and the rest of the cast. Lynne Roberts was best known for her appearance in B westerns starring Roy Rogers. Shepperd Strudwick was a handsome and suave actor who was actually better than the roles he often played. He was slated as a leading man when he came to Fox in 1941, even with a name change, as he was billed as John Sheppard (for once, it was actually a wise change). But a certain droopy-eyed shadyness about him often caused him to seem slightly sinister even when it was not intended, which is why he often had to settle for second banana. Which is really a shame, as he gives one of the best leading man performances we have seen this far in these horror sci-fi films.
Compared to many contemporary mad scientist films, Dr. Renault’s Secret scores points on the sets. The large mansion and the garden around it is lushly displayed and there are numerous large-scale sets throughout the film, as opposed to some movies that were constrained to a lab, a dining hall and a foggy forest. Renault’s lab is spacious and has a creepy staircase, we move freely about the mansion, the village, rooftops and in a river, ending it all in a well-made water-mill set with moving cogwheels and all (or perhaps it was even a working water-mill). Despite all this, it is clear that no overly expensive sets needed to be built for this movie.
There is some ambiguity about the cultural setting. It is made clear we are set in France, but apart from the celebration of Bastille day and an abundance of men in white shirts with Hercule Poirot-moustaches, there is not much distinguishing the French setting. Most of the actors speak with various American accents: Rogell sounds like a thug from Brooklyn (actor Mazurki was actually born in present-day Ukraine), Zucco’s nondescript Thespian delivery hints at his British origin, and coroner Eugene Borden actually tries his best to hide his French accent. For some bizarre reason Naish’s ape-man speaks in a faux ”African native” accent, as if gorillas would take on the accent of the people from the continent they come from, even though his only contact with language has been the people living in the French mansion. Whenever some of the extras actually send up their fake French accent the viewer is doubly confused.
The filming, on the other hand, hints at the sort of talent Fox could spare even for their minor films, not present in the cheap B movies of lesser studios. Director Harry Lachman and cinematographer Virgil Miller often surprise the viewer with unusual angles, great capping shots where people run or fall straight into the camera and some visceral editing in the action scenes.
The star of the film is J. Carrol Naish, who gets a subtle but striking makeup (unfortunately uncredited), which gives him a bit of a neanderthal look without limiting his use of facial expressions to any great amount. His bulked-up shoulders and slightly ape-like walk, which increases in noticeability throughout the film hint at his ape strength, while Naish plays Noel as a subdued and sad creature, barely holding an animality for which his is deeply ashamed contained within a pitiful excuse for a human shell. There are certainly parallels to be drawn between Noel, the outsider, the ridiculed and shunned ape-man who only wishes to be loved by the beautiful Madolyn, and Boris Karloff’s portrayal of the Frankenstein monster. One might argue that Naish gives us the best Frankenstein monster since Karloff’s superb performance in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review). Naish also gives proof of some unexpected athletic vigour, although the most impressive stunts, such as leaps from a staircase and rooftop escapes, are done by stunt double Crash Corrigan.
Naish would further prove his talent at playing vulnerable outcasts in his beautiful performance of the hunchbacked assistant in House of Frankenstein (1944, review). Unfortunately in 1943 he gave a highly racist performance as Japanese villain Prince Daka in the Batman serial (review). He took over the role as mad scientist in The Monster Maker (review)and Jungle Woman (both 1944), and even played Dr. Frankenstein in Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971). Naish’s talent didn’t go unnoticed, as he frequently turned up in supporting roles in A-list films, such as Sahara, Rio Grande and Annie Get Your Gun, and was nominated for Oscars twice.
British theatre actor George Zucco was no stranger to sinister roles. He played the foil of detective Charlie Chan in 1938, Basil Rathbone’s nemesis Professor Moriarty in 1939, and had roles in three horror films in the early forties, The Mummy’s Hand, The Monster and the Girl and The Mad Monster (1942, review). While Zucco’s theatrical cunning and versatility often gave him supporting roles in A films, he seems to have enjoyed the range given to him as authoritive and often mad figures in B horrors, as he appeared in loads of them in the forties, including the sci-fi tinged The Mad Ghoul (1943, review), Return of the Ape Man (1944), and House of Frankenstein. He also appeared as high priests in two mummy films, and capped it off with playing another high priest in the “classic” Tarzan and the Mermaids (1946), starring a Johnny Weissmuller way past his prime. In Dr. Renault’s Secret Zucco gives us a glimpse of his range, going from genuinely likeable and charming to world-conquering evil madman in the bat of an eye.
Eugene Borden turns up in a supporting role in The Fly (1958). Stunt man Ray ”Crash” Corrican was an accomplished stunt person and one of the notorious ape-men in Hollywood that made and owned their own ape suits, and were therefore highly appreciated especially by B movie makers who didn’t have the time and money to make their own suits. In the serial Flash Gordon (1936, review) he played an Orangopoid, a modified gorilla suit, fighting Flash in one sequence. The same year he played the lead in Republic’s Flash Gordon-ripoff serial Undersea Kingdom (review). Corrigan also played the lead or semi-lead in a number of other cheap western serials, as well as in a few films. He never gave up his ape man job though. He starred alongside both Boris Karloff (The Ape, 1940) and Bela Lugosi (Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, 1952) in ape films, of which he made about a dozen, some of them verging on sci-fi. Science fictions fans, though, will always remember him for his last role, as the alien in the 1958 film It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
A shout-out must also go to the nearly two meters tall Mike Mazurki (born Michail Mazuruski) as Rogell. Mazurki steals every scene he is in with his charismatic and laid-back portrayal of the rugged ex-con Rogell. What makes the performance so spell-binding is that, unlike many of the usual Hollywood thugs, you get the feeling that behind the brutal exterior there is some evil, calculating genius at work, and at the same time he comes off as a strangely likeable character. He has the sort of bad boy charm that would have made him a great leading man in the era of sarcastic anti-heroes like Kurt Russell and Bruce Willis. In fact, Mazurki is said to have been a well-read intellectual and a charming and witty conversationalist in private.
Emil Newman’s and David Raksin’s score is highly evocative, even though it sometimes goes a bit over the top, drowning the visuals in dramatic cues and blaring horns. The art department is stacked full of Oscar winners, so the great visuals are no surprise.
There are several plot elements going on at the same time, in typical old dark house fashion, and sometimes the viewer can get a bit confused as to what is actually going on, but this is probably partly intended. But it does lead to the fact that you feel that at some point in the middle of the film it starts treading water a bit. But the feeling quickly evaporates when things start happening, and the action scenes get big credits from this reviewer, at least if compared with many of the other mad scientist films around at the same time. The film might have benefited from not giving away all the answers in the beginning, though. As it is now, the viewer is always two steps ahead of the police and Dr. Forbes, and we’re just waiting for them to put two and two together. Despite some of the novelties of the script, this is still a little too late – the story is already too familiar, as it basically harks back to the original Frankenstein film made 11 years earlier, and has been followed up by better films in the past. The Rogell plot ultimately hasn’t got anything to do with the Noel plot, they simply happen to be in the same place at the same time, and the screenwriters should have sought to find a way to better connect the two with each other.
The film is no masterpiece, but a something of a diamond in the rough at a time when sci-fi was going through something of a slump at the movies.
Dr. Renault’s Secret. 1942, USA. Directed by Harry Lachman. Written by William Bruckner & Robert F. Metzner. Based on the novel Balaoo by Gaston Leroux. Starring: J. Carrol Naish, George Zucco, Shepperd Strudwick, Lynne Roberts, Mike Mazurki, Bert Roach, Eugene Borden, Jack Norton, Ray ”Crash” Corrigan. Music: Emil Newman, David Raksin. Cinematography: Virgil Miller. Editing: Fred Allen. Art direction: Richard Day, Nathan Duran. Sound: Eugene Grossman, Harry M. Leonard. Stunts: Crash Corrigan. Wardrobe: Herschel McCoy. Produced by Sol M. Wurtzel for Twentieth Century-Fox.