(1/10) In a nutshell: Notorious B-quickie director William ”One-Shot” Beaudine and Poverty Row studio Monogram bring us Bela Lugosi in one of his worst roles ever in this 1943 ape man film, much more interesting for its director and actors than for the film itself.
The Ape Man. 1943, USA. Directed by William Beaudine. Written by Karl Brown, Barney A. Sarecky. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Louise Currie, Wallace Ford, Henry Hall, Minerva Urecal, Emil Van Horn. Produced by Jack Dietz & Sam Katzman for Monogram. IMDb score: 4.5
So finally Bela Lugosi makes it to my list of terrible movies. I guess it was just a matter of time, as he already dodged a bullet with The PRC cheapo The Devil Bat (1941, review). This here is another Poverty Row cheapo churned out in a matter of days, and this time there aren’t many redeeming qualities to the movie. The Monogram movie The Ape Man, telling the story of a scientist who turns himself into an ape and must murder to turn himself back into a human, has few positive notes.
Apparently the script hails from a short story called They Creep in the Dark, by cinematographer and writer Karl Brown, published in The Saturday Morning Post sometime prior to the film, and it was adapted by Barney A. Sarecky. Karl Brown is best known for contributing to Columbia Pictures’ Boris Karloff mad scientist series, and it isn’t far-fetched to imagine that this story was another idea for a Karloff script that fell through. Sarecky was a serial film hack that had worked as writer and associate producer on serials like The Whispering Shadow (1933, review), Flash Gordon (1936, review), Buck Rogers (1938) and later wrote The Purple Monster Strikes (1945) and the TV movie D-Day on Mars (1966). He also went on to produce the film Superman and the Mole-Men (1951, review) and worked as associate producer on the George Reeves TV-series Adventures of Superman (1952).
So, Brown had an idea he ripped from a few sources, perhaps most notably Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, The Wolf Man and all the films of the thirties concerning killer apes. So, he thought – what if? What if Dr. Jekyll turned himself into a gorilla, and then had to get blood or something – spinal fluid! from humans to revert back to his normal self? And then he also has a sister that’s been ghost hunting in Europe. Oh yes, and he also has a captive real gorilla. Splendid!
That’s the premise of the story. Then we need the padding. That’s where we get a group of journalists very naturally hanging in a straight line talking sideways to each other at a train platform, waiting for the famous ghost hunter Agatha Brewster (Minerva Urecal) to return from Europe, bantering about having missed their breakfast. (I suppose it wouldn’t be very hard to find ghosts in Europe during the height of WWII, but I’m a bit surprised she chose this particular time to go there. But of course, there were also quite peaceful countries in Europe during the war. Like Sweden. And … yeah, Sweden. No-one was very keen on invading Iceland, either.) She is met by Dr. George Randall (Henry Hall), colleague of her brother Dr. James Brewster (Lugosi), who has mysteriously disappeared, according to the press. Middle-aged wannabe-comedian journalist Jeff B. Carter (Wallace Ford) and the newly arrived beautiful photographer Billie Mason (Louise Currie) get on the case of the missing scientist, while naturally getting romantically involved with one another in the process. Because nothing says I love you like a big, hairy Bela Lugosi and his pet killer gorilla.
In fact, the truth is that Dr. Randall knows perfectly well where Brewster is – in his laboratory underneath the family mansion, locked up for his own safety’s sake with his gorilla (Emil Van Horn), apparently spooning. And if you ask what a Lugosi ape-man looks like, it is basically a man with Amish beard and a dangerously low hairline, walking around like a buck-legged sailor with bad posture. The makeup looks a bit like an unfinished wolf man makeup, and Lugosi bears no resemblance whatsoever to an ape. The lack of apeishness isn’t helped by the fact that Lugosi is constantly cuddled up against Emil Van Horn in his own gorilla suit.
Dr. Randall informs Ms. Brewster that he won’t help Dr. Brewster to get a hold of any spinal fluid, because the donor would most certainly die in the process. Although clearly worried, neither Randall nor Ms. Brewster actually try to do anything to help the poor bastard throughout the film, basically leaving him to fix his own mess. And what good spinal fluid would actually do is up for grabs, since spinal fluid is basically water that acts as an impact cushion for your brain and regulates the pressure on your grey matter. But since we have already bought into the fact that Bela Lugosi has turned himself into a gorilla, such medical nitpicking is probably superfluous.
Of course this leaves little alternative for Dr. Brewster other than to take his pet gorilla and go about town hunting for spinal fluid, leaving a string of bodies in their wake. Between all their sexist romantic banter, the two reporters also manage to avoid doing any reporting and instead focus on delivering some un-comedic comedy and stalk poor old Agatha Brewster. Then Billie Mason gets locked up in the lab with Dr. Brewster and the gorilla. The gorilla kills Brewster and goes for Davies, but Jeff B. Carter kills the gorilla. And that’s about that.
The film was directed by William Beaudine, who was by this time a veteran in the business and known for spitting out cheap Z-grade movies perhaps faster even than his closest rival Sam Newfield over at PRC studios. Even if he was never called that during his active career, he has later garnered the moniker ”One-Shot” Beaudine – the legend goes that he never shot the same scene twice. This is, in fact, not true, but it is nevertheless a cool moniker. Beaudine had worked his way up in Hollywood in the early days of cinema, and started working as a bus-boy, an extra and at various menial tasks in 1909, and among other things worked as assistant to D.W. Griffith on his groundbreaking (and controversial) epics Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1917).
In 1915 he started directing his own films, making over 150 short films before 1922 when he switched to feature films. In the twenties Beaudine was considered one of Hollywood’s top directors and made both B movies and lauded A films, such as the brilliant Sparrows, starring Hollywood’s first female superstar, the eternally young Mary Pickford, as the oldest sister of a group of children being held as slaves to a cruel master (Pickford was 30 at the time). This artistically bold Southern Gothic film is considered by many as the best Hollywood film of 1926. His career waned slightly with the introduction of the talkies, but worse still was that he was nearly ruined by the Wall Street crash. In 1935 he tried his luck in Britain and made over a dozen films there.
When returned to the States in 1937, Hollywod was jam-packed with younger, more famous directors and Beaudine was relegated to working at the lower end of Poverty Row, where he quickly started specializing in shooting as quickly and cheaply as possible, turning out films that would make a meagre profit for both himself and the studios he worked for, mostly Monogram and PRC. Although the claim that he never did more than one take of a shot is exaggerated, he was known for skipping the initial wide shots that most directors start with when shooting a scene, and going straight for close-ups, and indeed often didn’t bother too much if the actors flubbered their lines or knocked props over. He knew he was making bad movies that no-one would care too much about, and the main thing was to get the film made, have a bit of fun, deliver a product for the studio’s next B reel and collect the check.
With this in mind, one has to take The Ape Man for what it is. It was probably shot in a week with no more than a couple of shots per scene. Beaudine does nothing interesting with the film. He sets up the cameras for exactly the shots that are necessary to tell the story, places the actors in the frame and shouts ”action”, and then moves on. It is dull, uninspired and flat. Many of the sets look familiar, and I can definitely identify a staircase that plays a prominent role in the 1945 Charlie Chan film The Jade Mask.
In 1945 Beaudine directed his most notorious film, hired by producer Kroger Babb to make a sexual education exploitation film – or ”hygiene film” as it was called back then, called Mom and Dad. The film included graphic stock footage of female anatomy and of live childbirths. Apart from this, the movie was a fairly mundane social drama about a girl made pregnant by a soldier, but is refused sexual education books by her mother. But Babb drummed up a promotional circus around it, and had extras dress up as nurses and sexual educators at screenings, promising to help out of the film became ”too much” for the viewers – and had clever ads promising that the audience would ”SEE a REAL LIVE CHILDBIRTH”. The movie was filmed in 5 days on a budget of 65 000 dollars, and took in over 22 millions in just a number of weeks, and is estimated to have grossed over 100 million dollars to date. Perhaps more because of the cultural phenomenon surrounding it than its artistic qualities, the film has been included in the American Library of Congress for preservation.
But for Beaudine, it was just another quick job and he soon moved on to make whatever picture anyone wanted him to make, as long as they paid. This is how the atheist Beaudine found himself directing around ten Christian films aimed at converting people to Christianity in the early fifties. He made two more films with Lugosi: Voodoo Man in 1944 (review), and the bizarre musical comedy Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla in 1952. When preparing to play Lugosi in Ed Wood, Martin Landau watched the latter film and said that in comparison, Wood’s films seemed like Gone With the Wind.
Despite a track record of over 200 feature films, Beaudine didn’t dabble much in sci-fi. When he moved on to television in the fifties he directed a few episodes of the talk-show Criswell Predicts (as did Ed Wood, by the way) and in 1966 he directed his last two movies, the turkeys Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter and Billy the Kid Versus Dracula. His immense talent of shooting fast and well did make him a sought-after TV-director. From 1957 to 1959 he directed 21 episodes of The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, and his success with directing a canine actor made him principle director on the immensely popular Lassie series in 1960, a post he kept for eight years. He directed 13 episodes of Disneyland in the fifties and sixties, and four episodes of the superhero series The Green Hornet in 1966, starring Van Williams and none other than Bruce Lee.
The fact of the matter is that The Ape Man would probably be forgotten today, was it not for the enduring popularity of Bela Lugosi, making even his worst outings beloved little gems among his fans. And one must give it to the man: he was the constant professional. He knew exactly how bad the film was going to be, and ran around in half-finished makeup pretending to be a monkey – and still he gave it his best shot all the way through. This doesn’t change the fact that he does what is probably the worst ape imitation in the history of film, and the direction and script isn’t good enough to be saved by his immense charisma.
The advantage of the studio system was that even a Poverty Row studio had a pool of seasoned veterans to draw from, and hence very few of even the cheapest films of this era fall flat in the acting department. Even a film like this can get an actress like Minerva Urecal, a mature lady with a fierce stage reputation and a long line of films behind her, bringing much talent to the show. This was actually one of the few roles where she played an altogether pleasant character – the hatchet-nosed Ragata was best known for her domineering and evil-tempered roles. Why her character is a ghost hunter in this film is never quite clear, as it has no bearing on the plot. She played in over 270 films or series in her career.
Wallace Ford is more interesting for his story than his films. Born Samuel Jones in England in 1898, he lived in an orphanage and was sent to the Toronto branch of said orphanage, and then toured a shocking number of 17 foster homes in Canada. At age 11 he ran away and joined a vaudeville troupe in Winnipeg and stayed there for five years, until he and a friend called Wallace Ford bummed their way into the United States. Ford was crushed to death by a train, and when Jones found work in theatre companies, he took the stage name Wallace Ford in his friend’s honour. He worked his way up to big roles on Broadway, and got his big break on the screen in 1931 in Possessed opposite Joan Crawford. In 1932 he played the male lead in Tod Browning’s notorious film Freaks. The kind-looking man found a line of work as a jovial, wise-cracking lead in many B movies in the thirties, and as the forties loomed and his waistline grew, he soon became a staple as a rugged character actor in westerns. In 1943 he had certainly already lost his leading man looks. There is nothing wrong with his acting in The Ape Man, but he doesn’t really bring anything to the role, either.
Louise Currie started her acting career in films at 27 in 1940, after attending acting school, and had a few small roles in mostly B pictures, and even a substantial one in the relatively good Republic serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941, review). She acted in close tp 50 films or TV sries up until 1956, not in many roles worthy of mention. She is believable as the tough photographer lady in The Ape Man and has a decent on-screen chemistry with Wallace. Currie lived to the very respectabe age of 100 years, as she passed away in 2013.
In a small role as a copyboy at the newspaper we see Ernest ”Ernie” Morrison, better known as Sunshine Sammy. Morrison was the first famous black child actor in Hollywood. As his father was an actor, Morrison grew up in Hollywood, and literally started his acting career as a newborn baby in 1912, and then just kept going. Producer Hal Roach noticed the kid’s comedy talents and soon started teaming the kid up with famous comedians such as Snub Pollard and Harold Lloyd in comedy shorts, with the stage name Little Sambo and later Sunshine Sammy or Sunshine Sammy Morrison.
In 1922 at the age of 10 he started appearing in the short Our Gang films along with a bunch of other kids, known as The Little Rascals or Hal Roach’s Rascals. In 1926 he dropped out of film acting and started working in vaudeville, alongside up and coming comic acts such as Benny Hill and Abbott & Costello. In 1940 Morrison and another group of not-so-young kids (most were between 25 and 28) were called in to Monogram by legendary B movie producer Sam Katzman to form East End Kids for a series of comedic feature films often involving crime or mystery elements. Morrison was the only black member of the kids, many of who were veterans from Our Gang, Dead End Kids and Little Tough Guys. The two best known East End Kids films, Spooks Run Wild (1941) and Ghosts on the Loose (1943) featured Bela Lugosi. Morrison would play the constantly terrified and slightly dim-witted black comedic character in the films, very much in the vein of the slightly older Mantan Moreland, who made his career at the same time playing wound-up, hysterical valets. Morrison left the franchise when he was drafted to the war in 1944, where he served as an entertainer for the troops.
When he returned he was offered a role in The Bowery Boys franchise, but declined, and soon dropped out of acting altogether to start working as a quality control inspector for an aircraft-plant, that according to some sources made airplanes for the military. Exactly what he did seems to be a matter of dispute, but he seems to have made a very good living out of it. In a later interview he claimed to have become ”a millionaire” thanks to his films, but it is hardly probable that he made such amounts of money from the cheap East End Kids films, and his later good fortunes were more likely the result of his work in the aerospace industry.
The gorilla man in the film was a slightly interesting chap by the name of Emil Van Horn, who appeared in at least 9 films in the forties, but probably more, since suit actors often went uncredited. An over-zealous blogger has called Van Horn the most famous gorilla man of Hollywood, but that’s stretching it a bit. The most famous gorilla man was without doubt sculptor-turned-makeup-designer-turned-extra-turned-gorilla-man-turned-suit-actor Charles Gemora – he was even dubbed the King of the Gorilla Men. Gemora was the original Ingagi from the infamous film with the same name in 1930, and appeared in over 50 films, big and small, as a gorilla, once a bear and in the fifties as aliens. The second best known gorilla man was probably actor and stuntman Ray ”Crash” Corrigan. As an actor, Corrigan was far better known than Van Horn during his prime, playing leading man in B westerns and serials, including the 1936 sci-fi serial Undersea Kingdom (review). Van Horn probably clocks in at number three (if we don’t count modern ape men like Andy Serkis).
Emil Van Horn stands out, though, as he was the only one of these actors that appeared exclusively as a gorilla. Gemora was primarily a makeup artist, and most gorilla actors were stuntmen. But Van Horn initially designed his gorilla suit for a nudist show in 1935, and then toured alongside “Zorine, Queen of the Nudists” (Yvonne Stacey). The show then morphed into a version of Ingagi, which oddly enough was shown at the New York World Fair in 1939, making the California-based gorilla man something of a minor celebrity, and he probably caught the eye of some movie producer, as he got his first film break in 1940. He seems to very rarely have allowed people to photograph him out of the suit and there is not much info on him to go on, as not many people in the movie business seem to have known him personally. No-one even seems to know where he was born, although some sources claim he was Eastern-European, perhaps Hungarian. While Emil is a common common all over Europe, it is widely used in Hungary. The surname is originally Dutch, but also spread all over Europe at this time, and could have been introduced in Hungary during the Austro-Hungarian period.
What we do know is that his movie parts quickly ran out partly because he never afforded to get a really good ape suit made (his hand extensions couldn’t move), and he wasn’t a very good gorilla impersonator. But he was probably cheap, and almost exclusively worked on Poverty Row. Along with his few films and serials, he continued to do burlesque shows and publicity stunts. In the early fifties his movie career dried up, and slowly the quality of the burlesque shows he appeared in also waned. In 1965 he seems to have had is suit stolen – or by his own account – confiscated by his landlady in Florida, when he couldn’t pay the rent. He spent his last two years bumming the streets of New Orleans before his death in 1967.
The rest of the cast is made up of studio contract players, some of whom we have encountered before on this blog in small roles, like Wheeler Oakman and Jack Mulhall. The same goes for the crew, the most noteworthy are probably Emmy-nominated cinematographer Mack Stengler who worked on a few TV-series, and the sound engineer whose parents apparently thought it was hilarious to name their child Glen Glenn, who also made a bit of a name for himself in TV.
The Ape Man gets no points for quality in either technical nor artistic fields. Beaudine could have played the scenario for laughs, but the script instead tries to induce comedy through the banter between Wallace and Currie, and fails – and there is also a strange skinny buffoon who acts as some sort of instigator and snitch in the film, but is never explained. In the end he speaks to the camera and proposes to be the author of the story – which he isn’t, he is a bit-part actor called Ralph Littlefield. As mentioned, the acting is decent and the film as a whole is clearly directed by a pro, but a pro without time, money nor any fucks to give. It is one of Lugosi’s worst roles, the man in the gorilla suit is not very good at acting like a gorilla, and the whole thing is utterly uninteresting from beginning to end. Hardcore Lugosi fans might like it, and I recommend it for a bad movie sitting.
The film was released in the beginning of the ape man craze, and is probably only the third Hollywood sound film featuring an actual ape-human hybrid after Island of Lost Souls (1932, review) and Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942, review). As noted earlier, though, killer ape films had been all the rage for over a decade. The Boris Karloff film The Ape (1940) doesn’t really count as an ape man film, as it featured an unaltered gorilla and Boris Karloff’s character wearing an ape suit. Nevertheless, it was probably The Ape combined with the success of The Wolf Man (1941) that set off the ape man craze of the forties. The Ape was quickly followed by Universal’s ape woman film Captive Wild Woman (1943, review), that proved to be a cult hit and garnered two sequels.
The Ape Man. 1943, USA. Directed by William Beaudine. Written by Karl Brown, Barney A. Sarecky. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Louise Currie, Wallace Ford, Henry Hall, Minerva Urecal, Emil Van Horn, J. Farrell MacDonald, Wheeler Oakman, Ralph Littlefield, Jack Mulhall, Charles Jordan, Ernest Morrison. Cinematography: Mack Stengler. Editing: Carl Pierson. Art direction: Dave Milton. Sound: Glen Glenn. Assistant director: Arthur Hammond. Musical director: Edward J. Kay. Produced by Jack Dietz & Sam Katzman for Monogram.