(6/10) A little diamond in the rough, this 1942 ape-man melodrama from 20th Century Fox features Ersatz horror icons J. Carrol Naish and George Zucco. While suffering from scripting and pacing problems, the movie has a smidgen of depth, owing to its literary roots.
Dr. Renault’s Secret. 1942, USA. Directed by Harry Lachman. Written by William Bruckner & Robert F. Metzner. Based on novel Balaoo by Gaston Leroux. Starring: J. Carrol Naish, George Zucco, Shepperd Strudwick, Lynne Roberts, Mike Mazurki. Produced by Sol M. Wurtzel. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
Often overlooked, Dr. Renault’s Secret is something as unusual as a major studio mad scientist film from the early forties. By 1942 20th Century Fox had become the most successful studio in Hollywood, with its box office success primarily built on lighthearted entertainment. 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. And if you wanted to make B movies in the forties, then sooner or later you were going to have to make a horror film. And thus we arrive at Dr. Renault’s Secret.
The film starts out as a rather derivative Agatha Christie potboiler. There’s a scientist, Dr. Renault, who we know is mad because he lives in a creepy country estate, has a locked basement lab and is played by George Zucco. There’s also his beautiful niece Madelon (Lynne Roberts) and the obligatory romantic lead Dr. Forbes, played by a man who takes home the prize for most awkward leading man name, Shepperd Strudwick. There is the brutal murder of a nonessential characters, and two main suspects. The first is Renault’s gardener, the giant ex-con Rogell (Mike Mazurki). The second is Renault’s manservant, the melancholy and childlike but strange-looking “native” Noel (J. Carrol Naish), who is secretly in love with Madelon. The film rolls out the full mystery story treatment with strange occurrences around the estate, police sniffing around and nervous, scheming butlers.
The next is a bit of a spoiler, but it’s difficult to discuss the film at any length without revealing it. But on the other hand, the film also reveals the “mystery” about halfway through, as it shifts gears from mystery melodrama to horror movie. Namely the fact that Noel is no “native”, but a gorilla that has gotten the Dr. Moreau treatment and been turned into a human. The viewer is let in on this secret well before the leading couple, as we catch up with Noel and Dr. Renault in Renault’s lab, when the doctor confronts Noel with his murders, and punishes him by using a bull whip on him and locking him in a cage. (The bull whip seems to be George Zucco’s method of choice for controlling his creations, as he used the same in another 1942 film, The Mad Monster [review]).
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. The movie ends with a great action sequence atop a water mill, with stunt man Crash Corrigan standing in for Naish, battling it out with Mike Mazurki. Corrigan gives himself away by using some of his trademark wrestling moves, which he gave the audience a taste of in the serial Undersea Kingdom (1936, review), in which he played the lead.
What elevates this film above the usual monster movie potboiler is the portrayal of Noel. The film goes back to the original Frankenstein tradition of not portraying the ape man as a monster but as a victim. In so many words, Noel’s discussions with Dr. Renault boils down to the quote from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is quoted at the beginning of Mary Shelley’s novel: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay to mould me Man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me, or here place in this delicious garden?”. J. Carrol Naish in the role as Noel gives one of the best performances of his career. Mind you, the dialogue isn’t quite Milton, but William Bruckner’s and Robert Metzler’s script does elevate above the usual B-movie fare.
The most immediate inspiration for Dr. Renault’s Secret was undoubtedly Universal’s success in 1941 with The Wolf Man. The film opened the flood gates for a myriad of man-beast movies, more seldom werewolves, because that required some heavy duty makeup, but more often ape men, partly because there were a number of actors on the market who were specialised in ape roles and had their own ape suits. Of course, ape actor extraordinaire Ray “Crash” Corrigan only gets to use his ape suit in a number of still photos in this film, and it is instead J. Carroll Naish who gets to portray the ape man, even though I’m sure he got some pointers from Corrigan on simian body language and behaviour.
But perhaps wanting to lend some credibility to the film, 20th Century Fox didn’t just copy the werewolf story, but loosely based the movie on a novel, in this case French writer Gaston Leroux’s 1911 book Balaoo. Leroux is, of course, best known for writing The Phantom of the Opera, and Balaoo is a similarly tragic tale of the Outsider yearning for human companionship. Like the film, the book’s first third is a typical murder mystery story, and the character of Balaoo isn’t introduced until the second third. In the novel Balaoo is presented as a “missing link” species discovered by the eccentric scientist Coriolis and brought to Paris, where Coriolis hopes to play an intellectual prank on his contemporaries by passing Balaoo off as human. After shaving his face and arms and surgically modifying his voicebox to allow human speech, Coriolis teaches Balaoo French, philosophy and human manner. He names him Noel and takes him as his manservant. While normally kindhearted, philosophical and even humorous, Balaoo also has fits of animalistic rage, especially when reminded that Coriolis’ daughter Madeleine, whom he is in love with, is about to marry another man. This is also what leads him to murder. In the end, though, it is Balaoo/Noel who saves Madeleine, who is abducted by a The Hills Have Eyes-type family of brutes.
Inspired by Darwinism and philosophical debate, Balaoo was a rumination on what it means to be human, coupled with mystery story which we can trace back to Edgar Allan Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, which involves a grizzly murder committed by an ape on the loose. Of course, one of the reasons for its success was also the lurid suggestion of the possibility of sex between species. But much of the philosophical discussion was apparently removed when Fox adapted the novel for the screen as a silent film in 1927 with the rather bewildering title The Wizard. According to surviving accounts, this movie was much more of a standard mad scientist potboiler, with a stand-up reporter confronting a scientist who has sewn the head of a man onto the body of a gorilla in order to create a monster which he uses to kill his enemies. We may never know the exact nature of the film, as it is considered lost.
But Fox, now merged with Twentieth Century Pictures, still held the rights to the novel in 1942, and apparently decided to do a remake, but this time following the source material more closely. The difference in tone is clear from the choice of actors. In The Wizard, the ape-man was played by Greek boxer, wrestler and ape actor George Kotsonaros. In Dr. Renault’s Secret it’s respected stage and character actor J. Carrol Naish. The Wizard, in turn, was a partial remake of the French 1913 film Balaoo, or Balaoo: The Demon Baboon.
Another clear inspiration for Dr. Renault’s Secret is H.G. Wells’ 1897 novella The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which a mad doctor surgically alters animals in order to “speed up evolution” and turn them into humans. It is evident that the mad doctor’s name in Dr. Renault’s Secret is supposed to reference Dr. Moreau, but the actors flub this notion by mispronouncing the name with a hard -lt, instead of with a silent -lt.
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 feel like the film it starts treading water a bit somewhere in the middle as the viewer is left waiting for the characters to catch up with the “mystery”. The movie might have benefited from not giving away all the answers in the beginning. As it stands, 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, the story is already too familiar, as it basically harks back to the original Frankenstein film made 11 years earlier, and even at the time it was made its tropes had been thoroughly digested by other pictures. The Rogell plot ultimately hasn’t got anything to do with the Noel plot, the two characters simply happen to be in the same place at the same time, and the screenwriters could have sought to find a way to better connect the two with each other. But toward the end of the movie things really get going, and the action scenes get big thumbs up from this reviewer, a rarity in mad scientist films of the era.
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.
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 or locations 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 cinematography 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. Mark David Welsh writes: “Director Harry Lachman was actually a painter and he does have a good eye for shot composition, creating a pleasing level of interplay between light and shadow which lends the production a veneer of quality that perhaps it doesn’t really deserve”.
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 noticeably throughout the film hint at his ape strength, while Naish plays Noel as a subdued and sad creature, barely containing the shameful animal 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.
Modern reviewers almost uniformly give the movie 2.5/5 stars, with Hal Erickson at AllMovie writing that it “packs a real wallop in its brisk 58-minute running time”, and Richard Scheib at Moria noting that “in comparison to many other mad scientist films that were being made around the time, […] this is quite well made”. According to Derek Winnert, “the luscious turns from Zucco and, particularly, Naish distinguish [this] little horror movie”.
Naish would further prove his talent at playing vulnerable outcasts in his performance of the hunchbacked assistant in House of Frankenstein (1944). Unfortunately in 1943 he gave a highly racist performance as Japanese villain Prince Daka in the Batman serial. He took over the role as mad scientist in The Monster Maker (review) and Jungle Woman (both 1944, review), 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, review), 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.
Ray ”Crash” Corrican was an accomplished stuntman 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, review) 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.
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.