In 1940 Monogram wanted a gorilla horror film. Screenwriter Curt Siodmak wanted a film where Boris Karloff tries to cure polio by murdering people for spinal fluid. Somehow these to wishes met in the final product. The result is not pretty, but The Ape nonetheless has an enduring charm. (3/10)
The Ape. 1940, USA. Directed by William Nigh. Written by Curt Siodmak, Richard Carroll. Suggested by play by Adam Shirk. Starring: Boris Karloff, Maris Wrixon, Gene O’Donnell, Gertrude Hoffman, Crash Corrigan. Produced by William Lackey. IMDb: 4.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
First off: This film can’t be reviewed without being spoiled, so if you want to remain oblivious about the movie’s central mystery, read no further.
Boris Karloff plays the kindhearted and altruistic (utilitarian?) physician and scientist Dr. Bernard Adrian, who has lost his wife and daughter to “paralysis” (polio, but the Hays Code oddly enough discouraged identifying actual diseases in entertainment films). An outcast of the medical society because of his experiments with spinal fluid as a cure for polio, he has settled in a small town where he treats the young Frances Clifford (Maris Wrixon), a wheelchair-bound polio victim, who has become a substitute daughter for him. She is also among the few people in town who aren’t hostile toward the “mad doctor” and his mysterious experiments.
At the onset of the movie a gorilla (Ray “Crash” Corrigan) escapes from a travelling circus after mauling a handler (I. Stanford Jolly), who ends up on Adrian’s operating table. As the man is fatally wounded, Dr. Adrian sees his chance and performs a spinal tap before death. The ape follows the scent of the cruel handler to Adrian’s home and breaks in — but Adrian manages to incapacitate (kill?) it before he comes to harm. And here be spoilers. For the rest of the film we get to see the ape walking around in a very human-like manner inside Adrian’s home, as if knowing its way around. It also ventures outside, mauling an innocent man, who also ends up on Adrian’s operating table, where Adrian again has the opportunity to extract spinal fluid before the man dies. He uses the fluid to make a serum for Frances, which renders encouraging results, as she is able to move her feet for the first time in years.
But Adrian’s work is hindered by the fact that the local sheriff (Henry Hall) and most of the town are now on the hunt for a killer gorilla, and an old acquaintance from the medical board (Selmer Jackson) comes sniffing around, suspecting foul play. Halfway convinced that Frances’ illness now resides mostly in her mind, Adrian nevertheless decides he needs more spinal fluid, and lo and behold, the gorilla attacks another victim. However, this time the victim fights back and and gives the ape a fatal stab wound, after which the simian heads to Dr. Adrian’s home and collapses by his front door, with the mob on its heels. When examining the gorilla, the mob realises that it is in fact Dr. Adrian in an ape suit. In the film’s final moments, the grief-stricken Frances unwittingly rises from her wheelchair to approach her dying surrogate father, whose last act in life is to encourage her to walk with a loving smile on his lips.
While the premise of the film, penned by schlockmaster Curt Siodmak, is preposterous enough in and of itself, what makes this picture really odd is that it seems like director William Nigh can’t decide whether to let the audience in on the secret or not, so he sort of does but not really. We’re not told if Adrian kills the gorilla or not, and when it starts roaming about — clearly now with the gait of a human, and somehow seeming to know its way around Adrian’s lab — Nigh doesn’t outright tell us that it is Adrian in an ape suit. Upon second viewing there’s a clear giveaway: after the gorilla is shot in the shoulder by a group of Bowery Boys, we cut to Adrian, who, when we know the secret, is clearly dressing up a shoulder wound, but doing so in such a manner that upon first viewing it’s not clear that this is what he is doing. This creates a weird feeling with the viewer that we’ve missed something. It’s not quite the same feeling one gets when confronted by a regular mystery film plot: it’s simply not mysterious enough. The ape just walks around very casually in the lab, without the movie ever questioning it, but neither ever stating outright that it is Adrian. It’s a bizarre collision of expectations that leaves the viewer with an uneasy sensation that some explanation has been left on the cutting board, rather than the feeling that this is a mystery we’re supposed to solve.
The Ape also naturally has a romantic subplot involving Frances’ boyfriend, car mechanic Danny, played by Gene O’Donnell. Or “subplot” is perhaps overstating it; the script gives Frances a boyfriend whose sole role in the film is to remind the viewer from time to time that Frances has a boyfriend, for reasons that are left unclear. Perhaps the producers thought that there was need to make clear that Frances isn’t romantically in love with the creaky old doctor. Or perhaps the film just needed padding. Padding is also what we might call the four Little Rascals whom them film cuts to with irritating regularity, and who likewise add nothing to the plot. OK, one of them shoots the ape/Adrian in the shoulder, but that could have been any mob member — we didn’t need ten minutes of Dead End Kids banter for that moment. And in all earnestness, the gorilla plot doesn’t actually have any real bearing on the central story either. The whole thing feels like the uncomfortable splicing together of two entirely different stories. Which is basically what it is.
The Ape was made by Monogram in 1940, and with that in mind, I’m sure nobody is expecting a masterpiece either way. This was the last movie in Boris Karloff’s six-film contract with the studio, and the majority of the former films had been Mr. Moto mystery potboilers. The Ape has the distinction of being one of the very first mad scientist/gorilla mashups, something which Curt Siodmak hasn’t failed to point out in a number of interviews, never being one for feigned humility. But in fact, the movie simply carried on a tradition of gorilla madness that one could argue was instigated in 1925 by Ralph Spence’s Broadway play The Gorilla.
Something of a pastiche on Old Dark House mystery plays like The Cat and the Canary and The Bat, it was in fact more of a rehash of the 1913 play Seven Keys to Baldpate, as the central plot of The Gorilla is revealed to simply be a fictional story within the story — which involves a killer gorilla. The play was a resounding success and sparked much imitation and a new-found interest in simians both on stage and on screen. It was adapted for the screen three times, always with the same title, once in 1927, again in sound in 1930 and finally in 1939. Legendary ape men Charles Gemora and Art Miles played the gorillas in the 1930 and 1939 films, respectively. The latter was a 20th Century Fox vehicle for comedy duo The Ritz Brothers, and also featured both Bela Lugosi and Lionel Atwill, and very probably served as the actual inspiration for Monogram to make The Ape.
But perhaps in order to avoid being called out for plagiarism, Monogram chose to “base” their film on another play called The Ape, written by Adam Hull Shirk. In fact, Shirk wrote the play in 1925 even before The Gorilla premiered, and realising his plot was so similar to Spence’s that he would be accused of plagiarism, he rewrote the whole story. This play never made it to Broadway, but premiered in Los Angeles in 1926, to positive reviews. It was likewise an Old Dark House mystery, and critics noted its similarities to all the above mentioned plays, but it had an Indian Hindu curse twist, perhaps inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s short story The Mark of the Beast. It was adapted for the screen in 1934 as House of Mystery, this time with another famous gorilla actor, Emil Van Horn, playing the beast with five fingers. Going over the play’s plot is, however, pointless, as absolutely nothing of it remains in Curt Siodmak’s script other than the fact that both stories contain a murderer dressed up as a gorilla. It seems that Monogram wanted a gorilla film, while Siodmak doesn’t seem to have been very interested in writing one, so instead smuggled in a story that was closer to his heart, as medical mysteries with fluids and brains extracted and switched were more his forte.
Which brings us to the second part of the story, namely the spinal fluid/polio cure plot. First up, this may very well be the first spinal fluid extraction mad scientist film ever made, so credit where credit’s due, once again. And as is usually the case with Curt Siodmak, who is flanked this time by co-writer Richard Carroll, there is some measure of method behind the madness. Siodmak prided himself with being on top of scientific development, and often tapped into current themes. In 1940 polio was a major issue in the US. A viral disease which attacks the central nervous system, thousands, if not tens of thousands of Americans were afflicted by the disease each year. While the majority of cases were free of symptoms, about one percent experienced muscle weakness, which in severe cases led to paralysis, primarily in the legs, but sometimes also in the upper body, and ultimately in the lungs and heart. In 1940 the then US president Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered from a paralytic disease and was more or less wheelchair-bound, giving the struggles of polio an official face — even though later research has come to the conclusion that FDR probably didn’t suffer from polio but from another, similar, affliction. In 1938 FDR instigated the so-called “March of Dimes”, a national fundraiser to raise money for polio patient care and rehabilitation, but also for research into the disease. So polio was very much in the public eye at the time being.
In 1940 very little was actually known about the disease, other than the basic facts that it was a viral disease that afflicted the nervous system. It would yet take over ten years before Jonas Salk, partly funded by the “March of Dimes”, developed a vaccine. And since it was known that polio attacked the spinal column, the idea that healthy spinal fluid could be part of the solution really wasn’t such a preposterous idea — much less so than is usually the case in these movies.
All this doesn’t necessarily make for a good movie, however. Still, compared to some of the Monogrammers that Bela Lugosi made, or let’s say his PRC cheapos, The Ape is technically a decent movie and while the production values don’t exactly impress, they’re embarrassingly low, either. Director William Nigh was a silent cinema veteran who worked for some years at MGM in the twenties, but whose carer declined with the advent of sound. Still, his experience and craft served him well, and he wound up as one of the longest-serving directors at Poverty Row with a B-movie career lasting over 20 years. He worked for Monogram, Republic, PRC and many other studios. The direction of The Ape isn’t much to write home about: the cinematography by the extremely prolific Harry Neumann is somewhat static, workmanlike but effective, and the lighting mostly flat and uninteresting. The script is too thin to carry even a movie at only an hour in length, and, as stated above, feels heavily padded by circus clips, juvenile delinquent stunts and disconnected subplots that lead nowhere. The script feels like Siodmak just put in all the stuff that was “supposed” to be there without bothering to connect it to anything in the plot. The boyfriend is in there because there’s supposed to be a romantic lead. The guy from the medical board is in there because there’s supposed to be hindrance from the authorities, but when push comes to shove, he is simply shoved aside. The kids are in there because the movie is aimed, primarily, at kids. And unfortunately it also feels as if the gorilla is in the film because Monogram wanted a gorilla film.
On the positive side, nothing Siodmak wrote was ever unwatchable, however lazily he wrote it. In later interviews, Siodmak always downplayed his movie scripts, saying he never put too much thought into them, that they were just bread and butter, often thrown together in more more than a couple of weeks. But the man knew his craft. And his scripts always had an emotional core, be it ever so clichéd. Despite all the padding, the film moves along at a decent clip, and the story is straightforward and engaging enough not to bore you out. The scenes between Adrian and Frances are rather sweet and Siodmak was always pretty good with dialogue. And then, of course, there’s Boris Karloff. The thing that makes both Karloff and Lugosi so endurable, and what makes their bad B movies stand out is their unwavering commitment to whatever inanity put before them. Karloff never acted in a movie where he didn’t give it all the best of his professionalism, and The Ape is no different. He elevates the movie from a dud to something at least halfway enjoyable.
And in The Ape Karloff delivers one of his most sympathetic portrayals, and he never once even enters into “Evil Karloff” mode. Except when dons an ape skin and kills two innocent bystanders. And that’s where the film gets somewhat problematic, as Adrian is never confronted with his actions. Usually in films like these, the mad scientist gets his final moments in which he denounces his actions and in a last moment of clarity realises that “there are some things that man is not supposed to meddle with”. And while it is refreshing that The Ape avoids this tired and often reactionary cliché, it’s also jarring that it never questions his decision to kill two people — and I might add, two people that have never done him any wrong. Normally in these good scientist/mad scientist movies, there is some twisted moral justification for the murders; the scientist usually kills people who have somehow wronged him. But here, the two poor guys just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and in fact they are there because they bravely try to protect their village from what they think is a killer ape on the loose. Regardless of this, Adrian gets the full hero treatment in the end. Sure, Frances walks, but what about those two innocent guys you killed earlier?! I don’t think they’ll be walking again. And of course I don’t mean that a movie has to get up on a high horse and write the moral shortcomings of its protagonist on the viewer’s nose. But it just reeks of sloppy writing when your protagonist in what is ultimately a moral melodrama is allowed to off two random characters without the film batting an eye.
The other star of The Ape is Maris Wrixon, a Warner Bros. starlet with “a smattering of theatre background”, whom the studio loaned to Monogram for a number of films, as she was often stuck in bit-parts or small supporting roles at Warner. Wrixon is just as sympathetic in her role, creating a very likeable central duo along with Karloff, and also clearly has some acting chops. Despite this, her Hollywood career would be more or less forgotten was it not for her turn in The Ape (the horror community remembers), despite the fact that she appeared in over 50 movies between 1938 and 1951, even in a number of unassuming leads. After 1951 she appeared sporadically on TV. Her personal life seems to have been a lot less stormy than many other Hollywood residents’, as she was married to Oscar-nominated German editor Rudi Fehr for 59 years. She passed away in 1999.
The rest of the cast, as noted, is of little importance, even if most of them do a decent job. Most are seasoned bit-part actors who do their jobs well. The most memorable is German-born 69-year-old Gertrude Hoffman, playing Dr. Adrian’s mute housekeeper. This wouldn’t have been the first time that a Poverty Row studio made an unwritten part one of the larger supporting roles, without bothering to write any lines for them. Of course one of the reasons there was such an abundance of mute characters in cheap movies was that non-speaking characters were paid less than speaking extras. In The Ape there is even a scene where the Hoffman mouths a line to Karloff because she isn’t allowed to speak. But nevertheless, the serious Hoffman is a memorable presence. You can also catch a glimpse of Minerva Urecal, who was so memorable in Monogram’s Bela Lugosi vehicle The Corpse Vanishes (1942, review).
One of the kids in the film is played by Stan Jolley, who later became a production designer for pictures like Night of the Lepus (1972) and The Swarm (1978). He received and Oscar nomination for the Harrison Ford vehicle Witness (1985) and designed a number of MacGyver episodes in the eighties. He also worked on the film Superman (1978).
The music by Edward J. Kay is effective, but somewhat on the nose and slightly overwrought. Kay was Oscar nominated five times, including for, perhaps a bit surprisingly, the Dick Purcell-Mantan Moreland schlock comedy King of the Zombies (1941). He also wrote the music for and co-produced Wesley Barry’s Jack Williamson adaptation The Creation of the Humanoids (1962). Makeup artist Gordon Bau worked on a handful of SF movies, among others Them! (1954, review), Frankenstein 1970 (1958) and The Omega Man (1971).
The legacy of The Ape is oddly muddled. It’s one of Boris Karloff’s most enduring films, even if nobody ever claims it was one of the better one of his projects. Cavett Binion at AllMovie gives the film 1.5/5 stars, as does Dario Lavia at CineFania. German Schlombies Filmbesprungen awards the movie 1/4 stars and Richard Scheib at Moria 2/5. And it all comes down, basically, to Lavia’s statement: “the presence of Boris is the only point of interest”. And while Scheib rightly identifies it as “an absurdly preposterous melodrama”, it is one of those films that people keep coming back to — and not just to laugh at it. Vic Pratt at the British Film Institute even included The Ape in his article Boris Karloff: 10 Essential Films.
But just when I think that the whole world has forgiven the shortcomings of The Ape, I am reminded that there is one reviewer I can go to who never fails to spew hot bile over charming B-movie clunkers that more nostalgic critics find somewhat endearing, and that is Andrew Wickliffe at The Stop Button. True to form, Wickliffe gives the film 0/4 stars, concluding: “The Ape stinks. One might feel bad for Karloff, but he’s so absent charm, it’s unlikely.” While not quite as acerbic as Wickliffe, Michael Popham at Horror Inc. also has major problems with the script: “You just can’t talk about this movie without banging your shins against its absurd plot points. […] this one casually tells an increasingly idiotic story, almost daring you to give up on it.” Perhaps it simply comes down to how much you love Boris Karloff. As Steve Lewis puts it at Mystery*File: “Without Boris Karloff in this movie, you could also call it ludicrous. But with him in it, it’s transformed into another dimension altogether.”
Or maybe you need to look at it like Nate Yapp at Classic Horror: “Sure, there’s some truly idiotic elements of the film that I could go on all night about, but it takes away from the most important point — it’s good fun. You can poke a film like this with a stick, dissect it and dissolve it and discover the composition and artistic merit of every frame, but you don’t get the whole. The whole is that The Ape is a movie about a guy in a gorilla suit who kills people for spinal fluid. Better yet, it’s about Boris Karloff in a gorilla suit. Putting a lot of work into “understanding” something so sweetly, naïvely simple would ruin it.”
But is it good fun, though? My personal take on the matter is that The Ape, while preposterous, isn’t quite zany enough to make you trip balls, and it’s not bad enough to make it so bad it’s good. It tries a bit too hard to be taken seriously without the chops to pull it off. It’s not nearly the worst movie I’ve reviewed, but it’s also far from the most fun. It’s not as bad as Wickliffe paints it as, rather its mediocrity makes a somewhat boring movie. But still, it’s got Karloff, and that’s good enough for a viewing.
The Ape. 1940, USA. Directed by William Nigh. Written by Curt Siodmak, Richard Carroll. Suggested by the play The Ape by Adam Shirk. Starring: Boris Karloff, Maris Wrixon, Gene O’Donnell, Dorothy Vaughan, Gertrude Hoffman, Henry Hall, Selmer Jackson, Crash Corrigan, Stan Jolley, Minerva Urecal. Music: Edward J. Kay. Cinematography: Harry Neumann. Editing: Russell F. Schoengarth, Makeup artist: Gordon Bau. Recording engineer: Karl Zint. Produced by William Lackey for Monogram.