(1/10) Bela Lugosi tries to convince the audience that he looks like a gorilla by wearing a false beard in Monogram’s 1943 cheapo directed by William “One Shot” Beaudine. A treat for fans of really bad movies, this one is a real clunker.
The Ape Man. 1943, USA. Directed by William Beaudine. Written by Barney A. Sarecky from a story by Karl Brown. Starring: Bela Lugosi, Louise Currie, Wallace Ford, Henry Hall, Minerva Urecal, Emil Van Horn. Produced by Jack Dietz & Sam Katzman. IMDb: 4.5/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
The early forties were not a good time for science fiction movies, as they were almost exclusively represented by Poverty Row mad scientist films. To be fair, not all of these were terrible. Among the bubbling beakers, rubber bats, ape suits and spark generators were a few minor gems. Unfortunately The Ape Man is not among these films. The only reason people remember this Monogram monstrosity from 1943 is the fact that it stars Bela Lugosi, in what must have felt like a low-point in an already chequered career. Here his talent is put to the test as he is given the job convincing the audience that he is an ape man with the help of a false beard and woolly cufflings.
The script is based on a short story by the film’s cinematographer Karl Brown, called They Creep in the Dark. It was published in The Saturday Evening Post sometime prior to the film, but there is no information on the exact date, and it seems that no-one has ever been interested enough to sift through the paper’s archives in hopes of finding it. 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. Screenwriter Barney Sarecky was a serial film hack that had worked as writer and associate producer on serials like The Whispering Shadow (1933), 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).
Apes were all the rage at the time both in stage and in film. Monogram had entered the mad scientist and ape race in 1940 with the Boris Karloff vehicle The Ape (review), and the idea of shapeshifting between man and animal, preferably with the aid of something like glandular extractions of spinal fluid, caught on after Universal’s The Wolf Man in 1941. In this film we don’t see a mad scientist turning an ape into a human being nor some unlucky human test subject into an ape. Instead, we get Bela Lugosi’s Dr. James Brewster who, for once, does the only moral thing and uses himself as a guinea pig. The film opens with the “disappearance” of Dr. Brewster, and we are soon made privy to the central premise of the plot: Brewster has turned himself into an ape man, but has failed to find a way to reverse the process. However, his theory is that he will be able to do so with a serum made from the spinal fluid of human beings. The catch is, naturally, that in horror movie land, a spinal tap means instant death for the subject. And while Dr. Brewster carefully avoided doing his monkey business on an innocent test subject, he has no qualms about stepping over a dozen bodies in order to save himself from his own mad science. Enter his pet gorilla (Emil Van Horn), who is all too happy to go about Brewster’s murderous business.
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 the docks, 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. Disembarking, she is met by Dr. George Randall (Henry Hall), colleague of her brother Dr. James Brewster, 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 in a cage for his own safety’s sake with his gorilla. 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 ape-ishness isn’t helped by the fact that Lugosi is constantly cuddled up against Emil Van Horn in his own gorilla suit. And it turns hilarious when Carter catches a reflection of Brewster in a window in one of Mason’s photographs of Agatha Brewster, exclaiming that it looks “just like a gorilla”, which it certainly does not. It looks like Bela Lugosi with a beard.
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. And what sort of ape movie would this be if the damsel wasn’t distressed in the finale by being carried off by the ape man into his secret laboratory?
The film also has sort of a “narrator”, a strange skinny buffoon who acts as a an omniscient overseer of the proceedings, sometimes tipping off the journalists in order to get the plot moving along. In the end the character breaks the fourth wall, claiming to be the author of the story (which he isn’t, as he is played by a bit-part actor called Ralph Littlefield). This device seems particularly odd to a modern viewer, but might not have been as strange to a contemporary audience, as it is something that has carried over from the stage, and would have been familiar in particular to silent Old Dark House films. It is sort of a comment on a family of mystery plays that got their start with a play called Seven Keys to Baldpate in 1913 — a mystery story in which is it revealed in the end that none of the proceedings have been real, but only part of a story that the protagonist has been writing over the course of the play. The play was immediately imitated by other writers, including Ralph Spence, who in 1925 premiered the play The Gorilla, which served as a starting point for the ape craze. Seven Keys to Baldpate was adapted for several silent films and a number of sound films, one in 1935 and the most recent in 1983, as House of the Long Shadows, starring, whom else, Vincent Price. However, I suspect that the writer writing himself into the film explaining things that need to be explained is more a syndrome of lack of time and effort than it is paying homage to the movie’s inspirations.
The film was directed by William Beaudine, a veteran in the business, 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. While this claim is somewhat exaggerated, it is nevertheless a cool moniker.
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 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 (review). Furthermore, the sound quality is atrocious. Granted, the sound has probably degraded somewhat over the years, but that’s not an excuse for — for example — forgetting to put microphones on both sides of a set when two characters are speaking through a door opening, resulting in one of them being barely audible. This is the sort of stuff that Beaudine is famous for: he knew he ought to have used two microphones, but sheared half an hour from the shooting schedule by cutting corners.
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.
Even at an hour the films feels too long and padded, with much of the time taken up by Bela Lugosi trying to straighten his back. This is the only physical change from him being an ape man and a non-ape man — briefly: he straightens his back. Then, after failing to straighten his back in a sequence that is probably no more than a couple of minutes long, but feels like ten, he helpfully informs the audience: “I can’t straighten my back!” Yes, thank you, we can see that.
The fact that Agatha Brewster is a ghost hunter has no bearing what so ever on the plot. Still, the movie spends several scenes on the two reporters interviewing her on her ghost hunting activities, during which she gives some eerie monologues about ghosts and the spirit world and even plays a spooky gramophone record with ghosts wailing. But all this is just padding. The actual ape in the movie does play a role in the very end of the film, but isn’t actually central to the plot either — it just acts as a hitman (hit-ape?) for Brewster.
The main problem of the film is that there isn’t a single interesting character in it. Wallace Ford’s “romantic lead” is an ass, and while Louise Currie’s female “lead” is quite sympathetic, she just doesn’t have enough material in the movie to make the viewer even remotely interested in her. Bela Lugosi’s mad doctor is revealed to be not only an idiot but also completely unsympathetic from the very beginning. Why an idiot? Well, he turned himself into a monkey for no apparent reason without any plan of how to reverse the process. I’d call that at least borderline moronic. And when his experiment goes wrong, he immediately throws all moral considerations out the window, concluding that turning himself back into human form is worth sacrificing countless human lives for. And considering that the spinal fluid from one human being had the revolutionary effect of allowing him to straighten his back for something like half an hour, the amount of dead bodies needed to actually make him human and keep him that way would be absolutely astronomical. Even with the help of his ape, he’d have to spend most of his waking hours climbing into bedrooms and murdering people.
The acting isn’t terrible, though. Monogram had a good pool of seasoned bit-part actors to draw from, often providing them with much bigger roles than the ones they received in more prestigious studio fare. Henry Hall, a former stock stage player, and even leading man and director at a local stage in Spokane, Washington, before heading to Hollywood in the late twenties, probably never got a third billing on a movie marquee before or after The Ape Man. A reliable, if forgettable, actor, Hall’s height and stern demeanour had him typecast as sheriffs, military types, elderly scientists and officials in over 200 films, almost half of them westerns. With his theatrical background, he was one of the many stock players who found himself in demand for small characters roles and bit-parts after the coming of sound. Another boon of the film is Minerva Urecal, an in-demand bit-part actress specialising in close-minded, bickering townswomen, evil-tempered wives and gossiping neighbours. The “cruel-eyed, hatchet-faced veteran” likewise had a background on stage, and entered films in the early thirties, eventually working her way up to starring in her own TV series, The Adventures of Tugboat Annie, in the fifties. Mostly tucked away in uncredited bit-parts, The Ape Man was a chance for Urecal as well to show off her acting chops. Another movie role for which she is known is Bela Lugosi’s housekeeper in the PRC production The Corpse Vanishes (1942, review).
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. 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.
Despite this, and while acknowledging many of its faults, there are many who love this film to death. One of them is the author of the blog Silver in a Haystack, who praises both the actors and the dialogue, calling The Ape Man “a little gem of a movie”. This is, I think, the only critic I have found who actually likes the twist with the narrator. Then there’s Mark Cole at Rivets on the Poster who calls this “one of [Lugosi’s] best performances”. Cole finds Lugosi’s transformation into simian impressive: “His Ape Man has a distinctive, hunched over posture, and he’s captured a lot of the familiar behaviors of apes, from the way he lets his hands sort of dangle from his wrists, with the hands swinging back an forth as he walks, to the way he holds his hands as if he was about to start knuckle-walking at any moment”. I would personally suggest that this is sort of the very basics of schoolyard ape imitations, and sure enough, Tom Meade at Stoneage Cinema has another take on Lugosi’s monkey business: “This, then, is the extent of Dr. Brewster’s transformation: he slouches somewhat, he swings his arms a little, and he has facial hair that bears an equal resemblance to the beard of a Mennonite and the helmet of Juggernaut. Looking at all this, there is really no reason why he couldn’t just apply some Nair and go topside.”
Still, I find no critic reviews giving The Ape Man a higher star rating than 2/5. One of them is Derek Winnert, calling it “endearingly daft low-budget, Z-grade monkey business.” Andy Webb at The Movie Scene seems to award the film with two stars simply beacuse you can’t fault a film that you don’t have to pay money to see (it is in the public domain), but still concludes: “even Bela Lugosi is unable to make it entertaining”.
Jon Davidson at Midnite Reviews gives The Ape Man 3/10 stars, writing that “The Ape Man is a mediocre science fiction horror film. Nevertheless, the efforts of Lugosi—though slightly over-the-top as Dr. Brewster—provide this offering with an occasional hint of gravitas.”
AllMovie gives the film 1.5/5 stars, and Craig Butler writes: “This is, clearly, one of the worst horror films ever made. Inept is too kind a word for the writing and directing. It’s almost as if writer Barney A. Sarecky was trying to prove something, perhaps that it is indeed possible to write a screenplay at one sitting, with your eyes closed, creating dialogue only by drawing it blindfolded from a goldfish bowl filled with random sentences cut from ‘The Big Book of Cliched Sentences’. Director William Beaudine’s work is atrocious, as is typical of this reviled hack, with no imagination or interest evident at all. The acting, even by the talented Lugosi is at best substandard. All of which, if one is in the right mind, does mean that Ape can be a hoot, especially the ending, which seems to have wandered in from a Tex Avery cartoon.” Even Richard Scheib at Moria, who usually has some love for even the most inept bad movie, gives The Ape Man a measly 1/5 stars, concluding: “In all respects, this is a badly made film”.
Much derided director William Beaudine had worked his way up in Hollywood in the early days of cinema, starting out as a bus-boy, an extra and doing 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 specialising 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 flubbed 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.
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 who 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 if 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 (review). 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.
Wallace Ford, who plays the “romantic lead” in The Ape Man 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 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 to 50 films or TV series up until 1956. 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 him 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 a lot 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.
Emil Van Horn stands out, though, as he was the only one of the famous gorilla actors that appeared exclusively as a gorilla. Charles 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.
Friends of so-bad-it’s-good movies will get a blast out of The Ape Man. But there’s no getting around the fact that this Monogram cheapo is inept in every category. The sound is terrible, the cinematography boring, the sets cheap and cramped, the story almost non-existent and the acting … well, the acting is probably what saves the film from getting a zero star review. Lugosi, bless him, does his best, and the stock players are all professionals. This is one for Lugosi completists and bad movie buffs.
The Ape Man. 1943, USA. Directed by William Beaudine. Written by Barney A. Sarecky from the story They Creep in the Dark by Karl Brown. 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.