"The Monster and the Ape" (1945)
Robots caught on quick.
It was only a few years after Czechoslovakian author Karl Capek coined the term for his play R.U.R (which stood for Rostrum’s Universal Robots) that cinema took notice and began to integrate these metallic wonders into their storylines. The most famous robot to be found in silent pictures was the female “robotrix” portrayed by actress Bridget Helm from the German science-fiction film “Metropolis” in ‘26. From then on not only did the term robot become a recognized part of the modern vernacular but part of movie history as well.
Nonetheless, until relatively recently, robots were rarely to be taken seriously save by the kids who flocked to theatres to see them menacing the hero or heroine in cliffhangers, fantasy movies and science-fiction thrillers. Robots could be found in everything from serials like “Flash Gordon” and “The Phantom Creeps” to more well-intentioned efforts such as “Gog”, “Devil Girl from Mars”, “Tobor the Great”, and “Target Earth”. Robots have changed over the years, become more sophisticated than their earlier counterparts, but have never really gone out of style. My generation’s most well-known robot was Robby who made his debut in the science-fiction classic “Forbidden Planet”. Years later the phenomenal success of “Star Wars” made robot C3PO an overnight household name. As a kid, when I first got hooked on serials shown on Saturday afternoon television, my personal favorite robot was from Republic’s “Mysterious Dr. Satan” (‘40) Known among fans as the “walking water heater,” this studio creation appeared with some modifications in other serials as well.
Robots were rarely the centerpiece of most of the films they appeared in—usually being featured as the mad scientist or main villain’s artificial henchman—a good example being Columbia’s 1945 cliffhanger “Monster and the Ape”. Monster films were very big during this era so I suppose, despite the ongoing popularity of robots, the term monster was considered more of a box office lure for the kids.
In many ways “Monster and the Ape”borrows heavily from the better known “Mysterious Dr. Satan”in that the main thrust of the storyline is focused around the chief villain’s attempt to lay his hands on a remote control device that will allow him to command what he intends to be an army of obedient metallic slaves (as in “Mysterious Dr. Satan” we are only introduced to the single prototype) to do his bidding.
But there the similarities pretty much end. Whereas “Mysterious Dr. Satan” is regarded as one of the best serials Republic ever produced, Columbia’s “Monster and the Ape” has little to recommend it except to those with a decided taste for the unintentionally laughable.
Its strongest asset is its cast which is unusually impressive for a serial. The leading man (as engineer Ken Morgan) is Robert Lowery, a second stringer for most of his film career who appeared in many B-films including Universal shockers “The Mummy’s Ghost” and “House of Horrors”, and of course Columbia’s “Batman and Robin” serial in ‘49. Lowery usually came across as a very serious, almost humorless individual which made him a bit of a bore in a lot of his films but which serves him well as a one-dimensional serial hero. Lead villain Ernst is portrayed by George Macready whose clipped delivery, fierce demeanor and intellectual decadence made him one of the best known villains of the period, his evil nature being showcased in such “A” productions as “Gilda” with Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Professor Arnold, the good scientist, is Ralph Morgan, brother of the better known Frank of “Wizard of Oz”fame. Morgan appeared in other serials, on both sides of the law, including “Dick Tracy Versus Crime, Inc.” and “Gangbusters”. In the role of Arnold’s daughter Babs is Carole Mathews. The attractive and sophisticated Mathews lends a touch of class and spunky realism to the proceedings which regrettably cannot be said of Willie Best whose antics are best left forgotten. Backing up Macready are familiar black hatters Jack Ingram, Anthony Warde, Eddie Parker and Stanley Price.
One of my chief complaints with “Monster and the Ape” is that it goes on much too long. It should have been a 12 rather than a 15 chapter cliffhanger. Things often drag on unmercifully. One entire chapter is practically taken up in its entirety by a protracted scene in which Anthony Warde returns chained gorilla Thor back to his cage. Every moment of this journey—with the curious simian pausing at just about every juncture to examine some object of interest, however insignificant—is recorded with the frustrated Warde pulling on the chain and chastising the beast to get a move on. It’s simply interminable.
Still, even with some better editing and compression of plot and action, “Monster and the Ape” still wouldn’t rank very high as a serial. It had potential with its strong cast but the script by Sherman Lowe and Royal Cole is painfully redundant even by serial standards and the cliffhangers almost consistently unremarkable. The direction of journeyman Howard Bretherton is sluggish, disinterested and meandering, even the action stuff.
As far as our robot friend goes, he moves like a scowling, somewhat drunken Nazi Storm Trooper and hardly heads the list of filmdom’s most engaging or interesting metal men. He sounds much better on paper than how he appears in this serial which is pretty much a way of summing up the whole effort.
The best thing about “Monster and the Ape” is its title. I imagine a lot of kids back then reading it on a marquee came away afterwards feeling pretty much the same.
Tom Steele, Adrian Booth and Don Barry
I thought it might be of interest to the readers of SERIAL REPORT to have a behind the scenes look at the off screen personalities of our serial heroes and heroines. In each of the following instances I was either spoken directly to by the individual, or was present when the comment was made or am quoting from a letter or phone call received. Often, when I was privy to a remark of interest I would jot it down in a small notebook I carry with me.
Tom Steele and I were talking and he once said to me, “People often ask me if I was upset because through some mistake my name was left off the credits of ‘The Masked Marvel’ serial I did. The truth is I wasn’t. I’ve always had the attitude people in the industry that made films with stunts knew my work and would hire me whether my name was listed or not. My job as a stuntman was to make the hero look good. But I had to protect myself at the same time. When I first started to do stunt work, I used to come home with all sorts of cuts and bruises. Then I got an idea. I went to a tailor and had him sew in padding, particularly in the area of the elbows and knees, on the clothing I was going to wear for an action scene.”
“Talking about clothes, Allan Lane used to drive me nuts! I doubled for him dozens of times over our years at Republic. He really got on my nerves when we were doing his Rocky Lane series. Since I was doubling for him, I was naturally dressed in identical clothing. The wardrobe girl and sometimes the director would look me over and decide I resembled the star as closely as possible. Then, just before we would begin shooting a scene, Lane would walk up to me and re-adjust my cowboy hat a fraction of an inch either up or down. He did this constantly. It used to make me so damn mad I felt like knocking him on his…well, you know.”
Lorna Gray (who later changed her name to Adrian Booth): “When I was fortunate enough to be hired by Columbia at the beginning of my career, I knew I was going to have to use my own initiative. There was so much competition among young actresses under contract to the studio. So, every day I went charging down to the casting office and kept after them to put me in something, anything! Well, they took me at my word. Soon I was appearing in serials like ‘Flying G-Men’ and ‘Deadwood Dick’. I did B-westerns, I made a horror movie with Boris Karloff (“The Man They Could Not Hang”). I was given roles in Columbia’s popular two reel short subjects. I found myself working with such comedy legends as Buster Keaton, Andy Clyde and the 3 Stooges. Ironically, over 50 years later, I was the guest of honor at some conventions honoring these icons. This early training period was invaluable to me as I progressed to major leading lady roles.”
Marguerite Chapman was sitting at a table at a big nostalgia convention in Los Angeles in ‘76. There was a long line of autograph hunters in front of her holding stills and lobby cards. I was standing nearby watching her and the fans for several minutes. As she was handed a photo from the next admirer in line, I heard her exclaim, “‘Spy Smasher’, ‘Spy Smasher’, don’t you people realize I made other movies besides this?” Then the next fan in line stepped up with the pressbook from “Spy Smasher”. Chapman glanced at it and I heard her sigh in resignation as she quickly autographed it.
Don “Red” Barry was one of the guest stars at the first Memphis, TN, convention in ‘72. I was the master of ceremonies and, since we were together on the question and answer panels, I came to know him in a casual rapport between fan and screen actor. After the Saturday night banquet, he gave me his address and phone number and asked me to keep in contact. I did, and over the years we exchanged correspondence. I even sent him a check when he was requesting donations to produce a series of family oriented motion pictures. Somehow, things did not work out for those films. I never saw my money again but I did see Don.
We were having dinner on one of my infrequent visits to the L. A. area. Don had a vibrant personality and he loved to talk. Not surprisingly, one of his favorite subjects was Donald Barry. That night, for some reason, he was in a meditative mood. Towards the end of our meal he began talking in a soft drawl-like tone. “You know, Jim, show business is such a strange profession. Luck, timing and circumstance are so much a part of it. Thanks to the ‘Red Ryder’ serial and my western films, people are nice enough to think of me as a movie star. But I’ve always thought I could have been really big. Maybe as big as Bogart or Wayne! I had two good chances. In one instance I was ready and in the other I was not. I was just starting out when I got an incredible break. Because of my height and coloring I was hired by MGM to play Mickey Rooney’s older brother in the Academy Award winning classic ‘Boys Town’. In the script, the brother is serving time in prison. He is visited there by Father Flanagan, played by Spencer Tracy. This is one of the picture’s key scenes because Tracy wants the brother to help keep young Rooney out of a life of crime. I always admired Tracy and was so nervous in his presence that I kept blowing my lines over and over in the same scene. Tracy was patient and supportive but I could tell the director was getting angry and impatient. Finally, he called ‘cut’ once again. He took me to one side saying, ‘I’m sorry Don, but we’re falling behind schedule. We’re going to have to replace you. The actor who got my part was Edward Norris. (Seven years later Norris had the male lead in the 1945 Universal serial, “Jungle Queen”.) When ‘Boys Town’ was released to theatres I went to see it. I sat through it twice just to watch the part that should have been mine. Eddie was okay in the role, but I knew in my heart I could have done something special with it. The big bosses at MGM would have seen it and put me under contract and then…” Don shrugged his shoulders then excused himself to go to the restroom.
When he returned he began talking again. “20th Century Fox borrowed me from Republic to appear in a patriotic themed feature, ‘The Purple Heart’. It was one of the biggest hits of 1944. I had a great part in it. It was really well written and the critics agreed it was a fine showcase for my personality. When the head of the studio saw the rushes (scenes filmed earlier that same day), he noticed my work. Darryl Zanuck himself called me to come to his office. He said he liked what he saw when I was on screen. He went on to say that Warner Bros. had Cagney and Fox could use a tough, cocky actor like me. The obvious problem, Zanuck continued, was that I was on loan and still under contract to Republic. I would have to talk to the man in charge at Republic, Herbert J. Yates, about getting a release. Well, I must have set a speed record driving from 20th Century Fox back to Republic. I cornered Yates in his office. I started off very quietly explaining the situation. A few minutes later I was yelling, cursing, pleading and begging to be free from my contract. But the old (expletive deleted) was too damn stubborn. He refused, saying his studio should be the one to enjoy my star potential.” Don then hesitated, sighed and looked around the restaurant saying, “Jim, we need a drink. Waiter!”
Aside from their ability to transport me back to a more innocent time, one of the things I love most about serials is what I’ve come to think of as “odd moments”, events that defy logic and which pose unanswered, or at least interesting, questions.
For example, what are we to make of Frank Merriwell (Don Briggs), the idol of American youth, in “Adventures of Frank Merriwell”? We meet him as he’s trying to make up for lost time to get to the big Fardale-Calvert game, which has already started. Since he’s Fardale’s star player, his absence is sorely missed and his team is already down by a few runs. He’s speeding along in a snazzy convertible, his girlfriend Elsie (Jean Rogers) at his side, listening to the game on the car radio. A motorcycle cop watches him flash by and takes off after him, sounding his siren. What does Frank do? He steps on the gas and there’s a chase along a mountain highway that ends only when Frank makes a sharp turn onto a dirt road, kicking up clouds of dust that blind the cop, sending him crashing into an embankment and narrowly missing being hit by an oncoming car. The officer doesn’t seem to be seriously hurt, but we’ll never really know. Elsie’s only unconcerned comment is to ask, “How will we get back to the main road?” Frank continues racing along and clips another car. He hands the irate driver some money, says, “Here, take this. I’m in an awful hurry,” and drives off for the all-important game.
What’s fascinating about this excerpt is that, back in 1936, Frank’s behavior was obviously considered merely as collegiate high jinks. Today, the car chase would have been photographed by helicopter cameras and carried on every TV news show. Frank would have received a sentence of a few years, if he survived his capture. I don’t want to draw any ponderous social conclusions, instead, I consider the whole thing an odd moment.
Another inexplicable piece of writing occurs in “Law of the Wild”. Well into the serial the hero, John Sheldon (Bob Custer), like many, many other serial heroes finds himself jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. His friend, Alice (Lucile Browne), gets a prominent defense attorney, Mr. Bronson, to look into the case. He checks out the evidence then visits John in prison. There’s a prolonged scene during which they agonize over Bronson’s fee (he wants $5,000 down, his full price is $10,000), but he accepts the few thousand dollars John has on hand then goes to the bank to see about the rest by mortgaging John’s ranch. Alice tells John that Bronson will defend him even if she has to raise the money herself.
There’s more about Bronson as the serial develops, with him accepting as payment the potential sweepstake winnings of Rex, John’s horse. Details of the negotiations regarding paying a lawyer’s fee are peculiar enough in a serial. But what makes this genuinely odd is that none of it really matters to the serial’s actual plot. Eventually, John is cleared without ever going to trial, so all of the Bronson incidents are totally irrelevant to the story.
In serials we’re all used to plot sequences that go nowhere, schemes that go awry, potentially insidious devices that are destroyed before use, and so on, but haggling with a lawyer, strictly as padding, has to be a first and is, at the least, odd.