By Ed Garea
The Ape (Monogram, 1940) – Director: William Nigh. Writers: Adam Shirk (play). Curt Siodmak (adaptation and s/p), Richard Carroll (s/p). Cast: Boris Karloff, Maris Wrixon, Gene O’Donnell, Dorothy Vaughn, Gertrude Hoffman, Henry Hall, Selmer Jackson, & Philo McCollough. B&W, 62 minutes.
“And you thought only Bela Lugosi made movies this dumb.” – Michael Weldon, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film.
In 1938, Boris Karloff signed a six-film deal with Monogram Studios. The Ape was the final picture under the contract, and possibly the worst of Karloff’s career. The screenplay was co-written by Curt Siodmak, adapted from Adam Shirk’s 1927 play of the same name. We have one first-rate actor and screenwriter working on the film. So what went wrong? Simple, it was made by Monogram.
Karloff is Dr. Bernard Adrian, a kindly doctor in the town of Red Creek. But though he’s a very kindly doctor, he keeps to himself, immersed in research for a cure for polio. Because of his reclusive ways, the good folk of the town distrust him. Some proclaim that he should be run out of town and circulate rumors that he used his patients as guinea pigs for his experiments. In one scene, the good doctor is at a shop where the shopkeeper warns him that a mob is forming because of the missing dogs in the neighborhood and the constant rumors about his experiments. This is a scene from which we’re expecting some sort of action against the good doctor, but it just stops there and goes no further. The Ape is full of scenes such as this, which promise much and deliver nothing. Could it have been an editing of the original script, or just plain laziness? Who knows?
Even the kids in town despise the doc, throwing rocks through his windows when he’s not home. Now the doc doesn’t have many patients, but he does have one special patient. She’s Frances Clifford (Wrixon) and she’s suffering from polio, which the Doc has vowed to cure. He takes special interest in Frances, as she reminds him of his late daughter. On his latest visit, he gives her a jewelry case that belonged to his daughter, remarking that she would have turned 18 this very day and the jewelry case was to have been her birthday gift. Dr. Adrian lost both his wife and daughter to polio, hence his determination. Talking with both Frances and her mother (Vaughn), Adrian suggests that Frances get out more. A circus has recently come to town, and that would be perfect entertainment. At that moment, Frances’s boyfriend, Danny Foster (O’Donnell) shows and Frances suggests the excursion to him.
From the opening credits suggesting a circus, we are led to believe this is a film about a circus, but no such luck, as we’ll see. Actually, the real reason for the circus is to introduce our other main player. While Danny and Frances are enjoying the acts, we cut to another section, where we see a gorilla in a cage. It’s in the process of being taunted by its handler (the unbilled I. Stanford Jolley). Seems he hates the beast because it killed his father. As the handler is also drunk, we can quickly figure where this is going. You guessed it – the ape reaches through the bars and returns the favor. The cigar in the handler’s mouth drops into the nearby hay, starting a fire and enabling the gorilla to escape.
The injured handler is brought to the doctor’s place. Dr. Adrian has his maid, Jane (Hoffman), help him bring the wounded man back to his laboratory. After everyone else has left, the doc gets to work. While his patient is begging Doc not to let him die, Doc gives him a spiel about how he’s about to make history. Adrian then sticks a syringe into the man’s spine and draws out his spinal fluid, and that’s that for our handler. The next day, Adrian visits Frances, telling her that he has developed a radical new form of treatment. It’ll be painful, he warns, but when it’s all over she’ll be able once more to walk. She’s all for it and he injects her in the back.
Less than a day later, Frances tells Adrian that she feels heaviness in her legs, in which she never had any feeling since becoming ill years before. Adrian is ecstatic, and rejoices later in his lab. Unfortunately, in the midst of his reveries, the vial with the magic fluid rolls off the table and shatters on the floor. Uh-oh.
What to do? In such a film as this I need not remind anyone of the next twist in the plot. Of course – the ape, being hunted by Sheriff Halliday (Hall) and his posse, breaks into Adrian’s lab, probably looking for his ex-handler. In one of the great preposterous scenes in B-dom (or B-Dumb), the Doctor, who looks as if he’d have trouble punching his way out of a wet paper bag manages to outwrestle the ape, crack him on the noggin with a bottle of anesthetic, and when the monkey is three sheets to the wind, knife him in the heart from behind. Now, lest that seem unbelievable, what happens next will really boggle the mind. Adrian skins the ape and uses both the ape’s skin and head as a disguise in order to obtain more spinal fluid. Again, to quote Weldon, “What a brilliant idea! Nobody would notice a gorilla killing people!”
The first victim of the “ape” is an adulterous banker. Before his untimely demise we were introduced to him in what seems to be an attempt at a sub-plot. His villainy is played up during a scene with his wife, where he turns down her dinner of lamb stew and dumplings, telling her he’ll eat out. “I wish you wouldn’t keep on going here where we live,” she whines, knowing full well what he’s up to. She then tells him that she doesn’t want to be pitied; she has no one but him, no folks and nowhere to go – all of it falling on deaf ears. Of course, after his body is found, the townsfolk are saying how sorry they feel for his widow. The townsfolk also learn that the ape must be prowling nocturnally.
Meanwhile, Adrian gives Frances another shot of his newly obtained serum. But he has some problems. The first is Frances’s boyfriend, Danny. It seems he can’t get it through his thick skull how anything that causes Frances such pain could be helping her. "I don't like things I don't understand," he tells Frances. A bigger problem is another doctor from out of town, a Dr. McNulty (Jackson), who Sheriff Halliday has brought in as coroner and medical examiner in the gorilla case. McNulty notices the syringe marks on the backs of the victims. This gets him to thinking, and we learn that he and Adrian go way back together – back to a research foundation that expelled Adrian years ago for his questionable experiments. Even back then Adrian was consumed by the idea that spinal fluid from healthy people might just result in a cure, and it seems he was no more discerning where he obtained it than he is now.
So, is the jig up for Adrian? Of course not: this is a B-movie made by Monogram, so when shown evidence in the person of Frances, who can now move her foot slightly, that such a controversial experiment did work, McNulty just doesn’t back off. No, he offers to let Adrian return to his old job with the foundation, but Adrian blows him off, saying it’s too late.
However, there now arises one problem Adrian has failed to anticipate. It seems that the sheriff, despite all his dimwittedness, has figured out that his bloodhounds go nutzoid whenever they come near Adrian or his domicile. Adrian had earlier deflected the hounds’ suspicions by claiming they were sniffing his insect repellent, the late handler’s coat, it was that time of the month, yada, yada, yada. Nevertheless, the sheriff is certain that something is going on around Adrian’s house, so he stations his deputies where they can both keep a close watch on the house and the surrounding woods.
Adrian tries one more attack, but only gets knifed for his efforts. While running back to his house, he is shot on the doorstep, and everyone now learns it was Dr. Adrian in the ape suit all the time. Adrian raises his head to see Frances take her first steps and then dies. Frances and Danny share the final scene, as Frances can now walk and has burned her wheelchair.
As we have seen, the plot is nothing short of idiotic. So how about the acting? Considering the leads, Gene O’Donnell comes off as entirely wooden. Maris Wrixon is good, considering she doesn’t have much to do. But it’s Karloff who shines and makes this worth watching. It seems that no matter how lousy the film is, how utterly worthless, Karloff always gives his all. Were it John Carradine or Bela Lugosi trapped in such a mess, they would have mugged their way through, but not Karloff; he always gives a dignified performance and nothing less than 100%, even if the vehicle he’s in isn’t worth his time. And it’s the case here – Karloff plays Dr. Adrian not as mad, but with as single-minded with the best of intentions. He wants to cure Frances no matter what, and the people he kills along the way were not of the best moral fiber, not that it excuses killing, but the way the film positions its characters, it relieves Karloff of real malicious intent, instead presenting us with a totally misguided altruism.
The supporting roles are filled with Poverty Row veterans like Henry Hall (Kid Dynamite with the East Side Kids, The Ape Man, Girls in Chains, The Return of the Rangers, and Voodoo Man among his appearances) and Selmer Jackson (Bowery Boy, Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc., Paper Bullets, Dillinger, and Black Market Babies, among others). These were actors who gave average performances in below-average films. The man in the ape suit is none other than Ray “Crash” Corrigan, here in an unbilled role as both the ape and Dr. Adrian in the ape suit (it was too heavy for the slightly-built Karloff to don). Corrigan was both an actor, not famed for his Westerns, and a stuntman that owned his own ape suit. Other stuntmen famous for playing apes were Charles Gemora (Road to Zanzibar, Charlie Chan at the Circus, The Monster and the Girl, and Africa Screams) and George Barrows (Gorilla at Large, and the unforgettable Robot Monster), who owned a gorilla costume which he rented to producers.
William Nigh, Monogram’s house director, helmed The Ape. To say he was prolific is somewhat of an understatement, as he directed 121 features in his career, which began with Salomy Jane in 1914 and ended with Stage Struck in 1948 (his retirement), mostly for Poverty Row studios. He was renowned for his assembly-line approach to film-making, and made movies in almost every genre, whether action, Westerns, musicals, comedies, dramas, war films, mysteries, and even film noir. (So much for auteur theory.) His films with Bela Lugosi and the East Side Kids have become cult classics, and he was familiar to Karloff as the only director the actor worked with while at Monogram. Ironically, his 1918 feature, My Four Years in Germany, was such a hit that it established Warner Brothers as a major player in Hollywood.
Faces In The Crowd: Maris Wrixon
Born Mary Alice Wrixon on December 28, 1916, in Pasco, Washington, Wrixon has 64 film and television credits to her name, yet she’s practically unknown today.
With only a bit of theatrical background, she signed with Warner Brothers in 1939. She had the necessary endowments and beauty to take her to stardom, yet her career at Warner’s never got off the ground. She appeared in 13 films in ’39, and 12 in ’40, mostly as an unbilled background character or given a line or two at best. When not in the studio, she modeled for numerous women’s magazines, such as Vogue, where she appeared on the cover. She was reportedly a favorite of George Hurrell, Sr., Hollywood’s premier glamour photographer.
Wrixon did eventually move up playing leads in such B-movies as The Case of the Black Parrot (1941, opposite William Lundigan) and Bullets for O’Hara (1941, with Roger Pryor and Anthony Quinn). She also had good roles in features such as Footsteps in the Dark (1941, starring Errol Flynn and Brenda Marshall) and Million Dollar Baby (1941, starring Priscilla Lane and Jeffrey Lynn). When not working at Warner Bros., she found herself loaned to Republic, where she worked with Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and the Weavers, and Monogram, which she described as “being in a foxhole.”
Warner Bros. released her in 1942, and except for a couple of films at Universal, she worked on Poverty Row. Her last film, As You Were, with William Tracy and Joe Sawyer, was made for R&L Productions and distributed by Lippert in 1951. She then worked guest spots in such television shows as The Cisco Kid, Boston Blackie, Sea Hunt, and The Untouchables until her retirement in 1963. Her personal life was more of a success: from January 28, 1940, until her death on October 6, 1999, from heart failure, she was married to German émigré film editor Rudi Fehr.
Trivia: Nigh had previously directed a version of The Ape as House of Mystery in 1934 (again for Monogram).