Thursday, March 4, 2010

Karloff slumming it, and the 'Monogram Touch'

One of the defining differences between Karloff and Lugosi, it is often tempting to think, is that Karloff was able to maintain a greater dignity through his career, and even in the horror drought of the late-thirties and the subsequent wind-down in the forties was never reduced to Poverty Row potboilers. Lugosi toiled at PRC and Monogram; Karloff did not.
But this is wrong. Karloff signed a Monogram contract for six pictures in 1938, and the only reason we sometimes forget this, is because only the last of them was a horror movie.
The first five were the Mr Wong detective series (of which more in a moment), made in those years - so barren for Lugosi that he wasn't even wanted at Monogram - when the horror genre was dead in America.
When horror came back, after the success of Son of Frankenstein in '39, Monogram lost not a second in taking Karloff out of the Wong series (the last, ready to go, substituted Keye Luke, Charlie Chan's number one son, in the lead) and giving him his own bona fide Monogram horror movie: The Ape (1940).
With horror back in fashion, it was obvious Monogram weren't going to tie Karloff down to any more contracts, so it was at this point that Lugosi became a Monogram star.
The Ape, then, is our only chance to see Boris, rather than Bela, grappling with the mountainous absurdities of the Monogram scenarists' imagination.
Even so, the tendency remains (partly because it is less widely seen these days than the Lugosi films, partly because Kurt Siodmak helped write and devise it, and partly, perhaps, because of persistent rumours that it derives from a project originated by Columbia as part of its Karloff mad doctor cycle) to regard The Ape as a cut above the average Monogram fare.
In fact, it is fully as nonsensical as any of the Lugosi movies, if not more so. The plot is quite deliriously insane and, after a reasonably sober first half, it goes so far off the rails that you can hardly believe there ever was a time when such things could be made for mainstream audiences. (And whose loss is it, ladies and gentlemen? That's right. It's ours.)
But first, a word about those Mr Wongs.
James Lee Wong is a Chinese detective whose screen adventures are based on the magazine stories of Hugh Wiley (with no connection to the Mysterious - and villainous - Mr Wong that Lugosi had played for Monogram back in '35), and the series was Monogram's attempt to carve some of the fat from the market that TCF had been successfully exploiting with their Charlie Chan and Mr Moto series.
In the forties, of course, Chan himself would come to Monogram, when TCF dropped the series and current lead Sidney Toler acquired the rights to the character himself, shopped the series around Hollywood, and ended up you know where.
But in 1938 Chan was doing very nicely for Fox (Karloff and Lugosi had both guested as suspects) and imitation was the only form of flattery open to Monogram. The Chan style of movie was useful to Monogram in another sense, too, in that they rarely relied on expensively-staged action sequences, but were mysteries of the 'drawing room' variety, where the pleasure lay in watching the detective assemble the suspects and explain the ingenuity of their plots before pointing the finger.
Those plots had to be good, of course, and too many of the later Monogram examples were not up to par in this regard, but provided the audience is sufficiently intrigued to keep paying attention, the films were cheap to make, simple to shoot and never failed to turn a profit.
. "The police must not be presented as incompetent or ridiculous..." - Motion Picture Production Code
The Mr Wong films are for the most part rather more fun than the later Monogram Chans, though not in the same league as the Fox originals. Karloff, who had appeared heavily disguised as Fu Manchu in 1933, is a surprisingly restrained lead, tall and thin and refined, and playing the character with little make-up and no trace of a Chinese accent. (We learn he was educated in England by way of partial explanation.)
He’s also rather more arrogant and cynical than Chan, whose excessive politeness is typified by his catchphrase “thank you so much”. These are decent little mysteries (two of them were in fact remade as Chan films when Roland Winters assumed the role for six last Monogram titles after Toler’s death in 1947) and the Monogram trappings, which on release seemed hopelessly poverty-stricken, have benefited from the passage of time.
The first two in particular have inventive plots and, except for seasoned Oriental detective fans, genuinely surprising revelations. (The only flaw in the first film is that the story is structured in such a way that if the audience guess the ingenious method by which the crime was acomplished, there can be only one possible murderer. A more careful scenario would have still allowed for a few likely culprits even if audiences guess the means by which it was done. But it's still good.)
Karloff is an oasis of dignity amindst a typically rowdy support cast of thick Irish cops and barking newspaper proprietors, the latter headed regularly by Grant Withers and Marjore Reynolds, he a cop, she the female repoprter who frequently outsmarts him, their bantering relationship lifted wholesale from Warners' Torchy Blane series.
. I may be Wong, but I think you're wonderful
I'm not aware that Karloff ever had anything to say about the Wong series at all; certainly none of the plethora of books on his career see fit to reprint any bon mots he may have dropped about the five films. Though they presumably made some kind of a profit they don't appear to have made any kind of impression on audiences, and certainly Karloff never became identified with the role. Though a far cry from Lugosi's doldrums, he probably saw the films as his lowest ebb.
Still to come, of course, was The Ape, but he didn't know that yet.
The Ape is directed, interestingly enough, by the man who not only helmed Karloff's Wong series but also Lugosi's Mysterious Mr Wong. William Nigh is his name, and,way back when, he had been a major director in silents. Not any more.
Karloff is Dr Adrian, a kindly old doctor in a small American town, whose wife and child died of polio and who has since dedicated his life to finding a cure. He is kind, quiet and polite, and played by Karloff at his most benevolent. Yet for some reason to which we are never made privy, he is hated by the rest of the town to such an extent that the desire to run him out of town on a rail is loudly expressed among the locals who congregate in the town's drugstore. (It's 1940, remember: recall WC Fields's line in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break: "This scene was supposed to be set in a saloon, but the censor cut it out; it'll play just as well...")
Why on earth such a festering loathing exists for this kindly man is almost impossible to guess; it's as baffling as the caption that opens PRC's The Devil Bat, made the same year, about how all the town of Heathville loved kindly Dr Paul Carruthers... despite the fact that 'Paul Carruthers' is seen from the first to be Lugosi at his most overtly malevolent and leeringly unhinged. Here it's the other way round: everyone's got it in for a dear old pops.
And not only do they hate him: they're terrified of him! They're just on the verge of forming themselves into a lynch mob, decisively inflamed by a comment of one of the local dames equating their inactivity in the matter with questionable virility - normally the surest way to get at least someone's ass blown off - when he enters the drug store, and they all fall silent. All he does is politely ask if his prescription is ready, and the mob, formerly just moments away from lighting the torches, is reduced to mumbling inaction.
Perhaps they just have amazing foresight, for around the halfway mark, a startling transformation overcomes Adrian's character.
The circus is in town, and with little else to do in the sleepy backwater except dream of beating up the local doctor, it proves to be a smash success. But a huge gorilla from the show goes bananas, fatally injures its trainer and takes it on the lam.
The trainer is brought to Dr Adrian, who suddenly goes loco himself, and gloatingly tells the trainer that he is about to extract his spinal fluid, which he then does. The ape meanwhile is still on the rampage, and after another killing bursts into the doctor's house, where Karloff stabs it to death.
Instantly, however, a cunning plan occurs to the mental medic. Since the answer to his problem seems to be - as it so often is - fresh spinal fluid, here is a God-given opportunity to get a good supply in. Adrian will go about the village, killing people for their precious bodily fluids, and blame the killings on the ostensibly still unapprehended ape.
But here's the stroke of genius: rather than kill them in such a way as to make it look - somehow - like the ape is responsible, he skins the ape, and then goes out to do his murders in an ape suit. And that, my friends, is the Monogram touch.

Now, even if we overlook the rationale behind the scheme itself, let us pause just for a moment to consider the logistics. Surely skinning a real gorilla will not leave you with a usable ape suit, all neat and ready for Ray Crash Corrigan to clamber into. Surely what you will in fact end up with, even if you could somehow get it all off in one go, is a nauseating heap of floppy skin, offal and gore, that would instantly begin to rot and stink, and which, if donned, would not miraculously allow its inhabitant to reassume the gait and dimensions of a gorilla but would, instead, hang limply and disgustingly off Karloff's spindly frame.
Not at Monogram. At Monogram Karloff's ready for action that same night, out on his deranged quest for spine juice in a perfectly proportioned and padded ape suit, with a zip and a solid detachable head piece...
These are precisely the kind of absurdities that proliferate in Monogram horror movies. Time and again reasonably promising ideas and adequately presented set-ups are abruptly drop-kicked into the wackosphere by the sudden invasion of just these kind of terminally loopy ideas.
These Monogram Moments are what we want from the studio. This is what they're best at.
This is what we shall be looking for in the posts to come.


Mykal said...

Matthew: This certainly promises to be a great series of posts. I love Monogram, as I love all the poverty row studios. I think of Monogram as the MGM of Poverty row for their fading star line-up.

I love your perfect awareness of the "Monogram touch", which, in this case, is the skinned ape suit. I can't tell you the times I have gotten some sort of sick thrill from watching this movie, imagining the very process you describe so well here. The actual moment of attempting to "crawl inside" a freshly skinned ape would leave one covered only partially in a large rug-like swatch a fur with hanging strips that had once been legs and arms. Within a day or so, the flies would come. I go into such detail only because I delight myself with these images every time I watch this beloved movie.

With regard to Karloff keeping his dignity in contrast to Lugosi slide from grace; this is terribly true and especially said as Lugosi, I think, required more dignity to maintain a sense of himself. I think the reasons for the Karloff/Lugosi dignity issue are twofold: First, I think Karloff simply had a natural reserve and gentleness that lends itself to dignified treatment and two: Lugosi's role as Dracula absolutely doomed him and froze him in time and place in ways the grunting monster of Frankenstein could not. Today, still, when folks do a Lugosi impression, or for that matter a Dracula impression, they say, "I vant to drink your blood." When folks imitate Karloff, it is always done in that cultured, somewhat creepy, soft-voiced lisp - never the grunting monster. Lugosi was near forced to become a caricature of himself, which is the fast track to poverty row then and now. Luckily for us, Lugosi in poverty row never performed with anything but great dignity.

Wonderful, wonderful post! I eagerly await more (as always, but this week with especially baited breath). -- Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

Mykal -

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments.

I completely agree with you about how Lugosi "required more dignity to maintain a sense of himself". Karloff had an inner core of certainty that enabled him to burlesque roles he felt beneath him, Lugosi was constitutionally incapable of projecting irony even if he wanted to - which I have no doubt whatever he did not. That's why part of what makes Lugosi's Poverty Row roles sad is the same thing that makes them awesome - his total and unwavering commitment to giving them everything he has. Karloff we can almost hear chuckling in his ape suit; he's just doing it to pick up Friday's cheque, and he knows there'll be another one, somewhere, next Friday too, and so that's fine.

As for that ape suit, I can only concur again. Just imagine the first time you put it on. It's still fresh, but it's gone cold. You've somehow managed to tug the skin of the legs off in one go, and now you are sliding your leg into it, like a long, wet sock...
You have to hand it to these doctors. I've always said it's a vocation.

Mykal said...

Matthew: I love your comments about Karloff's "inner core of certainty that enabled him to burlesque roles he felt beneath him". That's perfectly put and so true. I remember him saying that he thought the Mask of Fu Manchu simply terrible, and he had trouble keeping a straight face. Yet, keep a straight face he did and delivered a role of true malevolent power and seductive danger while, as you say, happily earning the weekly paycheck. Karloff simply wasn't a troubled man as was poor, doom struck and star-crossed Lugosi. It is difficult to imagine the demon-haunted Lugosi ever having a moment of Karloff serenity. -- Mykal