Saturday, March 6, 2010

Meet the Monogals!

Their names may not mean as much to horror fans as those of Evelyn Ankers or Fay Wray, Caroline Munro or Ingrid Pitt, Jamie Lee Curtis or Sarah Michelle Gellar, but the female leads of Monogram horror do not deserve their anonymity.
It's simply not true to imagine that there must be a good reason why they are 'only' Monogram starlets, that they must be in some way not good enough to cheerlead for Universal.
They're just as pretty, they scream just as piercingly, they express concern and worry with the same sort of facial expressions, and they get about on equally fine sets of pins, that come to just as fine a point, and end in equally spiky high heels.
Ah, but the breaks is the breaks is the breaks, and nobody ever claimed it was fair. Still, that's no reason why we should deny somebody as talented as Louise Currie or as gorgeous as Wanda McKay a seat at the same table as Peggy Moran.
So let us meet, and salute, and stake a claim for the wonderful scream queens of Monogram!
Joan Barclay
appears in Black Dragons, The Corpse Vanishes, The Shanghai Cobra

Sweet, petite, with a distinctive little nose and an unusual, rather modern face, Joan kicked around Warners for the first half of the thirties, where she showed up in Gold Diggers of 1933 and 1935, Dames, and the Stanwyck shocker Baby Face (1933). But the bits never seemed to get longer or more important, so she crossed the tracks, where at least she got billing and featured roles. Chesterfield, Crescent, Principal (and other studios I might equally have made up for all most folks know) made her welcome in numerous now forgotten films, but a fateful encounter with Sam Katzman got her parts in the serials Shadow of Chinatown and Blake of Scotland Yard.
From here, via a few more bits for the majors and thousands of westerns, it was onward to the East Side Kids, Lugosi and Charlie Chan. (Her most interesting other connection around this time was with RKO, where she pops up in a couple of Falcons and Val Lewton's Seventh Victim.)
In Black Dragons she plays one of the most interestingly written of all Monogram leads, not repelled by the sinister Lugosi (as was the depressingly commonplace reaction in his movies by this time) but fascinated, almost vampirically hypnotised, by his suavity and obvious magnetism. She even draws him into some mild romantic banter:

Joan: You're a strange man. I've been trying to make you out.
Bela: Quite right. Curiosity killed the cat.
Joan: Oh!
Bela: Don't misunderstand. I'm not worth bothering your pretty head about.
Joan: What if I think differently?
Bela: Then I would say that you are a silly young creature.

It's not exactly The Philadelphia Story, but how Lugosi must have relished this!
In The Corpse Vanishes she is one of the brides Lugosi poisons with a toxic orchid and spirits away to his laboratory, there to extract whatever glandular or muscular fluid it is he's after this time. (Monogram mad doctors are always obsessed with fluids of one kind or another.) For Joan, then, horror immortality was to be found trussed up on Bela's operating table in her wedding gown, while he sets about her with his syringe and his hulking boob of a servant (Frank Moran) leers over her and strokes her face.

Louise Currie
ppears in The Ape Man, Voodoo Man, The Chinese Ring
Perhaps the spunkiest of the Monogram leading ladies, as well as paying her dues with Chan and East Side Kids roles, Louise enjoys the distinction of having appeared in both the most iconic (The Ape Man) and for my money the best (Voodoo Man) of the Lugosi Monogram series.
According to her own recollections, the studio considered her "the Katharine Hepburn of Monogram", and gave her wordier and more independent characters to play than was the average lot of the Poverty Row starlet.
She's often a journalist. In the Chan film The Chinese Ring she is "San Fransisco's biggest nuisance", cut from the same cloth as Torchy Blane and Marjorie Reynolds in the Mr Wong series. (No surprise there, as the film is an uncredited remake of Mr Wong in Chinatown.) In one scene she annoys her cop boyfriend so much he shakes her roughly by the shoulders; she responds by socking him so hard on the jaw he goes careening backwards into the wall. He also handcuffs her to a chair in order to ensure her absence at a hot murder site; she duly turns up anyway, the arm of the chair still dangling from her wrist.
In The Ape Man she's Billie Mason, a press photographer this time, who ends up being chased around the lab by a hairy Lugosi, trying to defend herself with a bullwhip. In Voodoo Man she shares what Variety would call 'femme duties' with Wanda McKay: surprisingly, it is Louise who gets abducted and imprisoned in Lugosi's lair in the opening scenes, and Wanda who helps to investigate. With a softer than usual hairdo, and cast unusually as passive victim, Currie is at her prettiest here.

This posed still can only hint at the intensity of The Ape Man's final scenes

She recalled: "I wore my own clothes in all my Monogram movies, because they really didn't have what you'd call a wardrobe department the way all the larger studios did. If they had supplied my clothes for these pictures, they would have been so terrible!"
(If nothing else, they did supply the garish checked coat she wears in Chinese Ring, since Deanne Best also wears it in the later series entry Shanghai Chest.)
A couple of months shy of her 97th birthday, I'm delighted to say that Louise is still with us. Her other films include Citizen Kane and Tireman, Spare My Tires.
Teala Loring
appears in Return of the Ape Man, Dark Alibi
As Judith Gibson, Paramount used her to help decorate Holiday Inn, My Favorite Blonde and Double Indemnity; Monogram put her up against Lugosi, Carradine and their thawed-out friend in Return of the Ape Man, and Charlie Chan in Dark Alibi. She had a second brush with Carradine in PRC's Bluebeard.
Loring had plenty of what it takes in the matter of Hollywood glamour - check out her first entrance in Dark Alibi, shot from below walking along a balcony and then descending a flight of stairs, with the regulation enormous padded shoulders of the period. I wish I could tell you what she gets up to in Return of the Ape Man, but I do not have it, and I have never seen it.
There are other, far more important films I have never seen. I have never seen The Grapes of Wrath, though I have owned a copy for years. I have never seen Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt, though it is but a doubtlessly inexpensive E-Bay click away. David Lynch's Lost Highway is still sealed in the cellophane in which I purchased it, somewhere around a decade ago. But nothing feels so much like a reproach, like a festering wound, as the fact that Return of the Ape Man is both unknown to me, and out of my grasp. Teala is among the many reasons why.
Wanda Mckay

appears in Bowery at Midnight, Voodoo Man, The Golden Eye
Surely the most oomphtastically gorgeous of the Monogals, Wanda McKay spread her horror credits between Monogram and PRC (where she turns up in The Black Raven and Monster Maker, among others). A real little cutie with a round face, big, expressive eyes and a turned-up nose, her scores of other Monogram and PRC titles include such enticing prospects as Danger! Women at Work, Horace Takes Over, Leave It To The Irish and Jiggs and Maggie In Society. In all likelihood, all of these movies still exist, and just as likely will never be seen again by a living soul. (Unless you know better and want to become my new best friend.)
In Bowery at Midnight, as by far the foxiest dosshouse hostess on the East Side, she's a much bigger attraction than the free soup. (No wonder her boyfriend doesn't like her working there. "Judy, I want you to give up that silly job," he explains sympathetically, and with admirable regard for the bigger picture: "Saving humanity - it's ridiculous!") And in Voodoo Man (in its own innocent, stumbling, short-trousered, inadvertent little way perhaps the sexiest of the Monogram horrors) she is the curiously disinterested heroine who helps put a stop to Lugosi's female motorist abduction/zombification spree.
According to Tom Weaver's magnificently readable book Poverty Row Horrors! the former Dorothy Quackenbush was a bathing beauty and Miss American Aviation before the studios came panting. (Bizarrely, she was declared "Most Kissed Girl in Hollywood" in 1940, a slightly dubious accolade, you might have thought.) Bits at Paramount didn't lead anywhere special, and segued into the inevitable trip across town to 4376 Sunset Drive. Weaver tells us she retired from the screen in the fifties to breed and market rabbits. Eventually, she became the wife and ultimate widow of the great Hoagy Carmichael.
It's fair to say that Wanda was never going to be as confident an actress as, say, Louise Currie. On the other hand, who gives a toss?

Ginger Rogers
appears in The Thirteenth Guest

Elizabeth Russell
appears in The Corpse Vanishes

Sorry, couldn't resist slipping these two in.
Ginger is a delight, in her Anytime Annie years, in Guest, an excellent old dark house thriller. The only thing that stops her from being a fully-fledged Monogal, alas, is the fact that Shriek in the Night, in many ways a follow-up venture (with the same director and co-star), was for some reason made not for Monogram but Allied Pictures Corporation. This Rogers girl has bags of potential: whatever became of her, I wonder...
Russell, meanwhile, is probably the only mainstream female horror icon whose work at Monogram actually contributes to her icon status. That angular and fascinating face, so familiar from her bits for Val Lewton, especially as the Cat Woman who greets Simone Simon in the restaurant and the consumptive fatalist in The Seventh Victim, adds greatly to the fun of The Corpse Vanishes.
She is horribly excellent as Lugosi's insufferable wife, for whom he is killing a series of brides to obtain the glands (or whatever it is) that she needs to retain her youth, yet nothing he does is ever good enough for her.
Minerva Urecal
appears in The Living Ghost, The Corpse Vanishes, The Ape Man, Ghosts on the Loose
Shrewish, gangly, vinegary Minerva appeared in Chan movies in both their Monogram and TCF incarnations, as well as providing memorable support in God knows how many other Poverty Row mystery and horror movies. She's Bela's sister, so concerned that he's gone and turned himself into a gorilla, in The Ape Man, his faithful assistant, and mother of his moronic servant, in The Corpse Vanishes, and scores of creepy servants. Sometimes she goes for sinister, somewhat in the Judith Anderson manner, at other times she plays for laughs. She always gives good value, and was still plugging away well into the sixties.
It was presumably Urecal that writer Stephen Jones had in mind in the documentary The Dark Prince when he suggested that Lugosi's level in his Poverty Row horrors was "frightening Una Merkel and people like this." The berk.
Luana Walters
appears in The Corpse Vanishes
The Corpse Vanishes, probably the one Monogram horror that comes closest to sustaining a really juicy, spooky, Universal atmosphere throughout, is also a treat for seasoned fans of the Monogram gals: not only do you get Elizabeth Russell as guest ghoul alongside Lugosi, Minerva Urekal as a weird old hag, and Joan Barclay as featured victim, but on top of all that there's Luana Walters as a reporter!
As always with these female horror-journos, she's undervalued at her paper - incredibly so in this case, as each obvious clue she snatches from beneath the noses of the police is dismissed as irrelevant by surely the most cretinous editor of all time. For her, the murdered brides case is her ticket out of the society column and into the criminal big league: accidentally present at the scene of two deaths, she is unable to conceal her delight on both occasions.
Barging into the Lugosis' madhouse for an interview in one of those 45-degree hats so popular in the forties, she reacts only slightly when her polite request receives a sharp smack in the face from Liz Russell. (It's to Luana that Bela delivers probably his most celebrated line of Monogram dialogue, after she accidentally stumbles upon him and his missus kipping in coffins: "I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed: many people do so!")
She also has a great screaming scene, lit and staged as nicely as any Universal equivalent (in which she wakes in bed to find Frank Moran stroking her hair), and is equally good prowling the corridors of Lugosi's spooky house in splendid satin nightwear, as Moran follows in slow, lascivious pursuit, gnawing on a symbolic chicken leg as he goes.
An earlier scene, in which she's walking to the house up an eerily quiet road, sun-dappled but entirely enclosed by overhanging trees, though brief, and simple, and with little made of it beyond the raw material itself, is equally effective, setting the mood with an efficiency Monogram could not always be relied upon to accomplish.
And note the scene where she discovers Joan Barclay's body on Lugosi's operating table, each gleaming in their satin: Joan in white, Luana in black.
Luana was another graduate of Sam Katzman's cranky serial Shadows Of Chinatown, and a frequent presence in Monogram westerns. (Her features obviously suggested Oriental to low-budget producers: she was Fah-Lo-Suee in the 1940 serial Drums of Fu Manchu, too. These days, though, her most famous role might just be her lead in the marijuana road to ruin extravaganza Assassin of Youth [1937].) She makes a terrific Monogram horroine, and not just for all those boring old reasons like 'she shows real independence of spirit and is not beholden to the male characterzzzzzzzzzzzzzz'... (though all of that is, incidentally, true).
She made her last appearance in AIP's The She-Creature in 1956. She did not play the She-Creature.
Joan Woodbury
appears in Phantom Killer, King of the Zombies, The Living Ghost, The Chinese Cat

Great-looking, with a really striking face, Joan was made for Monogram: before settling there she had been in several of the Fox Chans, the massively recommended Mercury Pictures horror-whodunnit Rogues Tavern (with Wallace Ford and Barbara Pepper), the lead in Columbia's serial Brenda Starr, Girl Reporter, and Bride of Frankenstein, no less - she's the miniature queen in the glass jar.
One of the most elegant of the Monogram dames - and, as her list of almost-credits at other studios shows, very much the studio's girl most likely - Joan is almost too sophisticated for her surroundings. If Louise Currie's comments about the girls having to provide their own wardrobes at Monogram are true, then Joan had great taste in clothes: check out the feather-trimmed dressing gown she sashays about in in the early scenes of The Chinese Cat.
In King of the Zombies she assumes an accent as the villain's niece: most unusual for a female lead. You could imagine it would be easy to transform her into a most effective Vampira, or Morticia Adams.

Maris Wrixon
appears in The Ape and Face of Marble

A sweet, pretty blonde, Maris doesn't get much of a chance to shine in her two Monogram appearances. She's best known for her lead role in The Ape, as the wheelchair-bound heroine whose desperate need for spine injections causes kindly Dr Karloff to leap off the deep end, skin a gorilla and start killing people while wearing the skin. Maris herself was abducted by a gorilla in 1945's White Pongo for PRC, and did bit part work at Warners, where she's easily spotted in High Sierra and several others.

They could have been... but weren't...

The four actresses above represent the great almosts of Monogram horror. All four worked at Monogram; all four might easily have been cast in one of their horror epics - and yet, somehow, they were not.

Fay Wray (top left), the ultimate scream queen and by any reasonable standards the most fantastic-looking woman who ever lived, turned up at Monogram in 1939 to make a lively espionage caper called Navy Secrets. True, the studio was not making horror movies at this time (though they were only a year away from The Ape.) But surely they could have put her in a Mr Wong at least? But for Monogram's insouciance, Fay and Karloff could have easily co-starred.

Simone Simon (top right) remains one of horror's ultimate icons for her appearance in Lewton's Cat People and its eccentric sequel. Monogram secured her services in 1944 for an extremely likeable, sexy little comedy called Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Fair enough, you might think... until you realise that she might just as easily have been in Voodoo Man...

The almost supernaturally beautiful Irene Ware showed up at Monogram in 1934 for the delicious Ruritanian comedy King Kelly of the USA in 1934. Her Princess Tania is one of her most delightfully entertaining performances, and I wouldn't exchange it for anything... but with Chandu the Magician ('32) behind her and The Raven ('35) still ahead, what a trilogy of co-starring Lugosi vehicles Mysterious Mr Wong ('34) would have completed! It's not like she'd have turned it down...

Finally, and most extraordinarily, we have Ava Gardner (bottom right). The raven-headed temptress was safely signed to MGM when Monogram, somehow, acquired her as a loan-out in 1943. Did they put her in The Ape Man? Revenge of the Zombies? Nope. They assigned her a nothing part in the East Side Kids-meet-Lugosi caper Ghosts on the Loose.
Ah, well. That's Monogram for you.


C.C. Baxter said...

"Her other films include Citizen Kane and Tireman, Spare My Tires."
The most brilliant sentence I've read in many a moon.

Matthew Coniam said...

Aye thang yew!

Mykal said...

Joan Woodbury! Finally, someone somewhere noticed! Man, was she hotter than hell on a Friday night and very talented. I would hang out with these Mongram ladies before MGM's "more stars than in the heavens" any damn day of the week (or night!). -- Mykal

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks Mykal! It was really fun piecing this article together, actually, going through the films and realising: yes! that girl that's so cool in Ape Man is the same one they abduct in Voodoo Man, and the one in ... is the same one in...
It felt like a long overdue exercise: I was as guilty of lumping all these actresses together as one woman - the Monogram heroine - as anyone.
At at the end of it, three in particular stood out - Currie for her performances, McKay for her looks and Woodbury for her genuinely one-of-a-kind screen presence. Why Universal didn't snap her up is amazing.
But then, they cast Lon Chaney Jr as Dracula and kept Lugosi busy playing butlers, so I guess it's no suprise.