Monday, February 7, 2011

Man is what his ductless glands make him: The PRC acromegaly medley


I've often wondered how you pronounce it.
Ever since I first read up on the extraordinary story of Rondo Hatton, not long after first seeing the Creeper's mesmerising debut in the spooky Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death, I've known all about this sad, rotten little disease that makes hulking monsters of randomly chosen men.
I must have read the word a thousand times, but I've never said it, or heard it said. Now I can drop it into conversation with confidence, thanks to today's PRC double bill: The Monster Maker (1945) and The Brute Man (1946).
But I didn't learn how to say it from Hatton.
Despite being stranded in an age, not so far from our own, in which a tragic affliction could be played for cheap scares in yet cheaper films, Rondo never actually played an acromegalic in any of the horror films in which he paraded his deformities so the pretty folks could gasp and cower. Usually the Creeper, we assume, is just plain ugly; The Brute Man opts for a strange back story in which he is burned with chemicals, Phantom of the Opera-style.
Which makes it all the odder that it was from The Monster Maker that I got my lesson in pronunciation: this time it is acromegaly that is the cause of the horror - but the star is not Hatton, it's Ralph Morgan with prosthetic lumps.

There is a debate to be had - somewhere else, though - about which of these films has the more tasteless concept: Monster Maker, which uses a real, and desperately sad illness in a fictional context as the basis for a horror film, or The Brute Man, which sensationally exploits a real-life sufferer of the disease - but at least, it could be argued, not the disease itself, since The Creeper is not an acromegalic, only Hatton is.
Further, you might suggest, movies like The Brute Man, in which Hatton was obviously not forced to appear, at least offered him the chance to get something back from an otherwise wretched situation, to make a little money from an affliction that in all other respects gave nothing, and only took. By all means fight that one out in the Abbey car park: my view is that both films are insensitive to a degree that says something sad about human nature, but they differ only in degree from the legion of other films that exploit deformity and difference for cheap thrills. They may be towards the front of that queue, but it's a long queue, all the same.
A much easier one to answer is which is the better movie: Brute Man, though rather defensively underrated over the years because of its callous use of its star, is a solid enough little horror meller, worth your attention but not really your votes come Oscar time. The Monster Maker, on the other hand, however dubious its premise, is a sleazy jewel of Poverty Row horror, one of the strangest and best things PRC ever did.

It's the everyday story of creepy Dr Marcoff (J Carrol Naish) who falls so hard for Wanda McKay, daughter of renowned concert pianist Ralph Morgan, that when she spurns his attentions he decides to simultaneously punish and blackmail her by deliberately infecting Morgan with acromegaly!
The most striking thing about the film is its obvious indebtedness to The Raven (1935). It's unlikely, I know: the Lugosi film was ten years old by this time and had probably rarely if ever been revived. Nonetheless, not only the basic idea but whole scenes and settings seem to have been lifted wholesale from it. We begin with Marcoff, a weird, preening medical genius, falling for a beautiful woman at a theatre (with her boyfriend and father in attendance), calling on her backstage, and telling her that she is the image of his late wife, called - wait for it - Lenore! When he makes a continued pest of himself over the girl, her father visits him in his home surgery, finds him insane with lust, and threatens him. The jilted quack then plans deadly revenge...
It sounds like it's practically the same film, but needless to say the customary PRC touches take it beyond mere plagiarism.
Turns out Marcoff is the country's foremost expert on acromegaly. To prove it, he leaves his old science journal articles lying around around in his waiting room. The one Morgan is seen reading, sharing the page with 'Liquid Gas Discovery Breaks Chemistry Rule' ("It can be compressed into a bottle, and with a gas burner a brilliant light can be obtained" - yes, that chemistry rule) is entitled 'Man is What His Ductless Glands Make Him', and begins: "The hematocrit, hemoglobin and plasma protein values are relatively unchanged, but the pulse rate is accelerated during the first forty-eight hours." (And you thought PRC movies were hard to follow.)
He keeps acromegaly germs in a jar, and confesses to his devoted assistant that he deliberately infected his beautiful wife with the disease so that he would no longer have to be afraid that she might leave him for another man! Now, in a desperate attempt to regain his lost love (we see a fabulous framed picture of McKay in what looks like late nineteenth-century costume) he has done the same to the father of a lookalike girl!
Glenn Strange is on hand too, complete with fetching Chaney Jr 'tache, as Marcoff's servant, and do I need to tell you he's got an ape in a cage? No! This is PRC!

As well as the obvious lifts from The Raven, the whole film is weirdly referential: Morgan likens Naish to Frankenstein and himself to the Creature, and when Wanda worries that her father may be asking for trouble by squaring up to the bug-eyed perv who keeps asking her to marry him, he laughs it off with: "You've been listening to too many horror radio programmes lately. What you need is a good workout on the badminton court." (Which would have been a peculiar enough line even if Morgan hadn't opted to pronounce badminton as if it was two words.)
The one thing it doesn't take from The Raven that it could really make good use of is Lugosi. J. Carrol Naish is interesting but uncharismatic in the lead, and the film suffers from the loss of a more colourful lead menace. (Zucco was presumably on another call, but Atwill or Carradine would have done nicely too.)
Naish is generally remembered by horror fans as a reasonably interesting also ran. In fact, he was originally one of those actors promoted as master character players, whose gimmick was the wide variety of roles they could master, seemingly without any points of similarity: Naish played Irish gangsters, Indian chiefs and everything else between and beyond. Occasionally the public admires the mastery so much it grants star status - as it did on Lon Chaney Snr and Paul Muni. But generally speaking they like continuity, and the familiarity that comes of welcoming back their favoured stars. Naish was one whose range eventually made audiences give up on him (Akim Tamiroff was sold the same way - and went the same way.)
By the time he made Monster Maker he was in the unusual position of still being acclaimed by critics - he was nominated for an Oscar in 1943 and would be again in '45 - and more or less overlooked by audiences. Horror films seemed the obvious outlet for his flamboyant talents.

We can see what you're doing, you sneaky mad scientist you.

Oh but it's a compulsive, compelling thing, this movie! Few horror films of the forties have so sickly an atmosphere of cruelty and perversion. Marcoff is a bona fide degenerate, and the film's casual exploitation of sexual obsession and disease gives it a genuinely unpleasant aura that now seems, for better or worse, distinctly modern.
It helps, too, to have Wanda McKay on hand as the source of Marcoff's dementia: always the most athletically gorgeous of the Poverty Row heroines, she again sashays coquettishly through this one, with her usual obliviousness to the tension she inspires in the male characters. Her almost confrontational sexiness only adds to the film's pressure-cooker atmosphere. The film feels curdled, unclean; it has a smell and a flavour pretty much unique among the horror films of its period.

Whether Rondo Hatton went to see it or not I don't know - but had he heard of it he surely would have been too curious not to.
Impossible to guess what he would have made of it, because it's pretty much impossible to imagine how he felt about anything he did. I've never read an interview with anyone who actually knew him, and was qualified to say what his feelings really were about the movies he made. But what another layer of irony The Monster Maker must have added to his existence, to see that the disease his own studio was exploiting as the horror effect that needed no make-up was now itself providing the source of horror plots over at PRC.
And if you're thinking 'surely nobody went to see it?', here is proof - baffling to me even, I'll admit - that in Newcastle they actually queued around the block to do so:

Over at Universal, meanwhile, Hatton went on working.
As if the film wasn't quite an uncomfortable enough experience as it stood, he had inconveniently died by the time The Brute Man was released in 1946. He'd already gurned and grimaced his way through Pearl of Death, Jungle Captive, House of Horrors and The Spider Woman Strikes Back, and it seems certain that audiences were beginning to tire of Universal's latest gimmick. (They were actually getting nostalgic for Lon Chaney Jr.)
Nonetheless, The Brute Man was in some ways a more ambitious vehicle from Hatton's point of view: the first in which his really was the lead role, in which he was a free agent rather than somebody's murderous servant, the first in which an attempt is made, however clodhopping, to introduce a note of pathos (in scenes in which he is befriended by a blind woman), and the first to give him a backstory in which his deformity is accounted for. It's just possible he thought there were '31-vintage Karloff-like opportunities here: if so, he was soon to be disabused, and the disease took him before the damned thing came out anyway.One of two reasons are usually given for why this Universal production, with its Universal director (Jean Yarbrough), Universal supporting players and unmistakably Universal title sequence ended up as a PRC release. One is simply that the studio had come under new ownership and part of the incoming policy was the abandonment of the entire B-unit. Rather than release a raft of new Bs they opted to wipe the slate clean and sell off the still unreleased B films to smaller studios.
The more popular explanation is that they took one look at it, pronounced it disgusting, and tossed it over to PRC with tongs. I suspect the truth is somewhere in between. Doubtless it was the new no B policy that made The Brute Man unwanted by the new team, but I don't know of any other forthcoming Bs that were similarly treated. I think they thought that if ever there was a chance to get rid of a sleazy, horrid little film, whose star was not only cruelly exploited but dead to boot, this was that chance.
As noted, Hatton had made several films exploiting his appearance by this time, which the studio had released without qualm and which the public had received without distaste, but The Brute Man, in part because of its attempts to humanise the Creeper, has a uniquely gloomy atmosphere that leaves it more depressing than frightening, and the singular emphasis on Hatton - best seen hitherto as a suggested, rarely seen background menace - revealed his considerable limitations as an actor, making him seem even more an object to be pitied rather than despised. (His raspy New York accent also makes him seem a lot less scary than films in which he is mute.)
So Universal pushed aside its own production, and The Brute Man ended up the slickest, classiest-looking PRC horror of them all!

MAYOR IN ULTIMATUM TO POLICE - Demands Capture of Creeper in 24 Hours "Or Else" screams the headline in The Daily Leader. (The story itself begins: "The Mayor has put the police department on the spot by demanding the capture of the Creeper "or else". As to the general outlook in the world of finance, I need not tell you that attempts to look into its future are much more difficult today, when the government of the richest nation in the world is making bold and astonishing experiments with its currency...")
Universal may be in the driving seat, but this is a PRC vehicle all right!

The Brute Man is one of those films that thinks its very essence will do the job of scaring you, so no effort is put into it. Whereas earlier Creeper films had used Hatton's mug as a delayed and briefly glimpsed horror come-on, this one simply points a camera at it and hopes we'll cower in horror from it like the obnoxious characters in the movie. (There's even a good, clear close-up in the opening credits, accompanying his name.)
But was there ever a time when his appearance was actually scary? The Pearl of Death makes him seem scary, with judicious lighting, shadows and angles - with film-making, in other words - but here, where he is simply brought out for us to gasp at, the effect seems inexplicable. He's pretty ugly for sure, but was mere ugliness really enough to inspire terror in 1946?
There is more of a freak show feel to the film than to any of Hatton's other vehicles because there is no pretence of artistry in the presentation: just as in a porn film, the plot is a mere excuse with which to frame the actual purpose of the movie, which is to parade Rondo Hatton, with no attempt to create suspense or make use of any typical horror film mechanics.
A stab at compensating pathos in the scenes where the Creeper befriends a blind girl falls flat because they reveal just how little thought has gone into the production as a whole: they simply make no sense, as well as being irredeemably hokey. (Like Virginia Cherrill in City Lights, she needs but cannot afford an eye operation, which our hulking hero determines to obtain the money for.)
Imagine yourself a beautiful blind woman, playing the piano in your living room, when you become aware of the lurking presence of an intruder in an adjoining room. Would you calmly go to see who it is, casually reaching to turn the light on as you enter, then after matter of factly telling him that there is little worth stealing if he is a burglar, turn your back and allow him to follow you into the living room, casually chatting the while about what sort of criminal he might be?
"You're not afraid of me?" he asks with understandable incredulity. "I'm a little nervous, I guess," the unflappable lovely replies, "but why should I be afraid of you?"
Er, because he's a gravelly-voiced stranger who has yet to explain who he is or why he has just broken in through your bedroom window, perhaps? We've established he's not a burglar, and with that voice he's clearly not the singing telegram boy. Rape may have been unmentionable under the Hays Code but it's surely not unimaginable? Yet for some reason, a blind woman alone in her house with a creepy uninvited stranger blithely assumes he's a nice guy and starts making small talk. Then, with nothing further established, the police arrive, and she tells the Creeper to hide while she gets rid of them! No explanation of any sort is offered as to why she should give them the brush-off, rather than welcome their arrival, and instead side instantly with the weird intruder. ("Should I be afraid?" she finally gets around to asking him, on the second occasion he breaks in!)
The model here, of course, is the hermit scene from Bride of Frankenstein, but transplanted to the city apartment of a modern girl it just makes no sense and, like so much else, leaves an unpleasant taste, for all its straining after poignancy.

And that's the thing with The Brute Man: there's no point trying to construct any kind of artful defence for it, because no such defence is possible. It's a film one must inevitably feel guilty for enjoying, which is no doubt why so many otherwise schlock-happy film writers prefer to pretend they didn't. But they did really.

The Girls of PRC: Jungle formula

Time, friends, to salute the heroic efforts of those luckless starlets who struggled nobly through the swampy absurdities of that eccentric pair of PRC jungle movies I discussed here.

White Pongo offers us Mari Wrixon in its relatively dignified lead role (though when I say relative, I obviously really do mean relative), but Nabonga is lifted into even higher plains of weirdness than would otherwise be the case by one of the oddest female casts of any film that ever snuck out of Poverty Row: Fifi D'Orsay and Julie London.
Together at last! Only PRC could get those names on the one marquee, and with Ray Crash Corrigan and his ape suit too. What major Hollywood studio could hope to compete? It's a wonder they even tried.

First, Maris.
The comely blonde who ignites the White Pongo's libidinous urges is a familiar face from skid row movies, mainly at Monogram, where she appeared in The Face of Marble with John Carradine, and managed to avoid the titular menace of The Ape, as the paralysed heroine whose plight so moves kindly doctor Boris Karloff that he kills an escaped gorilla, skins it, and goes out at night wearing the skin and murdering people for their spinal fluid. That way Maris will walk again and the ape will be blamed for all the murders. Does it work out that way? What do you reckon.
Also at Monogram, she co-starred with the great, truly great Frank Albertson and Ace the Wonder Dog in Silent Witness (1943), perhaps the only film in the world that I want to see even more than I want to see Women In Bondage (1944), in which Monogram puts a dream cast - Wrixon, Anne Nagel, Tala Birell and top-lining Gail Patrick! - in (to quote Ted Okuda's essential Monogram Checklist) " a story of the degradation and brutalising of women in Germany where members of the SS Elite Troops are appointed to become fathers of children by women who are selected for motherhood by the Reich."
What on earth is this film like to watch? I only wish I knew. How on earth do Monogram handle the material? Surely not with their usual tastelessness or it would never have gotten past Breen, even allowing for whatever propaganda value it may or may not possess...

Like many another Poverty Row heroine, Maris appears unbilled in scores of walk-ons for the majors - look for her in High Sierra, Meet John Doe and Phantom Lady for starters. She made her last film in 1951, and died in 1999. She was the wife of film editor Rudi Fehr and the mother of film editor Kaja Fehr: they collaborated on the editing of Prizzi's Honor and were jointly Oscar nominated. Rudi died the same year as Maris; Kaja is still editing away.

How in the name of all that suffers and weeps did did Fifi D'Orsay end up in Nabonga?
The celebrated "French Bombshell" (actually a Canadian) and star of vaudeville and pre-Code comedies may have been past her prime and in PRC's price bracket by the time the opportunity to cast her came along - but that still doesn't make the pith-helmeted sight of her playing straight in a cheapo jungle movie any the more explicable. A talented and charming presence in musicals and saucy farce, her presence here transcends bizarre and sends the film to hitherto unreached heights of casting weirdness.
She also did PRC duty in three films where the working title made it onto the finished print: Submarine Base (1943), Dixie Jamboree (1944) and Delinquent Daughters (1944). All a long, long way from the Great White Way.

And then, to top that, they get Julie London, making her screen debut as Doreen of the jungle.
Julie, needless to say, is the sultry chanteuse whose smoky renditions of pop standards made her a permanent fixture on fifties jukeboxes, beloved especially by men who responded to the obvious erotic charge with which she imbued such numbers as Nice Girls Don't Stay For Breakfast, Love For Sale and My Heart Belongs To Daddy. It's also a thrill hearing her deliver that classic of musical sexism Wives and Lovers. Nobody could have been better cast as the woman who made a washed up alcoholic of Tom Ewell in The Girl Can't Help It, and now haunts him in his dreams, singing her signature hit Cry Me A River. Probably nobody could have been better cast in Nabonga either, come to that.
And can any other singer boast as many fantastic album covers?

These are just the tip of the iceberg.