Monster and the Ape, The

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  1. Jeremy

    Jeremy Closet SCREAM fan

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    [​IMG] Reviewer: Jeremy
    Review Date: October 18th, 2013

    Format: DVD
    Released by: Cheezy Flicks
    Release date: 7/27/2010
    MSRP: $19.95
    Region 0, NTSC
    Interlaced
    Full-frame 1.33:1
    1945

    “In this room of the Bainbridge Laboratories, selected representatives of the press and scientific world are gathered to witness one of the strangest experiments yet attempted by men. There is an atmosphere of tenseness as five of the world’s foremost inventors make last minute adjustments on a weird mechanism of wires, tubes and scientific instruments known as the Metalogen Man.”

    The Story

    inline ImageA new, high-tech invention has sent the scientific world into a frenzy. A team of five scientists, led by Professor Franklin Arnold (Ralph Morgan) of the Bainbridge Laboratories, has invented a robot with the strength of fifty men. At a demonstration held for the benefit of the media, the robot – dubbed the Metalogen Man – lifts up a concrete block with just one arm, and then rips a secure, armored door out of a wall, all under the remote controlled guidance of Arnold and his team. With industrialists salivating over the prospect of manufacturing the robots en masse, the future looks bright for the Bainbridge Laboratories.

    inline ImageBut suddenly, tragedy strikes the inventors. Two members of the team are driving down a lonely road when a voice comes over the radio, warning them that they are “usurping the glory and the credit for an invention that is rightfully mine,” and saying that he has no choice but to destroy them. With the threat delivered, it is immediately carried out by an enormous gorilla, with the beast having improbably concealed itself in the backseat of the car. The ape grabs the two men from behind and strangles them. Then, a short time later, another member of the team is murdered in his own home by the ape after receiving a telephone call warning him he has just one minute to live.

    With their three colleagues dead, Professor Arnold and his friend Professor Ernst (George Macready) are the only surviving members of the invention team. The two men have just closed a deal with a company for the mass manufacture of their invention, and are comforted by the knowledge that the prototype Metalogen Man will soon be removed to the company’s warehouse for safekeeping. In fact, the company is sending its chief engineer to supervise the removal and packing of the robot. Professor Arnold’s daughter Babs (Carole Matthews) informs them that he is expected to arrive by train that very afternoon.

    inline ImageThe engineer’s name is Ken Morgan (Robert Lowery), and while en route to the Bainbridge Laboratories he gets a telegram purporting to be from Professor Arnold instructing him to get off at a different stop than originally planned. He does so and is met by two men claiming to be his ride to the laboratory. Of course these men were not sent by Professor Arnold, and they take Morgan to a remote road where he is promptly knocked out and tied up, his credentials stolen. Attempting to dispose of the engineer, the two thugs drive to a cliff and attempt to throw him over, only to have him regain consciousness. After a brief fight that finally sends Morgan over the cliff – or at least that’s what it appears like – they drive off. But Morgan is unhurt, and he is able to make his way to the road and flag down a car which, by chance, happens to be carrying Professor Arnold, Babs and their driver/butler Flash (Willie Best). Arriving back at the lab, they discover that the two thugs have already paid a visit, stealing the Metalogen Man. Fortunately for Arnold, the thieves accidentally neglected the most important part of the invention, the plug-in metalogen disc that controls the robot. Professor Ernst puts the idea in Arnold’s head that Morgan, lacking his credentials, may not be who he says he is, and convinces Arnold to entrust him with the metalogen disc.

    inline ImageOf course, what Arnold doesn’t realize is that Ernst is a mad genius, a criminal who masterminded the murder of their colleagues and the theft of the robot. And with the metalogen disc now in his hands he has the ability to wield the robot for the benefit of his evil schemes. Of course his plan starts to go awry immediately when Arnold accidentally discovers a secret passageway in Ernst’s house, forcing Ernst to take him prisoner. He is rescued by Babs and Morgan, but Ernst and his henchmen get away. Morgan, Babs, Arnold and Flash are in for fifteen chapters of intrigue, cliffhangers and gorilla attacks before Ernst and his goons finally go down to defeat. But the metalogen metal that makes the robot possible is one of the rarest substances on earth, and by the time all is said and done there may not be enough of it left for the wondrous Metalogen Man to fulfill its promise of building a better world…

    inline ImageReleased by Columbia Pictures in April of 1945, just as Germany’s armies were going down to a final defeat in Europe, The Monster and the Ape foreshadows America’s postwar optimism about the benefits that technological innovation would bring to the nation. Over and over in the early chapters the Metalogen Man is held out as some sort of a savior for the human race, described with verbiage extolling how “these robots will be able to ease the burden of human toil.” With its fantastic strength and ability to perform repetitive physical tasks that would bore and exhaust a human, it’s easy to see why industrial leaders (and, though they are not mentioned, military men) would be interested in such a creation, although the optimism that the script attaches to the robot seems rather naive in 2013. My first thought upon watching the serial was that, rather than saving humankind from physical toil, the Metalogen Man would ultimately be used to slash costs and put a lot of construction and blue collar factory workers out of jobs, all while enriching executives and investors. It also occurred to me that many of the jobs created by the manufacture and maintenance of the robots would ultimately be shipped to low wage countries in Asia.

    inline ImageIf that seems like a bitterly cynical attitude, it’s only because The Monster and the Ape was written for a world and an audience that no longer exists, and in their absence it has aged quite badly. While it may not be fair to judge a nearly seventy year-old production by the standards of today, it is fair to point out that there are certain things about this serial that will make it inaccessible to modern audiences, and the undue optimism that is attached to technological progress is not even the most grating element. That distinction belongs to the serial’s racial content and its treatment of the Flash character. As written in the script and played by Willie Best, poor Flash comes across as having just stepped off the plantation. While he occasionally helps save the day, Flash’s main job here is comic relief. He certainly has the most personality in a show mostly populated by bland cutout characters, but it’s the most offensive type of personality that a black screen character can be imbued with.

    inline ImageFilm classics like Gone With the Wind and Song of the South periodically come under attack for their racial content. Many defend them by saying that they are simply products of their time. And while that is true enough, it misses out on the fact that the depiction of black men and women in those two films generated controversy even when they were new. If anything, Flash comes across as dumber and more stereotypical than a Mammy or a Prissy or an Uncle Remus, making his character regressive even by the standards of the mid-40’s. Flash is an unabashed coward. He is terrified of the gorilla (which is named Thor), but even more terrified of the Metalogen Man. He pronounces “robot” as “rah-bot” and “metalogen” as “mant-alogen” and pulls stupid stunts like accidentally sawing a table in half when instructed to cut a board. Willie Best is often compared to Mantan Moreland, another black comedic actor who frequently found himself stuck in demeaning roles. The comparison is apt, although Best didn’t have quite have Moreland’s comedic timing and usually found himself stuck with even worse material, his part in this serial included. This was not the first time that Willie Best had squared off against a menacing simian, as he played a similarly offensive character in 1932’s The Monster Walks.

    inline ImagePutting that aside, as a serial The Monster and the Ape is rarely better than mediocre, and is often substantially worse than that. Even watched one chapter at a time, the production is particularly skilled at wearing out its welcome thanks to lame cliffhangers, lethargic pacing and overly long chapters. One of the most common ways to end a chapter in many serials is to show a vehicle carrying the heroes – often a car, if the production takes place in a modern setting – diving off of a cliff, with the heroes making improbable last minute escapes. Even in the better made chapter plays this becomes something of a groaner for audiences, this ability for the heroes to constantly jump out of whatever car/truck/train/boat/plane that is heading for disaster and land on their feet. The Monster and the Ape ignores that formula by making Ken Morgan simply, ridiculously lucky. If a car carrying the heroes goes over a cliff in a Republic serial, you can be sure that the next chapter will begin with footage of them jumping out and rolling away at the last moment. But when Ken Morgan’s car goes over a cliff, the next chapter begins with footage showing him getting up out of his wrecked vehicle at the bottom of the ravine and walking away, a little bruised, a little wobbly, but otherwise fully intact. Considering that American cars didn’t have seatbelts or airbags in 1945, Morgan’s escape here is no more plausible – but much less exciting – than those of the heroes with the power to always miraculously jump away at the last possible moment.

    inline ImageWhen he’s not surviving through sheer luck, far too many of Morgan’s escapes are explained away with insulting editorial trickery. Serials always lie with their end-of-chapter cliffhangers, but here the deception is especially egregious. A classic Republic production like The Perils of Nyoka would usually lie by omission, showing us something that looks catastrophic when viewed from one angle but turns out not to be when viewed from another angle, or showing what appears to be a fatal accident at the end of one chapter and then at the beginning of the next showing the same accident but with added footage showing how the heroes managed to escape. The good serials don’t try to pretend that what we were shown at the end of the last chapter never happened. Showing the heroes jumping out of the car does not change the fact that the car goes over the cliff both at the beginning of the current chapter and at the end of the last.

    inline ImageIn The Monster and the Ape, editorial trickery is rife. The end of chapter three shows Ken Morgan getting knocked out and put on a conveyer belt headed into a roaring furnace. We clearly see the doors to the furnace open, we clearly Morgan’s body going through them, and then we see them closing behind him. Then at the beginning of the fourth chapter, Morgan instead regains consciousness before going through the furnace doors and jumps up to take another swing at the badguys. Other examples of this editorial dishonesty are apparent throughout the serial. One cliffhanger shows Morgan being caught in a rockslide, and the audience is given a clear view of him (or at least a suit stuffed with straw that is supposed to be him) being crushed by boulders. The beginning of the next chapter shows him dodging out of the way of the rocks. Then another chapter cliffhanger ends with Morgan hanging for dear life from a platform before falling off into a vat of burning paint, while the beginning of the next chapter shows him hanging on for dear life and then gradually making his way to a place where he can safely jump down. Even for the original audiences who saw one chapter of this a week, it’s difficult to believe that many members of the audience didn’t pick up on these contradictions.

    inline ImageDirector Howard Bretherton had a long career in B-movies, and in particular his resume is littered with cheap westerns, followed up by a large handful of mystery thrillers. Very few of his films run more than seventy minutes in length, and even fewer of his westerns run more than an hour. This appears to be his only serial, and despite his experiences making shorter films Bretherton has noticeable difficulty adapting to the demands of the serial format (although he and the screenwriters were likely hamstrung by the demands of the studio). The pacing is sluggish, and the chapters are too long. In many chapter plays it is the first chapter that is the longest of the series, because it takes extra time to set up the story, introduce the paper thin characters and end on an exciting cliffhanger. There is no exact number of chapters or length of chapters that a serial should have, but many ran from twelve to fifteen chapters, with the first chapter clocking in around twenty minutes and many of the subsequent chapters coming in at sixteen or seventeen minutes. The Monster and the Ape is told in fifteen chapters, and its first chapter is a full thirty minutes in length, with most of the subsequent chapters clocking in between eighteen and twenty minutes, and each chapter begins with an excessively long recap of the end of the last episode.

    inline ImageWhile it may not seem like a big difference, the extra running time of each chapter makes a huge impact for the worse when combined with Bretherton’s sluggish pacing. There is no better example than the lengthy sequence showing where Thor the gorilla comes from. Now in the 1940’s a gorilla was a necessary accessory in any evil laboratory. No fashionable mad scientist was caught onscreen without one. Where the gorilla came from was rarely explained. It was simply there, usually in a cage in the laboratory ready to reach out and grab any unfortunate passerby. Explaining how or why the beast came to occupy that spot was treated as being every bit as unnecessary as explaining how movie gangsters got their weapons. It was simply part of the setup. But The Monster and the Ape takes the unusual step of explaining what Thor is. A lengthy sequence in the third chapter shows one of Ernst’s henchmen leading the gorilla on a chain through the front door of Ernst’s house, through a secret passageway behind the fireplace, down a flight of stairs, through the door to Ernst’s secret laboratory, then through another secret passageway into Ernst’s other secret laboratory. Then the ape is led through still yet another passageway, this one ending in a secret door at the local zoo which opens right into Thor’s cage (the henchman who always handles Thor doubles as an employee of the zoo). No explanation for why there’s a secret passage between the zoo and Ernst’s house is ever given, and it is with some horror that I imagine how long that scene might have been.

    inline ImageIt is scenes and sequences like the one just described that show the problem with Howard Bretherton’s approach to the material. He’s not trying to warm the audience up for the main feature, he’s trying to pad the running time the same way he would have padded a B-western that had only fifty minutes of plot but needed to run fifty-five minutes. That approach is extremely inappropriate to a serial, and the result is a disappointing and excessively long chapter play. The Monster and the Ape has fun moments, but they are few and far between, and sadly and perversely, its despicable racial content ends up becoming the most interesting thing in an otherwise wearisome production.

    Image Quality

    inline ImageThis dubious release from Cheezy Flicks stretches the fifteen chapters across two discs, with the first DVD (which is dual layered) holding nine chapters and the second DVD (which is single layered) holding the other six chapters. The interlaced, 1.33:1 image looks like it was struck from an old tape master which was itself transferred from a beaten-up 16mm print. The framing on the image is off, with a thick black bar on the left side of the frame and a significant amount of visual information cropped off from the right side of the frame, if the off-center appearance of our friend Howard Bretherton’s name is any indication.

    inline ImageOverall the quality is quite bad. Most of the serial comes with an ugly greenish tinge, making the characters appear sickly. Blacks often turn into muddy grays, and night scenes are incomprehensibly dark. The image is soft and blurry, and the source print was afflicted with some significant damage that varies depending on the chapter, with the third episode in particular featuring a series of very noticeable vertical lines running up and down the right side of the frame throughout its entire length. It is entirely watchable if you are willing to strain your eyes a little bit and turn down the saturation on your TV, but really, why should you have to?

    Sound

    The 2.0 Mono track is rarely better than adequate, and is sounds flat, muffled and compressed, with plenty of hisses, pops and crackles. Dialogue is understandable for the most part, although the poor quality of the soundtrack tends to make Willie Best even more incomprehensible.

    Supplemental Material

    inline ImageThis release contains a few supplements of note. An original reissue trailer for The Monster and the Ape is included at the end of the final chapter, and both discs have a handful of vintage concession stand advertisements and video previews of other Cheezy Flicks titles (the content is the same on both discs). We get previews – not trailers, as these were obviously put together by Cheezy Flicks – of Sam Peckinpah’s Convoy, the 1974 blaxploitation picture Jive Turkey and the atmospheric classic Horror Hotel.

    I will give credit where credit is due and say that the concession stand material that is included here is stuff that I had not previously seen. It’s of middling quality – and was clearly taken from VHS - but is amusing, especially a Shasta orange soda advertisement featuring the Frankenstein monster (called Igor here for some reason).

    Final Thoughts

    inline ImageFor years The Monster and the Ape remained frustratingly hard to see. It never had an official VHS release and was only rarely offered for sale by public domain/gray market mail order operations. Speaking as someone who had to wait nearly twenty years to see it, I found this serial to be very disappointing, although I gained some satisfaction from crossing it off my various lists. What is even more disappointing is the rotten quality of this (clearly unauthorized) DVD release. Serial completists will want to check this one out for the hell of it, but everyone else would be best to avoid The Monster and the Ape, especially this version of it.

    Rating

    [​IMG] Movie – D

    Image Quality – D+

    Sound – C-

    Supplements – C+


    Technical Info.
    • Running time – 4 hours 54 minutes
    • B&W
    • Not Rated
    • Chapter Stops
    • English 2.0 Mono
    • 2 Discs
    Supplemental Material
    • Trailer
    • Video previews
    • Vintage concession stand advertisements

    Other Pictures

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