Life is But a Dream
Rondo Hatton! The very name sends shivers of excitement, mingled with profound shame, down my caffeine-encrusted spine!
For those in the dark, Rondo was an acromegaly-afflicted human being exploited in cinema for his grotesque appearance. I read about him as a child in Monsters of the Movies and A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, where Denis Gifford described him as the only actor to play Hollywood monsters without makeup. To my infant self, that seemed like a pretty neat career. The idea that there was something degrading or offensive about casting a man with a severe pituitary problem as a psychopathic killer didn’t really occur to me until later, not could I see any of Rondo’s films, apart from his brief appearance in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME as a rival to Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo in the Feast of Fools scene, and his stomping turn in the rather good Sherlock Holmes movie THE PEARL OF DEATH (a fairly faithful adaptation of a very enjoyable Conan Doyle story).
But Hatton actually had what might be termed starring roles, albeit in cheapjack exploiters over at PRC (Producers Releasing Corps, or Poverty Row Company if you prefer). Regular Shadowplayer Douglas Noble supplied me with a copy of THE BRUTE MAN, so that I could move one step further along in my deluded quest to see all the films pictured in Gifford’s mammoth green history of the horror genre. This is the one movie where Rondo is entrusted with what we could describe as actual lines, although given the standard of writing on display it might have been kinder to let him remain THE MUTE MAN.
But Rondo acquits himself well. I was talking to students last week about the kids in SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, little girls who don’t so much act as simply whisper. My theory is that very small children, and very old people, have a kind of innate reality onscreen which excuses them from having to act. It’s enough for them to exist. A person who is really living, or really dying, can hold our attention simply by existing, by standing there as a living record of themselves. Rondo has the same quality. His line readings are peculiar, amateurish, but he’s far preferable to most of the characters who attempt to “act” in this film. I’m reminded about Alexander Mackendrick’s line that as soon as you put a real person up against an actor, the artifice of the actor is exposed. Rondo acts as a physical, big-faced rebuke to those striking poses and attempting “inflection” around him.
He also has an engagingly plebiean accent, sounding a bit like a more muted Bender from Futurama.
Z-movie hack Jean Yarbrough actually achieves a little bit of momentum and what could pass for atmosphere, and for once Rondo is up against something “uglier” than himself, Tom Neal’s moustache. I’m not really down on moustaches, I secretly covet a Don Ameche pencil-thin appurtenance of my own, but Neal’s cookie-duster looks like a furry centipede unfurling in the shadow of his nose. One longs to don a Jean Cocteau-style rubber glove, reach into the TV screen and brush it from his upper lip. Failing that, one longs to have Rondo snap his spine like a twig. Rondo obliges.
Creepily, the story rehashes elements from Rondo’s own biography, portraying him as a college sports star disfigured by illness (a cheesy chemistry lab explosion is drafted in as explanation), but leaves out the part about him becoming a movie star. A shame, since an unlikely Between Us Girls-style rise to celebrity at the end could have provided a welcome twist. Instead, Rondo, who has been robbing and killing to raise money for a blind girl’s sight-restoring operation (making this a sort of homicidal remake of CITY LIGHTS, or a less homicidal version of John Woo’s THE KILLER), is betrayed by the blind girl, who pockets the reward to get the op and is congratulated by the campy cop characters for her civic-mindedness. Rondo, who seems to have been shot in the cock by Tom Neal, is dragged off by the authorities and absolutely no comment is made as to what will befall him. Presumably PRC were holding onto the character for a sequel, having already paraded Hatton through two similar freakshows. But THE BRUTE MAN was to be Rondo’s last film — his pituitary tumour upped and killed him that same year.
Acromegaly gets a look-in in CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN too, as its one of the many glandular disorders mad prof “Dr. Sigmund Walters” claims to be able to cure. In reality, he’s more interested in turning gorillas into foxy chicks by transplanting cerebellums. Worryingly, he speaks of racial improvement, and worryingly, his foxy chick is played by Acquanetta, a Brazilian Native American starlet who isn’t trusted with any lines (and doesn’t quite have Rondo’s presence) and whose casting seems almost to suggest that Universal are saying that dusky Brazilian women are closer to our primate ancestors than the likes of, say, Evelyn Ankers.
Since the doc is John Carradine, there is still fun to be had for the non-Klansmen among us, and a scene where JC berates his subject for giving way to her primitive passions and reverting half-way to an ape state, struck me as unaccountably hilarious.
Director is Edward Dmytryk, during his B-Movie Hell period. His Karloff outing, THE DEVIL COMMANDS is an incoherent (butchered by the censors) but classier offering from this time. CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN moves at a fair old lick, throws in lots of impressive-but-worrying lion-taming footage (is firing pistols in the air really the best way to calm a big cat?) doesn’t worry too much about making sense, but has insufficient ape-woman action. Unlike Rondo, poor Acquanetta isn’t trusted to say anything at all, which means her potentially fascinating psychology is left unexplored, and her participation in the lion-taming act (being a disguised gorilla, she has power over jungle cats — you know, in the way that gorillas don’t) consists of standing beside the cage and staring. I can’t help thinking her talents would have been better exploited by giving her a role that involved moving about a bit. Her thighs are impressive.