I know, I know, a silent film about a talking monkey doesn’t seem to make much sense, but if Tod Browning could make a silent about ventriloquism (THE UNCANNY THREE) then I say Raoul Walsh (yes! he!) is more than entitled to centre a melodrama on the phenomenon of simian conversation: THE MONKEY TALKS (1927).
In fact, with this movie, the very title is ballyhoo of the highest order, since “Jocko” the chimp is not technically a monkey, he’s an ape, and he’s not actually an ape, he’s a diminutive acrobat, played by Jacques Lerner, a diminutive acrobat himself. Lerner’s physical performance is so good that often in long-shot you’d take him for the real thing. Jack FRANKENSTEIN Pierce’s make-up is also very fine, but tends more towards the John Chambers PLANET OF THE APES look: capable of some expression, vaguely lifelike, not quite as compelling as the performance beneath it. But since Jocko in the film isn’t meant to be a real ape at all, that’s OK.
Plot: a troupe of circus artistes find themselves stranded in Paris without funds, and invent the idea of a talking monkey to make a fast franc. Jocko is a great hit, but falls in love with a circus lady who isn’t in on the act. Jocko’s loyal friend also loves the same girl, but out of loyalty to Jocko, he doesn’t feel he can make a move while his buddy is at such a disadvantage — and wearing furry paws and an ape mask is a genuine disadvantage in the dating game, you can take it from me.
Meanwhile, a bunch of no-good circus bums resolve to steal the miracle monkey, replacing him with a ringer: a real chimp. As Jocko struggles to free himself from a cage in a gypsy caravan, the woman he loves innocently allows the mock-Jocko into her dressing room, where the hirsute fiend reveals his beastly nature as a would-be rape-ape.
Zoological note: I’ve never heard of chimpanzees sexually assaulting human women (bonobos are rampantly sexual, but use sex to ease tension and avoid interpersonal conflict) but there are stories about orang utans doing so. In fact, in her documentary about the “wild men of Borneo,” Julia Roberts has to cut the film for a moment while her minders politely discourage a large male specimen who’s been looking at her in a funny way, a timely intervention which prevented the existence of what would surely have been a much-discussed YouTube moment.
Jocko of course arrives in the nick of time, and there’s a dramatic fight to the finish, a final performance of the bogus, and a genuinely touching finale. Wrapped up in this is the use of killer lions for revenge, and an on-stage death, both of which are lifted pretty shamelessly from HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, which had been MGM’s first release and a big hit for Lon Chaney. It’s nice to see that my favourite all-time movie had some influence.
My copy of THE MONKEY TALKS was video’d off the screen at some film fest, at a jaunty angle and with attendant shitter shutter speed and iris problems, resulting in an image that varies from seriously warped to essentially absent. It makes DECASIA look like PUBLIC ENEMIES. But how else am I going to see this movie? Rest assured, if a better copy comes along, I will be snapping it up. Early Walsh rocks!
For the moment, I can provisionally score off another film in my quest to see all the movies illustrated in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies.