Well, I’ve got to admit, there are times when my mission to watch all the films depicted in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (a mission I have entitled See REPTILICUS and Die) has seemed a little… onerous. Not to say stupid.
But then comes a movie like THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL, and it’s all suddenly worthwhile. Gifford informs us that this Stuart Heisler flick was Paramount’s only B-movie monster film, to which one can only say, “Quel dommage!” Perhaps because they weren’t in the habit of making this kind of film, the studio seems to have showered largesse upon it, stuffing the cast with colourful character actors and assigning a decent, and apparently enthusiastic, director.
According to Gifford, the film is a remake of GO AND GET IT, a 1920 silent, a fact even the IMDb seems unaware of. The original, co-directed by Marshall Neilan and Henry Roberts Symonds, certainly shares the same plot synopsis:
“An intrepid newspaper reporter attempts to solve a series of murders committed by a gorilla carrying the transplanted brain of a human.” Although the 1941 version sidelines the journalist and basically turns the gorilla into protag.
We begin with Ellen Drew (ISLE OF THE DEAD), slouching out of the fog to bemoan her fate in a piece-to-camera speech that starts the film off in an arresting and unusual manner, before it dives into a courtroom drama in which her brother, Phillip Terry stands accused on a murder he didn’t commit. When Terry takes the stand, the first thought is that this must be some kind of hypnosis drama, since his delivery is so robotic and strange, but NO! He’s just a strange actor. I don’t want to say “bad” — it’s pretty interesting the way he invents a sort of MK-Ultra kind of zombified, yet pained, speech-making, like a constipated somnambulist. This is better than acting!
David Bordwell has noted that B-movies deployed faster cutting than prestige films, which maybe ties into modern patterns of fast editing, since modern studio pictures are essentially inflated Bs… anyhow, the cutting throughout this film is very pacy, with the courtroom disintegrating into a flickbook of glowering visages. Our stilted hero is railroaded to the electric chair, Ellen’s testimony that her husband seduced and abandoned her to a gang of sex traffickers, compelling her into a life of prostitution (this is all surprising stuff for a 40s genre film), and that the gang is somehow responsible for framing her unhappy brobot.
So far almost half an hour has gone by, and the movie is a perfectly acceptable proto-noir with a Cornell Woolrich style nightmare scenario of an innocent man wrongly accused. But now, without warning, George Zucco sidles into the story, asking to have Phil’s brain after he’s fried. Naturally, Phil agrees, no questions asked.
In Zucco’s surprisingly spacious lab (I guess Paramount didn’t have standard mad scientist’s lair stuff, so they’ve achieved something more original and exotic by starting from scratch) he and his assistant Abner Biberman (memorable as the “albino” hood in HIS GIRL FRIDAY) transplant the deceased patsy’s brain into a man in a gorilla suit (Charles Gemora, a man whose surname already suggests a giant besuited Japanese monster). The operation scene is accompanied by a wheezing accordion score, mimicking the movement of the oxygen respirator…
After a compelling flashback montage, the ape breaks free and goes on what you might call a vengeance spree, tracking down and bear-hugging (gorilla-hugging) his enemies to death, baffling the coroner by breaking every bone without leaving a single bruise. Is this even possible?
“I’m sick of murders,” complains a homicide detective. “Why can’t people just behave?”
Somebody has thoughtfully provided Gemora with a fantastic rogue’s gallery to get his arms around, starting with Onslow Stevens (HOUSE OF DRACULA) as the vicious DA, followed by Gerald Mohr and Robert Paige, neither of whom I was familiar with but both of whom were really good, deploying light leading man charm to oily, disturbing effect (it turns out I’d just seen Paige in SON OF DRACULA and entirely forgotten him), and then Marc Lawrence, Joseph Calleia and Paul Lukas. What a gang!
Through his bone-crushing escapades, Gemora is followed about by Skipper, his faithful dog, who is apparently able to smell his master’s brain through the casing of gorilla-skull now encircling it, and dutifully carries a hunting cap in hopes of being taken to chase squirrels. I was longing for the gorilla to actually put the hat on, but no dice. Still, the sight of the cheeky wee dog following an unsuspecting Lawrence through the street, like the world’s cutest harbinger of doom, was decidedly eerie, and Heisler’s high-angle shots showing the killer ape tracking his victim are really effective.
Check out this clip — it goes from comical to spooky, as you get used to the ape-suit, and then suddenly very comical again, as Gemora appears to sexually mount Marc Lawrence, perhaps repeating something he learned in the American penal system during his human days…
Believe it or not, this movie is dramatic, atmospheric, well-written and touching! Of course it’s not quite strong enough to overcome the monkey-suit element, nor is it so strong that you want it to: it’s the balance of silliness and effectiveness which makes it so watchable, along with the strange cross-genre stew of mismatched clichés, amounting to something curiously original: for instance, Zucco’s mad scientist survives the movie — how I wish Paramount had followed his future misadventures!