The Ape (1940)Written By: Richard Carroll and Curt Siodmak
Directed By: William Nigh
Starring: Boris Karloff, Maris Wrixon, Gertrude W. Hoffman, Henry Hall, Gene O’Donnell
Country of Origin: United States of America
With the prospect of this being Old School Month around the website, I took it upon myself to start the show off right with an induction so positively bad that it was “can’t miss” in more ways than one.
If you’ve never heard of The Ape and yet you were familiar with the names attached to it, you would naturally assume that the film was just that: “can’t miss.” It should have been an instant success that would rival the monster movies of the 30’s like no other. After all, it had Boris FREAKING Karloff playing the lead role and was co-written by Curt Siodmak, who penned The Wolfman years earlier. Can’t miss, right? Wrong.
Back during a time when actors and actresses were contracted by different studios (rather than the freelance vigilantes they are today), Boris Karloff grew increasingly pessimistic that he would renew his current contract in the late 30’s with Universal Pictures. He had already become a star due to the Universal masterpieces he was in while playing Frankenstein. Though he owed much of that success to on-again-off-again rival Bela Lugosi (who Karloff owes his career success to after Lugosi rejected the Frankenstein role), the two did not exactly see eye to eye and neither did Karloff with Universal Pictures. When his contract expired in 1939, he become one of the most sought after free agents in all of Hollywood. However, his stock plummeted upon one of his first post-Universal releases, that being The Ape.
Though we have become accustomed to the synopsis review of films from the modern era, it must be refreshing to know that The Ape provides us with just as awful a plot as anything coming into theaters nowadays. Karloff plays a somewhat humbled, somewhat mad scientist in search of a polio vaccine (at that time unheard of, see: Roosevelt, Franklin Delano) for a young woman. He requires human spinal fluid for his experimental procedures to uh…proceed, but has yet to make much procession (Damn that sentence was awful). Now, by this point, I know what question is just burning in the back of your brains: where the fuck is “the ape” character we spoke of for the movie called The Ape?
Turns out that “the ape” is an escaped primate from a local circus who has more than his fair share of run-ins with Karloff throughout the movie. As injured patients show up at Karloff’s doorstep (and he fails miserably to help them or to cure polio correctly), he has no choice but to clash with the ape itself in what should be a terrifying and bone-chilling sequence of cinema history. This, however, is not even remotely the case. For the first time ever (at least on this website), we have an ape who is nothing more than a man dressed in a generic gorilla suit. I challenge you to find the realism in this, but hey, it was 1940, and time was tight to churn out 60-minute epics like this one.
The majority of the film is spent with the most clueless townspeople either guessing where the ape could be hiding or simply becoming his next victims. When the film reaches its dramatic “swerve” ending, Karloff gets to due his favorite things in all of his movies: die. Truth be told, Boris really does get off on a death sequence and soliloquy before the final frame. Maybe I spoiled it a bit by telling you that he buys the farm, but if you know anything about Karloff, you wouldn’t want it any other way.
Member of the crew who should’ve been fired: Maris Wrixon might be the worst actor in the all of the 1940’s. Her portrayal of a polio victim isn’t so much sad because of the polio, but rather the fact that it doesn’t kill her quicker. That would make for some entertaining schlock.
Best Name in the Cast: It’s hard to be so successful when you are not mentioned in the original credits for the film. Yet for I. Stanford Jolley, the “ape” trainer of the film, life sure has to be sweet. I’d like you to remember that the ape used in this film was nothing more than a man in a suit. Did he train the man to walk around in the suit? Or to fling his arms like an ape, or better yet, the way a man in an ape suit would fling his arms like an ape? How did he stay on the payroll for this movie? (Truth of the matter, his character was the ape trainer, but I found his death to be not nearly as comical as pondering what he trained.)
Quote of the Film:
“But you never could lift them before!” -Boris Karloff responds to his patient’s (bound in a wheelchair) revelation about her legs not lifting. Very subtle.
Final Thoughts: You know for a movie that calls itself The Ape, I didn’t get to see a whole lot of, well, ape. In fact, the ape in question shows up for less than 10 minutes onscreen, and the majority of it is spent thrashing about in an awkward and clunky suit. Karloff breezes through as the only actor in the film who can, you know, act. In fact, he puts so much into this picture that you can visibly see he’s out to prove that he never needed Universal Pictures or Bela Lugosi to make him a star in the first place. While he excels marvelously in his efforts, he fails to recognize that the people surrounding him both on and off the scene just tear the movie down to new levels of diabolical madness. Karloff’s demostration of overacting and overreacting (again, death sequence) makes for some funny fodder, but he certainly proved why The Ape isn’t mentioned in the same breath with Frankenstein during his career, that is, unless that breath is the statement: “The Ape sure was a hell of a lot worse than Frankenstein.”