The Monster and the Ape #15: The Last Refuge of the Failure

Good friends, ’tis the final chapter of The Monster and the Ape, so a quick recap is in order. But first, those who were playing along with The Monster and the Ape home game can find the final chapter here, with Spanish subtitles.

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Our story so far: A team of scientists reveal to the world that a newly-discovered, meteor-based element known as Metalogen can power robots, proving to be an exciting step forward in the sciences. They demonstrate the Metalogen Man at a press conference; immediately afterward, all the scientists save Professor Arnold (Frank Morgan) and Professor Ernst (George MacReady) are killed off. Soon, we discover Ernst feels the invention was all his, and the other scientists were stealing his thunder. From this moment on, Arnold and Ernst are locked in a duel of so-called wits, each trying to obtain both the Metalogen and the robot it powers. Ken Morgan (Robert Lowry), robot salesman, and no that is not a joke, arrives and helps Arnold by getting into lots of fistfights with Ernst’s henchmen. Also helping Arnold are his daughter Babs (Carole Matthews, possessing both the best hair and the least talent in Hollywood), and Willie Best as the assistant-slash-chauffeur Flash, who provides us comedy relief by being humiliated in a series of racist situations.

At this point you should know that not a single reporter follows up on the press conference, not even after the scientists’ deaths, and Ernst never again mentions that he believes the Metalogen Man is rightly his own invention. He is simply evil and wants it for himself, because evil.

mata15-14Crash Corrigan with his monkey suit in a promotional lobby card.

 

Throughout 15 chapters, we watch as Ernst scrambles for the robot and the element. He pretends to be a scientist named Draper (the actor playing the real Draper is uncredited, his identity lost to time and poor record keeping) to infiltrate Arnold’s lab, and at various times sends his henchmen to steal either the Metalogen or M-Bot or both. Arnold, Ken, and sometimes Flash go to steal it back, or just investigate whatever is going on at the time which, trust me, is rarely anything of interest. Both the good guys and the baddies are hoping to find another source of Metalogen during all this, as well.

The ostensible excitement of the serial is provided by Ernst’s enormous ape Thor (Ray “Crash” Corrigan in his own handmade monkey suit), controlled by zookeeper and trusty henchman Dick Nordik (Jack Ingram), and the Metalogen Man himself, an unidentified actor in a robot suit. In fact, the entire publicity campaign for The Monster and the Ape is built upon the premise that Thor and M-Bot will throw down in an epic confrontation:

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Or, as you can see in the detail on the bottom right of the poster, perhaps even team up together. The truth, which I can reveal to you now that we are at the end of the serial, is that this never happens. It was all a publicity campaign made up of lies designed to get butts into seats on false premises.

The only time the robot and the ape are in the same scene is this brief moment in Chapter 8 when Thor carries M-bot back to Ernst’s lab.

 

It’s not that I didn’t fully expect the eventual confrontation to be weaksauce, I had no idea it would never happen at all; to be honest, had I known, I never would have done recaps of this serial. But I am recapping it, so we must trudge on to the end, my friends. Let’s visit the final chapter, which is called “Justice Triumphs.”

mata15-1Justice triumphs? Wonder what that means?

 

This final episode jumps right into the action as Ken, who was flying after three henchmen who panicked and flew off before Ernst was ready, suffers mechanical failure in his plane. The last chapter cliffhanger at least didn’t even try to sell us on the idea that Ken might be dead; prior chapters flatly lied about events, using different footage each time, most egregiously in the case of an avalanche where a dummy dressed like Ken was visibly smashed with a rock, yet wasn’t even near the falling rocks in the next chapter’s recap.

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The henchmen continue to fly… somewhere. We don’t know where, and they don’t know where, either. Ernst made a point of stating that he wasn’t going to tell the henchmen where they were going, and as far as we know, he never changed his mind. I guess we can only assume that the trio of henchmen are in such a panic they are flying willy nilly across the plains.

Flying, that is, until they accidentally end up in a no-fly zone patrolled by this guy, intended to be a modern day soldier but obviously an extra in WWI surplus:

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He informs some colonel (an uncredited crappy actor who looks nervously into the camera) in “Zone 11″ about the airplane. After a quick consult on the phone — and keep in mind the Armed Forces have no idea who is on the plane, and are completely out of the loop regarding this whole Metalogen-Ernst ordeal — a general gives orders to shoot down the plane. Stock war footage is deployed, then boom:

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mata15-6Three henchmen and the Metalogen, all gone in a whimper passed off as a bang.

 

You really cannot watch this scene without immediately realizing that Edward D. Wood, Jr. knew the films he made weren’t that far off from the films Hollywood made. This entire segment is proto-Plan 9, without question, made by experienced personnel at a well-established studio. Maybe those who said Ed Wood was the worst filmmaker ever could be excused decades ago before films and serials like these were readily available, but Michael Medved, ostensibly experienced and knowledgeable in film history, has no excuse for labeling Wood “worst director” when mainstream, mass-produced junk like this existed.

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Meanwhile, on the ground, Ernst and henchman Flint take Arnold to that brick factory we’ve seen in a few chapters prior. Ernst and Arnold have a little recap good-old-days talk, which isn’t much of anything, and never references what got everyone into this mess in the first place, because you know every single script writer, cast and crew member has forgotten about it by now.

Back at Arnold’s lab, Flash returns to a panicked but useless Babs. She quizzes him on what he knows, and he explains he was left behind and tied up as Arnold was taken away, but Ken showed up, untied him, and told him to call the police. Babs screams, “No, you’ll spoil everything!” as though a logical, reasonable person would think it best to keep the police out of this. She’s angry because Flash couldn’t read her mind and had no idea Arnold, while kidnapped, had told Babs to leave the police out of it.

Flash apologizes and continues to explain, but his explanation is all gibberish, the racist mispronunciations used as comedy relief throughout the film, and Babs — who we have seen more than once chuckling at those mispronunciations — yells at him to make sense for once. It’s all terrible acting, both of them standing there reciting their lines like in a bad high school play, but it’s also offensive, and it ends with a racist punchline, Flash referring to himself as a child as a “pickaninny.”

mata15-7The only (accidental) acting Carole has ever done: Her unguarded look of surprise at Willie Best’s final line.

 

It’s not that the word “pickaninny” was completely out of the American lexicon by this time, nor is it now, sadly, but films had avoided the word for several years, since the mid-1930s. As Authentic History notes (note: link goes to racist imagery), this is about the time when an anti-Little Black Sambo movement began, and though the word was obviously used in popular culture, it’s difficult to find many uses of it in films as late as 1945; if they were used, it was almost entirely by people playing characters meant to be negative in some way. Seeing a black man calling himself by that term in dialogue from a script written by white men is troubling stuff, and I think you’ll agree that in looking at Carole’s reaction, we’re seeing the actress herself taken aback, not the character Babs. It’s so incongruous; why even go there in a kids’ serial?

Flash goes to a back room, having been instructed to allow Ernst’s henchmen to take M-Bot in exchange for Arnold, while Babs begins a long, boring sequence of toodling around the lab. When henchman Flint arrives, we see M-Bot walking around the lab as he’s being controlled, wasting more minutes. This is about 11 minutes before the end of the serial, folks, and we’re being subjected to over three minutes of time wasters.

Ken returns and he begins to chew Babs out in the same way she chewed Flash out, and suddenly, The Monster and the Ape becomes a terrible example of the social hierarchy in mid-40s America. Just a little sociocultural slice o’ heaven right here, innit? This is unpleasant stuff.

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At the brick factory, Ernst becomes impatient, wondering why Flint and M-Bot haven’t arrived yet. And why haven’t they? Flat tire. Again, this is not a joke. Arnold calls Babs at an impatient Ernst’s insistence, and the call is traced by the police, who tell Ken where the call is coming from. When Flint finally fixes his tire and arrives with M-Bot, he and Ernst speed off to the airport — remember, they have no idea their comrades and the sacks of Metalogen were shot down by the U.S. Armed Forces — just as Ken gets to the brick factory, this time with emergency services in tow. They untie Arnold, and send Arnold and Babs home; their work here is done.

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Ken and the cops chase after Flint and Ernst in a car that has duct tape over the parking permits, as cop cars do.

Then Flint, Ernst, and the unseen Metalogen Man in the back of the truck go off the cliff in this stock footage that I swear was also used in The Phantom Creeps.

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That’s it. We’re done. Well, Arnold, Babs and Ken sit around for the final minute and sulk, but otherwise, the serial is over.

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My biggest issue with this serial was the utter pointlessness of it all. How exactly does something like this get made? The robot, a.k.a. the “monster” of the title, did nothing. He was just some tchotchke exchanged between the two groups, but beyond a little menacing in the abandoned paint factory, he was completely unused.

And I have to wonder who was actually behind this pile of shit. Director Howard Bretherton had helmed nearly 100 films and serials prior to this, since the silent days. Writers Royal K. Cole and Sherman Lowe had both done a host of serials and B movies. The actors, with the exception of Carole Matthews, were all experienced. Was there not a single person who could fix this thing? Would you want your work to go out looking like this, with your name on it, your face, your effort?

Willie Best may not have had much experience, but he was the only actor besides Crash Corrigan who brought some energy to the thing, and a couple of times appeared to improvise — when he dropped the pencil, when he tasted the Metalogen, etc. — and made a scene better. Everyone involved is drained and sad by the end of the serial, except Best, and to a lesser extent Robert Lowery, who seemed just to be happy that he was the lead.

Very basic fixes were beyond the two dozen people involved, apparently. Instead of having Arnold claim he “forgot” about a working Metalogen detector sitting in the cabinet, why not have the exact same scene and replace the line with, “Let me try one more time to fix it,” and then it works? Instead of the henchmen flying off without knowing where they were going, how about adding to the line “The flight plans are in the plane”? Have the monkey lunge at Arnold before he shoots, then say, oh, I dunno, “Argh!” before falling to the ground? Have the guy in the robot suit reach out of the back of the van and scare Ernst and Flint, causing them to drive off the cliff in a panic?

As much as I’ve thought about this serial for the past few months, I have yet to come up with any scenario that explains the complete failure of this venture. Disinterested cats could do better than this.

I very much regret how this serial turned out, and I feel like I let a lot of people down, and all I can do is apologize. There are some things I just cannot breathe life into, and I should have called “Uncle!” on this months ago. I think we caught a little lightning in a bottle back with the Phantom Creeps recaps, and Raiders of Ghost City was interesting if a little dry, but this… this was a waste of all our time, and I’m sorry.

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A new, fresher weekly feature is in the works. Onward and upward, better things ahead, stiff upper lip, etc. etc.

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7 Comments

  1. If this was a “super-serial”, I’d hate to see what Columbia’s idea of a plain old everyday serial would be.

    Michael O’Donoghue once wrote an article for the National Lampoon titled “How to Write Good”, which was chock-full of sage advice for the budding writer. One piece of that’s stayed with me over the years is his sure-fire recommendation for what to do if you’re stuck for an ending: have everybody run over by a bus.

    And if you’re writing a story where everybody is on a bus, no problem — just have them run over by a bigger bus!

    Despite the complete lack of buses, this was definitely one of those kinds of endings. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that the exhibition of this final chapter of TMatA was accompanied by several pitched riots, as the kids had their last, tattered shreds of hope blasted like that plane full of henchmen and Metalogen, to be replaced by the realization of how thoroughly they’d been conned by the cynical bastards who created this irrepressibly drab and awful mess. (Which, now that I think about it, is probably why Thor got aced in the penultimate chapter: to break up their parting “fuck you” to their audience and spread it out just enough to keep from pushing them over the edge.)

    Nonetheless, I’m now convinced the terrible trauma inflicted on these bright, innocent young souls that day goes a long way toward explaining the Reagan presidency and the modern conservative movement.

    Up until this point, I thought Larry Buchanan flicks were the epitome of who-gives-a-damn film-making. But I can’t recall anything I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen a lot of really, really bad films over the years — which demonstrated quite this level of obvious loathing for the project and everything connected with it, including and especially the audience.

    Like I said earlier about George Macready, after its initial run the cast and crew probably figured TMatA would be allowed to rot away quietly on some back shelf in the studio film vault, maybe rented out from time-to-time to institutions with captive audiences to be entertained on the cheap. None of them could have anticipated that almost seventy years later this embarrassing heap of fetid dingo droppings would be resurrected and made immortal by the Intertubes.

    There’s no need to consider committing sepukku over the way this turned out, Stacia. Your recaps have been far more entertaining than the chapters. You’ve just mucked out one heck of an Augean stable of shoddiness, casual racism and misogyny. IMO, you deserve our gratitude for taking on the task and executing it so gracefully.

    • I’ve tried to find which films this serial preceded during the weeks it ran, but the best I can do is assume. Apparently films like the El Brendel, er, “classic” PISTOL PACKIN’ NITWITS and the terrible remake of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT called EVE KNEW HER APPLES (best part: the title) followed the serial, so I suspect almost no one even saw this in its original release.

      Some local stations ran serials in the 1970s, as I learned during the last serial I recapped, and MatA does have evidence of some kind of TV transfer in the bizarre cropping of some of the right-hand side. But I haven’t found anyone’s childhood reminiscences about the serial, so if it was on TV, it went mostly unnoticed.

      The only halfway interesting thing I discovered about this serial is that the room full of zarking equipment used a lot of Kenneth Strickfaden’s machines.

      I know I was a bit depressive in this recap, but I really feel that, to be entertaining, a serial has to have a little spark of something going for it, and this serial started out pretty good but completely lost the spark with 2/3rd of it left to go. I won’t be doing another serial without seriously vetting it first.

      Thanks for commenting and watching it with me!

      • You’re very welcome.

        After you’ve had a good, long convalescence from TMatA, if you decide to do another serial may I suggest one of my favorites: Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders?

        It’s got everything: Two-fisted albeit somewhat dim-witted Mounties, vile and sneaky villains, cheap sets and lots of stock footage. Although the title seems to promise a Mountie/extraterrestrial matchup — which might have been cool, especially if they’d cast Leonard Nimoy — the “Atomic Invaders” are in reality agents of a foreign power *cough*Russia*cough* seeking to set up secret missile bases in Canada as part of their cunning plan to overrun the good ol’ U.S. of A.

        I should mention, though, that my memory of this serial comes from maybe one or two viewings of the edited-down-to-100-minutes version on a local TV station, sometime in the late 60s/early 70s. (These “Reader’s Digest” feature versions were my introduction to the post-WWII Republic serials.) Although I’m a bit hazy on the details after all these years, at the time it struck me as loony enough to make a lasting impression on my teenage psyche.

        D’oh! In the course of writing this comment, it finally occurred to me to check YouTube. I found out CMvsAI’s available there in all its original serial glory. So you can give it a look sometime, if this sounds interesting. (I know I will, if for no other reason than to see if my memory’s faultier than I already suspect.)

        • Doing a serial is probably not going to happen for some time; I have projects and a couple of outlets I write for, and would really like to get back to reviewing movies here, not just serials. Since time is limited, I’ll probably do a “series” (for loose values of the word) of films of some sort, or maybe blog about film series (Histoire(s) du cinema, Hollywood, etc.) instead of a serial.

          I appreciate the suggestion — I will surely keep watching serials casually even if I don’t blog about them — but didn’t want you to get your hopes up.

  2. From what I’ve read, a lot of movie people thought of the serials as faintly embarrassing entry-level jobs to put behind them as soon as possible, but even so, most tried to do the best job possible with what they had to work with. (Granted, not all best efforts are created equal.) Like you, I can’t imagine letting something like this go out with my name on it.

    Yeah, even if the posters didn’t promise it, some kind of robot/gorilla showdown would still have seemed as inevitable as Chekhov’s gun. The serials were made cheaply and on insanely short timetables, but that didn’t stop other cliffhangers from being entertaining enough to give the kids their money’s worth. Imagine what Republic or even Universal would have done with the same setup; it still would have been silly crap, but I doubt that you’d feel the writers just throwing up their hands and giving up.

    I can’t help wondering if there was some last-minute budgetary or scheduling snag that forced them to ditch the original plan and shrug out a midnight rewrite. Given the serial unit’s resources, it wouldn’t have taken much to constitute a crisis. Even at its “best,” this would never have been more than a lower-tier effort, but you can actually see the script running out of energy and interest in the final chapters. As you noted, Bretherton, Cole and Lowe weren’t geniuses but they customarily did better work than this.

    As to your recaps – snark is always fun, but frankly I’ve found your reaction to all of these WTF moments interesting and entertaining as hell, like reading a think piece on Citizen Kane’s cockatoo. There’s certainly nothing to apologize for here. I’m looking forward to the new feature, but if you ever decide to give serial recapping another try, I think we’d all welcome it.

    Thanks for all the fun

    • The posters advertising something that was never going to happen absolutely baffled me. It’s not a new phenomenon — DUFFY OF SAN QUENTIN was released on Warner Archive DVD and immediately received a dozen shocked reviews online from people wondering why the excitement on the poster never even remotely happened on screen. But in this case, as you said, you have a robot, and you have a monkey, and the First Law of Movie Monsters is that every robot must battle every monkey in the film, otherwise you risk tearing apart the very fabric of space time.

      Universal is often considered pretty low-grade when it comes to serials, but they could have done better with this, no question. The actors were mostly competent and I only rarely saw any visual mistakes (a boom mic, a stuntman not quite out of frame, that’s about it). It was the script, entirely the script, which had such easy fixes that something catastrophic must have happened for the serial to end up this way.

      Thanks for commenting, James – and sorry the blog ate your first try! And thanks for watching along with me! I couldn’t have done it alone.

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