Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Monster Walks - 1932

Director:                                    Frank R. Strayer
Producer:                                  Cliff Broughton
Story and Adaptation:               Robert Ellis
Photographed by:                     Jules Cronjager
Editor:                                       Byron Robinson
Art Direction:                             Ben Doré
Recording Engineer:                 George F. Hutchins
Assistant Director:                   Wilfred E. Black

Hanns Krug                              Mischa Auer
Mrs. Krug                                 Martha Mattox
Dr. Ted Clayton                       Rex Lease
Ruth Earlton                             Vera Reynolds
Robert Earlton                          Sheldon Lewis
Herbert Wilkes                          Sidney Bracey
Exodus                                     Willie Best (billed as "Sleep 'N Eat")

Ralph M. Like Productions.  Distributed by Action Pictures.  
Released February 10, 1932.  63 minutes.
Re-release 1938, distributed by Astor Pictures.

“The Monster Walks” is not a great film, it is not a particularly good film, and much of the time it is rather a tedious film, but there is something about it that is comfortable.  It’s sort of like an old sweater that has holes in it, the cuffs are unraveling, it’s a little scratchy in a couple of places so you usually wear a t-shirt under it, but it is an old reliably comfy sweater and you wear it anyway.  You would never wear it in public; it’s the one you throw on when you get home from work.  This is an old, threadbare but comfy sweater of a movie. 

I admit to an eccentric fondness for old movies.  By that I don’t mean just the understandable fondness for great movies like “Citizen Kane” or even “Mildred Pierce”; movies that are admirable for their style, acting or whatnot or are just plain entertaining.  I’m talking about movies that are not discussed by or even on the radar of anyone other than a very hard-core movie fan.  These movies have a certain simplicity and naiveté in the production as a whole.  In terms of technique they often don’t have a lot going for them; they are creaky, melodramatic and stage-bound to the point that the camera seems to be nailed to the floor.  Usually the actors are playing it broadly as if for the silent screen or the back row of the theater.  These are gray little movies (from the early to mid-thirties mostly), with gray characters in gray costumes emoting gray dialog.

“The Monster Walks” is as creaky, melodramatic, stage-bound and gray as they come, but it has an earnest desire to entertain.  The movie was shot in a style which was common for early films – we see a large empty area between the camera and the actors, like a stage proscenium.  The fact that occasionally a piece of furniture occupies some of that empty space, like in the still below, doesn't really help much.  The set is stage-ily artificial.

Over time that technique was seen less and less as cameras became more mobile and directors discovered they could move the camera around to capture different angles and close ups.  By 1932 this static technique was on the wane, and so it is a bit unusual to see it used in this film; its presence drags the pace as we see actors standing in one spot for dialogue or we see them enter the room but have to wait for them to cross the “stage” before delivering their lines.  The fact that it is used here to such an extent points to either a low budget, a short shooting schedule or unimaginative direction and/or photography.  Possibly all of the above.

Maybe the comfortable feeling I have with “The Monster Walks” has to do with the familiarity of the story - it is a classic example of an “old dark house” mystery.  Paul Leni’s 1927 film, “The Cat and the Canary” is the gold standard for this genre in silent films, and James Whale’s 1932 “The Old Dark House” is the one to live up to in the sound era. 

This film contains most of the genre conventions which were already clichés in 1932, and are incredibly familiar to horror and mystery fans to this day– a spooky old house, hidden passageways leading everywhere, a storm raging outside and a will to be read at midnight. The stock characters in this sort of movie are: a recently deceased very rich somebody whose will is the reason everyone is there, the lawyer, the young innocent who is the one to inherit the whole kit and caboodle, various other relatives who now hate her and have a big time reason to kill her, the young man who is/will be her love interest, morose servants who are in the will for a mere pittance even after serving the master faithfully for about a hundred years, a terrified comedy relief character who jumps at his/her own shadow and finally, a mysterious madman who is picking off the inhabitants.  Pour all of those ingredients into a movie, stir gently, and you have an “old dark house” mystery.

This version starts by establishing the recent passing of wealthy scientist Dr. Earlton as we see his attorney Mr. Wilkes and housekeeper Mrs. Krug keeping vigil at the bedside of the shrouded corpse.  It is a wonderfully evocative opening for a murder mystery – the camera focuses on the bed, a white sheet over a body, window curtains swaying in the wind, the sound of thunder and a few flashes of lighting, a candle burning on the table by the bed.  Mr. Wilkes and Mrs. Krug enter the frame (like I said, the camera doesn’t move much)  and take their place at the bedside. Here is the clip:

There is a lot of exposition to get through at the beginning of this movie.  Not only do we learn who these people are and who else is expected, we hear some screams which are explained as coming from “Yogi”, the chimp the late scientist has caged in the basement.   

We next meet Hanns, Mrs. Krug’s son. (Why does “Hanns” have two n’s?  Don’t know.  It’s not a typo, at least it’s not mine.)   Hanns is so suspiciously dour we mark him immediately as the probable villain.

Hanns takes Mr. Wilkes down to the basement to assure him that Yogi is caged and cannot escape.  While there we get more exposition about the creepy household and are told that Yogi is upset because he “knows” that there is a dead body in the house. 

(L-R) Sidney Bracey, Mischa Auer, and...Yogi.

Oh, and not only has Yogi been experimented on, but his mate has recently passed away, a victim of the doctor’s no doubt ridiculous experiments, the nature of which we never learn and are probably better off not knowing.   And if that weren’t enough, Yogi hates Dr. Earlton’s daughter Ruth.  He has always been jealous of her and she has been afraid of him and this bad blood was the reason Ruth has stayed away from the house for so long.  Hanns informs us that Yogi used to be the doctor's favorite and had the run of the house, knowing "every nook and corner".  He will know if Ruth returns tonight because...."they always remember their hate."  Sibling rivalry?  Are you weirded out yet?

Personally, I think Yogi has a right to be in a bad mood.  Besides everything else, his cage is really small.  But our Yogi is obviously the “monster” of the title.  And just in case you missed it, the picture behind the title is of a giant ape carrying an unconscious woman – they were going for a King Kong vibe.  Poor Yogi is really being set-up to be the fall guy.  

 Ruth finally arrives and is greeted by her invalid uncle Robert who lived with his brother, and Mrs. Krug whom Ruth affectionately calls “Tanty”.   “Tanty” Krug is happy to see her but Hanns seems almost as peeved and irritable as Yogi, making him an A-Number One suspect before anything even happens.   Also introduced are Ruth’s fiancé Dr. Ted Clayton and his chauffeur, Exodus.

(L-R)  Martha Mattox, Vera Reynolds, Sidney Bracey, Rex Lease, Sheldon Lewis

There is a storm raging outside which means that it would be better for all the visitors if they spend the night.  And to add just the right touch of extra creepiness the screams from the basement are heard often.  Everyone’s nerves are on edge and it looks to be a long night.  (Why the hell would you have to read a will at midnight?)

Under the terms of the will Ruth receives the bulk of her father’s estate, so naturally she is now the object of the others’ hate and envy, especially Hanns.  He and his mother receive a very mean and paltry amount for their years of service and Hanns swears to his mother that he will get revenge.   And of course if anything should happen to Ruth, anything like for instance she dies, her uncle will inherit her share.  (That seems like a particularly dangerous clause to insert in your will.  I mean, you are just asking for trouble with that one.)

Mischa Auer emoting at Sheldon Lewis.

After Ruth retires to her childhood room for the night a hairy arm reaches out from a secret panel above her bed (this is straight out of “The Cat and the Canary”) and tries to strangle her.  She wakes and screams, rousing the rest of the house. 

 Suspicion is thrown on Yogi, since he has the hairiest arms, but he is safely locked in his cage, so how could it be possible?  Wait a sec…where was Hanns…?  Oh, he was playing his violin in his room-

– everyone heard him so his alibi is ironclad.  Right? 

Poor, nervous Ruth just knows she won’t be able to relax so her beloved Dr. Ted gives her something to help her sleep.  (“Gee thanks hon!  Thanks for not offering to stay with me and comfort and/or protect me or watch over me or anything even though I am obviously in danger in this creepy house, so thanks, I’m sure I’ll be fine now, you just go back to your room and sleep tight, I’ll be fine really.   Jerk!”)
Martha Mattox and Vera Renolds.

More mysterious shenanigans ensue – a murder is committed but it is the wrong victim, and everyone figures it absolutely has to be Yogi escaping from his cage at will.  A long held family secret is revealed, another murder is attempted and the mystery is finally solved. Yogi is proven innocent but is able to get some of his own back and save Ruth’s life at the same time.  Ruth can live happily ever, rolling in dough with handsome, stalwart, boring, dipshit Dr. Ted.

Vera Reynolds as the young heroine Ruth is limp and forgettable.  In her most dramatic moments her round little face registers nothing much more than dull surprise.  She began her showbiz career as a dancer, became one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties in silent films, and later starred in films for Cecil B. DeMille.   After sound came in, her career declined and she retired in 1932 after this film and two more.  She was married to the writer of “The Monster Walks”, Robert Ellis.

Robert Ellis, in addition to writing, was a popular leading man in many silent movies and early talkies.  He also worked as an art director and even directed several films for producer David O. Selznick.  He died in 1935.

Dr. Ted Clayton is played by Rex Lease.  He had studied for the ministry before going into acting, starting as an extra.  He moved up into many leading romantic roles in dramas, comedies, serials and westerns until the late thirties when he slipped back into supporting roles.  His performance in “The Monster Walks” is routine and perfunctory. 

Top billed Mischa Auer was a talented actor, good in drama but best known for comedy.  He rarely had a leading role in a major film, usually playing a secondary character.  He was born in Russia in 1905.  After the 1917 revolution he and his mother escaped Lenin’s Soviet Union and made their way to the West.  After his mother’s death and a difficult hand-to-mouth existence, his grandfather, the violinist Leonard Auer, found him and brought him to America.  Mischa studied music and eventually took to the stage and films.  In this movie Auer’s musical skills are (sort of) featured as a plot point.

Tall, sharp featured, Russian accented, he was frequently cast as a villain until his comedic skills were discovered.  Some of his best known films are:  “My Man Godfrey” for which he was nominated for an Oscar, “Destry Rides Again”, “And Then There Were None”, and “You Can’t Take it With You”.
Mischa Auer doing his "ape" comic bit in "My Man Godfrey".  

Martha Mattox plays the taciturn Tanty Krug.  She practically had a patent on this type of character, playing it in 1921’s “The Conflict” and most famously as Mammy Pleasant in 1927’s “Cat and the Canary”.
Martha Mattox in "The Cat and the Canary".

Exodus is played by actor Willie Best, billed in this movie under the alias “Sleep ‘n Eat”.  Mr. Best played secondary or bit parts in over 100 movies in the 1930s and 1940s and was billed as “Sleep ‘n Eat” in five of them.  His characters had names in most of his movies, which was somewhat unusual for bit actors, as often they would be referred to in the credits merely by their job title – waiter, maid, chauffeur, etc.  Mr. Best received accolades from many of his colleagues, calling him one of the finest actors with whom they had worked. 
Willie Best as Exodus.

In “The Monster Walks” Exodus is the comedy relief scaredy-cat character.  His  characterization appears to be playing a stereotype but can be seen as actually a parody of the stereotype.  However, this and the fact that Mr. Best was a talented actor don’t really make me feel any better.  As a matter of fact, I just get more depressed.  On the other hand, he was working. These days it is unrelentingly painful to watch a performance like this, one of the many played by African-American actors in films of that era, the kind of thing that contributes to that whole white guilt thing.  I feel the need to apologize personally to… well, all human beings everywhere.   Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland, John Henry Allen, Clarence Muse, Louise Beavers, Theresa Harris, Sam McDaniel and so many, many, many more.  I am torn between cringing and being happy that these actors at least were getting work and sometimes making a pretty good living.

Willie Best and Mischa Auer give the most entertaining performances in the movie.  In their brief scenes together they both standout and play off each other well.

Director Frank Strayer also directed “The Vampire Bat” which has some of the same technical defects as this film (stodgy stagebound set-ups, slow melodrama) but to a lesser degree.  Mr. Strayer seemed to have learned a lot between 1932 and 1933 in terms of moving his camera around.  The Vampire Bat” also benefited from a much better cast, great art direction from Charles D. Hall and some leftover Universal sets from “Frankenstein” and “The Old Dark House”.

So why am I fond of this movie?  Why am I recommending it at all?  For all of its creakiness, the movie works, at least sometimes.  As I said before, it has a comfy old-fashioned quality that feels like that old sweater I put on for lazy Sundays.  I just have to remember to wear something under it - it’s kind of scratchy, you know.

Have a comment about this post?  Please, be my guest.  Indulge yourself.  I would love to hear from you.  Click on “Comments” below.  Thanks!

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