The Ape Man (1943)

It is a shame that Bela Lugosi never got to act in a serious drama for a top director. I think he would have made a glorious performance. Instead, he was typecast as the monster or mad scientist in cheap B movies. Sometimes he was both, as in The Ape Man.

Bela Lugosi as the mad scientist in The Ape Man (1943)

The story of The Ape Man is absolutely ludicrous. Dr. Brewster’s experiments on a caged gorilla that he keeps in a secret room in his basement have gone all wrong. As a result he is turning into a gorilla himself, and the only way he can save himself is to tap people’s spinal fluid. The problem is that the procedure tends to kill the victims. Two newspaper reporters have a hunch that something is wrong and try to get a scoop, and at the same time the police are investigating the killings, as well as the disappearance of the Doctor.

This would seem to be a certain recipe for a disastrous movie, and it is if you try to take it seriously. Well, don’t. Let loose a bit and I think you will find this to be a little gem of a movie. The actors are actually quite good, not least Lugosi who is not so much threatening as he is tragic; hence my comment about serious drama in the beginning. Louise Curry and Wallace Ford (otherwise unknown names to me) also perform nicely as the two reporters.

The movie has several other qualities as well. The dialogue is good, not as stilted as it sometimes tends to be in similar movies, and the film’s duration of only slightly above an hour makes sure that you do not have time to become bored. The only major problem is sound quality, which is terrible on the copy I found. So bad, in fact, that it was sometimes hard to make out the dialogue, even though the actors spoke clearly enough.

Now, if you thoroughly enjoyed this film and want more of the same, try The Ape (1940) with Boris Karloff as the mad scientist who goes ape. Not quite as enjoyable as The Ape Man, but clearly a child of the same spirit. There is also The Gorilla (1939), which I have not seen, but wherein you will find both Bela Lugosi and yet another gorilla suit.

This film is best enjoyed all the way through to the end. There is a marvellous meta twist that puts everything on end and shows exactly how serious the producer and writer were about the story.

Ralph Littlefield as Zippo in The Ape Man (1943)

The Ape Man
Download link
Year: 1943
Running time: 1 h 4 min
Director: William Beaudine
Stars: Bela Lugosi
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: DivX (694 M)

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Nabonga (1944)

Last week, I wrote about Tarzan actor Buster Crabbe playing the second fiddle to Johnny Weissmuller. This week, it is Crabbe’s turn to play the lead, and his sidekick is a very interesting actor named Prince Modupe. If not for these two actors, the B-movie Nabonga would have been easily forgotten.

Prince Modupe and Buster Crabbe in Nabonga (1944)

Every once in a while, one of the Tarzan actors would turn out to actually have an acting talent, and would go on to make a decent acting career. Crabbe was one of these. Like Weissmuller, he was an Olympic swimming gold medalist. He made his Tarzan appearance in a 1933 serial, Tarzan the Fearless. The serial is now lost, but a feature film version remains. Interestingly it was produced simultaneously with Weissmuller’s first Tarzan for MGM, due to conflicting contracts (somewhat similar to the situation with James Bond in the 1960s). Crabbe followed a long tradition of Tarzans recruited for their physique rather than any actual acting talents. Indeed, his Tarzan role did not allow for much acting on Crabbe’s part.

This is where history loops back, because the story of Nabonga centers around the girl Doreen (played by Julie London) who is stranded in the jungle and raised by her father and a gorilla. It is clearly inspired by the story of Tarzan, and undoubtedly made to capitalize on the Tarzan films (still with Weissmuller in the lead at this time). So Crabbe comes back to the Tarzan theme, but from the opposite direction, so to speak, as the romantic interest of the female “Tarzan”.

Prince Modupe plays Crabbe’s sidekick Tobo. At a time when black people generally were subject to simplified stereotyping, Modupe managed to play roles where he actually appeared as a human, not as a stupid native or savage or servant. Born in French West Africa, Modupe’s village had very little contact with white people, yet young Modupe (“Prince” was originally his royal title, apparently) managed to get a European education and later worked in the US as a writer, composer, producer and actor. Beyond that, I was able to find very little information on the Internet, but this is one personality whom I would love to find out more about.

The nice chemistry between Crabbe and Modupe lifts this film from the turkey pit and actually makes it enjoyable, at least in part.

One more actor deserves to be mentioned, namely Ray Corrigan. The guy in the gorilla suit. The suit was apparently Corrigan’s private property, and some periods of his career he specialized in gorilla roles.

This film is best enjoyed as a celebration of National Gorilla Suit Day, which is on Friday, January 31. National Gorilla Suit Day was first conceived as a joke by Mad Magazine artist Don Martin, but is today celebrated every year by fans of Martin and fans of gorilla suits alike.

Buster Crabbe, Julie London and Ray Corrigan in the gorilla suit, in Nabonga (1944)

Nabonga
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Year: 1944
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Director: Sam Newfield
Stars: Buster Crabbe
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (704×528)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

Tarzan is often mentioned as one of the most iconic literary characters of the 20th century, after Sherlock Holmes and maybe Dracula. But Holmes and Dracula were both created in the 19th century, so perhaps Tarzan is the most iconic literary character to emerge during the 20th, disregarding comic characters such as Superman.

Today, when you think about Tarzan on the silver screen, you probably think first about Johnny Weissmuller, who played the ape man through most of the 30s and 40s. Starting with his films, and continuing for decades thereafter, the movies were not based on any of the books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Indeed, even the characters barely resembled those in the books (Boy and Cheeta were never in the books at all).

Stellan Windrow as Tarzan in Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

The first Tarzan movie Tarzan of the Apes, on the other hand, is very faithful to the original story. Perhaps too faithful, which may have been the reason why it was cut heavily, apparently from three hours originally, and even then they only did half the book. (The rest was adapted into a second film, The Romance of Tarzan (1918), which was thought lost until a partial print was discovered recently.)

But the existing film of only an hour is too short. You can feel the incoherence caused by the heavy cutting. Some films really deserve to be restored to their best possible versions. But restoration is expensive and time consuming, so for now we will have to settle with the butchered version.

The one-hour version at the Internet Archive is the longest extant version known to me (there are commercial releases with better music and image quality, but the same content). Yet, it can be assumed that other surviving versions contain material not used in this one. The best example is a 1937 cut of the first half of the film (Tarzan’s childhood) titled Tarzan the Boy, which was up for sale a while ago on eBay. Then there are rumours about a 73-minute version, and there are probably others. Even though a complete version may never be found, it should be possible to do considerably better than what exists at present.

The casting in the film is not exactly great. Even Edgar Rice Burroughs himself was said to be dissatisfied with Enid Markey as the young and beautiful Jane, and while Elmo Lincoln is certainly muscular enough, he does not exactly look like he could suddenly jump into a tree and start swingning away. Rather, he is lumbering around in the jungle. In fact, another actor, the Swede Stellan Windrow, was originally cast for the role, but he was drafted when shooting had only just begun. It is him we can see in some of the scenes where Tarzan swings through the trees.

The film was shot in the swamp jungles of Louisiana. A documentary was recently made about the filming. I have not seen it, but it is said to be very good.

This film is best enjoyed if you are unfamiliar with the original. It really is a great story, and this first filming tells it better than most later ones even though some liberties have been taken.

Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan holding Enid Markey as Jane in Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

Tarzan of the Apes
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Year: 1918
Running time: 60 min
Director: Scott Sidney
Stars: Elmo Lincoln
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Poor, random music
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (426 M)