The Ape (1940)
Notes: Monarch Film Corporation.
Dr. Bernard Adrian: Boris Karloff
Francis Clifford: Maris Wrixon
Danny Foster: Gene O’Donnell
Mrs. Clifford: Dorothy Vaughan
Sheriff Halliday: Henry Hall
Jane: Gertrude Hoffman
Directed: William Nigh
Screenplay: Kurt Siodmak and Richard Carroll
Play Source: Adam Hull Shirk
Adaptation: Kurt Siodmak
Assistant Producer: William Lackey
Music: Edward Kay
Summary: “The Greatest Show on Earth” comes to Red Creek and judging by the montage of ticket sales looks to be a success. Some kids want to earn money for the sideshow, but a garage attendant advises, “Save your money — [there are] plenty of freaks around here.” These turds form a gang and vandalize that “crazy doctor’s” house as a misguided economic policy. Dr. Bernard Adrian returns home on a bicycle and the turds flee. The doctor enters his house and checks a dog’s eyes.
Pompous asses pontificate about how the doctor should be run out of town. They circulate rumors that he uses patients as guinea pigs. The doctor enters and is warned by the shopkeeper that a mob is forming due to the missing dogs in the neighborhood and rumors about his experimenting. Dr. Adrian visits Francis Clifford, a polio victim, and her mother. He gives the girl a jewelry case that would have been his daughter’s, who would have been 18 years old today. Disease killed the doctor’s wife and daughter, so he’s committed to fighting paralysis and is working on a serum for Francis. Danny Foster, a moron and beau, stops by the Clifford place. He’s greasy.
At the circus, the turds wax gaga over the gorilla, a potential role model. A married usurer is dating a nervous girl. Francis admires the “muscular grace” of the trapeze artists. Later, a trainer pokes a stick at the gorilla who “killed my old man” some years ago. The gorilla strangles this bonehead, who drops his cigar in the hay, starting a fire during which the ape escapes. “Somebody’d better get that ape or he’ll tear this town wide open!” The mauled trainer is taken to the doctor. “Don’t let me die, doc,” we whimpers. “Man — the highest kind of animal,” rants the doctor.
Dr. Adrian brings serum to Francis: “When the pain is gone it’ll leave new life behind.” She has a heavy feeling in her legs soon — so it’s working. Back at the lab, disaster: the serum drops and is lost. Outside, Wilcox is “all torn up,” so dorks with guns hunt the gorilla, who crashes in the doctor’s window. The doctor attacks the ape (and we later learn has succeeded in killing him).
Danny distrusts the doctor and tells Francis, “I don’t like things I don’t understand.” The Sheriff’s dogs feel the same, but the doctor says they must be reacting to his insect repellent.
The usurer snubs his wife’s cooking: “I don’t care for lamb stew and dumplings.” She knows he’s having an affair and pleads, “I wish you wouldn¹t keep going on here where we live. So people would start pitying me…. I have no-one but you. I have no folks, nowhere to go.” He says, “You have the river.” He gets killed. The next thing we know, the dorks are saying, “Poor Mason, I feel sorry for his widow.” They learn that, similarly, the ape has to be “prowling after dark.”
The doctor has more serum for Francis while Danny expresses his distrust to Mrs. Clifford. Dr. Adrian tries to explain: “If through her I could rid the world….” “I’m not in love with the world,” Danny replies. Francis experiences pain, so “that’s good.” Her foot soon moves slightly.
A new doctor, McNaulty, is told that Adrian “came here during the paralysis epidemic.” McNaulty has noted an injection mark on the corpses. He confronts Dr. Adrian, noting that the Robinson Institute expelled a young man 25 years ago for unauthorized spinal experimentation. Adrian offers a “small measure of proof” that he’s on the right track. Francis has been paralyzed for 10 years but has begun slightly moving her foot. McNaulty is impressed and invites Adrian back to the Institute, but it’s “too late.”
The turds report that they’ve shot the ape, but the law figgers it was just a cow. When the dogs go berserk at the doctor’s again, he says it’s because of the dead trainer’s coat. Francis moves her feet in front of Danny, but we need more serum!
A stake-out results in an ape attack on a man, but the ape is knifed. Francis sees the ape staggering about and calls to the doctor, but the ape is shot at the door. “Let me give him one, Sheriff!” says Goober #6. “He’s done.” It turns out that it was Dr. Adrian in the ape disguise. He raises his head to see an upset Francis take her first steps and then dies. Obviously, he stole the ape’s hide (and face!) to stalk about for spinal fluids all this time, ever since the ape break-in.
Danny and Francis share the final scene. She has burned her chair (instead of donating it to a crippled child).
Commentary: The film seems like a bitter indictment of American stupidity (gun-happy bullying, mindless persecution, etc.) except it’s undermined by misplacement in a mad-doctor thriller. You can’t applaud the doctor for stealing dogs and killing people for their spine-juice, but you can’t despise him either since all humans in this town are best wiped off the face of the earth.
The persecution of the ape parallels the persecution of the doctor, so somewhere in here was the potential for an effective monster movie, but then polio knocks everything out of whack, so in the end it’s just a big mess.