Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Monkey Did It (Maybe) :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Frank Strayer's The Monster Walks (1932)

Back in the late 1920's, Ralph Like was an engineer for the New York based Biltmore Productions. By 1927 he decided to expand his role to producer, purchasing the Charles Ray Studios, so he could provide starring vehicles for his wife, Blanche Mehaffey. And for the next five years or so, Like's Action Pictures Inc. churned out about dozen programmers that ran the gambit from westerns, to melodramas, to adventure yarns. The 1930's saw a switch to sound and a company name change to Mayfair Pictures, which strung things along for a couple more years and about two-dozen more features, before a lack of substantial distribution [-- this was back in the State's rights era, where a film had to be sold by region if the creators couldn't afford a tour of their own, leaving the film in the hands of whoever controlled said regions --] caused Like to pull the plug, with Mehaffey soon following suit by pulling the plug on their marriage before the decade closed out.


Robert Savani, meanwhile, founded Astor Pictures in 1930 for the sole purpose of acquiring and re-releasing films, mostly from the likes of United Artists [Hell's Angels, Scarface] and Monogram [Black Dragons, Bowery at Midnight], but he also pillaged Like's back catalog, including The Monster Walks, shot in 1932, and sent it out nationally in 1938, which is probably why the film still exists today.


The film itself is nothing special, really; a no-frills rehash of The Cat and the Canary by way of the Rue Morgue, with a little medical mad-science peppered in to punch things up a bit, when another crackpot patriarch bites the dust, leading to the usual round-up of possible heirs to hear the reading of the will. There's the doe-eyed daughter, Ruth (Reynolds), and her square-jawed fiance, Ted (Lease), an invalid uncle (Lewis), and the family maid/governess, Emma (Mattox), and her dimwitted son, Hans (Auer), who all listen with baited-breath until the lawyer reveals all of the Earlton estate goes to the girl -- the money, the ancestral mansion, and the mad-laboratory complete with spazoid-monkey locked in cage in the basement. Of course, if anything should happen to Ruth, like, say, she gets murdered in the next few hours, everything would then go to Uncle Robert. Staying right on course, during the night, while she sleeps, an inhuman hand emerges from a secret panel and tries to strangle Ruth!



Luckily, her screams scares the thing off and brings everyone else running. Poo-pooed at first as just a latent nightmare over her late father's devious and dubious experiments, it soon becomes apparent to Ted that someone or some thing is after his bride-to-be. Fingers are pointed, and the motley collection of characters head to separate corners of the mansion to sulk. Leaving the trusted Emma to look after his girl, Ted strikes out to try and sniff out what really goes on here. Too bad for Emma, who is killed by the hairy assailant while sleeping in Ruth's bed. [Oops. Yeah, I think the location, there, is a clue, too. Anyways ...] Will our hero be able to suss out the tightening web of conspiracy against our heroine before she's snuffed out, too?


Maaaybe...

OK ... all poo-flinging aside, but, it's pretty obvious from the get go that Cheetah is a red-butted herring, and one of The Monster Walks biggest handicaps is that once the monkey is eliminated, with the cast being so small, and steadily whittled away with each reel, the true culprit couldn't be any more obvious.


The film also gets a lot of grief over the odious comedy relief provided by Willie Best -- here billed as Sleep-n-Eat. It's hard to defend this kind of racial humor, but amidst all the cringing and groaners are some truly hilarious isolated moments if we can keep things in context. Sadly, Best had a solid career going before a drug-bust derailed things. He was a pretty funny guy, who could hold his own against Bob Hope, but never got his due, unable to shake the stigma of these early roles. The only other familiar faces in the cast are Mischa Auer, the surly caretaker, who would go on to play loud Europeans (mostly mad Russians) for the likes of Frank Capra and George Marshall, and Martha Mattox, who turned these roles as morose and taciturn hausm├Ądchens into a solid career.


To their credit, director Frank Strayer and screenwriter Robert Ellis try to twist things up with a little baiting and switching, some locked-room antics, and a few last minute siring revelations to give the final dot-connecting a more satisfying jolt, elevating The Monster Walks into that nebulous gray area somewheres between Moldy-Oldie and Classic Creaker status. It also helps that the film barely breaks an hour, as Strayer had wrung out everything he was gonna get by then and no amount of flogging was going to get anymore.



The Monster Walks (1932) Ralph M. Like Productions-Astor Pictures / D: Frank Strayer / W: Robert Ellis / C: Jules Cronjager / P: Ralph M. Like, Cliff P. Broughton / S: Rex Lease, Vera Reynolds, Sheldon Lewis, Mischa Auer, Martha Mattox, Willie Best

4 comments:

Stacia said...

Oh, I love Mischa Auer so much -- I have GOT to see this movie!

W.B. Kelso said...

In the public domain and readily available in many formats, ma'am.

Honestly, it's kind of a static and sloppy transition piece from when they took this kind of scenario seriously in the silents to throwing Bob Hope into the mix to spoof things up in the late 1930's that's somewhat salvaged by a wheezbanger of a climax.

Thanks for commenting!

Jonny Metro said...

Great write up, W.B.! Hope you don't mind, but I included a link to it in the latest "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

Check it out!

--J/Metro

W.B. Kelso said...

Hey, cool! Thanks, Johnny. Feel free to keep on linking if anything else rates inclusion for future issues. (This place can use all the traffic help it can get.)

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