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The Hairy Ape

The Hairy Ape(1944)

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teaser The Hairy Ape (1944)

Susan Hayward stars in a dark, moody adaptation of celebrated playwright Eugene O'Neill's play, The Hairy Ape (1944), playing a spoiled rotten American society girl threatened by a working class brute.

Mildred Douglas (Hayward) is forced to travel by steamer ship along with a group of refugees - instead of by luxury cruise liner - back to the States after a vacation in Lisbon. On board, Mildred creates all manner of mischief, including seducing 2nd engineer Tony Lazar (John Loder), the paramour of her friend Helen Parker (Dorothy Comingore), and jeopardizing Tony's job by convincing him to take her on a tour of the ship's off-limits lower decks. Deep in the ship's bowels, a team of men labor piling coal into the boat's furnaces, led by the brutish, vain worker Hank Smith (William Bendix), who takes enormous pride in how his efforts propel the ship.

O'Neill's original story, rooted in the extreme class differences between working men like Hank ("Yank" in O'Neill's play) and Mildred, finds its most dramatic articulation in this film version when Mildred is shocked and disgusted by the sight of a hulking, filthy Hank coming toward her in the boiler room. She flees, but not before screaming "you hairy ape!" a denigration that inspires the proud working man to track her down once the ship docks in New York to her plush apartment and exact his revenge.

Hayward virtually stole The Hairy Ape out from under the top-billed Bendix, as the haughty, cruel and ultimately haunted socialite Mildred. She received rave reviews for her performance. The New York Herald-Tribune's reviewer was typical in his effusiveness, stating, "Susan Hayward is appropriately hateful as the empty-minded rich girl who is frightened by the animalistic world of the stokehold. She achieves a good deal of villainy in spite of a wealth of corny dialogue."

After working in New York as a photographer's model, Hayward traveled to Hollywood where she was one of the many young actresses up for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939).

The irony of Hayward's typecasting in many of her early film roles as the spoiled -- in the words of Time magazine "bitch-player" -- is that in real life, Hayward was from fairly modest origins. She was born Edythe Marrenner to a Brooklyn transit worker and she initially studied stenography and dress design at a commercial high school. She was also notoriously frugal and had enormous problems parting with her money according to biographers Robert LaGuardia and Gene Arceri, co-authors of Red: The Tempestuous Life of Susan Hayward. LaGuardia and Arceri noted that she would often deliberate for months over the purchase of an expensive hat and lived in a tiny apartment during her early years in Hollywood.

In 1947 Hayward received her first of five Oscar® nominations playing an alcoholic nightclub singer in Smash-up: The Story of a Woman (1947). She eventually won the Best Actress Academy Award playing another tragic woman, the real-life death row-convicted killer Barbara Graham in I Want to Live! (1958).

Hayward died of complications relating to brain cancer in 1975 at age 57. A persistent industry rumor has attributed Hayward's cancer (along with co-star John Wayne's own death from cancer) to her exposure to radiation while filming The Conquerer (1956) not far from the site where the United States conducted 11 atom bomb tests in nearby Yucca Flats, Nevada. Cecil Adams in his newspaper column "The Straight Dope" noted that of the 220 persons on the crew, 91 contracted cancer (with 46 eventually dying from the disease), far higher than the usual cancer odds.

O'Neill, a brilliant American playwright who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1936, wrote his seafaring class drama "The Hairy Ape" in 1923.

O'Neill had been reluctant for years to sell the rights to his play. But he eventually did sell them, to producer Jules Levy, in his first production for United Artists after working as a distribution executive. In doing so O'Neill waived all rights to his original work, thus allowing Hollywood to dramatically alter the ending. In the original play an enraged Hank enters the cage of a circus gorilla where he is crushed to death, though director Alfred Santell's adaptation ends on an entirely different, less downbeat note.

Also in the cast in a rare post-Citizen Kane (1941) appearance is Dorothy Comingore as Mildred's friend.

Michel Michelet and Edward Paul's musical score was nominated for an Oscar®, though so were 19 other films that year and all lost to Max Steiner's score for Since You Went Away (1944).

Director: Alfred Santell
Producer: Joseph Nadel
Screenplay: Robert D. Andrews and Decla Dunning based on the play by Eugene O'Neill
Cinematography: Lucien Andriot
Production Design: James Sullivan
Music: Michel Michelet and Edward Paul
Cast: William Bendix (Hank Smith), Susan Hayward (Mildred Douglas), John Loder (2nd Engineer Tony Lazar), Dorothy Comingore (Helen Parker), Roman Bohnen (Paddy), Tom Fadden (Long), Alan Napier (MacDougald), Charles Cane (Gantry).

by Felicia Feaster

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