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Guest Programmer: John Landis
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Remind Me

The Monster and the Girl

Monday December, 10 2018 at 08:00 PM

Films in BOLD will Air on TCM *  |   VIEW TCMDb ENTRY


The enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code almost eliminated the Hollywood horror film, which by its nature depended on transgressive ideas. When Universal re-booted its horror franchises with Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Wolf Man (1940), other studios followed suit, being careful to tailor their fright shows so as not to offend the Production Code Administration. Violence and gore were minimized, and most stories were aimed at a younger audience. In 1940 Paramount commenced a strange show with the intriguing title Dead On Arrival, which would eventually become the much more generic-sounding The Monster and the Girl. Although well directed and acted, the finished thriller was heavily compromised by script changes mandated by the PCA. It barely makes narrative sense, and feels like two disconnected, incompatible movie ideas glued together.

Screenwriter Stuart Anthony's story begins in a foggy limbo. The forlorn Susan Webster (Ellen Drew) emerges from the mist and describes herself as 'a bad penny' responsible for the story of sadness we're about to see. About a year before, Susan left her hometown but could not find work in the city. She meets and soon marries a romantic sweetheart, Larry Reed (Robert Paige), only to discover that her marriage was a sham, to force her into a sex trafficking racket run by mob kingpin W.S. Bruhl (Paul Lukas). Larry Reed, the minister 'Deacon' (Joseph Calleia) and the other guests at the wedding party are all part of the prostitution ring. When Susan's brother Scot (Phillip Terry) comes to the city intent on finding Larry Reed, the Bruhl mob frames him for the murder of a disloyal associate. A crooked D.A. (Onslow Stevens) rushes Scot's conviction through the courts.

The grim narrative becomes a fantastic horror tale when Scot reaches death row. He gives permission for Dr. Parry (George Zucco) to experiment with his brain after death. The doctor then transplants Scot's brain into the body of an enormous gorilla. Just as in other mad doctor films then in vogue (Boris Karloff made four for Columbia), a vengeful rampage is set in motion. The gorilla with Scot's brain stalks and murders five men in a single night.

The Monster and the Girl is an emotionally involving thriller that makes very little narrative sense. The opening trial scene is strained with several flashbacks, and the entire story is also Susan's open-ended flashback, recalled from that foggy limbo. Yet Susan remains completely unaware of many events of her own flashback. She never even finds out that the gorilla has her brother's brain and personality. Neither do the gangsters. The only ones who do know the secret are Dr. Parry and Scot's little dog Skipper.

Seen today, The Monster and the Girl is an unusual, perplexing horror item. Records at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences show that the Production Code Administration initially rejected the project because of its white slavery subplot. Instead of changing the story, Paramount simply had the oily mobster Munn (Gerald Mohr) tell Susan that she'll have to work as a 'bar hostess.' But Susan and Scot's demoralized behavior indicates that she has indeed become a compromised, fallen woman. At least one state refused to show the picture, citing the PCA-forbidden white slavery theme as well as the implication that gangsters had corrupted America's court system. The Catholic Legion of Decency decreed the film 'morally objectionable in part for all.'

We might expect such inconsistencies in a Poverty Row production, but The Monster and the Girl is given high-quality Paramount production values. Stuart Heisler's sophisticated direction is far above the industry standard for small-scale horror fare. He uses expressive camera angles and precise dolly shots. During the fake wedding, we're given a sly peek at the shoulder holster worn by Calleia's fake minister, tipping us off to the fact that something is awry. Director Brian De Palma would reuse this gag much later, in the first scene of his thriller Obsession (1976). The film's stylistic switch from courtroom drama to horror tale is visually elegant. George Zucco and his assistant wheel the freshly-executed Scot into a regulation gothic mansion with a basement decked out as a futuristic mad operating theater.

Hulking gorillas were making a comeback in studio films and Poverty Row productions alike, and mad doctors frequently kept large apes in their mad labs. 1940 also brought us Monogram's absurd The Ape, in which Boris Karloff's mad doctor merely disguises himself as a gorilla to obtain human spinal fluid. By contrast, the ape scenes in The Monster and the Girl are expressive and artful. Ace cameraman Victor Milner (The Lady Eve (1941), The Strange Love of Martha Ivers 1946) makes excellent use of shadows for Heisler's moving camera. Excellent mood lighting accompanies the series of suspenseful gorilla killings. For one very elaborate sequence Heisler's camera trucks down a row of rooftops, observing the gorilla stalking his prey on the sidewalk below. The un-billed mime artist in the very good gorilla suit is Charles Gemora, the Philippine makeup effects man who would later fashion the amazing Martian for George Pal's The War of the Worlds (1953).

The second, 'horror' half of the narrative takes place in a single, jumbled night of macabre killings. The cops on the case perform light comedy relief duty, scratching their heads at the sight of yet another corpse with 'every bone in his body broken.' Just a few feet away, the simian culprit lingers undetected on an apartment balcony. Accompanying the ape on its murder mission is Scot's little dog Skipper, who still recognizes his master.

Perhaps the PCA's interference is responsible for the narrative absurdities in the nightmarish storyline. One suspicious jump cut is almost certainly a censor deletion. When Deacon brings Susan back to Bruhl's fancy apartment she immediately sees Larry Reed, the man who ruined her life and put her brother on death row. Larry makes no attempt to hide and continues playing the piano. A confrontation would seem mandatory, but across an odd cut the action suddenly jumps forward, skipping something. Susan pays Larry no more attention.

Paramount cast this strange show with an impressive roster of acting talent. The prestigious Paul Lukas had featured in important pictures like William Wyler's Dodsworth (1936) and Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938); he'd win an Oscar for 1943's The Watch on the Rhine. Joseph Calleia was already established as a versatile supporting actor in big pictures like Marie Antoinette (1938) and Juarez (1939). Suave Robert Paige, the bait for the prostitution racket, plays the piano and sings; the actor would perform in a number of wartime musicals. Handsome Gerald Mohr was already specializing in oily villains, and the rougher-looking Marc Lawrence is makes his mob goon into a nervous, superstitious coward. Scat singer Cliff Edwards has an odd bit as an excitable hotel bellboy; in the same year he'd provide the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Disney's Pinocchio (1940), as well as sing the Oscar-winning song "When You Wish Upon a Star."

The younger cast begins with Ellen Drew, a luminous starlet who gained major attention in Preston Sturges' marvelous Christmas in July (1940). Ms. Drew would continue to grace a variety of films, without catching the brass ring and achieving full star status. Also from Christmas in July came Rod Cameron, in the thankless role of a newsman who does little but hold Susan's hand at the fade-out. Contemporary reviewers noted the publicity push being given Phillip Terry, a Paramount contract player recently moved from MGM, but The Monster and the Girl did little for his career. Terry plays the unlucky Scot Webster mostly in an inexpressive state of numbness. All we know about Scot is that he works as a church organist and that his little dog Skipper likes to carry his hat around. A little over a year later, Philip Terry would become the third husband of the glamorous Joan Crawford.

Reviewers in 1940 didn't take horror movies very seriously. Daily Variety described the show as a "chiller-diller that will send fans of goose-pimply melodrama from the theaters amply satisfied." The less generous New York Times reviewer described the monster as "some anonymous and no doubt perspiring soul in a flea-bitten ape skin," and wished that the "scenarist had taken bicarbonate of soda before sitting down to the typewriter."

The movie was initially paired with Paramount's The Mad Doctor (1941), also starring Ellen Drew opposite Basil Rathbone. Exhibitors interested in concession stand revenue must have liked the scene in which Larry Pine buys Susan some popcorn from a street vendor. Promotional ballyhoo gags included 'Faint Checks' that patrons filled out in case they fainted from fear and wanted to see the movie later. A Massachusetts exhibitor dispensed mints bearing the wording 'Take these tablets, they will give you the courage to see this Shock Show Double Bill.'

It's still a mystery as to why the filmmakers fail to properly resolve the film's personal conflict. Susan never realizes that her brother's brain is in the ape's body. When the gorilla stares at her briefly at the finale she simply does not comprehend, which robs the show of a potentially powerful climax. Director Heisler instead pays off the sad story of Scot Webster with a camera tilt down to the little dog Skipper, waiting on the sidewalk holding Scot's old hat. Had Scot-the-gorilla acknowledged his former pet, the movie would surely have collapsed into hilarity. As it is, one secretly wishes for the ape to accept the hat and try it on for size.

By Glenn Erickson

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