A team of five scientists headed by Professor Arnold (Ralph Morgan) have developed a powerful robot called the “Metallogen Man”–and, for their pains, are now being targeted by a gang of killers who use a murderous gorilla named Thor to do their dirty work. Before the first chapter is halfway over, only two of the quintet are still alive: Arnold himself, and Professor Ernst (George Macready)–who is actually the leader of the gang that has murdered his colleagues. The power-mad Ernst is determined to get sole control of the robot, and continues to carry out his schemes even after being exposed as a criminal, clashing repeatedly with Arnold and with corporate investigator Ken Morgan (Robert Lowery) in attempts to obtain a supply of the mineral that powers the robot–a rare substance called metallogen.
The Monster and the Ape was the last and definitely the least of the five serials produced for Columbia by Rudolph C. Flothow (the other four being The Phantom, Batman, The Desert Hawk, and Black Arrow). Ape is slowly paced, heavily padded, and haphazardly plotted–not quite as dull as the early Sam Katzman productions that immediately followed it at Columbia, but extremely tedious just the same, despite a strong cast and some excellent fight scenes.
Writers Royal Cole and Sherman Lowe give absolutely no sense of urgency to the repetitive struggle over the robot and the metallogen that forms the basis of the serial’s action; the heroes tend to treat Ernst as an irritating obstacle to their researches instead of a menace who must be stopped at all costs, with Arnold periodically talking of abandoning his robot project to get Ernst off his back and Morgan frequently calling the police for help instead of aggressively tracking down the villain single-handled. Ernst himself is too vague in his goals (World power? Financial profit? He rather disinterestedly considers both notions at different times) to be really threatening; he pursues the robot as an end in itself and rarely rants about a master plan in traditional villainous fashion. The robot is pretty unthreatening too; unlike the unstoppable killing machine in Mysterious Doctor Satan, this mechanical man is easily disabled by removal of the metallogen disc which powers it, and as a result never goes on a really frightening rampage. This safety-conscious design of the robot, along with the practical and disinterested attitude that both heroes and villains take towards their struggle, actually makes Monster and the Ape seem, in some ways, rather more realistic and down-to-earth than most science-fiction serials–but mundane practicality is the last thing that serial viewers expect or want from a chapterplay with such a promisingly bizarre title.
The serial’s script does have plenty of implausibilities and unrealistic aspects–but they’re of the kind that diminish entertainment value instead of enhancing it. The sudden discovery of a real deposit of “rare” metallogen beneath the factory where the villains have earlier planted metallogen samples to trap the hero and his mineral-locating device strains credibility to the breaking point; the killer-ape subplot is also absurd, even by chapterplay standards. In scene after scene, the gorilla is stealthily removed from the zoo by zookeeper/henchman Jack Ingram and poked and prodded into performing villainous acts–killing scientists, rolling rocks on the hero, stealing robots–that could have been performed by one or two henchmen with much less trouble. The ape is obviously in the serial merely for marquee value and to provide the writers with padding material; the scenes of Ingram conducting Thor to and from his cage are pointlessly lengthy–although frequently amusing, thanks to Ray Corrigan’s antic performance as the unruly gorilla.
The serial is excessively padded in other spots, too; while the long secret passage leading from Ernst’s house to his basement laboratory to Thor’s cage is visually interesting, the endless scenes of heavies walking through it in chapter after chapter quickly become tiresome. The comic-relief antics of sidekick “Flash” serve to waste more screen time, as do the overlong dialogue scenes in which both heroes and villains aimlessly ponder over their next move or describe (for each other’s benefit) events that have taken place earlier in the same chapter. Director Howard Bretherton does nothing to make these tedious sequences more brisk; although he did good work on his many B-western features for Republic, Harry Sherman Productions, and other studios, he seems to have been out of his depth in the serial genre (his only other cliffhanger being the even slower Who’s Guilty).
Bretherton does do a good job on the action sequences, however, with help from stuntmen Eddie Parker (doubling Robert Lowery) and Ted Mapes (who plays a key henchman and also doubles other heavies); the fights sprinkled throughout the serial are much more energetic, acrobatic, and destructive than most other Columbia brawls of the era–not quite up to Republic’s polished standards, but excellent nonetheless. Among the highlights are the terrific museum fight in Chapter Two, the prop-toppling warehouse fight in Chapter Three, the fight on the catwalk at the paint factory in Chapter Six, and the very lengthy fight between Parker and Mapes in Chapter Thirteen; while the serial immediately returns to lackadaisical form at the conclusion of each combat, these and other sequences temporarily enliven many chapters. Most of the action is filmed on the Columbia backlot, with the studio’s familiar mansion and suburban-home sets being prominently featured; however, there are a couple of car chases–and one metallogen-prospecting sequence–set in the Bronson Canyon area.
The chapter endings are more uneven than the fights; the crushing-walls sequence (Chapter Eight) is excellent and well-staged, as is Lowery’s fall from the catwalk into a blazing vat (Chapter Six) and the robot’s tossing of Lowery into a generator (Chapter One), while other endings like Lowery’s fall into a water pit (Chapter Eleven) and his crushing in an avalanche (Chapter Five) are much more abruptly handled. The latter cliffhanger sequence is also resolved with one of the most blatant cheats in the Columbia canon; the resolution to the Chapter Three furnace cliffhanger is similarly unfair, as is the resolution of Lowery’s apparent shooting by Thor the ape in Chapter Thirteen (a peril that’s more comic than threatening in overall effect). There are also some outrageous “live-through-it” resolutions to accompany the cheating resolutions, particularly Lowery’s unlikely survival of the Chapter Two car-crash cliffhanger.
The serial’s cast deserved far better in the way of scripting; Robert Lowery makes the most of his investigator character despite the unmotivated attitude forced on him by the writers; he handles his perfunctory dialogue with a combination of cheerfulness, self-possessed toughness, and suavity. Ralph Morgan, as Professor Arnold, is uncharacteristically subdued, worrying over the fate of his robot in very low-key fashion and only occasionally displaying the intensity that marked his other serial performances. Leading lady Carole Mathews, as Morgan’s daughter “Babs,” is strikingly beautiful but has obvious difficulty with dialogue, delivering her lines in a frequently strained voice and looking blankly nervous when standing silent between cues.
Expert A-movie villain George Macready handles his role with polish and assurance–although, like Ralph Morgan, he’s much less intense than in other roles, never really displaying the haughtily ferocious and devilishly sinister qualities that marked most of his feature-film performances. Still, his arrogant manner, angry glare, and smooth but hissing voice help to make his sneers at the heroes and his standard put-downs of his henchmen sound much better than they are (“If you let me do the talking and the thinking, we’ll get along much faster”). His best moments come during his character’s masquerade as another scientist to dupe the protagonists; he affects an outrageously crotchety demeanor that makes him great fun to watch–particularly when he bristles visibly at Lowery’s dismissive references to that “madman” Ernst.
Willie Best–who showed himself a skilled comedian in films like Bob Hope’s The Ghost Breakers–is, like Lowery, Morgan, and Macready, stuck with material beneath his talents. While some his malapropisms are funny (such as his references to the robot as a “rabbit”), his protracted “comic” routines–like his terrified reaction to a radio crime program–are pretty tiresome. Anthony Warde, as Macready’s chief henchman, is also not up to form; he’s much less snarling and aggressive than in his other serials (it’s very odd to see him being almost polite to the heroine when he comes to steal the robot in the last chapter). Only in a few scenes–like his angry attempt to send the hero into a brick furnace–does the typical Warde menace shine through.
Stanley Price has a meaty henchman role in the later chapters and is uncharacteristically slick and self-assured; stuntmen Ted Mapes and Eddie Parker fill in the “background henchmen” roles. Jack Ingram, as the harried keeper of Thor the ape, has little to do in the way of active villainy, spending most of his time playing straight man to the scene-stealing gorilla. Ray Corrigan is delightful as said gorilla, although he comes off as much more comic than threatening; his various ad-libbed actions (pulling on Ingram’s leg, pounding tables with hammers, suddenly trying to grab actors standing nearby) seem so spontaneous and so apparently uncontrollable that it’s quite easy to forget at times that the gorilla is played by an actor and not by a semi-trained animal. Corrigan also plays the robot when it goes into (infrequent) action; he’s more restrained in this part, but his wildly exaggerated goose-stepping movements as the automaton trashes the lab in Chapter Four are good for a chuckle.
Kenneth MacDonald and Charles King abandon their usual villainy to play (respectively) a plainclothes police inspector and a uniformed police officer, while Bud Osborne and Kit Guard are zookeepers unaware that fellow-keeper Ingram and zoo denizen Thor are moonlighting for Ernst. John Elliott is one of the scientists murdered in the first chapter; the actor who plays the impersonated Professor Draper in the later episodes also looks familiar, but the prominent beard that facilitates the ease of Macready’s impersonation also serves to conceal the actor’s features–at least from me.
The promising components of The Monster and the Ape–A gorilla! A robot! Secret passages!–were enough to guarantee it theatrical bookings on its original release, and those same components–along with the presence of beloved serial performers like Ingram and Warde–have frequently been enough to win it the approbation of serial buffs in later years. However, its gimmicks, cast, and action scenes are not enough to overcome the serial’s lethargic pacing and sloppy, uninteresting plotting; Monster and the Ape might sound entertaining in outline, but it’s far from a great or even a particularly good serial.