April 28, 2014

Science Friction

Now Playing: The Monster Maker (1944)

Pros: Surprisingly dark, disturbing themes; J. Carrol Naish and Ralph Morgan do their best with the material
Cons: Hackneyed man-in-a-gorilla-suit cheapens the production; Female leads are weak; Menacing Glenn Strange wasted in a nothing role

Thanks to Hollywood, Mary Shelley's enduring tale took on a life of its own in the 20th century, breaking out of the laboratory of Frankenstein adaptations to rampage again and again on the nation's silver screens in the form of mad, labcoated doctors/scientists dabbling in things better left alone, and sacrificing innocent lives to their nefarious schemes.

So ubiquitous were these Frankenstein clones, that B horror movies almost became synonomous with the mad doctor and his lab full of arcing electrical equipment and bubbling test tubes. (And as clones begot clones, the basic humanity and tragic aspect of the Victor Frankenstein character gave way to doctor-scientists who were irredeemably, pathologically evil.)

Lab scene, The Monster Maker (1944)
This mad scientist is clearly up to no good.
While the classic B mad doctor is a thing of the past, is it too much of a stretch to say that his legacy lives on in the popular mind? I don't imagine there are many of us who would admit that the "junk" entertainment we consume has much influence on the way we perceive reality. But a number of studies suggest that the more TV, especially violent programming, a person watches, the more they tend to think of the world as a violent, unforgiving place (the "Mean World Syndrome").

Does Science in the 21st century suffer from its own variation, a "Mad Scientist Syndrome"? For an advanced technological society like ours that is so dependent on the products of science, we seem to at best pay little heed to, and at worst actively disrespect scientists themselves (e.g., climate change deniers, creationists who bitterly denounce evolutionists and astrophysists, the 20% of the American population that believes the Sun revolves around the Earth, etc.). 

Is it possible that even in some small way, the iconic image of the mad, amoral B movie scientist has colored our perceptions of real scientists to this very day? Have we been conditioned to think that knowledge is a dangerous thing? If so, then PRC's The Monster Maker, made toward the end of a war that used scientific knowledge in very deadly ways, is both a reflection of its time and a tiny, but very sharp nail in the coffin of Science's good reputation.

J. Carrol Naish and Ralph Morgan
"Okay gentlemen, shake hands and let's see a good, clean fight!"
At its root, Monster Maker is a contest of cultures. In this corner, representing Medical Science and wearing a foppish European goatee and a shifty-eyed look is Dr. Igor Markoff (J. Carrol Naish). In this corner, representing the Arts and wearing a well-coiffed mane of silver-tinged hair and a trustworthy countenance is concert pianist Anthony Lawrence (Ralph Morgan).

At first glance, Markoff doesn't seem like such a bad sort. He's urbane, well-mannered, and he wears a mean tux. But as the movie unfolds and we get to know him better, we find out that he is maniacally obsessive and willing to lie, cheat, steal and do other horrible things to get his own way (the shifty eyes, swarthy complexion and vaguely Germanic accent are all dead giveaways, not to mention the infamous name Igor!).

In contrast, Anthony Lawrence (a refined, yet all-American name for a concert pianist) is as stolid and supportive as they come, wowing an upper crust concert audience and protecting his grown daughter's honor with equal aplomb. Only when he falls deathly ill at the hands of the wretched Markoff does he break down.

The culture clash begins at one of Lawrence's concerts, where daughter Patricia (Wanda McKay) and Lawrence's business manager Bob Blake (Terry Frost) are enjoying the virtuoso performance from their balcony box. Patricia's enjoyment is ruined when she notices the creepy Markoff staring at her from a nearby box. She becomes so annoyed that she asks Bob to trade seats with her.

J. Carrol Naish as the oily Dr. Markoff
Dr. Markoff gladly accepts most insurance plans,
Medicare, and your daughter's hand in marriage.
As Pat and Bob visit Lawrence in his dressing room at intermission, Markoff shows up, ostensibly to apologize for his questionable behavior. He admits he couldn't help himself, as the beautiful blonde Patricia is the spitting image of his dead wife. But the unwanted attention doesn't end there. Pat's annoyance turns to exasperation as flowers and gifts from the obsessed Markoff begin arriving at the Lawrence house by the bushel load. In protective father mode, Anthony visits Markoff to tell him to cease and desist. The slimey doctor not only refuses to quit, but matter-of-factly tells Lawrence that he intends to marry his daughter.

Things turn ugly when the outraged father tries to leave Markoff's office, and is knocked unconscious by the panicked doctor. He then coldly injects Lawrence with a glandular extract to induce acromegaly, a disease marked by extreme swelling and enlargement of the face, head and extremities. Of course, Markoff is an expert on the disease, and is on the verge of finding a cure. The demented man seems to think he can trade a cure for Patricia’s hand in marriage!

When Lawrence comes to, Markoff brushes off the incident, advising him that no good will come from pressing charges, since it's his word against Markoff's. Markoff calmly calls Patricia to come pick her father up, pretending that Anthony has fainted. Playing the good doctor, he advises Pat to keep an eye out for any further symptoms, and to have Lawrence consult a doctor immediately if something should come up (like swelling face and hands maybe?).

Sure enough, as he's practicing the piano at home, Lawrence is perplexed that he keeps stumbling over a piece that he should be able to play in his sleep. He rubs his hands and looks closely at his fingers. Pat and Bob express concern, but Lawrence brushes it aside. When the pianist suddenly seems to have all the energy in the world, can't sleep, and finds his hands and feet swelling, he pays a visit to his physician. The tests and second opinions come back with a diagnosis of acromegaly, but a type that is advancing at an unheard of rate. His physician tells Lawrence that his only hope is to consult with the foremost expert on the disease -- Markoff!

A grim tableau, The Monster Maker (1944)
"Glenn, see that Ralph gets some rest. He's exhausted from
watching the first six seasons of Mad Men."
Starting to get the grim picture, Lawrence demurs, then, as the disease progresses, locks himself in his room for weeks on end. Pat and Bob, who are now quite concerned, hear piano music coming from the room. Thinking that Lawrence is finally getting back to normal, they rush in. A swollen, gnarled hand takes the needle off the phonograph record that had been playing in the darkened room. In horrible, dramatic fashion, Lawrence, now a misshapen monster, emerges from the shadows. Pat faints as Bob rushes her out of the room.

When your own daughter faints at the sight of you, it’s time to take action! Lawrence, hiding his distorted features under a wide-brimmed hat, muffler and trench coat, pays an unannounced call on the weaselly Markoff. He knows what Markoff did to him, but the doctor doesn’t seem to want to own up to his culpability:
"Lawrence: I know you infected me with something that caused acromegaly. But how you made the disease develop so rapidly, when science has proven that it takes years to reach this stage, I do not know. But you did! ...
Markoff: You overestimate my control of the disease. I have made an extensive study of it, yes, that is true. But after all, I am only an apprentice.
Lawrence: Yes! The devil’s apprentice! Markoff, you set yourself up as a Frankenstein and created a monster. I am that monster!"
As Lawrence lunges at the “devil’s apprentice,” Markoff’s lumbering henchman (Glenn Strange) intercepts him, and the pair sedate Lawrence and strap him to a laboratory table. Meanwhile, Maxine (Tala Birell), Markoff’s ever-loyal assistant and for some inexplicable reason a wannabe Mrs. Markoff, gets wind of what’s going on. In their confrontation, it’s revealed that Markoff is something of an impostor, having stolen the work and identity of a real doctor, a rival for his wife Lenore’s affections (shades of Poe!). (Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that Lawrence wasn't the first person Markoff injected with the virus.)

Ray Corrigan in an uncredited role as the gorilla
This 800 pound gorilla is no match for Ace the Wonder Dog!
Now seeing Maxine as a real liability, Markoff pays a visit to the gorilla he has caged in his laboratory, unlocking the cage door so that the beast can make an unexpected midnight call on the woman. (As everyone knows, glandular specialists always keep a gorilla on hand for their experiments and to perform needed household chores.) On cue, the gorilla steals up to Maxine’s second floor bedroom, but Maxine’s best friend Ace the Wonder Dog (playing himself) saves the day by somehow chasing off the 800 pound gorilla and herding him back to his cage. (To the viewer’s confusion, this is all accomplished off camera — one wonders if the censors of the day had a problem with a man in a mangy gorilla suit menacing the not-unattractive Maxine in her boudoir, forcing the producers to trim some footage. I for one would have loved to see how Ace managed to save his mistress!)

Still hopeful that he can seal his infernal deal by trading a cure for Lawrence’s lovely daughter, Markoff lures Patricia to his laboratory under the pretense that he is treating her father. When Patricia sees that her father is a shackled prisoner rather than a patient, all hell breaks loose (and 2nd banana Bob gets to prove that he’s more than just a good business manager).

Coming out of “Poverty Row” studio PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation) toward the end of the company's 9 year run, The Monster Maker benefits from the inclusion of veterans Naish and Morgan, as well as some above average production values for an underdog film company (according to Wikipedia, PRC produced 179 feature films, and never spent over $100,000 for any of them).

However, critics over the years have not been kind to the film for its “distasteful” exploitation of a real disease, acromegaly, for cheap thrills. Tom Weaver, in his book Poverty Row Horrors, takes the film to task:
“Resuming the production of fright films after a hiatus of nearly a year and a half, PRC returned to the genre with a vengeance with The Monster Maker, a gruesome and slightly unpleasant horror entry. Unlike most of the other horror films of the period, which focused on highly fanciful monsters (vampires, zombies and the like), the ogre in The Monster Maker is a victim of the disease acromegaly, an actual glandular disorder which enlarges and distorts its victims faces, hands and feet (and frequently leads to their death). Obviously, seeing their affliction being treated in this light probably does very little for the morale of real-life sufferers, just as the film, plodding and nasty, sizes up as a disappointment for many horror film fanciers.” [Weaver, Poverty Row Horrors: Monogram, PRC and Republic Horror Films of the Forties, McFarland, 1993]
Weaver, Poverty Row Horrors, McFarland, 1993
Weaver goes on to point out that The Monster Maker was released only a few months before Universal’s Sherlock Holmes vehicle The Pearl of Death (1944), which used/exploited a real-life acromegaly sufferer, Rondo Hatton. Universal would employ Hatton and his unique physiognomy in a number of films, including House of Horrors and The Spider Woman Strikes Back until the disease claimed him in 1946. (Glenn Strange would also use his hulking frame to great effect by donning the Frankenstein monster makeup for the first time in House of Frankenstein, 1944.)

Distasteful or not, The Monster Maker is rescued from its poverty row production values by the two male leads. J. Carroll Naish is by turns smarmy, arrogant, obsessive and insecure. In the confrontation with his needy assistant Maxine, her knowledge of his checkered past and her accusations set him back on his heels, to a point where in practically the same breath he acknowledges the most heinous of crimes against his wife and her lover (with more than a hint of pride), then whines about being a victim. This is no cardboard B movie villain, but rather someone recognizably human, with the all-too-human tendency to try to palm off guilt onto one's victims-- a variation on the classic "why do you make me hurt you?" abusive character.

Naish was no stranger to these kinds of B movie roles. By 1944 he had racked up dozens of credits, small character parts in A pictures and larger ones in the B's. The '40s saw an uptick in horror and mystery-thriller roles for Naish. He played a sympathetic "monster" in Dr. Renault's Secret (1942), co-starred with Lon Chaney Jr. in two of Universal's Inner Sanctum mysteries, Calling Dr. Death (1943) and Strange Confession (1945), experimented on ape woman Paula Dupree in Jungle Woman (1944; the 2nd in that mangy series), and scored perhaps his most memorable role as the lovelorn yet homicidal hunchback Daniel in House of Frankenstein (1944). Around the same time he garnered two best supporting actor Oscar nominations, for the Humphrey Bogart war drama Sahara (1943) and the now forgotten A Medal for Benny (1945).

Wanda McKay as Patricia
"Dad, I hate to tell you this, but we're still uninsured.
I can't get that danged Obamacare website to work!"
Ralph Morgan (brother of the Wizard of Oz, Frank Morgan) experienced a career trajectory similar to Naish's. He too often played a villain, and similarly cashed in on the monster boom of the mid-forties. He appeared in no less than 3 B horrors released in 1944: Strange Confession (alongside Chaney and Naish), another Inner Sanctum, Weird Woman (with Chaney and Evelyn Ankers), and Monster Maker. Perhaps his best horror role is as the reclusive cripple Kurt Ingston in Universal's vastly underrated Night Monster (1942). In Monster Maker, Morgan gives his character depth and dignity. Pianist Anthony Lawrence has a lot to lose -- his world-class talent and his beautiful daughter -- but as he grasps the full horror of his situation, he tries to keep it together for Pat's sake. If there's any strike against Morgan/Lawrence, it's that he's too patient with the smug, weaselly Markoff for too long (injury lawyers must have been in short supply during the war).

The rest of the cast is the usual B hodgepodge of competent and not-so-competent supporting players. Wanda McKay is bland and stilted as daughter Patricia. Tala Birell at least has an interesting accent and brings some intensity to her role. It's not poor Tala's fault that you want to slap her character (in the nicest, most supportive way of course) for mooning over the strange, oily Markoff. Tall, dark and gruesome Glenn Strange as Markoff's henchman is given little to do (and even at that, the character is surprisingly ineffective, given his intimidating presence).

You have to wonder if the gorilla is there because someone along the line thought that the acromegaly angle didn't quite provide the excitement that matinee audiences, particularly kids, craved. The rest of the film is very adult (for the time), and very grim. There's nothing like a man in a gorilla suit chasing lab assistants and wonder dogs around to liven things up. (Ace the Wonder dog must have been devastated, though, that his heroics in saving Maxine ended up on the cutting room floor.)

If you can get past the cliche of yet another mad scientist with a swollen head abusing his knowledge and power (okay, that was bad), watching B veterans Carrol and Morgan mix it up is not a bad way to spend an hour and change. Just don't watch it right before your next doctor's appointment.

Where to find it:
Available online

The Internet Archive

Available online

Amazon Instant Video

"Markoff, you have set yourself up as a Frankenstein and created a monster. I am that monster!"


  1. I like that you bring such breadth in covering this film, quoting Tom Weaver's reaction to it, including the plight of Rondo Hatton (I had thought the same things myself when I saw this movie). I also think that Night Monster is an excellent, underrated horror film, as is Dr. Renault's Secret (which, in spite of its obvious 'B' aura, has excellent cinematography and performances). While you can easily dismiss Monster Maker as low-budget junk, I think it addresses a real, underlying fear, not only of science gone mad, but of horrific real-life medical experiments that went on during the 20th century. B-cinema really does seem closer to our unconscious mind!

    1. Thanks! There's no doubt that Markoff is a stand-in for the evils of Nazi science and the corruption of the "old" continent, which in the minds of many kept drawing the innocent U.S. into their wars. And thanks for reminding me of Dr. Renault's Secret, which, if you can believe it, I've heard great things about but never seen. A very unique role for Naish. I see it's still available on DVD...