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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Man Made Monster

Before leaving this digression through the "mad doctors" of the 1940s, it's worth going back a bit and taking a look at Universal's Man Made Monster (MMM). It was released in March 1941, just a month after the fourth of Columbia's Karloff "mad doctor" films. Universal Pictures wasn't going to cede the "mad doctor" market without a peep. After all, they built that market with Frankenstein. MMM was Lon Chaney Jr's first "horror" film with Universal. He would go on to greater fame as Universal's Wolfman, but he started here. The director, George Waggner would also direct The Wolfman. MMM is, at it's heart, a Frankenstein story. It co-stars Lionel Atwill, who also played in several of Universal's Frankenstein films.

Quick Plot Synopsis
On a dark and stormy night, a bus skids off the road, crashing into a high-voltage powerline. Everyone is electrocuted except for Dan McCormick. His job as Dynamo Dan in a carnival midway had somehow provided some immunity to electricity. Dr. Lawrence wants to study Dan to find out how that works, so Dan comes to Lawrence's mansion (complete with mega-high-voltage lab!) Dan is big lovable oaf of a man, who endears himself to Lawrence's niece June and their dog Corky. Lawrence's associate, Dr. Rigas (Atwill) has some theories about electricity as a life force. He begins secretly experimenting on Dan, giving him higher and higher voltages. Dan begins to change. He doesn't eat, but draws strength from the voltage. Lawrence walks in on Rigas giving extreme voltage. Dan glows and is under Rigas' power. Lawrence and Rigas argue ethics and supermen. When Lawrence tries to call the police, Rigas orders Dan to kill Lawrence. He does. Rigas orders him to repeat. "I killed him." Dan is arrested, deemed sane, and tried for murder. They try to execute him in the electric chair (naturally). Dan doesn't die, but absorbs three times the usual voltage. Now very strong, Dan breaks out of prison and is loose in the foggy woods. Each step drains off a bit of his power, so he steals a pair of rubber boots. He trudges to Lawrence's lab. Meanwhile, in that lab, Rigas has caught June looking for evidence to incriminate Rigas. He straps her to his tilting table and is about to zap her, when Dan bursts in. He electrocutes Rigas with a touch. Dan puts on the full-body rubber suit so he can carry the fainted June off to safety, back out into the foggy woods. (?) The police pursue, but only watch for fear of harming June. Dan puts her down when gets tangled in a barbed wire fence. The barbs cut through the rubber, grounding him. The electric life-force drains from his body. He falls down dead. Corky comes up and lays his head on dead Dan's chest. June's fiance, Mark (a reporter) thinks Rigas' notebook would make a Pulitzer story, but June thinks it would only create another Dan. Mark tosses it in the fire. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Seeing the basics of the Frankenstein story retold with variations has appeal to Frankenstein fans. Lon Chaney does a credible enough job as Lunk turned Monster. Atwill does a better job as the maniacal "mad doctor." The many sparky things that buzz and spark in the lab are SO Frankenstein that they're fun.

Cultural Connection
The Frankenstein formula had more audience appeal than Frankenstein franchise could satisfy. Universal tried a variation on the theme. They didn't think quite enough of the story to build in a sequel, though. Both the "monster" and the evil doctor die, and his notebook is destroyed. The trope of a scientifically-created invincible (or very powerful) man would show up many more times in the ranks of B-movies.

Pre-Nuclear Power -- Atomic radiation became the magic pixie dust of 50s sci-fi .It could do almost anything -- shrink something, grow something, give power, take power, make invisible, make liquid, etc. Before nuclear pixie-dust, there was electricity. In the 30s and 40s, electricity was the pixie-dust. It could do all the magical things a writer might desire. Curiously, when radiation took over as the new Olympian, electricity stayed on as a Titan. It took on the role, typically, as that of savior. So often, the monsters were electrocuted to stop them.

Evil Science -- Lionel Atwill does a great job of playing the flagrantly "mad" doctor with out admixture of kindness or qualms, as Karloff's "mad" doctors usually did. Atwill would continue this character in his Dr. Bohmer in Ghost of Frankenstein ('42)

Pre-Talbot -- One can see in the Dan McCormick character a preview of the Lawrence Talbot of the Wolfman movies to come. Lon Chaney as the affable/sympathetic joe with his powerful, impersonal alter ego.

Hint o' Nazi -- Of course, being shot in 1941, the specter of Hitler's Nazi dogma was never far from the writers' minds, nor their audiences. Rigas justifies his work on Dan by saying, "I have conquered destiny. Think of an army of such creatures, doing the work of the world. Fighting its battles. Look at him, the worker of the future, controlled by a superior intelligence." Viewers had no doubts that Rigas' army of glowing minions would be conquering, not cooking and cleaning.

The Tyranny of Utility -- Rigas also sounds like a frustrated socialist. His electronic men would less of a burden for a central (superior) agency to manage than mankind has been proving. " You know as well as I do that more than half the people of the world are doomed to a life of mediocrity - born to be nonentities, millstones around the neck of progress, men who have to be fed, watched, looked over, and taken care of by a superior intelligence. My theory is to make these people of more use to the world." In that nazi dogma of utility, a person must be useful to those "superior intelligences" to justify existing.

Bottom line? MMM is a well paced film that doesn't bog down in talky exposition. The formula may not be especially new, but the performances are clean. It's not a great movie, but it's entertaining and well shot. Well worth an hour of your life.


Randall Landers said...

An excellent analysis of the transition of electricity from Olympian to Titan! Electricity indeed then becomes the savior of the protagonists in MANY films including "The Thing (From Another World)."

Darci said...

From what I understand, MMM was based on a script Universal had lying around since 1935. Originally titled "The Man in the Cab", it was to costar Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff (Lugosi was to play the mad doctor and Karloff the monster).

Nightowl said...

That would have been a cool version to see. A pity they didn't make it with Lugosi and Karloff. But, I guess they were pretty busy back in the mid-to-late 30s.