Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Monkey Talks

We had a real treat last night, courtesy of The Silent Treatment at Cinefamily, with a presentation of the extremely rare and deliciously unusual The Monkey Talks [1927]. In 15 of those action-packed early Hollywood years, director Raoul Walsh had already appeared in over 30 shorts and features, and helmed over 50, and if ever there was a no-nonsense director it was he. There’s not a moment of slack in this one’s 60-minute running time (and, quite unapologetically, not a great deal of characterization either), and so much eyebrow-raising to jaw-dropping incident that it’s tempting simply to list all the crazy things that take place.

The talking monkey is Jocko, in reality disguised tumbler Fano (Jacques Lerner). A love triangle develops between Fano, his “trainer” Pierre (Don Alvarado), a suavely mustachioed Chevalier de France and WWI Flying Ace cast out by his family for love of a circus girl (“the usual reason”), and flirty Olivette (Olive Borden ), the Princess of the Slack Wire, who gets to flash lots of luscious leg. Fano was Pierre’s batman in the war and their bond is tight, so each suffers nobly on the other’s behalf to keep the secret of their great success on the Paris stage from her. The only others in on the scam are their compadres from the days of impoverishment, Papa Jules (August Tollaire), who’s basically just an old guy with a fancy French fork, and Lorenzo (Raymond Hitchcock), whose mountebank antics provide frequent amusement.

The monkey’s the thing though. Lerner had developed the role on the Paris stage, and gives a terrific physical performance (if never quite convincingly convincing), flutters his eyelids pitifully at Olivette, and fully exploits the bathos of the finale. The situations between the woman and the monkey she doesn’t know is a lovelorn man are kind of mind-boggling without ever approaching prurience, although she definitely considers it for a moment.. The impressive (albeit again never actually convincing) monkey make-up was the work of Jack P. Pierce, renowned for his subsequent horror designs for Universal (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al), and he gets to do it twice, as some dastardly rivals plot to replace Jocko with a chimp who looks exactly like him (thus, another small actor in a suit – imagine if they got into a fight!). Luckily for them, Fano takes his breakfast dressed in the full outfit, even in the group’s private apartments; the switch leads to a fantastic tussle in Olivette’s disheveled dressing room, and a decidedly proto-Kong climax on the atmospheric roofs of Paris (the handsome lion also gets his day, to the cheers of the audience).

This was not really a handsomely mounted production: circus and stage background colour is almost non-existent, but the shabby provincial travelling show at the start is appropriately threadbare (check the men’s weird fringed diaper-shorts), and the world of the Paris stage is good and glittery (the felonious female has her hair bizarrely done like jellyfish tentacles). Photographically, there’s a splendid vertical travelling up several storeys of staircase, and a truly beautiful, and appropriate, light gag at the end. One must swallow numerous implausibilities in the onrush of incident, and there is a decidedly odd section near the start where the gang decide on their scam and leave in a series of medium shots; we then jump backwards a few seconds and the same sequence of resolution and departure is replayed in a single long shot. But there’s so much fun to be had that the wonky bits a re quickly passed over, and forgivable for the sake of the film’s lurid implications and cavalcade of bizarre sights – anyone who’s a sucker for a smoking monkey will be well-satisfied.

The print is in a parlous state, and it’s the only one left. This may not match the standard of Chaney’s physical transformations or Browning’s circus movies, but it’s still an urgent candidate for restoration for many reasons – add to directing, make-up, subject, and overall weirdness the fact that Fox silents in general are comparatively scarce – and not least because it is highly enjoyable.

d Raoul Walsh p William Fox sc L. G. (Gordon) Rigby ph L. William O'Connell cast Jacques Lerner, Olive Borden, Don Alvarado, Raymond Hitchcock, August Tollaire, Jane Winton, Malcolm Waite, Ted McNamara
(1927, USA, 5,500 feet [60m], b/w)
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Anonymous Le Roland said...

"imagine if they got into a fight!"


November 12, 2012 at 1:50 AM  

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