Friday, February 24, 2012

The Brute Man (Universal/PRC, 1946)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I had watched a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of a movie that I’d long been curious about: The Brute Man, a 1946 oddball from Universal designed to be the third in their series starring Rondo Hatton, real-life victim of acromegaly (a glandular disorder, often triggered by environmental factors — in Hatton’s case, a poison gas attack while he was serving in the U.S. Army in World War I — that causes the face to become distorted and the extremities to swell) who had been making movies off and on since 1930, generally in minor roles, making a decent living but not achieving anything resembling stardom until 1944, when Universal decided to sign him and bill him as a horror star whose scary appearance was how he actually looked and not a Jack P. Pierce makeup job. They introduced his character, “The Creeper,” in the 1944 film Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, a loose adaptation of “The Six Napoleons” in which Hatton played the killer (described in the original story as a man with a particularly hideous face), and then they created two starring vehicles for him, House of Horrors and The Brute Man. Alas, before either of these films could be released Hatton died of the long-term effects of his disease on February 2, 1946, and while Universal went ahead with the planned release of House of Horrors on March 29, they sat on The Brute Man and ultimately dumped it on the low-budget PRC studio, which bought the rights from Universal and released it on October 1. There were several reasons for this: Universal had taken heat from critics and industry people alike for the exploitation of Hatton’s real-life deformity, his death had only made the idea of making money off him seem even sicker, and Universal was in the process of merging with the boutique company International Pictures and wanted to upgrade its image and get rid of “B” pictures altogether.

The irony is that, though House of Horrors was actually quite a good little movie for the genre and the time (Hatton played “The Creeper” — his real name, if any, we never learn — and he’s not a homicidal maniac but a retard, sort of like Lennie in Of Mice and Men, who doesn’t know his own strength and who approaches women for sex, then kills them when they scream at the sight of him; he ends up taken in and manipulated by a crazy artist, played by the marvelous Martin Kosleck, who has the Creeper murder his art-critic enemies), The Brute Man was a total piece of tripe even though it reunited most of the same creative personnel from House of Horrors, including director [a boy named] Jean Yarbrough and writers Dwight V. Babcock (story) and George Bricker (script), this time with M. Coates Webster assisting on the latter. Basically it’s just Rondo Hatton wandering around Universal’s fog-drenched sets killing people, seemingly randomly at first, though eventually a dramatic design emerges: Hatton’s “Creeper” is really Hal Moffet, former college football star and romantic rival of his dorm roommate, Clifford Scott (Tom Neal), for Virginia Rogers (Jan Wiley). When Virginia goes on a date with Hal, Clifford gets his revenge by deliberately slipping Hal wrong answers on a chemistry exam — and when the professor calls Hal out on it in front of the class, he responds by hanging out in the lab, mixing up a batch of chemicals and hurling them across the room — thereby creating a toxic gas which messes up his appearance and changes him from actor Fred Coby, who played Hal pre-transformation, to Rondo Hatton.

Along the way he meets a number of women, including a blind piano teacher, Helen Paige (Jane Adams), who befriends him since she can’t see how ugly he is … just like the old hermit befriended the Monster in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (a scene used in Universal’s second film in the cycle, The Bride of Frankenstein) and the blind girl Dea befriended the facially contorted Gwynplaine in Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs — also filmed by Universal (in 1928 as a silent with Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt — and it’s a pity they didn’t remake it with sound in the early 1930’s since it would have been a superb vehicle for the co-stars of The Mummy, Boris Karloff and Zita Johann). Hal learns that his girlfriend (whom he refuses to let touch her, lest she feel his face and sense his ugliness even though she can’t see him) needs several thousand dollars for a super-operation to enable her to see (a ripoff not only of Magnificent Obsession but Chaplin’s City Lights!), so he decides to add robbery to his crime list and get her the money that way — only, at the finish of a movie that even though it comes in at less than an hour in length still seems draggy by the time it creeps (pardon the pun) to its end, he’s shot down by the police (who until the final scene have been so clueless Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops look like Dirty Harry by comparison) after Helen entraps him, for which she’s rewarded with a pro bono operation and the restoration (at least we presume it’s a restoration, though we’re never told in so many words whether she ever could see) of her sight.

It’s a singularly pointless movie, lacking even the flashes of pathos in Hatton’s House of Horrors characterization and also lacking much romance or humor to leaven the (supposedly) scary stuff. The Mystery Science Theatre 3000 people had a good time with it (including a reference to Gene Hackman, who played the blind hermit in Mel Brooks’ parody Young Frankenstein) but they had an even better time with the short they showed in front of it, a 1948 industrial film called The Chicken of Tomorrow (which itself sounds like a bad horror spoof!) produced by a New York-based studio for something called the Sales Promotion Division of the Texas Company. What was most interesting about this movie was that it was made just on the cusp of the poultry industry’s switch from free-range to mass-production methods — quite a few of the chickens in this movie wander around yards under their own power even though they’re hatched in rows of egg racks in incubators and then live most of their chickhoods inside rows of tiny industrial-style cages. Aside from that, it was as dementedly silly as only an industrial film can be to people who don’t participate in its industry.