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HAIRY APE, THE(director: Alfred Santell; screenwriters: Robert D. Andrews/Decla Dunning/based on the play by Eugene O’Neill; cinematographer: Lucien Andriot; editor: Harvey Manger; music: Michel Michelet/Edward Paul; cast: William Bendix (Hank Smith), Susan Hayward (Mildred Douglas), John Loder (2nd Engineer Tony Lazar), Dorothy Comingore (Helen Parker), Roman Bohnen (Paddy), Tom Fadden (Long), Alan Napier (MacDougald), Charles Cane (Gantry), Mary Zavian (Waitress), Francis Pierlot (Señor Cutler), Egon Brecher (Refugee violinist), Tommy Hughes (Doorman); Runtime: 92; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jules Levey; United Artists; 1944)
“The dialogue couldn’t be cornier.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Alfred Santell (“Jack London”/”That Brennan Girl”) directs this Hollywood compromised drama about class differences. It shapes up as a tale about a misanthropic stoker, energetically played by William Bendix; it’s based on the play by Eugene O’Neill and scripted by Robert D. Andrews and Decla Dunning. Its problems are that it leaves too many unanswered questions and the dialogue couldn’t be cornier.

The bellicose Hank Smith (William Bendix) and two of his lowlife boiler-room mates from a freighter go into a bar while docked in Lisbon. Hank sings out “I make the ship go,” proud of his brute strength and antagonistic to the upper-crust officers whom he deems are only good at blowing a whistle. Soon the belligerent Hank incites a fight when another seaman calls his freighter a tub. After wrecking the bar, Tony Lazar (John Loder), the ship’s second engineer, promises to have his ship pay for the damage and thus the men are released by the police. The men are surprised to find passengers on the voyage to New York, a group of wartime refugees seeking freedom in America. Tony is happily surprised that society girl Helen Parker (Dorothy Comingore), an old acquaintance from New York, is among the passengers. Also aboard is Helen’s old school chum, the bitchy, unlikable, pampered and spoiled heiress Mildred Douglas (Susan Hayward). Though lucky to get any boat to take them home, Mildred complains about the small cabin she shares with Helen and that it’s a “filthy little boat.” Tony yields his larger cabin to Mildred, after she flirts with him. The bored Mildred talks Tony into letting her see how “the other half lives” in the off-limits lower-deck. Mildred is repulsed by Hank and calls him a “hairy ape.” MacDougald (Alan Napier), the chief officer, reprimands both Tony and Hank when Hank angrily goes after Mildred.

Back in New York, Helen visits Mildred to tell her she plans to return to Lisbon to continue to help refugees flee to America. Mildred could care less, and flaunts that she just turned down a date with Tony. She further tells Helen that Tony was only a brief diversion, and Helen then leaves in a huff. This is followed by an unexpected visit by Hank and several of his mates. When the doorman doesn’t let him in, the police are called and Hank’s arrested for causing a disturbance in the lobby. The police turn a fire hose on him, which causes Hank to become a broken man who when released wanders alone to the zoo to look at the hairy ape. Meanwhile, the naive Tony visits Mildred to tell her how much he loves her. Mildred sharply tells him that she can’t stand him. A crushed Tony retreats to the bar to get drunk. With the door still open to Mildred’s apartment, Hank sneaks in and regains his old brutish confidence. After tossing her on the couch, he throws a coin at her and departs to the bar. He then carries a passed out Tony back to the freighter and goes back to the boiler-room to start shoveling coal at a furious pace, resuming his old ways as his same maladjusted self, without missing a beat.

The problem is the narrative misses a few beats, as nothing much is resolved from what we saw in the beginning. Aside from the emotionally high-charged performance by Bendix and the entertaining villainous spiteful one by Hayward as the nasty empty-headed society girl, the film had little else going for it. It should be noted that in the original play an enraged Hank enters the cage of a circus gorilla where he is crushed to death. Santell’s adaptation ends on a more upbeat note, which takes away any life lessons learned and renders the film trivial.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”