The Hairy Ape
Reviewed in January 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Alfred Santell. Cast: William Bendix, Susan Hayward, John Loder, Dorothy Comingore, Roman Bohnen, Tom Fadden, Alan Napier, Francis Pierlot, Mary Zavian. Screenplay: Robert D. Andrews and Decla Dunning (based on the play by Eugene O'Neill).

Photo © 1944 United Artists/Mayfair Productions
This low-budgeted adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's famous play is one of those films that profits in some tiny but intriguing way from being such a bastardization of the source material. Just to be clear, neither the screenwriters nor the director have made the O'Neill play more interesting, or demonstrated any particular craft. O'Neill's Hairy Ape is a gruff, impudent howl by an inarticulate dock-worker who unwittingly scares the bejesus out of a white-dressed society gal who touristically visits the stokehold of a cruiser ship; the furnace-worker then spends the rest of the play fuming in deceptively complex ways about her fear and arrogance, plotting some kind of inchoate revenge. Alfred Santell's movie, meanwhile, is about a world-class bitch who finally darts below decks about halfway through the film. She's as distastefully heartless as the ship-worker is hot-tempered and thuggish. It's clear that Hollywood has no idea what to do with O'Neill's guttural experiments in dialect, and no inclination whatsoever to pick up on Yank's justifiable outrage about class stratification, and without that premise, it's impossible to pick up the play's coeval thread of how Yank's resentment of capitalist exploitation is often a convenient way to feel aggrieved by his own incapacities and crudeness. It's clear that to come even within fifty yards of meriting the title The Hairy Ape, Yank and Mildred have to experience some kind of mutually discomfiting altercation, but United Artists' only idea about how to communicate her sourness as a character is to endow her, in this updated historical context, with a virulently self-absorbed flippancy about all the recent fuss in Europe (read: World War II) and to saddle her with a charming, handsome suitor whom she inexplicably toys with and rejects. Susan Hayward, as Mildred, does her thing where she looks like Greer Garson but tries to act like Sylvia Miles, and there's something entrancing about the zeal with which she behaves as badly as possible, especially when she's saucily raising a naked leg from a bubble bath and luxuriating in her own narcissism. William Bendix is a welcome, unusual sight in the lead role of a movie, but since everything salient about Yank's characterization and his stunted epiphany has been eviscerated from the scenario, Bendix doesn't have much more to play than his own burly size and his quick trigger to fisticuffs. John Loder is a chiseled blank as Mildred's would-be romancer, and Dorothy Comingore is so unrecognizable as Mildred's bitter, chastising, almost rickety friend and chaperone that it's impossible to connect this woman or performer with the kept wife of Citizen Kane. Had this movie been made five years later, it would have passed straight to Mildred Dunnock, and I'm already perplexed how Beulah Bondi missed out. Yes, they make Comingore look that old.

The production values of The Hairy Ape are done no favors by the corroded print I saw, but if it's unmistakably a B picture, or at best an A- picture, then at least the combination of Docks of New York-type smoke and soot with the severe lines and planes of Art Deco does a fair job evoking that tension between modernity and primitivism that so fascinated O'Neill in the 1920s. His spirit pervades the picture, more than it does in the otherwise "better" Anna Christie with Greta Garbo, and there's a token sequence of internal narration while we stare at an extreme close-up of Bendix's forehead. Disinclined to kill off Yank, or to let go of Mildred, or for God's sake to come anywhere near an I.W.W. office, The Hairy Ape preserves only an ersatz version of its famous, concluding encounter between Yank and a caged gorilla, but then adds a ten-minute climax of its own that crystallizes everything that is strained but oddly compelling about the movie. Hayward, in her gleaming apartment, sends the Loder character packing, in a roundly gratuitous display of her flouncy villainy. But as Loder slumps out, Bendix sneaks in. The ensuing series of shots between pitiless Beauty and the almost somnambulistic Beast have the distinct air of screenwriters grasping at straws and dodging all kinds of censors' impositions... but it's here where the film of The Hairy Ape works best as a dirty lens on Hollywood ambivalence and ideology, precisely through the scenario's schizophrenic compromises and through the aesthetic no man's land between Hollywood templates and purposefully aggravating political theater. I can't imagine a "straight" version of The Hairy Ape working all that well as a 1940s film, though the dual-track diversion that Hayward and Bendix would be stuck in without the bizarre, erratic, but indisputably distinguishing interpolations from O'Neill would otherwise be forgettable in an instant, if not sooner. I appreciated the wonkiness of the filmmakers' being so scared or strained about what they had to say, as well as their refusal to give up completely and not to say any of it. Better, the clammy, disjointed conclusion has both an elevating, nasty kick of its own and an accidental knack for dramatizing the gap between what Hollywood thinks we'll accept, what it concedes we might already know (this isn't The Hairy Ape!), and what it sometimes evokes rather powerfully by trying with all its might to suppress. Grade: C+

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Original Score: Michel Michelet & Edward Paul

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