17 June 2011

THE MONSTER WALKS/1932/WILLIE BEST

There is not really much to say about this movie but I can give it a marginal recommendation if you enjoy bad movies or early cinema. I do, but I am aware that what I like is not everyone's cup of tea.  It would have made it to my new Quikie category except for the fact that while watching the credits I noticed the name of Sleep ‘n Eat and recalled it from the days when I used to really read up on films. But we can go into in part two of this post. This film was made in 1932 and has all the trademark characteristics of a film shot in those days: stiff, melodramatic acting, terrible sound quality and poor music score, static photography (a scene often being shot for minutes from one camera angel), and loads of stereotyped characters. The film is supposed to be a remake of a 1927 silent film called the Cat and the Canary and is basically a whodunit that takes place in an old mansion over the course of one night during a thunder storm. After family members gather for the reading of a will left by the estate’s owner, an eccentric scientist, tensions develop amongst some of the family and staff who feel cheated because the man’s daughter, Ruth Earlton (Vera Reynolds) has basically received the entire fortune. Most upset is the deceased man’s invalid brother  Robert Earlton (Sheldon Lewis) who is receives only the assurance that he can still live in the house and get care,  and his staff Mrs. Krugg and her sinister son Hans (Martha Maddox and Mischa Auer).

Ruth’s fiancé Dr. Ted Carver (with a classic film name of Rex Lease) has accompanied her and is somewhat suspicious when she later alarms everyone with hysterical screaming, claiming she saw a hairy arm trying to grab her in her bed. He claims that while is a hysterical female she is not prone to nightmares. And why not be suspicious of a hairy arm when in the basement there is kept the dead doctor’s experiment in evolution, an ape… a gorilla. Of course it is obvious the “ape” is nothing but a chimpanzee not much larger than the one that played Cheetah in the Tarzan movies. I had really hoped that this was going to be a man in a gorilla suit movie and was sorely disappointed to see a chimp play the monster. Later the ‘ape” strangles the wrong woman, Mrs. Krug, and it gives actor Mischa Auer a grand chance to overact as he mourns her death and his mistake, sense he is in fact the one controlling the ape’s deeds under the behest of brother Robert. Well there are not many surprises and the ape of course kills his tormentor, Hans,  at the end and all is settled nicely overall. Brother Robert dies and Ruth and Ted wind up all hugs and snuggles. I did not hate the film and usually like these types, but I cannot recommend it to everyone. You must have a taste for old movies and bad acting and dialog to appreciate a film like this. It is a bad movie but one I enjoyed for the most part.


Appearing in the film as Exodus, the chauffer, is black actor Willie Best, often billed as Sleep ‘n Eat. I remembered his name from the days when I actually had to read books and magazines to get film information. There is not a wealth of information on the net about him, but I thought I could do a little tribute to this guy, who really was talented but had a difficult, though relatively prolific, film career that ended in obscurity.

SOME WORDS ABOUT WILLIE BEST

There was a time when black actors in Hollywood actually had names like G. Howe Black and Stephin Fectchit. Especially prior to the 1960’s it would hard to point to a black actor who ever had a significant role in any motion picture. Among the actors who possessed genuine talent but never had the chance to show was Willie Best, who was billed under one of the most denigrating of all names in movie history. As unbelievable as it may sound he was cast for many years simply as Sleep ‘n Eat. While a talented actor and comedian, as well as musician and song writer, Best is sadly remembered for his myriad portrayals as lazy, simple minded and cowardly porters, servants and janitors. The lazily drawled line “yussuh”, expressed with drooped mouth and half awake eyes, can be traced back to many of Best’s characters. They are not necessarily by any stretch the roles Best would have wanted to portray, but as he stoically confessed in a 1934 interview, “ I often think about these roles I have to play. Most of them are pretty broad. Sometimes I tell the director and he cuts out the real bad parts… But what’s an actor going to do? Either you do it or get out.”

He was praised by Bob Hope for his acting ability and comedic timing and played in at some Hope films… as a half witted butler of course. He also played in a few Shirley Temple films, doing the same thing. He was busted for drugs in the early 1950’s and his career all but screeched to a halt. He found some work here and there in television and as the civil rights era dawned he found himself the target of disdain by many of his fellow blacks, who saw what he did as an embarrassment to blacks. He was considered to be no more than the character he portrayed in his films. He died alone and in obscurity in a a home for aging actors and now lies in an unmarked grave in Hollywood, far from his home and roots in Mississippi. The closing lines of the film above, The Monster Walks, are so horrible. The conversation focuses on the doctors experiments in evolution and when Exodus (his character) realizes that he may be descended from apes he says something like “Well I had an uncle who looked like that (the chimp) but he was a lot slower.” It was a terrible line and pissed me off. There is hardly anything on Willie Best on the net that I could find with a basic search. I think this guy deserves more than what he got.
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Note: Since the time this article was first published over at the original location of The Uranium Cafe Donna Lethal and the folks over at the Celluloid Slammer started a drive to collect funds to  let Willie rest in diginity  and got him the  headstone finally he deserved. Thanks Donna and all. Good job.

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