The Truth Behind the Ape Man (1906)
Alternate Title: La vérité sur l’homme-singe
Another of Alice Guy’s bizarre late-period French comedies, this one doesn’t use a lot of trickery but does include some interesting inter-cutting and close-ups. Perhaps not as innovative or surprising as “The Drunken Mattress,” it’s still good fun.
This begins with a man in an office sitting behind a desk, apparently selling hair tonic. Behind him are “before” and “after” (“avant/apres”) pictures of a bald man and a man with a full head of hair and a beard. A very bald man walks in to the office, and sits at the other man’s desk. He tells us with fairly obvious gestures that he has come to purchase some of the miracle hair tonic. The man at the desk agrees, but instead of giving him a bottle, he sends the customer on his way and calls in a boy dressed as a messenger. He wraps up a bottle and sends the boy to deliver it. Next, we see the interior of the concierge’s apartment. The messenger boy delivers the bottle, but, since it is in a plain brown wrapper, the concierge assumes it must be liqueur. Her husband the handyman comes home – he is very short and balding with long, stringy hair. He decides to sample the booze, and, finding he likes it, drinks up almost the whole bottle. The wife becomes alarmed – their tenant will know that the bottle has been drained – but the husband refills the bottle with water. Then the concierge takes the bottle up to the tenant, and the husband, feeling a bit poorly after drinking the hair tonic, goes to bed. While this is going on we get our first cut to a close-up of the bald man, putting the watered-down tonic on his head. Now we cut back to the concierge’s apartment, the next morning. The husband climbs out of bed, but now his head and face are covered with black hair, giving him a bestial look. He answers the door to the mailman, but the mailman panics upon seeing him and runs away. This wakes up the wife, who also begins to scream, then shows her husband his reflection in the mirror. He has become an ape-man! Various neighbors and passers-by crowd into the doorway to get a look, which gives them an idea…
After another cutaway to the bald man eagerly putting the watered-lotion onto his head. The next scene is in the office of a talent agent. He is very busy at his desk, approving posters, looking at new acts, and sending messages to and fro. The wife comes in with the ape-man and he becomes very excited. He hires them on the spot, then runs out to arrange a booking. Again, we see the bald man in front of the mirror, looking for any sign of new growth as he rubs the watered-down tonic on his head. Next, we see a stage. The agent comes out and makes an introduction and the ape-man and his wife (now dressed in an animal-trainer’s uniform) come onto the stage. Their act is basically that they will do some fairly normal thing together (reading a newspaper, smoking a cigarette, playing backgammon), and then the ape man will suddenly revert to type and start throwing things. The audience loves them. As he bows, the ape man scratches his armpits like a monkey. We cut away to the bald man, who is desperately pouring the contents of the bottle on his head. Then, we see a refined dining room, with a group of men and women awaiting their invited guest. The ape man comes in. He acts sort of like he did on stage, starting by acting very charming, and then suddenly slapping people or throwing things. When his wife comes in a moment later, he is picking nits off the head of the woman next to him and eating them. The wife interprets this as undue affection, and begins a fight that degenerates the whole dinner party into chaos. The last shot shows the bald man finally despairing of his tonic and throwing the empty bottle to the ground.
The inter-cutting of the bald man is the first time I can remember Guy using editing to suggest simultaneous action across two locations. The two stories don’t come back together, so it isn’t clear that this is “cross-cutting” in the sense of the “Life of an American Fireman” or “The Great Train Robbery,” but it still suggests a more advanced approach than simply sequential editing. Here, it’s being used to remind us of the funny consequences of the ape-man’s indulgence, with two separate storylines linked by that same origin. The close-up on the bald man (which is more of a mid-shot, with his figure in the mirror also visible), adds a visual distinction between the two stories and makes it easier to keep them straight, while also allowing the bald man’s increasingly funny facial expressions to be seen. As with the “Drunken Mattress” the transformation of the man affects his nature – he seems rational enough at the beginning, but as he gets “into the act” of being an ape man he becomes more and more wild in his behavior. I’m tempted to mention the popularity of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in early filmmaking as well, and the many later movies that involved men turning into beasts of one sort or another, from “Island of Lost Souls” to “The Ape Man” (both coincidentally starring Bela Lugosi). I doubt that anyone was inspired to make these later horror films because of this old comedy, but it suggests that Guy may have been tapping into a trend that would only grow bigger and…hairier.
Director: Alice Guy
Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville
Run Time: 5 Min, 35 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).