In Man Made Monster, Lon Chaney Jr. is instantly likeable as carny Dan McCormick, the soul-survivor of a tragic bus accident. He’s a happy, go-lucky and trusting sort, if a bit on the dim side, and that what’s makes the film’s turn of events all the more sad.
Let me start by saying Chaney’s performance is a refreshing change from the sad protagonists of The Wolf Man and Calling Dr. Death. I like his performances in those films, but I must confess I was beginning to wonder how much of a range he had, which is a bit unfair. I was forgetting that he’d already won a lot of people over on stage and screen as Lennie in Of Mice and Men, a performance that would be emulated in cartoons and other comedies for decades to come. In fact there are shades of Lennie in Dan.
I suppose the very things that make us like Dan are what lead to his downfall, most of all the fact that he’s so trusting. Surviving an accident that electrocutes all of his fellow passengers and his carnival job as Dynamo Dan the Electric Man, leads benign scientist Dr. Lawrence (Samuel S. Hinds) to believe Dan may have an immunity to electricity and wants to conduct some experiments on him. Trusting Dan is more than willing. Unfortunately, Lawrence’s duplicitous partner Dr. Rigas (Lionel Atwell) wants to use electricity to alter the brains of what he considers lesser men, to turn them into an army of mindless thugs, and Carl is the perfect guinea pig.
It’s heartbreaking watching what Rigas’s secret experiments do to Dan. The cheerful guy we liked at the beginning of the film becomes a morose parody of his former self, and eventually a zombified drone that murders Dr. Lawrence on Rigas’s command and finds himself on death row unable to defend himself with anything but the hypnotic confession that Rigas has planted in his mind.
It’s a very well made film, if you can handle the sad stuff, but then, most of the classic horror films have some kind of tragic element. Though I think the romantic subplot between a reporter and Dr. Lawrence’s niece / assistant June (Frank Albertson and Anne Nagel) could have been done differently. Albertson’s Mark Adams seems a bit wedged in to the story. Dan is clearly flirting with June early in the movie; I think some seeds of romance between those two might have better served the overall story.
Last but not least, I must mention Corky. This may be the earliest film I’ve seen to use an animal, particularly a dog, to elicit sympathy from the audience. There have been some canine casualties in The Mummy and The Invisible Ray, not that Corky dies, but the dogs in those stories were peripheral characters at best. Corky, the family dog in the Lawrence household, is very much a full-blown characters. Corky romps playfully with Dan, he sits waiting sadly outside the laboratory door as Dan receives the detrimental doses of electricity, and their last moment together… I’ll leave that for you to experience yourself. Corky was quite the little furry actor.
This week’s supporting features:
Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse in The Birthday Party (1931)
The Our Gang short Little Daddy (1931)
Next week’s film:
The Invisible Man (1933) starring Claude Rains, Gloria Stuart, William Harrigan and Henry Travers