“I believe that electricity is life. That men can be motivated and controlled by electrical impulse supplied by the radioactivities of the electron. That eventually, a race of superior men could be developed. Men whose only wants are electricity.”
Even had you never seen either actor before, you would have to question how Doctors Lawrence and Rigas could effectively partner in such close quarters for any amount of time. We grew up on Samuel S. Hinds, who plays Lawrence, as Pa Bailey—or more familiarly “Jimmy Stewart’s father”—in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and are used to his similar character portrayals of kind and concerned elders, of which Doctor Lawrence is no exception. There’s little surprise in his uneasy stare over the shoulder of his begoggled partner Doctor Rigas, who is completely absorbed shooting bolts of electricity through every piece of equipment in their lab at the Moors. The only surprise is seeing these two sitting down together for dinner. Lionel Atwill plays Rigas, the mad doctor hoping to use electricity to create a race of supermen.
This is a March 1941 release. The US hasn’t even entered the war yet. Supermen? ‘Nuff said, Doc Rigas is spouting some scary stuff.
Man Made Monster opens with a horrific bus crash into an electrical tower leaving one survivor along with quite a few viewers admiring the miniatures used in creating the scene.
“I’m Dynamo Dan, the electrical man,” Dan McCormick (Lon Chaney Jr) says by way of introduction to Doctor Lawrence. He’s a carny sideshow performer specializing in electrical tricks. “Yokel shockers,” he calls them, “to fool the peasants.” Dan’s a big affable guy, caught flirting with a nurse when the doctor enters. He’s good humored and admittedly none-too-bright. Doctor Lawrence gives him his card and asks Dan to call upon him at the Moors upon his release. After the doctor departs, Dan’s nurse confirms Lawrence as “one of America’s foremost scientists.” Dan is impressed.
Cocky young reporter Mark Adams (Frank Albertson) lingers inside an outer office of the Moors flirting with Doctor Lawrence’s pretty young niece (Anne Nagel) while pumping her for information about the sole survivor of the bus crash. Sure enough, Dynamo Dan is but one room away, lounging among the electrical apparatus while talking to Doctor Lawrence.
Lawrence suggests that Dan’s survival may prove that there may be more to his act than he believed. Possibly, he’s built up an immunity to electricity. Doctor Lawrence offers Dan an opportunity to stay on at the Moors so that he and his partner can experiment upon him with the ends of gathering information that might save hundreds of lives lost every year through electrocution. (Hundreds? Kind of small potatoes, no?)
Just then Doctor Rigas enters. Rigas is too self-absorbed to pay more than cursory attention to their guest until Lawrence explains who Dan is. Dan interrupts the now interested Rigas to say, “Yes, I’m the one that lived.” This turns Rigas friendly, and he’s soon pumping a handshake and welcoming Dan aboard.
“Sometimes I think you’re mad,” Doctor Lawrence tells Rigas.
“I am!” Rigas replies, Lionel Atwill convincing enough to make this a confession. Instead, Rigas continues: “So was Archimedes, Galileo, Newton, Pasteur, Lister, all the others who dared to dream!”
Nobody in Hollywood could take this dream over the top into insanity the way that Lionel Atwill could. Even a thick pair of plastic goggles fails to extinguish the intensity of his gaze, its madness intensified by the buzz accompanying violent bolts electricity surrounding the doctor at work in his lab.
Atwill’s Doctor Rigas is the true monster of Man-Made Monster: Dynamo Dan is just a convenient vessel.
Chaney Jr is a big lovable lug as Dynamo Dan. He’s sexless, more interested in Corky, the lab’s full-of-pep pup, than Lawrence's niece June, who is instead pursued by the reporter throughout. (Foregoing this potential love triangle helps quicken the pace and hold Man Made Monster to just a hair under one hour.)
In his first monster movie Chaney Jr nails the format capturing audience empathy even after he’s turned into an electrically-fueled killer monster by Atwill’s Rigas.
He had appeared in over fifty films by the time his Lennie Small touched moviegoers hearts in Of Mice and Men. In those earlier movies, I remember him best as the cop helping to put on a show for the hoods in Midnight Taxi (1937) when he roughs up undercover Brian Donlevy. IMDb says he had an uncredited bit as a photographer in Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938). I love Alexander’s Ragtime Band. I’ve seen it at least ten times, but would have to make it eleven if I wanted to tell you honestly that I recall Chaney Jr being there. Chaney Jr is similarly undistinguished in his earlier movies, even the pre-Codes, which I’d have to look up in order to list, but in which I usually can at least spot him. Eventually. Hey, wait, that big kid—look! It’s Creighton Chaney!“I am not Lon Chaney, Junior. If my father had wanted me to have that name, he would have given it to me. He called me Creighton Chaney and Creighton Chaney I’m going to remain!” (Walker 105).
That is, until 1935. He caved, but he caved for good reason and with dignity:
“I tried for three years to make a go of things without capitalizing upon dad’s name, but the cards have been stacked against me. If I had only myself to think of, I would battle it out to the end. But I’m getting older every year and I don’t think it’s right to make my family suffer just so I can fight for a principal” (Lon Chaney, Jr).
Even so it took Lon Chaney Jr another four years to make a name—for himself. Under contract to 20th Century Fox he was cast in small parts in big films like Jesse James and Union Pacific (both 1939). “Things looked rather dark professionally a few months ago,” he told Kolma Flake of Hollywood magazine about that period.
“Then Wally Ford had sufficient love for my father and enough courage of his own to cast me as Lennie in Of Mice and Men in the West Coast stage production. Critics opinions were very good and I feel that out of that will come something.”
It did, but only after Chaney Jr bowled over director Lewis Milestone to wrest the Lennie movie role away from Broderick Crawford—who had starred in the hit Broadway run of the play—in the acclaimed 1939 United Artists film release of Of Mice and Men. Chaney Jr’s performance was so visceral that it inspired immediate parody (Hello, Tex Avery!), while so touching that it’s still hard not to shed a tear upon encountering it today. Produced by Hal Roach Studios, Of Mice and Men received four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, which wound up going to Gone With the Wind (1939) that year. Roach used Chaney again in the caveman cult favorite One Million B.C. starring Victor Mature and Carole Landis.
It’s hard not to recall Chaney Jr’s Lennie asking George to tell him about the rabbits when his Dynamo Dan makes a beeline to the cages in the lab and reacts like a disappointed kid upon discovering Pete the rabbit’s cage is empty. “Oh, he worked yesterday,” the devious Doctor Rigas replies, satisfying Dan’s naive inquiry.
In early December 1940 Universal announced the signing of Lionel Atwill to play the title role in The Mysterious Dr. R. The project was based on a story called “The Electric Man” by H.J. Essex, Sid Schwartz, and Len Golos that Universal had bought for Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi back in 1935. Unproduced at that time, the story was adapted for this 1941 release by George Waggner, who also directed Man Made Monster. While Atwill is at his devious best in the film ultimately released as Man Made Monster, the title change alone is indicative of Universal’s pleasure with second-billed Chaney Jr, who played the titular monster created by Atwill’s Dr. R(igas). In fact, Chaney Jr’s monster-movie debut was so well-received that Universal put him under contract in a deal that paid off mightily before the year was through!
As for Atwill, Man Made Monster was his only release in 1941, a trying year in which he lost his son to the war, and then lost his reputation after one of his parties developed into a well-publicized sex scandal that led to his being indicted for perjury the following year. A second indictment and subsequent confession to owning and exhibiting pornographic films caused Atwill to lose film work until he found a judge willing to overturn the decision in 1943 (Mank 83-93). Atwill relaunched his career on Broadway before returning to Hollywood where he appeared in a handful of Poverty Row films and a couple of late Universal shockers, House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). Atwill remarried for a fourth time and became a father once more before his death in 1946 at age 61.
I grew up on the big Universal horror classics and always credit them, along with a few other TV-friendly oldies that I watched over and over again throughout the 1980s, for first fueling my love of classic film. That said, Man Made Monster is a title I’ve only come to recently, in the past eight or ten years. It’s become a favorite, one of the very best where you don’t find any of those classic names—Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, or The Mummy—in the title. Man Made Monster not only breezes along as fast as you’d expect for a fifty-nine minute movie, it takes its time in doing so to progressively develop regular guy Chaney into a glowing condemned monster in a way that leaves us rooting for him to take his proper vengeance.
Contemporary reviewers held their noses while admitting to the movie’s virtues. “Fair thriller which will help fill the bill of those stands where meller is in demand,” said Film Daily. “Somewhat preposterous,” admitted Motion Picture Daily, but “the picture has its moments of excitement and suspense for the run-of-the-mill film fan.” Variety mentioned the intrigue of Chaney Jr in the monster role and said, “sincere portrayals plus alert direction and deft photography span several implausible pitfalls.” Bosley Crowther of the New York Times mocked the film over two paragraphs in which he takes time to recall the G.E. exhibit at the New York World’s Fair and to compare the voltage exhibited to that of the TVA, but he seemed to take to Chaney Jr, writing, “we grew rather fond of Dan. Silly? Of course he’s silly, and the picture is low-grade shocker fare. But what a killer he is when he’s ‘lit’!”No need to apologize for anything about Man Made Monster, except maybe its title. I agree with the change from The Mysterious Dr. R (likewise The Mysterious Dr. X) because I think Chaney Jr’s monster earned the honor over Atwill, despite Atwill’s fantastic performance. I also agree with Motion Picture Daily reviewer Charles S. Aaronson, who thought that the original title of The Electric Man “might have been an even better title than that selected.” Realart’s 1951 reissue title, The Atomic Monster, was pretty good too!
But no matter the title, the movie behind it is a fast-paced, well-acted, and visually exciting Universal horror film that belongs at least towards the top tier of all but their most classic monster titles.
Man Made Monster typically played in a double feature with Horror Island (1941), also from director George Waggner. Both movies are included in Universal Studios Home Entertainment 2009 DVD collection Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive. Also in that set are The Black Cat (1941), Night Monster (1942), and Captive Wild Woman (1943).
Before the end of 1941, only days after the attack upon Pearl Harbor, Universal released Lon Chaney Jr’s second horror film: The Wolf Man. That one was so good that the Jr was usually dropped from his name thereafter, when he was typically billed on the screen as simply Lon Chaney.
- Aaronson, Charles S, “Feature Review: Man-Made Monster,” Motion Picture Daily, 19 March 1941, 6.
- Crowther, Bosley, “The Screen: What a Killer,” New York Times, March 19, 1941, accessed September 27, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9402E0D8103DE33BBC4152DFB566838A659EDE?.
- Daly, Phil M. “Along the Rialto,” Film Daily, July 5, 1935, 4.
- Flake, Kolma, “Signs of Success,” Hollywood, July 1940, 56.
- “Hollywood Recruits 96 New Faces To Build Up More Star Material,” Motion Picture Herald, February 15, 1941, 35.
- “Lon Chaney, Jr,” Chaney Entertainment, accessed September 27, 2016, http://lonchaney.com/lon-chaney-jr/.
- Mank, Gregory William, Hollywood’s Maddest Doctors: A Biography of Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive and George Zucco. Baltimore: Midnight Marquee, 1998.
- “Reviews of New Films: Man-Made Monster,” Film Daily, 21 March 1941, 6.
- “Title Changes,” Variety, 29 January 1941, 18.
- Walker, Helen Louise. “What About the Second Generation?” Modern Screen. July 1932.
- Wear, “Film Reviews: Man Made Monster,” Variety, March 26, 1941, 18.