‘Calling all cars, calling all cars, be on the lookout for a dark-panelled truck, no license number, make unknown. It is believed to be manned by a couple of armed men, and is supposedly transporting a gigantic ape. Car 7-12, proceed at once to the Municipal Zoo. The possibility exists that the famous gorilla, Thor, may have been removed from his cage there …’
If nothing else, this 1945 Columbia chapterplay has one of the great titles of all time – which makes it all the more disappointing that the ‘monster’ is a grumpy-faced, tin-skirted, typically awkward robot which never actually gets into the expected fight with Thor, the gorilla (Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan in his familiar suit). Instead, fifteen fairly padded episodes deal with the power struggle between Professor Arnold (Ralph Morgan), inventor of the ‘metalogen man’, and renegade mad scientist Professor Ernst (George Macready). Arnold has the expected pretty daughter Babs (Carole Matthews) and relies on two-fisted young businessman Ken Morgan (Robert Lowery) to do most of the physical work – with Flash (Willie Best) along for weak ethnic comedy relief (typical of the material is a gag where Flash is asked to saw a piece of wood and bisects the table too). Ernst, who spends a chapter or two in disguise, has the usual bizarrely loyal bunch of thugs in hats to help him with his abducting, death-trapping, beating-up and the like, though for heavy lifting he relies on the shaggy Thor, who is periodically sprung from the zoo by corrupt zoo-keeper Nordik (Jack Ingram).
The robot needs ‘metalogen’, a rare element apparently not native to the Earth, to function, so many, many reels are spent up with searches for the stuff (there’s a meteorite under the city – ie: in familiar old Bronson Caverns) and grinding it up for use in the remote-control device that works the robot. Though early chapters have enough striking, if silly moments (two guys being throttled by a gorilla who has been hiding quietly in the back seat of their car) to hold the attention, the serial seems to lose heart in its later stages, killing off the ape well before the end and barely using the robot in the rote climax (Ernst drives off a cliff while making a getaway).
The cliffhangers are almost all of that sneaky variety whereby last week’s peril is re-edited so that the hero has a parachute or avoids falling into the fire or is rescued by the cops – despite what the previous episode suggested about his fate. Lowery is also very obviously doubled in most of the roughouse fights, and keeping his hat clamped on under all circumstances does nothing to cover up the imposture. As these things go, it has a stronger cast than usual – Macready was a year or so away from Gilda and ascension to the front rank of Hollywood heavy, while Best had been sidekick to Bob Hope (and much funnier) and Morgan was always a dependable presence. However, none of them really bring much more to the game than lesser names would have – though Macready perks up when disguised as another scientist, unable to prevent himself bristling when the heroine refers to Ernst as insane or evil and risking his disguise by defending his alter ego’s working methods. Directed by Howard Bretherton.