The second of three lost film articles to originally appear at Book Dirt. Brand new content will begin appearing next week, so be sure and subscribe.
W. W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw” is undeniably a horror classic. It’s a staple of anthologies, and almost anyone with even the vaguest interest in horror has encountered some version of it. The Monkees borrowed it for an episode, Alfred Hitchcock filmed it fairly faithfully, The Simpsons spoofed it, and Stephen King built on its theme in gruesome ways for Pet Sematary.
Oddly enough, Jacobs was known mostly as a writer of humorous stories. Many of them even appeared in The Idler, the British magazine co-edited by Jerome K. Jerome (and discussed a little more in this recent forgotten book post). “The Monkey’s Paw” first appeared in a collection called The Lady of the Barge, and the cover alone is evidence that the stories are more sweet than scary. It’s this one horror tale that has proven to be Jacobs’ legacy, though.
|"The Monkey's Paw" first appeared in a 1902 collection.|
Some have noted that there’s never been a really successful film version of the story, but it’s quite possible that the lost 1933 version may have been one of the best. The first talkie version of “The Monkey’s Paw” (it was also filmed in 1915 and 1923), the movie was made at a time when horror films were starting to really gain steam. Filmed during David O. Selznick’s short production stint with RKO, it was directed by Wesley Ruggles, himself on an upswing from directing Cimmaron, the first western to win Best Picture.
The story as written is only a few pages long, so it’s no wonder that so many filmed versions are short features. The 1933 film expanded on the story, adding extra characters (and some sex appeal along the way), and giving some background on the origins of the enchanted paw with a prequel set in India.
|Lobby cards for The 1933 Monkey's Paw, the first sound version.|
The cast included C. Aubrey Smith as Sgt. Major Morris, the man who brings the paw to the White family. Smith was a British ex-pat who made a career out of playing distinguished gentleman roles in Hollywood -- a quick look at his parts on IMDB reveals a slew of character names preceded by “Colonel” and “Sir.” He was a ringleader of sorts to a group of British film actors working in America that were sometimes referred to as the Hollywood Raj.
Ivan F. Smith and Louise Clark played the Whites, and their son Herbert was played by Bramwell Fletcher. Classic horror buffs know Fletcher from his small but memorable role in 1932’s The Mummy as the Egyptologist who completely goes to pieces. (Check out the clip; it’s one hell of a crack-up.)
|Nina Quartero in a publicity still (top), and in an added prequel scene in The Monkey's Paw.|
What makes the lost film seem most exciting, though, is an actual review from a viewer. It’s not a critic’s take, or one of the many hoax reviews of lost films that unfortunately turn up all over the place (a subject for another post), but an IMDB post from an elderly user who saw the movie in 1933, at the age of nine, and was plenty spooked.
“It was so scary that the memory has stuck with me for some 71 years,” he says. “It seems that it was always raining, with lightning and thunder, and people coming in wet and cold, and that most of the action took place at night -- a real film noir!”
Most compelling, perhaps, is the description of the monkey’s paw itself, which no doubt made a big impression on a child:
“White nervously held the paw in his hand and spoke the wish for money. At that instant, naturally, there was a blinding flash of lightning close by with an immediate crash of thunder! The dead hand of the monkey contracted into a fist momentarily, then returned to its curved-fingers relaxed position. I saw this clearly on the screen, but I'm not sure the characters in the movie saw it.”
While you can’t watch the 1933 Monkey’s Paw (not even a trailer exists), you can watch some of the other versions, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s TV adaptation, as well as some more modern retellings.
Or, you can go back to the source with the links below.
Free at Project Gutenberg (Lady of the Barge collection)
Free at Amazon (collection)