The Doctor and the Monkey

Le Savant et le chimpanzé, 1900, 1m04s
Star Film Catalogue No. 317

An elderly doctor keeps a monkey in a cage. When he briefly pops out, the monkey breaks free, leaps onto a nearby table and begins to systematically wreck the doctor’s study. After overturning a cupboard, he climbs up the stairs to the doctor’s bedroom. The doctor grabs it by the tail, which comes off. While the monkey trashes the bedroom, the doctor is attempting to tame the tail, which has developed a life of its own. The tail affixes itself to his face, to the horror of the doctor’s maid, who comes in to assist, eventually pulling it off. While they attack the tail with various implements, the monkey smashes a hole through the bedroom floor and jumps through it into the study. The monkey then attacks the doctor, and then the maid, ripping off her skirt and leaving her in her petticoat.

A violent farce with next to no plot - essentially, a chimpanzee caged in an elderly doctor’s study breaks free in the opening seconds and spends the rest of the film gleefully trashing the place - The Doctor and the Monkey’s immediate point of interest is its distinctive split-level set that allows us to see the study and the upstairs bedroom simultaneously. The chimp is obviously a man in a suit, and the cage seems to be made out of balsa wood, but realism is hardly Méliès’ intention - especially when the chimp’s tail, after having been severed by the enraged doctor, develops a life of its own and attaches itself to his face (via the film’s sole jump-cut) as though it were some kind of giant parasitical worm.

Méliès made his film at a time when opposition to animal experimentation was growing (the first anti-vivisection society had been formed in France in 1883, and its ideas were gaining increasing recognition by the late 1890s), though it’s unlikely that the film was ever intended as an explicit political statement: it’s far too scattershot for that.

Méliès was clearly so proud of the set that it would very soon make a repeat appearance, to more dramatically coherent effect, in What Is Home Without The Boarder? (La Maison tranquille, 1901). Painted backdrops are used to convey what is presumably the doctor’s laboratory (a skeleton hangs from the wall, and a skull is resting on a stool, and an overlarge pair of scissors might well be pressed into some kind of surgical/autopsy use. A fake entrance with a receding corridor in exaggerated perspective dominates the left-hand side of the screen. Much of the bedroom is equally fake (Méliès even paints on rays of sunlight entering via the window), though the bed that gets comprehensively demolished is real enough. However, the floor seems about as flimsy as the cage, though when the monkey breaks through it from upstairs and jumps through to land on the floor in a cloud of dust and detritus, it’s an effectively menacing moment - though it’s rapidly undercut by farce when the monkey tears off the doctor’s maid’s dress.

The untinted print on Flicker Alley’s DVD is generally in excellent condition, with surface damage kept to a minimum. The sharp picture offers plenty of fine detail. Joe Rinaudo’s organ-based score maintains a pounding left-hand rhythm while introducing a more staccato and percussive feel at the top end when the monkey breaks free and starts wreaking havoc.

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