Doctor + Monkey = Comedy
Note: This is the ninth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1900 film, THE DOCTOR AND THE MONKEY, directed by Georges Méliès.
Comedy is a beautiful thing. If I had to pick a favorite genre of film, which is really kind of a strange thing to do, I would nevertheless have to settle on comedy. Part of my fascination with it is how much of its structure can elude me; I can tell you what a good dramatic story line generally looks like. A comedic tale is much more elusive, and as is often the case in film, the plot is almost the least important part. And as with the vast majority of Georges Méliès’ work, especially his earliest bite sized novelties, THE DOCTOR AND THE MONKEY (1900) eschews intricate set ups and payoffs for intricately staged yet anarchic comedic spectacle.
THE DOCTOR AND THE MONKEY follows, for all of its 60 plus seconds, a doctor’s monkey that breaks loose and causes all sorts of mischief. It’s a relatively unremarkable premise made notable by three distinct elements. Firstly, the staging of the film is immediately impressive; the action takes place across a two-story cross section set that, while common in theater, is nevertheless a visually striking construction for a film. Perhaps more importantly, the way the monkey cavorts to and from the second story adds to the confusion and allows the viewer to feel all the more harried, as the doctor does, because their eyes are roaming around the screen fairly quickly.
Speaking of the monkey, the primate (or what’s supposed to pass for one) is the second notable element. The monkey costume, while perhaps conventional for the time, is somewhat macabre and off-putting today; the strange face mask and the actor’s clear height and movements render the creature a slightly creepy one. Then, when his somewhat phallic tail becomes detached and wriggles around with a supernatural will of its own, you have to wonder if this was even intended to be a real monkey at all, and if this strange creature is not in fact some terrible demon.
Some have even called THE DOCTOR AND THE MONKEY an early horror film, being the first clear “ape on the loose” film that would come into fruition after KING KONG (1933), due mostly to the monkey’s strange appearance. I don’t feel the same, in spite any of my comments to the contrary. The film is clearly meant to amuse, and the monkey’s weird design is indicative of an artistic rendering that pervaded the depiction of “creatures” in theater and illustration.
Then again, the monkey’s penultimate action could be seen as horrific, from a certain perspective. At the end of the film, the monkey rushes the housekeeper and pulls her skirt off, revealing her undergarments. I don’t know about you, but if a man in that monkey suit undressed me as suddenly and viciously, I wouldn’t be in a great frame of mind. Nevertheless, the moment is notable because of something I’ve written about for some length before: the representation of Victorian era sexuality in film. It’s a final, strange parting shot meant to titillate and astonish. The very simplicity of it makes me question the very reasons why sexual humor was (and is, to a certain extent) so taboo, and why it was nevertheless so well-liked and enjoyed.
Ultimately, though, THE DOCTOR AND THE MONKEY represents the great dichotomy that so much of humor is built upon. It is almost literally a perfect manifestation of the straight man and the comic; the doctor is the ultimate representation of human sophistication and knowledge, and the monkey, the basest form of a somewhat evolved intelligence. The double act is one of comedy’s oldest forms, and that is why the film works so well on a pure, comedic level. There’s not much that’s funnier than a smarter person being harried and annoyed by a goof, a stooge…or a monkey.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.