Man-Made Monster – 1941
Lon Chaney Jr. is "electric" in this tale of "Dynamo Dan the Electrical Man" who specializes in "yokel shockers" at carnivals. After a tragic bus accident that electrocutes everyone on board except him, he becomes of intense interest to two electrobiologists who have radically different reasons for taking 'Dynamo Dan' into their lab.
Dr. Lawrence: Do you have any idea what might be wrong with Dan?
June Lawrence:You remember the gold fish? In your office?
Dr. Lawrence: Yes, of course.
June Lawrence:They died.
Dr. Lawrence:That's too bad. Something in the water, eh?
June Lawrence: Yes. Electricity.
Electricity is the problem haunting "Dynamo Dan" (Lon Chaney Jr). He makes his living as a sideshow performer taking jolts of electricity, most of which he happily admits is faked to fool "the yokels." But over the years he's built up an immunity to electrical shock, and when he is travelling by a bus that comes to an unexpected end by turning over against an electrical tower, killing everyone on board by electrocution, Dan impossibly survives. This puzzles a pair of electrobiologists, the kindly Dr. Lawrence (Samuel Hinds) and the obsessive Dr. Rigas (Lionell Atwill). The two men are working together and convince Dan to stay at their lab so they can research his unusual condition, all expenses paid and with food and board provided gratis.
Man-Made Monster was released in March of 1941, seven months before Chaney's much more famous role as the doomed Larry Talbot in The Wolf-Man, a film that in some ways is an expansion on the themes of Man-Made Monster of an "average guy" with an odd condition, caught up in things beyond his understanding and ability to control. In both films Chaney is a guest living in a home and town that isn't his own, progressively becoming more alienated while his problem worsens, despite having the affection and kindness of people (and animals) closest to him.
At first, Lionel Atwill plays the sinister Dr. Regis a bit like Claude Rains from The Invisible Man, and even Atwill's speaking lines early in Man-Made Monster sound like the vehement tones of Claude Rains crazily muttering about scientific theories. But Dr. Regis is sneakier and more duplicitous, employing poison and emotional subterfuge toward reaching his goals. As the story progresses, the Dr. Regis that could previously back-down a bit out of politeness when warned about how crazy he was sounding gives way to much more vitriolic version while Dynamo Dan becomes less and less capable of forming a sentence, mentally lethargic and confused, the two in a duality that is feeding as much electricity into Regis' ego as it does into Dan's body.
A side story of a romance between Dr Lawrence's daughter (Anne Nagle) and a snooping journalist (Frank Albertson) plays out just like you would expect if you've seen the other Universal films of the era, never gelling into the usual feature film love triangle (like as on display in The Wolf Man) with Dynamo Dan only slightly interested in this girl (Nagle) apparently out of sheer politeness and because she reminds him of a girl he liked at the carnival who "ran off with the fire-eater." Chaney (and to a lessor extent Atwill and Hinds) are the real triangle in this tale, three men professionally dealing with the problem of whether technology is meant to entertain, serve or "improve" humanity, and with Dr. Regis the exponent of the latter, it turns out to not be a question but an authoritarian demand.
Chaney's fine acting ability to portray a troubled soul maps for us how things are going in Man-Made Monster, which means from bad-to-worse. The happier moments of the story are when the dog Corky gets most of Dan's attention (Corky is played by a dog actually named Corky, an actor with three other film credits). Film direction by George Waggoner is economical and gets to the point (madman scientists are dangerous and when given power innocent people will be hurt) and the script moves us rapidly through the 59 minute run time.
By the last act, Dynamo Dan is so loaded with energy that he has negated the control Dr. Regis had over him. Now powered like a living storage battery he travels across the countryside wreaking unintentional havoc. With the police in hot pursuit Dan goes back to face the scientist who made him this way and framed him for murder.
More Lon Chaney Jr.:
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Original Page July 2020 | Updated December 1, 2021