I saw 'The Monkey Talks' in October 1998, at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy.
The main character in 'The Monkey Talks' is a man who spends most of his time on screen disguised as a chimpanzee ... and successfully deceiving close observers. Without relying on camera tricks, it's probably impossible for a man to credibly impersonate a chimpanzee: "Hollywood' (1923) and "Bikini Beach" (1964) both feature chimpanzee characters played by human actors, and the trickery is obvious. In "The Playhouse", Buster Keaton is hilarious as a man who impersonates a chimp, but we never expect anyone to be fooled by the imposture. However, the plot line of "The Monkey Talks" absolutely requires us to believe that a human can credibly impersonate a chimpanzee at close quarters for prolonged periods.
"The Monkey Talks" would probably never have been filmed at all, had not Jacques Lerner already starred in a stage version of this story. Lerner was a small, lithe, graceful man (which helps), and his chimpanzee costume is impressive (it includes a "monkey jacket" like the one worn by Manuel the waiter in 'Fawlty Towers'). Lerner's performance is spellbinding but never quite convincing, especially not in the close-ups (despite some splendid make-up appliances by Jack Pierce). It doesn't help that this silent film's dialogue cards (and the film's title) refer to Lerner as a "monkey" when he is clearly meant to be a chimpanzee. Worse luck, he's supposed to be impersonating a **talking** chimpanzee. Lerner speaks repeatedly (in the intertitles) whilst wearing his chimp disguise, yet none of his victims ever consider the possibility that this talking "chimp" is actually a man in a costume. (And how does he relieve himself?)
However, this film stars Olive Borden, who is one of the most incredibly beautiful (and sexy) women I've ever seen on screen, just a narrow notch beneath Danielle Ouimet in "Le rouge aux lèvres". The relationship between this beautiful actress and Lerner's chimp-man (trapped inside his confining costume) is exceedingly kinky.
Lerner plays one of a group of circus people (including an impoverished nobleman) who are down on their luck, and skint with it. To make money, they disguise Lerner and they exhibit him as a talking chimp (sorry, "monkey"). Everyone falls for this con. Eventually, they sell the "monkey" to beautiful Olivette (Borden) who regards the cute little monkey as her confidant, never suspecting that he's actually a man who is in love with her. (And who very likely has the hots for her.) Will there be some monkey lovin'?
Credibility breathes its last gasp when a jealous suitor abducts the talking "chimp" and substitutes a **real** chimp.) The 'real' chimpanzee is also played by a human: a stuntman in an ill-fitting costume, who is larger than Jacques Lerner. It doesn't help matters that Lerner (playing a fake chimp) is much more convincing than the stuntman who is portraying a genuine biological specimen of chimpanzee-dom. In my first attempt to review 'The Monkey Talks', I managed to get this film confused with the 1925 version of 'The Unholy Three', in which an actual chimpanzee is cast in the role of a *gorilla* ... a very dis-similar simian. The chimpanzee who plays a gorilla in that movie is about as unconvincing as the stuntman who plays a chimpanzee in 'The Monkey Talks'. When I originally viewed this movie, I was so distracted by Olive Borden's erotic performance that I couldn't keep track of the apes without a scorecard.
This movie does contain a fine performance by Raymond Hitchcock as a pickpocket, one of Lerner's confederates. Hitchcock was an extremely popular stage comedian (he starred in Ziegfeld's Follies on Broadway) but he made very few films. Director Raoul Walsh keeps the action going, but he can't inject plausibility into this orangutangle. I'll rate 'The Monkey Talks' 5 points out of 10, but at least one of those points is for the extremely beautiful (and sexy) Olive Borden.
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