It’s likely that most of us have seen some version of the classic short story, The Monkey’s Paw. The tale, written by W.W. Jacobs in 1902, has been heard on numerous radio adaptations, featured in comics and incorporated into a variety of television shows, such as The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror. Of course, the story has even been told in a long list of celluloid adaptations, ranging from short films and anthologies, such as Tales from the Crypt (1972), to several feature length films dating back to 1915 and as recent as 2013. However, adapting a short story into a full length film has some obvious drawbacks. I recently had one of my own wishes granted as I had the opportunity to view the rare 1933 version.
First, some of you may not be familiar with the story itself. It’s a fairly simple supernatural tale involving a mysterious monkey’s paw. Anyone who possesses the paw is granted three wishes. However, the advice to be careful what you wish for has never been more accurate as there is always a price to pay for taking a shortcut to one’s happiness. In the tale, a couple find themselves the new owners of the paw after the previous owner attempts to burn it in a fireplace, realizing the horrors it can bring. The couple, dealing with financial issues and wishing for money, finds that they soon have their wish granted. However, the cost is their son’s life as the payment is a settlement for a work incident. Of course, they then wish for their son to return without thinking of what condition he’ll return in. Mrs. White doesn’t care and is eager to answer the knock on the door, knowing it’s her baby boy returned from the grave. But her husband soon realizes that the thing at the door is no longer their son and uses the third wish to send him back to the grave. This was truly horrifying material for the early 1900s.
The 1933 film was not the first time Jacobs’ story had been brought to the big screen. It was made at least twice during the silent era, first in 1915 and, again, in 1923. Sadly, the 1915 version appears to be lost but the 1923 British version does exist, or at least part of it does. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to track down a copy to compare it to the next two versions that were made in the decades that followed. Until just a few weeks ago, the 1933 film had also eluded me. That was until it had a special screening at the recent Monster Bash in Mars, Pennsylvania. It was considered lost for years and many websites still list it that way. However, it was first reported in 2014 that a French dubbed copy of the film had resurfaced in a private collection. A few people then began to claim they had seen it through a DVD-R copy. Author and historian Tom Weaver had hoped back in 2014 that the reports were true and that it would be publicly released with English subtitles. Sadly, that has yet to officially happen but Tom did acquire a copy for his own collection and it was screened to an eager audience of horror aficionados. On a Friday night in a darkened hotel ballroom, I sat eagerly anticipating this rare screening, hoping it would live up to my own personal expectations.
For starters, the current print is in rough shape. It is dark and it’s hard to decipher what is going on in some scenes. The dubbing takes a little away from the true acting of the cast but, thankfully, subtitles have been created that help the story unfold for those of us who don’t speak French. We get only a fraction of Max Steiner’s opening score but what we hear is tantalizing. Our story begins with images of army troops in India and we meet Nura (Nina Quatero), a young woman who used the monkey’s paw to seduce a man into loving her. But, her happiness is short lived as she ends up killing herself. The paw is now in the possession of Sgt. Major Morris (C. Aubrey Smith, Tarzan the Ape Man), an army commander who uses it to defeat the enemy moments before a bomb kills his entire unit and leaves him with only one arm. Years later, he tells the mysterious tale of the paw to Mr. and Mrs. White (Ivan Simpson and Louise Carter). Mr. White immediately wants the paw and eventually steals it from Morris. As he holds it, he swears the paw moves. He eventually wishes for a fortune to help him out of his poor financial situation, which they ultimately receive through a legal settlement after their son is killed at work. Of course, we know where this is headed as Mrs. White eventually forces her husband to wish for their son to return and, moments before a mysterious figure knocking at the door is able to enter the home, Mr. White wisely wishes their son back in the grave.
With an original running time of 58 minutes, the classic tale had to be fleshed out to fit into a feature film. I think directors Wesley Ruggles and Ernest B. Schoedsack (Most Dangerous Game, Son of Kong, Dr. Cyclops and Mighty Joe Young), along with writer Graham John, partially succeed as there is genuine suspense at times. There is a lot of padding, making it a little slow at times, but it’s still entertaining and the climax is both atmospheric and chilling. It’s not necessarily a classic but I think it’s far superior to the 1948 version, which I reviewed back in 2016. That film suffers from a tremendous amount of padding and doesn’t really get going until the last 15 minutes.
The print shown at the Bash had a running time of around 50 minutes, so apparently some eight minutes of footage is still missing. Supposedly, a happy “it’s only a dream” ending was cut off for the French version. While this leaves the ending of this version rather bleak and sudden, I think it may actually be better as I’ve never been a fan of those types of twist endings, such as we get in Mark of the Vampire (1935). Ultimately, I walked out of the room quite satisfied, knowing that what I had seen was something rare. Frankly, we’re fortunate the print even exists.
Despite the rough and incomplete condition, The Monkey’s Paw (1933)should be available for the public to view. Unfortunately, it still resides in the hands of a private collector and existing copies have been made on the condition it doesn’t get publicly released. I’m thankful Tom Weaver provided a copy to Ron Adams so monster kids finally got a chance to watch this previously lost horror film. Hopefully, we all can add a copy in our own collection someday in the future. For now, the Monkey’s Paw remains barely visible in the dark, silently waiting for its next victim.