Jacques Lerner — A Man Who Makes a Monkey of Himself (1927) 🇺🇸

Jacques Lerner — A Man Who Makes a Monkey of Himself (1927) | www.vintoz.com

January 08, 2024

When Jacques Lerner came to Hollywood, the monkeys decided that it was time that they too joined the general protest against the “foreign invasion.” Jiggs, out at the Universal zoo, was reported particularly upset over the little French actor’s arrival in the film colony to play the title role in the William Fox production, “The Monkey Talks,” which he had already played on the stage.

by Herbert Moulton

“Things have come to a pretty pass,” Jiggs was quoted as saying, “when capable American monkeys have to struggle along on small parts while a foreign human comes over here and gets the leading monkey role in the only film that has featured one of our race since I don’t know when.”

Hollywood’s cinema simians had a lively time squawking about it, but Jacques Lerner went ahead and played his role and skipped back to France.

Hollywood had seen men make monkeys of themselves before, but I doubt whether it had ever before witnessed the spectacle of a chap getting paid handsomely for doing it. Lerner has practiced the fine art of simulating simians for so many years that, by comparison, a real monkey looks like a rank impostor. He is said to be the only actor who has ever played monkey roles without the use of a mask. He claims to understand monkey talk, he knows all their little mannerisms, and can cut capers with the best of them.

His role in The Monkey Talks, however, called for more than the ordinary antics expected of apes. There’s a lot of pathos attached to the part. As a man disguised as a monkey in a French traveling show, Lerner is burdened with many repressed sorrows, chief among which is his futile love for a girl. Inasmuch as the lady takes him for what he appears to be — a monkey, not a man — it may readily be seen that he has rather a tough time of it romantically.

It is not until the close of the story, after Lerner, still in the guise of a monkey, has been mortally injured by a real ape, that the girl discovers his identity. She is in love with the “monkey’s” trainer, and has, of course, cared for the “monkey” only as a pet. Then, after he has saved her life at the cost of his own, and is dying, she learns the truth. As a tear-wringer, this scene is a winner. It is akin to the familiar situation of the clown hiding his sorrows under a grotesque mask of tomfoolery, but it has a refreshing touch of novelty.

Lerner has been impersonating apes on the stage for many years, and has come to be regarded as one of the foremost character actors of Europe as a result. His study of monkeydom began in 1911, when he observed the performances of a couple of apes in the “Folies Bergère.” Since then he has learned all that science has been able to discover about the monkey tribe, plus a lot of knowledge that came to him through his own observations.

He thinks that Darwin overlooked several anatomical facts when he propounded his theory of evolution. For monkeys and men, he declares, have little in common physically, and he goes on to point out that the ape’s head, arms, and legs, in particular, are strikingly different from those of man.

As for the ape’s intelligence, Lerner thinks that the race has been grossly libeled.

“They’re more intelligent than any other animal,” he says. “And, though man is supposed to be the only creature that reasons, I’ve seen monkeys figure things out for themselves in a way that would shame some of our best citizens.”

Lerner is very small in stature — a fact that immensely facilitates his monkey impersonations. Furthermore, he is an acrobat of no mean ability.

He was born in Russia. At the age of four, he was taken to Paris by his parents, and a short time later the future delineator of monkeys began his stage career. His acrobatics he learned in a circus that he joined at the age of eight. Following this course in tumbling, he traveled about the Continent doing everything from grotesque Russian dances in wandering troupes to slapstick parts in French farces.

As he grew older he devoted more and more of his time to character roles. To-day he is known as one of the greatest character actors in Europe, being something of a Continental Lon Chaney. His work in the stage production of The Monkey Talks brought him world-wide fame, for the play made a hit in three nations, with Lerner in the outstanding role.

When William Fox purchased the film rights to the play, he of course sought Lerner for the film production, and got him.

His appearance around the Fox studio in Hollywood, while the photoplay was in the process of being filmed, sometimes caused considerable excitement. Often, while passing in make-up from his dressing room to the set, or going off to lunch at noontime, die was mistaken by some stranger for the real thing, who straightway raised a cry that a monkey was at large, until Monsieur Lerner ambled up and told him, in a mixture of excited French and English, that he was a man.

A problem that has puzzled scientists for many years has been solved by Lerner — at least to his own satisfaction. That is, what is the reason for the habitual look of sadness on every monkey’s face — a sympathy-stirring look that bespeaks tragedy, futility, remorse, and unspeakable suffering. And Monsieur Lerner, who may be considered to have a broad understanding of the race, answers the question in this wise:

“It’s because they have to look at men.”

Jacques Lerner — A Man Who Makes a Monkey of Himself (1927) | www.vintoz.com

Lerner won world-wide fame when he created the “monkey” role in the stage production of The Monkey Talks, appearing both in this country and abroad.

Photo by: Max Munn Autrey (1891–1971)

He is probably the only actor who has portrayed apes without resorting to a mask — he transforms his face entirely through the use of make-up.

Jacques Lerner — A Man Who Makes a Monkey of Himself (1927) | www.vintoz.com

Collection: Picture Play Magazine, June 1927


see also Scotty del la Roche — The Friendly Gorilla (1969)