Sunday 1 November 2009

Murders in the Zoo (1933)

Director: Edward Sutherland
Stars: Charlie Ruggles, Harry Beresford, Gail Patrick, Randolph Scott, John Lodge, Kathleen Burke and Lionel Atwill
Made right at the height of the first horror boom of the sound era, Lionel Atwill gets to co-star with a wide assortment of animals. Two things distinguish him: he's a philanthropic sportsman who travels the world in search of rare species to donate and he's a jealous man whose wife provides him with plenty of reason. He's Eric Gorman and we first meet him in the jungles of French Indo-China, where he's ensuring that someone called Taylor 'will never lie to a friend again and never kiss a man's wife'. Given that because the man attempted to kiss his scary looking wife Evelyn, he ties his hands behind his back, sews his mouth shut and leaves him in a jungle clearing. It's a great and memorable scene as Taylor stumbles towards the camera.

The Gormans head back home on the SS Salvador, with a hold full of exotic animals for the Municipal Zoo. Even on the boat there's confident Roger Hewitt to make Gorman jealous and as usual he has good reason: Hewitt wants to spirit her away to another country, where she can divorce her husband and marry him. Of course Gorman is savvy to figure out what's going on and he plans his revenge in a suitably flamboyant way. After all, if you have one of the world's largest collections of exotic animals, you may as well put them to good use. So at a banquet given at the Carnivora house at the Municipal Zoo, surrounded by wild animals in cages, Hewitt finds a quick and untimely demise.

Lionel Atwill was one of the most frequent stars in the early sound horror films, so much so that they constitute a solid chunk of his filmography. They're good ones too, such as Doctor X, The Vampire Bat and Mystery of the Wax Museum, and they'd be followed by more, even as he found solid roles in non-horror movies like Captain Blood or The Great Garrick. He was as versatile as he was emphatic, his commanding English voice perfect for the screen. Yet a scandal brought him down, as it did so many early stars, this one being a salacious one in 1943 that involved an orgy at his house complete with pornographic films and a rape on the premises. After that he found himself stuck on Poverty Row making lesser titles like House of Frankenstein, Fog Island and House of Dracula, before dying of pneumonia in 1946.

Atwill is by far the best thing about this film, though he has some competition in Charlie Ruggles, who provides the comedy. He's Peter Yates, a fast talker who hates animals but needs a job and signs up to be the Municipal Zoo's new press agent. It's far from his best role but he injects some infectious character into the film with plenty of funny lines. It certainly isn't comparable to his work in The Smiling Lieutenant or Ruggles of Red Gap, let alone his work with Edward Everett Horton in Trouble in Paradise or Hearts Divided, but it's fun to watch nonetheless. 'Is there a good laundry in this town?' he asks after escaping death by green mamba.

While both were big names back in 1933, there's a bigger star in the cast, or at least someone who would become a bigger star: Randolph Scott, who plays the resident toxicologist called Dr Jack Woodford. He's as cleancut and honourable as you might expect but he doesn't get a huge amount of screen time. Then again, in a 62 minute film nobody really gets a huge amount of screen time. He does get to handle some real snakes though and does so impressively. Gail Patrick is in there too and she does well, far better than Kathleen Burke as Evelyn Gorman. The animals do steal the show from everyone here though and there isn't a fake among them. That's impressive. How they seem to have been treated is not quite so impressive, this being presumably before all animal work during shooting was monitored.

1 comment:

Eighty Six said...

If you like mayhem at the zoo, you should check out: "Cathartes Aura and the Apocalypse Zoo".
A novel-in-verse about a zoo on the day no one showed up, narrated by a captive turkey vulture.