December 4, 2012

Going Ape Chic

Poster for Captive Wild Woman (1943)
Now Playing: Captive Wild Woman (1943)

Pros: Good performances by John Carradine and Fay Helm; Effective wild woman make-up
Cons: Weak script; Way too much inserted footage of wild animal tamer Clyde Beatty abusing lions and tigers, way too little of the wild woman

Some people are never satisfied. Since time immemorial, human beings have observed the grace, speed, agility and frightening power of animals, and found their own relatively hairless and weak bodies wanting. So they've dreamed of (or had nightmares about) beings with the intelligence of humans and the most coveted traits of animals. The ancient Egyptians had a whole panoply of gods associated with sacred animals. Interestingly, many of these gods and goddesses sported the heads of animals (but presumably kept their superhuman intelligence): Thoth, maintainer of the universe, was depicted variously with the head of an ibis or a baboon; Horus sported the head of either a falcon or a hawk; Annubis, the god most associated with mummification and the afterlife, commonly appeared jackal-headed; and the warrior-goddess Sekhment was appropriately equipped with a lioness' head.

The ancient Greeks turned this animal symbology on its head, so to speak, and came up with all sorts of hybrid man-animal and animal-animal combinations: Centaurs, Gorgons, Minotaurs, Furies and Sirens all featured some aspect of the human anatomy, while the Hippalectryon, the Chimera and the Manticore seemed to spring from some ancient game of Mad Libs featuring animal parts.

The dour Europeans of the Middle Ages took pagan animal worship and typically turned it into something evil -- the Great God Pan became his Satanic Majesty with goat legs and cloven hooves. Even with the Renaissance, the association of the animalistic with evil remained fixed in the mass psyche. The werewolf became a well-known symbol of the dark side of man.

In the late 19th century, H.G. Wells updated the old human=good, animal=bad trope with his novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).  After being marooned for months with the wretched half-human, half-animal results of Moreau's cruel experiments, Edward Prendick returns to civilization only to be driven to near madness with his heightened awareness of the "animal" in even the most supposedly refined of men. Wells' modern fable struck a chord (or perhaps an atavistic instinct) sufficient to produce half a dozen film adaptations in the 20th century, and influence many more films, TV shows and even comic books.

Speaking of Mad Libs, Captive Wild Woman is the movie equivalent, combining a little bit of Wells, a little bit of Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Wolf Man, and even a teensy bit of Tarzan into a somewhat less-than-satisfying (and occasionally unintentionally funny) whole.  If the title sounds like a circus sideshow, it reflects both the circus setting and the fact that the movie was something of a sideshow for Universal at the time. It came smack dab in the middle of Universal's classic monster revival of the 1940s, but even though it was popular enough to spawn two sequels, Jungle Woman (1944) and The Jungle Captive (1945), subsequent years have not been kind to the wild woman's reputation. (It probably didn't help that the follow-ups were pretty wretched. While the original was released in 2009 as part of the Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive collection, its shaggy, flea-bitten sequels never graduated from VHS to decent DVD releases.)

John Carradine as mad scientist Sigmund Walters
Sigmund Walters (John Carradine)
practices his mad scientist stare.
Captive starts out with the return of wild animal trapper/trainer Fred Mason (Milburn Stone of later Gunsmoke fame) from a two-year-long seagoing expedition to secure lions and tigers (but no bears) for his employer, the John Whipple circus (no relation to Mr. Whipple of Charmin bathroom tissue fame). An exuberant Fred brags to his girlfriend (and Mr. Whipple's secretary) Beth Colman (Evelyn Ankers) about all the animals he's captured for the circus, including a female gorilla named Cheela (obviously the feminine derivative of Cheetah). Shortly after he introduces the lively and intelligent ape to Beth, a poorly-secured box containing a tiger crashes to the dock, releasing its cargo. Fearless Fred shows off his quick thinking and animal control skills by grabbing a cane and a chair and single-handedly trapping the man-eater in a vacant dockside office.

With one crisis averted, Beth tells Fred that her sister Dorothy (Martha Vickers) is ill with a mysterious glandular disease. Sparing no expense, she's managed to get her sister into the Crestview Sanatorium, run by one of the world's leading endocrinologists, Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine). In classic B horror form, as Beth tells Fred about the Sanatorium, the entrance is seen in flashback-- the wind is howling, leaves are blowing, strange shadows are playing across the Crestview sign, and the camera tracks back to reveal a creepy, haunted-looking place that no one in their right mind would get within 10 miles of.  But, she continues, her mind was set at ease when she picked up a medical journal in the lobby detailing the doctor's accomplishments at furthering "not one, but three separate attempts at racial improvement."  Okaaaayyyyy….. Not to worry Beth, Dr. Mengele, er, Dr. Walters is going to take good care of your sister…

Walters is indeed smooth and charming, and Beth takes such a shine to him that she invites him to take a behind-the-scenes tour of the circus. He joins Fred and the circus owner Mr. Whipple (Lloyd Corrigan) in watching the lions and tigers being rounded up and fed. A ruckus over at the gorilla's cage diverts their attention -- an inebriated animal handler (Paul Fix) is tormenting Cheela with a stick when she grabs him by the head through the cage bars. After Fred manages to get her to let him go, Whipple fires him on the spot. Fred demonstrates her amazing intelligence to the group, getting her to turn around for a back scratch and then shaking his hand. Walters is impressed, and we can almost see the gears turning in his head as he compliments the circus people on their find. He offers to buy Cheela, but Fred good-naturedly turns him down, explaining that the personable gorilla is "priceless."

Back at the sanatorium, the devious doctor complains to his assistant, Nurse Strand (Fay Helm) that the animals they're currently working with are inadequate for the lofty goals of his experiments. He tells Strand that he intends to take sex hormone secretions from Dorothy (supposedly a by-product of her disease!) and inject them into Cheela. After all, glands can "transform physical matter into any size, shape or appearance" (we all knew that, right?). When Strand protests that the authorities will never allow it, Walters chides her: "I see you're not truly a scientist at heart Miss Strand. The things we're trying to do… one must be daring."

Walters hires the fired animal handler to kidnap Cheela for his experiments. In the dead of night, the henchman gets Cheela, cage and all, into Walters' truck. When he demands his dough, Walters, with a cold, evil grin on his face, pushes the ex-circus man into the cage, where off-camera Cheela goes to work on him. Later, with the newspapers blaring headlines about a killer ape on the loose, Whipple is in a tizzy, telling Fred that if she attacks anyone else, the circus is done for. Fred nonchalantly tells him not to worry, that she'll show up sooner or later (huh???).

Meanwhile, after transfusing Dorothy's hormones into Cheela and turning her into an exotic-looking beauty, Walters exhibits a curious nonchalance of his own. When Strand once again protests that experimenting with animals is one thing, but that the operations are sapping the life out of Dorothy, Walters, looking puzzled, asks the nurse, "Why should a single life be so important?" As the indignant nurse lectures Walters that his fine mind has become warped and he's tampering with things "no man or woman should ever touch," he decides that a human cerebrum transplanted into the ape woman is just what's needed to complete the experiment, and Nurse Strand's will do very nicely. Ouch! So much for all those years of selfless service to the great man and his dream to create a race of supermen!

The unveiling of Dr. Walters' newest creation, Acquanetta.
Behold! The Bride of the Gorilla! (Oh wait, that was another B movie...)
In a scene just a little reminiscent of Bride of Frankenstein, Walters unwraps Cheela's bandages to reveal Acquanetta, Universal's newest starlet (more on her later). She looks absolutely fabulous for a creature who had been a highland gorilla just a few hours before. And thanks to Nurse Strand, she has both looks and brains. He immediately dubs her "Paula Dupree" (maybe the name of an old girlfriend?).

The audacious scientist decides to show off Paula to his new friends at the circus. The animals begin pacing and growling, and Whipple comments that they seem to be afraid of something. Fred has convinced his boss to let him work up a super-dangerous act with both lions and tigers (but no bears), and he's practicing with the snarling beasts when Walters and Paula show up. Suddenly a platform topples over and knocks Fred out cold. Paula runs into the cage and stares down a lion that was thinking of having Fred for a mid-day snack. Everyone is amazed at the girl's power over the big cats, and Fred excitedly talks his boss into hiring her for the act, to stand outside of the cage, keeping the beasts calm (or afraid) while Fred does his thing.

These best-laid plans go awry, however, when Paula/Cheela sees Fred embracing Beth. Even as a gorilla, Paula had had a thing for Fred, so she has a temper tantrum when she sees him with the beautiful blonde. As a result, Paula partially reverts back, looking somewhat like a fetching neanderthal. In her bestial state, she pays Beth a visit in the dead of night, stealthily advancing toward her bed. Beth wakes up in the nick of time, sees the dark, hairy humanoid looming at her, and lets out a healthy, patented-Evelyn Ankers scream. When the housemaid appears at the doorway, the ape woman goes after her, sparing the shivering Beth. The next day, the autopsy reveals that the housemaid was killed in exactly the same way as the drunken animal handler, by super-powerful hands that snapped the spinal cord at the base of the neck.

Things come to a head on a dark and stormy night. Even though Paula has gone missing, fearless Fred decides to go ahead with the lion and tiger act. Meanwhile, back at the lab, Paula is becoming more girl-illa by the minute. Walters decides she needs another donation of glandular secretions from Dorothy, but the hapless patient is finally wise to the demented doctor, and calls her sister to come rescue her. Will Fred survive in a cage full of lions and tigers (but no bears) without Paula's help? Will Dorothy be sacrificed to attain Walters' goal of creating a race of super gorilla-men?

Captive Wild Woman was released at a time when Universal was cranking out B programmers like sausages, many of them series like Sherlock Holmes and The Inner Sanctum mysteries (patterned after the popular radio show). These low-budget movies were the television of their time, serving up familiar, entertaining characters and plots to a war-weary public. It's testimony to the huge demand for such content that the studio tried to make a series out of the relatively weak Paula Dupree ape woman character.

Paula Dupree (Acquanetta) reverts back to her original gorilla self
Eat your heart out Larry Talbot!
Film snobs sniff at what Universal did in the '40s to the Laemmles' lovingly-crafted classic monsters, pairing and tripling them in the B movie equivalents of WWE SmackDowns, then, to add insult to injury, letting Abbott and Costello have a crack at them. I've found it's a lot more fun to ignore the snotty condescension and just enjoy them for what they are-- given the right frame of mind, things like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) are wonderfully corny and entertaining.

Unfortunately, Captive Wild Woman takes more work to appreciate. There's a strange flashback and narration sequence toward the beginning that's just bad plot construction. Someone mistakenly thought that endless inserted footage of animals being abused by a whip-cracking animal tamer made for great entertainment (the footage was of famed circus performer Clyde Beatty, pulled from his 1933 film The Big Cage). Milburn Stone, at the time a ho-hum second banana for Universal's low budget programmers, makes a pretty weak (and puny) leading man. But worst of all, the monster (and beautiful Acquanetta herself) are given precious little film time between all the animal taming and the impassioned speeches about creating a race of supermen. She doesn't speak a single word in the whole film. As Paula her most dramatic moment comes when she silently stares down a man-eating lion. She has even less screen time as the ape woman who is regressing back to being a full-fledged gorilla (even though Jack Pierce's half-woman, half-gorilla makeup is pretty good).

Any B movie maker worth his or her salt knows that you lead with the monster, not relegate it to a minor sideshow attraction. The exotic Acquanetta was billed as the "Venezuelan Volcano," but by varying accounts she was either half-Arapaho, born on a reservation in Wyoming, or born in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. (Tom Weaver, et. al, Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931 -1946, 2nd edition, McFarland, 2007.)

Walters (John Carradine) prepares for yet another dastardly operation
B movie inventory: Mad scientist? Check. Young woman in distress?
Check. Gorilla in a cage? Check. Evelyn Ankers? Check.
Director Edward Dmytryk helmed one of the great film-noirs, Murder My Sweet with Dick Powell, over at RKO around the same time he punched the clock for Universal on Captive Wild Woman (he later went on to direct such classics as Crossfire, 1947, The Caine Mutiny, 1954, and The Young Lions, 1958). What a difference a great script, a bigger budget, and true star power makes! He did, however, manage to get some pretty good performances out of Universal regulars Carradine and Fay Helm (nurse Strand). John had already acquired a reputation as a big ham, but in Captive he's dapper and charming when Walters is trying to get his mitts on the unsuspecting Dorothy, and then delivers just the right amount of mad intensity as he fulfills his dream of transforming a brutish gorilla into an alluring young woman. Helm has the dubious honor of delivering some of the more hoary, cliched lines in the film, yet does it with gusto. I can't think of another mad scientist's assistant in all of B movies that has such a conscience or objects as strenuously when she sees Science veering off into Evil. If the real world had had more Nurse Strands at the time, World War II might never have happened.

In an interview with Tom Weaver, Dmytryk related how Carradine's reputation had preceded him on the set:
He had always been kind of a ham. I hadn't known him personally, but I had [known of him] when he used to walk the streets of Hollywood, even in summertime, with a topcoat thrown over his shoulders Barrymore-style and wearing his Barrymore-style hat. He used to go down and try to get the attention of Doug Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin at the Cinegrill, the little downstairs cafe at the Roosevelt Hotel… So I was really afraid of what he would do in Captive Wild Woman, but I had a little talk with him and I think we got a very controlled performance out of him for a mad scientist. [Ibid.]
Indeed! Carradine, and to a certain extent Fay Helm, ended up being the main attractions of the film, while poor, mute Acquanetta was effectively pushed aside. Still, Captive Wild Woman is a part of Universal's Silver Age of monsters, and it would be a shame for a true fan not to make her acquaintance.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

TCM Shop

"Creature of evil, running amok, blazing a trail of fear-crazed horror!"

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