Saturday, November 28, 2009

Captive Wild Woman (Universal, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Certainly Night Monster is a much better movie than Captive Wild Woman, its DVD disc-mate which Charles and I watched Wednesday night right after the 1948 Road House (itself not to be confused with the 1989 Patrick Swayze vehicle of that name, which was not a remake but a totally different story). Captive Wild Woman seems to have had two purposes in mind: to create a distaff version of the Wolf-Man character and to recycle quite a lot of footage of African jungle animals — particularly lions and tigers — Universal had left over from a 1933 semi-documentary called The Big Cage, which had starred real-life animal trapper and trainer Clyde Beatty (referred to here as “BEE-tee,” by the way — I’d always assumed the name was pronounced “BAY-tee,” but it wasn’t), including a lot of footage showing Beatty from the back cracking a whip at the lions and tigers to keep them in line. (I’ve read that, unlike lions, tigers are totally untamable — and it’s noteworthy that the filmmakers of The Big Cage created the illusion of tame tigers by running footage of them in slow motion and sometimes reversing it so the tigers appear to be backing up on Beatty’s cue.)

Captive Wild Woman had a committee-written script — Ted Fithian and Neil P. Varnick, story; Griffin Jay (three years before his career nadir, The Devil Bat’s Daughter) and Henry Sucher, screenplay — and it was directed by, of all people, Edward Dmytryk, who had already had his big commercial breakthrough the year earlier with Hitler’s Children at his home studio, RKO. Why Universal thought this piece of committee-written cheese needed the services of a loan-out director when any number of in-house hacks could have done a similar job with it is a mystery — and, assuming he actually had a choice in the matter, why Dmytryk took the job is an even bigger mystery. (Fortunately, the next year he would make the film noir masterpiece Murder, My Sweet and firmly establish himself on the “A”-list, a status broken only by his blacklisting as one of the Hollywood 10.)

Captive Wild Woman centers around a circus owned by John Whipple (Lloyd Corrigan) which has just commissioned Clyde Beatty to do an animal act involving mixed breeds — 20 lions and 20 tigers in the same ring at once — despite the rivalry between the two species. When Beatty (who is never seen in the film) backs out, Whipple reluctantly accepts the offer of his assistant trainer, Fred Mason (Milburn Stone, who didn’t usually play romantic leads but whose short, stocky build enabled him to match the footage of the real Clyde Beatty from The Big Cage), to run the act. Meanwhile, Mason’s girlfriend Beth Colman (Evelyn Ankers, playing yet another screaming damsel in distress), another member of the circus troupe, is worried about her sister Dorothy (Martha MacVicar, later known as Martha Vickers and superb as Lauren Bacall’s sister in The Big Sleep and in her own right in The Big Bluff), who’s ill with unspecified ailments that Beth is convinced can best be treated by the internationally renowned glandular specialist Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine, top-billed and in a way warming up for his role as a mad scientist who literally invents a new gland in 1957’s The Unearthly), who’s convinced that by manipulating glands one can literally transform one species of animal into another.

To do this he takes Cheela (Ray Corrigan), a female gorilla (so Ray’s casting here is both trans-specific and transgender!) who was delivered to the Whipple circus, and manipulates her glands so she becomes a human female, Paula Dupree (Acquanetta). Paula signs on to help Mason do his animal-taming act at the circus, since she seems to have a mysterious power over the animals; the problem is she also falls in love with Mason, and when she realizes he only has eyes for her human-born rival Beth, the shock sends her into a devolutionary spiral and she ends up regaining her ape form. This pisses off Dr. Walters no end, especially since in order to govern her behavior he had to sacrifice his long-suffering nurse, Strand (Fay Helm), by splicing her cerebrum into Cheela’s/Paula’s head to bolster her higher brain functions. Captive Wild Woman has some things going for it, including an exciting final sequence that cross-cuts between the circus (a bolt of lightning has flipped out the animals in the middle of Mason’s act and caused them to escape, predictably panicking the crowd) and the gorilla-turned-human-turned-gorilla-again on the loose, ultimately saving Mason from being clawed to death by the untamable lion Nero, only to be picked off herself by a local police officer who either ignores or simply doesn’t hear in time Mason’s entreaties not to shoot the ape.

Also, the were-ape makeup by Jack P. Pierce is one of his better late creations — for my money even more convincing than the Wolf-Man getup — and John P. Fulton’s double-exposures are hauntingly beautiful and surprisingly believable in documenting the woman-to-ape change. But it doesn’t help that Acquanetta, though certainly easy on the eyes, literally can’t act at all — maybe audiences “read” her non-performance in this film as the dramatizaton of a character literally new to human existence, including human language; but she talked in that same dull first-day-of-acting-school way in later films (like the Lon Chaney, Jr. Inner Sanctum vehicle Dead Man’s Eyes) in which she played human-born humans. For some inexplicable reason, Captive Wild Woman was successful enough that Universal made two, count ’em, two sequels to it — Jungle Woman (1944), in which Acquanetta repeated her role and haunted a college campus; and Jungle Captive (1945), in which actress Vicky Lane took over as the apewoman. Seen today, though, Captive Wild Woman has little to offer other than the animal footage and a cool efficiency to the direction — it probably wasn’t a credit Edward Dmytryk was proud of, though at least it didn’t do his career any long-term harm!