It’s October, which means that as the leaves change colors and there is a chill in the air, we here at the Picture Show conjure a chill up our spines. Join us as we take fresh looks at a series of spooky films from the past. This week, Samantha and Rodney turn the focus on Captive Wild Woman.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Universal was in something of a renaissance in 1943. Wartime consumption of movies was at an all-time high, and with their continuous and heavy release schedule of movies, Universal was better equipped to handle our ravenous appetites for entertainment and escapism than many other studios. Horror films were in vogue again, and Universal had made many of the best films of the 30’s. While budgets and run-times were scaled back, Universal found themselves in a position where they could take better advantage of this trend than any other studio with an endless supply of one-off features, and a stable of classic monsters like Dracula, The Invisible Man, The Mummy and Frankenstein’s Monster.
Captive Wild Woman represents the only new series of horror films with recurring characters that Universal initiated during the 40’s, and it’s a pretty good one, also capitalizing on the trend of B jungle films.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: It is easy to take for granted our knowledge of the gorilla as a peaceful, vegetarian species. Humans had very little understanding of the animal when this film was made. Dian Fossey's groundbreaking work that was published in 1983 as Gorillas In the Mist presented work begun in the 1960s. Gorillas were not even identified by western science until the mid-1800s. Based upon their size and strength, the movies depicted gorillas as unpredictable, violent beasts to be feared. The shift in our collective understanding of the animal's nature correlates with the drop-off in gorilla horror films.
RB: The story revolves around Fred Mason (Milburn Stone, now best known for playing Doc Adams on 604 episodes of Gunsmoke on TV, but also a SERIOUSLY impressive list of credits), returning from an expedition to Africa, where he is bringing animals back to star in the Whipple Circus, owned by one John Whipple (played by one of my favorites: Lloyd Corrigan). Among this menagerie is Cheela, a remarkably human-like gorilla (played to the hilt by perennial costumed gorilla favorite Ray Corrigan).
SG: Lloyd Corrigan's embarrassment over walking in on the Mason and his girlfriend kissing is very sweet and endearing.
RB: Mason’s girlfriend, Beth Colman (the lovely Evelyn Ankers, appearing in the second of what would be nine Universal film appearances in 1943 alone) has her own troubles. See, her sister, Dorothy has been having some health troubles and is being treated by an endocrinologist Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine). This may be the part where you’re asking yourself what this has to do with the circus, and, maybe, Cheela the Gorilla in particular.
A little drink to monkey business.
I’m glad you asked. See Dr. Walters isn’t just a circus fan. He wants to buy Cheela to use in his experiments, and when she isn’t for sale, he enlists a disgruntled former employee to steal her for him. The natural thing to do here is transplant glandular material from Dorothy Colman into Cheela, which causes the ape to transform into human form. Only thing left to do is to transplant a human brain into Cheela as well. What we wind up with is Paula Dupree, a beautiful young woman played by a terrible actress who went by the name Acquanetta. Originally known as the “Venezuelan Volcano”, she was nonetheless born on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. Captive Wild Woman is one of her few film roles, in a very short career that’s legendary to the point that it’s inspired musicals.
SG: The transformation from human to ape is skillfully done for the time. First her pigmentation becomes dark, I'm assuming through use of filters ala Sh! The Octopus. Then her hair sprouts, her jaw protrudes, and her browbone becomes large in a series of stop-starts ala The Wolf Man. Acquanetta has little to do in this movie but look alternately stoic and intense without saying anything. I can't tell from this one film whether she had any skill as an actress.
RB: Paula winds up infatuated with Mason, Beth almost becomes a brain transplant, a circus gets destroyed in a storm…I don’t want to give up too much, but the final reel or so of this movie is pretty crazy and a lot of fun. Surprisingly, contemporary reviewers didn’t seem to pay too much attention to the horror aspect of the film, saving most of their praise for the jungle footage, which was mostly all cribbed from The Big Cage anyway.
I can see you're not truly a scientist.
SG: John Carradine is fantastic as the pseudo-scientist. His menacing acts are so brutal and abrupt they border on comedy. He is a charismatic actor who dominates his scenes.
Clearly director Edward Dmytryk, who would go on to make good use of his horror training ground in noir classics like Murder, My Sweet and Crossfire, was infatuated with the animal trainers' work, and used extensive shots of the big cats pacing, roaring, and charging. There is a fight scene between a lion and a tiger decades before such a spectacle could be created safely with CGI. The animal taming scenes with Mason wielding a whip and a gun made me uncomfortable not because the man is in peril, but because the tiger is.
RB: While this isn’t a fantastic film by Universal standards, I enjoyed it quite a bit on more of a Monogram level. The cast is super solid, with some of my favorites and this is the kind of film I’m generally partial to anyway. While not very well known today, it was popular enough in its time to spawn two sequels (only one of which featured Acquanetta as Paula), and stands as a breezy and entertaining, if also pretty ridiculous hour. Call me simple, but that’s good enough for me. Three stars. Oh, and bring on Jungle Woman. I really want to see how they continue this.
SG: I'm glad you had a good time with it. If the mad scientist story had been expanded in lieu of all the animal scenes, I would have enjoyed it much more. I couldn't overcome my discomfort with seeing the big cats who were obviously in an extreme state of agitation throughout the movie. Two stars.