September 12, 2013

Lions and tigers and Atwill, oh my!

Poster - Murders in the Zoo (1933)
Now Playing: Murders in the Zoo (1933)

Pros: Lionel Atwill is pitch-perfect as the quietly menacing villain; Shock scenes keep the viewer off balance; Kathleen Burke is captivating
Cons: Charlie Ruggles quickly becomes tiresome in his comic relief role

Did you hear the one about the Chinese zoo officials who tried to pass off a dog, a large Tibetan mastiff, as a lion? Apparently they got away with it for awhile until the "lion" started barking at the zoo visitors.  The official explanation was that the real lion had been temporarily sent off to another facility to breed. Apparently it didn't occur to them to put up a sign. Although, switcheroos like this have apparently been a common practice. The same zoo people placed a white fox in a leopard den and another dog in the wolf enclosure. (To be fair, the Tibetan mastiff is a spectacular-looking animal. I'd never seen one, even in photographs, before reading the article. It might just be worth a couple of bucks to see one up close.)

I was tempted to think that this was all a big put-on, that the zoo officials were just having some fun and the visitors were being spoilsports. But then it occurred to me that there has never been an official or bureaucrat in the history of the human race that had anything that could remotely be called a sense of humor. That is exactly why they get put in charge of things -- someone has to pretend to be the adult while the rest of us are lobbing spitballs and running with scissors. So how to explain such a lame charade?

The regal Tibetan Mastiff
The Tibetan Mastiff is a magnificent-looking beast.
I can't speak to China, but its seems that in this country, officials at every level harbor a deep, abiding disrespect for the intelligence of the common folk. Magnificent, meretricious b*st*rds like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Wiener dare the commoners not to vote for them. And in between marathon viewings of The Kardashians and Honey Boo Boo, we fall for these con artists (almost) every time. Passing a dog off as a lion is kids' stuff compared to the epic cons that are run every day in the good ol' US of A.

Murders in the Zoo features a.) a zoo (duh!), and b.) a con of sorts on the part of one of the characters, but in this case the dishonesty is just the tip of a jealous, raging psychotic iceberg…

The film opens in an especially gruesome fashion -- so much so, you may wonder how it could be an American movie of the 1930s. (It's important to note that it was released by Paramount in Hollywood's pre-Code days, before the Motion Picture Production Code -- devised by chief censor Will H. Hays and others with 19th century Victorian sensibilities -- went into practical effect. The Code aimed to protect innocent moviegoers from scenes just like this and other Very Bad Things.) After establishing the setting as the jungles of French Indo-China (later to become Vietnam), we see a couple of native men holding the legs of a man struggling on the ground, while another older man (Eric Gorman, played by Lionel Atwill), is positioned at the victim's head, furiously working his arms up and down. A native and some conveniently placed vegetation in the foreground screens most of what is going on, but it doesn't look good.

As he finishes up and observes his work, Gorman blithely observes, "he'll never lie to a friend again… or kiss another man's wife!" After Gorman and his henchmen leave, the man, his hands bound, struggles up, and we see to our horror that Gorman has been practicing his cross-stitching-- on the poor man's mouth! Back at camp, when Gorman's wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) wonders where Bob Taylor is, Gorman tells her that he ventured out on his own. "Well what did he say?" she asks. "He didn't say anything," Gorman responds, barely suppressing the faintest of evil smiles.

Lionel Atwill as Eric Gorman and Charles Ruggles as Peter Yates
Millionaire sportsman Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) looks very much
in his element surrounded by wild animals of every description.
On board the ship bound for home, we learn that Eric Gorman is a millionaire "sportsman" who has collected a menagerie of wild animals for the Municipal Zoo. He may be good at capturing animals, but he's not so good at capturing young women's hearts -- Evelyn seems to gravitate to just about anything wearing pants except her creepy husband (and who can blame her?). First she gets poor Bob killed, then, on the ship, she meets secretly with debonair young Roger Hewitt (John Lodge), who's also wealthy, but better yet, not psychotically jealous. Hewitt tries to convince Evelyn to leave the madman, but she is justly afraid… very afraid.

When the ship arrives in port, the zoo's new press agent Peter Yates (Charles "Charlie" Ruggles) is dispatched to meet Gorman and the zoo's latest acquisitions. Peter apparently has a problem with the bottle, and has gotten himself fired from every newsroom in town-- the zoo press agent gig is his last chance. He also is afraid of his own shadow. So naturally much of the film -- way too much -- is devoted to Yates' not-so-hilarious encounters with a varied assortment of wild things. (We also have to forgive the filmmakers and moviegoers of the era for thinking that alcoholism was something of a hoot.)

Along the way we also meet the zoo's resident toxicologist, Dr. Jack Woodford (Randolph Scott) and his assistant (and naturally his fiancee), Jerry Evans (Gail Patrick). Gorman introduces Woodford to one of his acquisitions from India, a new, deadly species of green Mamba snake, telling him that it's responsible for hundreds of deaths a year. Woodford good-naturedly takes on the assignment of finding an antidote for the venom (which will save his life later).

Randolph Scott and Charles Ruggles
Randolph Scott looks a bit out of his element surrounded
by lab equipment. Where's the cowboy hat?
After inspecting Gorman's menagerie, the zoo curator Dr. Evans (Harry Beresford) expresses his concern that due to recent budget cuts, the zoo doesn't have the resources to take them all. Bumbling but good-hearted Yates proposes that they hold a fund-raising dinner for generous society types-- to be held right in the zoo among all the lions and tigers and bears. After a brief pause, the curator and Gorman pronounce it a splendid idea-- Gorman in particular is very keen on it, so we know he's up to no good.

Gorman makes a special trip to Hewitt's penthouse apartment to persuade the young millionaire to come to the fundraiser and help out the zoo. While he's talking with Hewitt, he sees lipstick on a glass on the coffee table, confirming his suspicions that his wife is seeing the young man. Hewitt will pay for his indiscretions--- bwwwaaahahahahahahahha!!!

And pay he does. At the gala affair, held appropriately enough in the carnivore house, the cream of the city's financial elite gathers to partake of a sumptuous banquet amidst the caged big cats and other assorted beasts. Yates rises to make his clumsy opening remarks, trying desperately to get the bored newspapermen in attendance to take photos. In the middle of his speech, Hewitt yells, then drops to the floor, shaking uncontrollably. It looks like he's been bitten, but by what? The staff quickly discover that the green mamba is not in its box, and all hell breaks loose as the society guests scramble for the exits.

Randolph Scott, Kathleen Burke and (lying down) John Lodge
Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) is bummed by the death of her
lover. (Actor John Lodge would ultimately recover and
become a congressman and governor of Connecticut.)
For Evelyn Gorman, her lover's death by escaped mamba is just a bit too convenient. Alone with Gorman, she accuses him outright of killing Hewitt. "Evelyn!" he protests, "you don't think I sat there all evening with an eight foot mamba in my pocket, do you?" (Freud help us! As we see later, it wasn't the mamba, but rather a mechanical, pocket-sized snake's head devised to inject venom through needle fangs.)

While Dr. Woodford, who wasn't born yesterday, is pondering why the spread of the puncture wounds in Hewitt's leg don't match the fang spread of the real mamba, Evelyn decides she can't wait any longer-- in the dead of night she hurries to Woodford's lab on the zoo grounds to tell him her suspicions. Gorman follows and intercepts her on the quaint wooden bridge that spans -- of all things -- the zoo's alligator pit (where is OSHA when you need 'em?). His efforts to placate her are to no avail. It looks like the alligators might just get an unexpected midnight snack… Before it's all over, Woodford gets to test his new mamba venom antidote on himself, and a desperate Gorman really gets in touch with his wild side by releasing all his animal friends from their cages.

In my last post on Dead Men Walk (1943), I related how that film, with its leisurely pace and action taking place off screen, seemed to be about 10 years behind its time. Murders in the Zoo seems vastly ahead of its time, and perhaps from a different universe altogether. For the gore hounds, it's got that unforgettable opening shock scene. It dispenses with the traditional whodunnit mystery, choosing instead to let us know right upfront how psychotic Gorman really is. Instead of wondering whodunnit, we wonder who he's going to do next and how. It unsentimentally takes the most beautiful and sympathetic character (Kathleen Burke, who the year before had been the Panther Woman on Island of Lost Souls) and literally feeds her to the alligators. And it features some of the more uncomfortable "strange" lust scenes between a husband and wife you're likely to see.

Atwill and Kathleen Burke
Kathleen Burke seems to be pondering how she got stuck
in the second depressing horror film in as many years.
Murders in the Zoo does make some concessions to its decade. The most egregious is the presence of character actor Charles Ruggles in an unfortunate comic relief (or should I say grief?) role. Charlie must be in about 2/3 of the movie's 62 minute runtime, bumbling around, stammering and getting spooked by the zoo's inhabitants at every turn. Like Jerry Lewis, a little of Charlie goes a long way. A scene or two of his shtick might have been acceptable, but he's so ubiquitous in this thing, he's given top billing! Charlie would go on to bigger and more popular films like Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, with Charles Laughton) and Bringing Up Baby (1938 with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant), but in Murders he kills the menacing mood and suspense at every turn.

Ruggles does have at least one good moment. After the disastrous banquet, he's enlisted by the curator to help clean out the animal cages. As he's moving some straw around, he looks down and realizes the escaped deadly green mamba is trapped under his pitchfork. Paralyzed with fear, he yells for help. After the mamba is recaptured, he still seems unable to move.
Jerry Evans: Peter, Peter, listen to me! Say something to me!
Yates: Is there a good laundry in this town?
No animals were harmed in the making of this picture -- at least I hope not!
Hey, who let the Tibetan Mastiffs out?
Wait, those are lions! Run!!!
But of course, the real morbid attraction of Murders in the Zoo is the slimy, psycho presence of Lionel Atwill. He cavalierly dispatches perceived rivals for Evelyn's affections, while reserving his most passionate intensity for clumsy attempts to woo back the woman who's come to loathe him. In an early scene with Ruggles in the hold of the ship, surrounded by caged beasts, he sums up his philosophy of the jungle:
Gorman: Mr. Yates, never be afraid of a wild animal. If you leave them alone, they'll leave you alone-- that's more than you can say of most humans.
Yates: You don't mean to say you really like these beasts?
Gorman: I love them. Their honesty, their simplicity, their primitive emotions… they love, they hate, they kill.
Eric Gorman is faithful to his philosophy through the entire film -- he loves, he hates, he kills. In his book Hollywood's Maddest Doctors: A Biography of Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive and George Zucco (Luminary Press, 1998), Gregory William Mank suggests that the real Atwill was not all that different from the villains he portrayed (or at least that's what he wanted his public to think). Mank quotes liberally from an interview Atwill gave to Motion Picture magazine around the time of Murders in the Zoo. Atwill sounds like he's channeling Eric Gorman as he tells the reporter about his home life:
"My wife tells me that I am cruel -- that I have a streak of cruelty. And what do I do when I am cruel? Nothing. NOTHING! To do nothing is the most blood-curdling, most demoniacal form of cruelty there is. Because it is mental cruelty… And so, I do nothing when I am being cruel. I am cold. I am silent."
Atwill and Burke in a particularly intense scene
Is he acting, or is this the real Lionel Atwill?
Who cares? Enjoy the show!
Later in the early '40s, Atwill's eccentricities would get him in hot water. An orgy held at his home resulted in sensational rape charges. Mank details how Atwill bribed friends into lying to the grand jury. He plead guilty to perjury charges, but a loophole in the law allowed him to withdraw his plea and he was ultimately exonerated by a lenient judge. However, by the beginning of 1943 the disgraced actor was finding it hard to get work except in ultra-low budget Poverty Row studio films. He died on April 22, 1946, at the age of 61.

Whatever you think of his personal life, Atwill -- one of the best B movie villains ever -- gives one of his most masterful performances in an unusual horror-thriller that managed to test boundaries right before Will Hays and his gang stepped in and killed all the fun. Fortunately, a very nice print is available from TCM's Universal Cult Horror Collection.

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

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"He'll never lie to a friend again… or kiss another man's wife!" WARNING: Contains graphic depiction of cross-stitching!


  1. Until I first saw "Murders in the Zoo" I thought nothing would ever shake my affection for Charlie Ruggles. Arrgh!

    1. I've always liked Charlie too. But he's given way too much screen time in this, and his shaky, alcoholic milquetoast performance is painful to watch. I suspect some executive thought his "comedy" would offset Atwill's intensity and the grim nature of the story, making it more palatable for audiences. Instead, it just looks like the studio couldn't decide whether to make a comedy or a horror film.