It’s all happening at the zoo… mostly murder

Universal Studios was the headquarters for horror during the 1930s and 40s, following the one-two punch of Tod Browning’s DRACULA and James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN in 1931.  The rival studios didn’t try to beat Universal at cranking out the monster pictures but most of them gave the genre a shot once horror became, in the eyes of moviegoers, a going concern.  In 1932, MGM tried its hand with FREAKS (which Tod Browning had first pitched to the Laemmeles over at Universal, without success) and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (starring FRANKENSTEIN star Boris Karloff in the title role).  That same year, United Artists offered the offbeat WHITE ZOMBIE (featuring DRACULA himself, Bela Lugosi) and First National/Warner Brothers upped the ante by presenting both DOCTOR X and (the following year) THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM in two-strip Technicolor.  RKO danced around the terror tune with island-set adventure stories boasting horrific elements: THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), KING KONG and SON OF KONG (both 1933); in the mid 1940s, the studio would pop for a series of balls-out spookshows with a psychological bent that elevated the genre while not stinting on shocks.  Paramount gave the cause the old college try, having produced an Academy Award-winning adaptation of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE in 1931.  In 1933, the studio released the (to hear Variety tell it) “freak picture” ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (an adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau), the queer vengeful ghost story SUPERNATURAL (from the Halperin Brothers of WHITE ZOMBIE fame) starring Carole Lombard and the deliciously morbid MURDERS IN THE ZOO, with Lionel Atwill in rare form (even for him!) as a collector of wild animals and a merciless killer of anybody who pays his pretty young bride the slightest attention.

If you’re familiar with Universal’s cozy Gothic confections – the classic monsters, their sons and daughters, the mix-ups, the mash-ups, the (seemingly) endless cash-in sequels – then Paramount’s pre- Production Code chillers will give you something entirely different to chew on.  While Universal reassured audiences that evil could be banished with the right tools – the crucifix, the silver bullet, wolfbane, an ancient Egyptian scroll or a simple flaming torch – Paramount molded their spookers out of more plausible materials.  While both ISLAND OF LOST SOULS and SUPERNATURAL have their fantastic components, MURDERS IN THE ZOO is a study in virulent psychopathy.  Despite the somewhat misleading title, this is no whodunit.  From the fade in, we know who the killer is and we watch him plot and execute his every homicidal caprice.  Scripted by science fiction novelist turned screenwriter Philip Wylie (who did uncredited work on Universal’s THE INVISIBLE MAN that same year) and Oscar winner Seton I. Miller (best known now for his crime pictures, including Howard Hawks’ SCARFACE and THE CRIMINAL CODE, as well as William Kieghley’s ‘G’ MEN and Fritz Lang’s espionage thriller MINISTRY OF FEAR), MURDERS IN THE ZOO is nothing short of the portrait of a sexual sadist, a sociopath stimulated by his wife’s terror at being caged without bars, given superficial free range but kept faithful by the slaughter of anyone who gets too close.  In the film’s notorious opening scene, Atwill’s millionaire sportsman Eric Gorman is shown blithely sewing shut the lips of an unfortunate bastard who has made a pass at Mrs. Gorman.  (“You’ll never lie to a friend again.  And you’ll never kiss another man’s wife.”)  As the bwana and his beaters head back through the bush, the would-be Lothario is shown in an agonized close-up, his mouth stitched tight, arms bound behind his back, wide-eyed and helpless as he is left for tiger chow.

Cast as Gorman’s manhandled Missus is Kathleen Burke, billed in the opening credits as “The Panther Woman,” a nod to her indelible turn as a surgical changeling in ISLAND OF LOST SOULS.  With her pouty, bee-stung mouth and expressive eyes, the dark-haired Illinois-born beauty is the perfect foil for Atwill’s villainy, reacting with a gamut of emotions running from unease to disgust to white hot hatred and a surprising show of defiance in the face of peril, which proves to be her undoing.  “You’re not human!” Evelyn Gorman screams at her husband after he has dispatched yet another romantic rival.  Burke had been a radio actress and model in Chicago when a Paramount beauty contest brought her west to play The Panther Woman.  (Paramount’s publicity department would play up the Cinderella angle of her success story by claiming Burke had been a lowly dental hygienist.)  Her career lasted a scant six years but Burke is great throughout MURDERS IN THE ZOO.  Nevertheless, Atwill is the one to watch here.  Remarkably at ease with the live animals on set (borrowed from the Selig Zoo in nearby East LA), Atwill is absolutely believable as a man who prefers beasts to men (“They love, they hate, they kill!”) and has cobbled together his own morality based on the law of the jungle.  Pulling his unwilling bride into his clutch, Gorman tries to reason with her – “If I lacked the courage to kill for you, I couldn’t expect you to go on loving me” – and Atwill makes this nightmare logic almost make sense.  But then that cold, lidless stare, that chilling smile and those grabby paws (which come very near, it seems, to cupping one of Burke’s breasts) show us that “something peculiar” that other characters see in Gorman and we fear him.  As we should.

Playing the good guy in MURDERS IN THE ZOO is future cowboy star Randolph Scott (who appears in SUPERNATURAL as well).  If the classically handsome but laid back Scott is a somewhat bland do-gooder, he was a concession to Depression era audiences, who were thought to prefer a work-a-day hero in contrast to the affluent and thoroughly evil villain.  Paired with Scott in a wholesome romantic subplot is Alabama-born Gail Patrick, who had been a finalist in the competition that brought Kathryn Burke to Paramount.  Although Patrick lost out on playing The Panther Woman, she enjoyed a longer Hollywood career, with memorable turns in Mitchel Leisen’s DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY (1934), Gregory La Cava’s MY MAN GODFREY (1936) and STAGE DOOR (1937) and as the other woman in Garson Kanin’s MY FAVORITE WIFE (1940) with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne.  (Patrick and Burke died the same year, 1980.)  As a crime solving duo, Scott and Patrick won’t make you forget Nick and Nora any time soon but they are a handsome and capable onscreen couple and the lady even gets to come to the gentleman’s rescue in the third act.  This brings us to MURDERS IN THE ZOO‘s single and nearly fatal flaw.

Although he plays a supporting character – the dipsomaniacal press agent for the film’s cash-strapped inner city zoo – Charles Ruggles gets top billing.  This is partially due to the fact that, unlike Atwill, Ruggles was a Paramount contract player.  Feathered into the equation is that the studio executives obviously hoped the light comic actor’s onscreen capering would both chase the bitter pill of this remarkably sadistic screenplay and entice the family audience.  Ruggles (perfectly acceptable as a drunk in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY) is just painful to watch here and his shtick (possibly the contribution of uncredited writer Milton Herbert Gropper) is a stultifying parade of tics and stutters.  The film probably did need comic relief in 1933 (director A. Edward Sutherland was in fact best known for his comedies and had been early in his career one of Mack Sennett’s Keystone Cops) but let me tell you, Ruggles stinks the joint up something fierce.  His performance stops the film dead whenever he’s onscreen… and yet his presence is what makes MURDERS IN THE ZOO so bizarre and hard to nail down.  In an entirely wrongheaded way, the film’s got something for everyone – nature footage of zoo animals capering in their habitats, cute kids sneaking into the zoo for illicit peaks at the beasts, a comical drunk, pretty girls, sexual perversion and horrible, horrible death.  It’s anyone’s guess whether the kiddies were thrilled or scared shitless by the lunging snakes and swarming crocodiles pressed into service by Lionel Atwill but one slow death by giant python might well have sent a few tender souls screaming up the aisles.

MURDERS IN THE ZOO was issued by MCA/Universal as a sell-through video tape back in the mid-90s but has only just made its digital bow, collected with four second tier Universal horrors (THE MAD GHOUL, HOUSE OF HORRORS, THE SECRET OF DR. RX, THE MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET) as a TCM “Vault Collection” exclusive, THE UNIVERSAL CULT HORROR COLLECTION.  See it with someone you love!

13 Responses It’s all happening at the zoo… mostly murder
Posted By Patricia : January 15, 2010 2:38 pm

“Murders in the Zoo” was a first for me. The first, and I hope only, time I ever wanted to strangle Charlie Ruggles.

Posted By Patricia : January 15, 2010 2:38 pm

“Murders in the Zoo” was a first for me. The first, and I hope only, time I ever wanted to strangle Charlie Ruggles.

Posted By rhsmith : January 15, 2010 3:14 pm

I hear ya, sis… and I’m normally very tolerant and forgiving of comic relief characters in horror movies. (I’m usually the only one defending Lee Tracy in Doctor X.) If only Atwill had sewn Charlie Ruggles’ mouth shut!

Posted By rhsmith : January 15, 2010 3:14 pm

I hear ya, sis… and I’m normally very tolerant and forgiving of comic relief characters in horror movies. (I’m usually the only one defending Lee Tracy in Doctor X.) If only Atwill had sewn Charlie Ruggles’ mouth shut!

Posted By morlockjeff : January 15, 2010 7:46 pm

At a certain point, you have to say to yourself, “Either I’m going to give up and accept this as a Charlie Ruggles comedy or try to ignore him and focus on the fact that this is a rare & disturbing Pre-Code horror.” I haven’t been successful at either but that might be why I have a special affection for this movie.

Posted By morlockjeff : January 15, 2010 7:46 pm

At a certain point, you have to say to yourself, “Either I’m going to give up and accept this as a Charlie Ruggles comedy or try to ignore him and focus on the fact that this is a rare & disturbing Pre-Code horror.” I haven’t been successful at either but that might be why I have a special affection for this movie.

Posted By moirafinnie : January 16, 2010 10:23 am

I normally welcome the sight of Charlie Ruggles, but in this movie his heavy handed presence and lightweight character seemed out of control and out of key with the very dark humor implicit in the Atwill character’s weirdness. Few actors could match Ruggles‘ amiability when he was working with a well thought out and somewhat likable character, as he did so well in Ruggles of Red Gap. I have a feeling that his work in Murders in the Zoo was improvised or injected into the script at the last minute by an understandably skittish studio.

Btw, did you know that this film not only gave ammo to local censorship boards throughout the U.S. when it was originally released, but was banned from Australia (and other British Commonwealth territories), Sweden and even Nazi Germany? (Gee, I would have thought this would have been right up Goebbels, Göering and certainly Ernst Röhm’s psychological alleys).

Apparently, when re-released after the Production Code came into effect, it was re-edited, toning down some of the shocking depravity and with that startling opening sequence excised. So, that probably left way too much of Charlie in this flick.

Posted By moirafinnie : January 16, 2010 10:23 am

I normally welcome the sight of Charlie Ruggles, but in this movie his heavy handed presence and lightweight character seemed out of control and out of key with the very dark humor implicit in the Atwill character’s weirdness. Few actors could match Ruggles‘ amiability when he was working with a well thought out and somewhat likable character, as he did so well in Ruggles of Red Gap. I have a feeling that his work in Murders in the Zoo was improvised or injected into the script at the last minute by an understandably skittish studio.

Btw, did you know that this film not only gave ammo to local censorship boards throughout the U.S. when it was originally released, but was banned from Australia (and other British Commonwealth territories), Sweden and even Nazi Germany? (Gee, I would have thought this would have been right up Goebbels, Göering and certainly Ernst Röhm’s psychological alleys).

Apparently, when re-released after the Production Code came into effect, it was re-edited, toning down some of the shocking depravity and with that startling opening sequence excised. So, that probably left way too much of Charlie in this flick.

Posted By Alan K. Rode : January 16, 2010 12:15 pm

I understand Atwill eagerly worked with the large python-no stunt double for Lionel!

Posted By Alan K. Rode : January 16, 2010 12:15 pm

I understand Atwill eagerly worked with the large python-no stunt double for Lionel!

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : December 31, 2010 4:01 am

[...] obscure Spanish horror film THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK (1976) and and the pre-Code shocker MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933).  I got to write about Mantan Moreland and Glenn Strange and Woody Strode.  I got to stand [...]

Posted By TCM's Classic Movie Blog : December 31, 2010 4:01 am

[...] obscure Spanish horror film THE PEOPLE WHO OWN THE DARK (1976) and and the pre-Code shocker MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933).  I got to write about Mantan Moreland and Glenn Strange and Woody Strode.  I got to stand [...]

Posted By Murders in the Zoo (1933) Review, with Lionel Atwill | Pre-Code.com : October 22, 2013 8:06 am

[…] The Movie Morlocks are all over this one, though they join the popular blogger consensus of disparaging the Ruggle portions of the movie. They talk about this film’s place among Paramount’s other pre-Code offerings, Supernatural and Island of Lost Souls. […]

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