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Monday, 25 April 2016

MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933)

Lionel Atwill’s developing identity as Hollywood’s locum mad doctor had plenty of scope to be channelled into other situations than the laboratory. His insane, all-obliterating super-villain could be plugged into any plot anywhere, given enough motivation and vision. As Bill Hicks once said about alcoholism, all it takes is the right bar, the right friends and the right girl. In Murders in the Zoo, Atwill swaps scrubs for safari-suits as Eric Gorman, a millionaire philanthropist and big-game hunter who snares more than just wild animals for sport. He is terrifyingly in tune with his animal instincts, the blue touch-paper of uncontrollable jealousy constantly lit by his ‘girl’ to murderous ends. We know this right from the start, deep in the Indian jungle, where he hog-ties a fellow American to teach him a lesson. “And you will never kiss another man’s wife!” Gorman asserts, with all the confidence of having sewn up the victim’s mouth for us to witness in a brutally vivid close-up.  You couldn’t blame the poor sap for wanting her - after all, Evelyn is played by the lovely Kathleen Burke, alias Lota the sultry ‘Panther Woman’ from Island of lost Souls (see my review dated 6/4).

Part of the fun here is how director A. Edward Sutherland relishes every grisly example of Gorman’s Reaper-like swathe through his perceived love rivals – especially when you consider his background was steeped in high-profile comedy. Sutherland was one of the original Keystone Kops, the Sennett Studio’s spectacularly inept sight-gag force of the silent era. Charlie Chaplin directed him in A Woman of Paris, mentoring him into becoming a director himself, which led to his work with W.C. Fields, Laurel and Hardy (later in The Flying Deuces) and Abbott and Costello.

Not that there isn’t plenty of head-room for amusing comedy in Murders in the Zoo, courtesy of Charlie Ruggles’ booze-hound press agent Peter Yates. He functions as a kind of sozzled everyman, reacting with increasing alcoholic bemusement to the absurdity around him. Ruggles enjoyed a hugely prolific career, specialising in comic relief roles across almost 100 features, most notably Bringing up Baby and his series with Mary Boland. In fact, his light-hearted persona was strong enough to headline his own sitcom, The Ruggles and a recurring guest spot in The Beverley Hillbillies. As Yates, he blags his way into marketing the Municipal Zoo, for whom Gorman has been capturing wild animals, assuring the boss that he has been on the wagon “for two days and three weeks”. He’s as shocked as anyone else that his ideas have any merit, and, when not being terrified by the wild-life, constantly puts his foot in it with amusing Freudian and social faux-pas. After suggesting a glorified society Chimps’ Tea Party to gain the zoo media exposure, he invites the high-class banqueters to “Put on the feed-bag – I mean partake of the refreshments”.

Gorman meanwhile lets us in to his Darwinian world view early, rather than waiting for a climactic parting-shot rant. He sees himself reflected in the primal instincts of animals: “Their honesty. Their simplicity. Their primitive emotions. They love. They hate. They kill!” (Sam Peckinpah might have cheered at this).  He sees the upcoming meal as a chance to dispatch smooth playboy Roger Hewitt (John Lodge) who genuinely has been plotting to run away with Evelyn since they met on the cruise ship home from India. “I can promise you a really unusual evening”, Atwill tells Hewitt with elegantly evil restraint, letting the audience in like Richard III to his machinations. Subtle venom like this is later fatally injected into Hewitt’s leg at the banquet. Two-nil to Gorman.

The hunter though has reckoned without a worthy opponent – and this appears in the novel sight of Randolph Scott as Dr Woodford. He is an undeniable novelty in a modern urban setting. Although cast in all types of genres, sixty-percent of Scott’s 100-plus movie roles were in westerns. (His status as a legendary oater is even name-checked with show-stopping, quasi-religious fervour in Mel Brooks’ affectionate parody Blazing Saddles). Though he was at home on the range, he reveals he is no cowboy in the laboratory. Indignant at the suggestion that Hewitt’s death was caused by his Green Mamba, Sheriff – I mean Dr Woodford discovers the fang-width of the bite on Hewitt is too wide to have been from his snake.

Clearly, someone has introduced a private mamba’s bill into the proceedings. This we already knew by virtue of Evelyn’s snooping. She finds a venomous artificial snake head in Gorman’s desk drawer. Poison pen letters indeed. Gorman catches her in the act, causing her to spill the beans on her now-thwarted plans to leave him for her lover. This scene is a macabre treat for Atwill fans. His reaction is wonderfully malignant and unexpected. No anger, no recrimination. Instead, he perversely ‘woos’ her with soft mocking cruelty, seizing and pawing at her sadistically, re-framing her repulsion as though it were passion for him. It is electrifying and bubbles with awful undercurrents as to how he must have handled her in private. Sadly, her only escape is as alligator food, feasted upon in ghoulish, water-lashing close-ups by Sutherland.

Marshall Woodford (sorry, I can’t help it) saves the day when he and Atwill take their places for the obligatory tussle in the lab, but this is one horse Gorman cannot tame. His trusty venom is no match for a nick-of-time anti-toxin administered to Woodford by his pardner, the smoky-voiced and beguilingly sunny Gail Patrick. Gorman’s suave composure at last deserts him and after releasing all the animals on the run, it rather aptly remains for a friendly Boa Constrictor to get up close and personal with him…


Murders in the Zoo feels more like a second-string programmer than a main feature, yet it’s highly entertaining, not least in the dextrous balancing act by Sutherland between laughs and horror, making a fine show-case for Charlie Ruggles and Lionel Atwill.

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