Bill’s Bizarre Bijou
By William D. Carl
This week’s feature presentation:
CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943)
Welcome to Bill’s Bizarre Bijou, where you’ll discover the strangest films ever made. If there are alien women with too much eye-shadow and miniskirts, if papier-mâché monsters are involved, if your local drive-in insisted this be the last show in their dusk till dawn extravaganza, or if it’s just plain unclassifiable – then I’ve seen it and probably loved it. Now, I’m here to share these little gems with you, so you too can stare in disbelief at your television with your mouth dangling open. Trust me, with these flicks, you won’t believe your eyes.
Universal Studios was THE place to go for great horror movies in the early days of cinema. From DRACULA (1931) and FRANKENSTEIN (1931) to THE MUMMY (1932), THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954), Universal spent money on their horror films, creating atmospheric, beautifully made monster pictures that still hold up to viewings today. In between their A-Pictures, however, they churned out lots of fun B-movies as well. These movies didn’t have the best directors in the canon; nor did they employ the top box-office actors. They utilized lots of money-saving stock footage and re-used sets from the big movies. This doesn’t mean the films weren’t often very entertaining. Many of them exude a certain second-tier charm that makes them more than bearable. Often, they are as much fun as the big productions. Some examples of these B’s were MAN MADE MONSTER (1941), NIGHT MONSTER (1942), and our feature presentation, CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943).
While circus animals are being unloaded from a ship, Fred Mason (Milburn Stone, Doc Adams from GUNSMOKE, also in INVADERS FROM MARS – 1953) meets his fiancé and secretary, Beth (Evelyn Ankers from THE WOLF MAN, 1941 and THE PEARL OF DEATH, 1944), who is dressed in great clothes. She kind of resembles Auntie Mame in every scene of this movie; the costumes are that fabulous! After playing kissy-face, he tells her about all the big game he has brought back for his circus, including Cheela, a huge female gorilla (okay, a man in a pretty decent gorilla suit). He introduces Beth to the gorilla as a crate holding a tiger bursts open and the wild beast escapes. Fred grabs a chair and tames the snarling tiger (more on this footage later). It’s actually a hell of an exciting opening!
Beth tells Fred all about her little sister, Dorothy (played by Martha Vickers as Martha MacVicar) —from THE BIG SLEEP (1946) and THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944)) —who has developed a glandular problem and was taken to the Crestview Sanatorium. Dr. Sigmund Walters is a well-known doctor who specializes in the glandular issues between races. The good doctor has changed several people who were deformed, making them normal by messing with their pituitary gland. His nurse assistant helps him with his experiments with sex hormones, where he wants to take human hormones and transplant them into animal subjects.
In his very first starring role, John Carradine (STAGECOACH, 1939 and THE ASTRO-ZOMBIES, 1968, and over three hundred other shows and films) plays Dr. Walters, a mad scientist (is there any other kind, especially with Carradine on hand?). Walters is obsessed with glandular disorders and charming young women. He joins Beth and Fred to have a look at the circus, where they are all waiting on famous lion-tamer Clyde Beatty to answer them about his new act. We get to see these beautiful animals, lions and tigers especially, caged, fed, and trained.
Cheela, the gorilla (of my dreams —sorry, couldn’t resist) attacks one of the handlers. Carradine is instantly smitten by the looks and talent of the gorilla. He wants to buy her, but the circus says no. So, he pays a thief to steal the animal. “It’s a deal, mister. You got yourself a monkey!” Instead of paying the thief, Dr. Walters pushes the man into the cage, where Cheela kills him!
Once in the lab, Walters begins his nefarious experiments, and Dorothy is included in this mysterious research with Cheela. Why does he want to turn a gorilla into a hot woman? Who knows? Maybe he can’t get a date any other way. Dorothy starts to die on the operating table, but the gorilla changes through the magic of stop motion photography (like in THE WOLF MAN, 1941) into a sexy young woman, played by Acquanetta (who only had one name, much like Cher or Madonna and was known as the Venezuelan Volcano in press releases and also played in JUNGLE WOMAN, 1944 and DEAD MAN’S EYES, 1944). Using his nurse’s glands, Walters finishes the experiment. He saves Dorothy for future surgeries. He renames the ape-woman Paula Dupree. Acquanetta plays her as a mute, acting pretty much with only her eyebrows, although she looks stunning doing so.
Meanwhile, back at the circus, Fred gets to try out his new act, mixing lions and tigers in the same cage with himself. Once again, the animal footage is terrific, exciting and scary and realistic. The two big cats actually get into a fight, which was supposedly staged and filmed in a single take. They really look like they’re tearing into each other. This is not a film for PETA!
Walters brings Paula Dupree (aka Cheela) to the circus, where the animals go crazy, sensing her unnaturalness. She steps into the lion cage, and the big cat is so afraid of her it backs away. Fred believes she may be the best lion-tamer of all time. He hires her, and she becomes a part of the act. She also falls in love with Fred. Rut-ro!
When Paula/Cheela sees Fred kissing Beth, she gets angry and starts to change back into a gorilla. Her teeth grow to gigantic form, her skin turns darker, and hair begins sprouting all over her body, her brow becomes huge. The transformation is primitive and crude, but it works in context. It’s created by the great Jack P. Pierce, who also created all the classic make-ups for the Universal monsters like Frankenstein and The Wolf Man.
She immediately goes after Beth in her home, determined to kill off her romantic competition, but she’s interrupted by a landlady. The poor older woman is jumped and chewed to death. Paula escapes, but Dr. Walters knows he needs to perform more operations to get her hormones back to normal. Things aren’t looking good for Dorothy, who’s still at the sanatorium!
Will Dr. Walters get Paula’s glands back in order? Will Fred be able to control all those big cats without the help of Paula, and with a big thunderstorm on the way? Will Paula kill Beth and get the love of the man she adores? How the hell does Beth afford those terrific glamorous outfits on a circus secretary’s salary?
Tune in to find out, but it all ends in a spectacular circus finale with crazed big cats, a huge storm, and a lovelorn gorilla. Watching the stunt footage, I can’t believe somebody didn’t get killed during the filming of these scenes.
A credit at the beginning of the picture reads “We hereby make grateful acknowledgement to Mr. Clyde Beatty for his cooperation and inimitable talent in staging the thrilling animal sequences in this picture.” In other words, thanks to Clyde (a world famous lion-tamer) for letting us borrow all your scenes from THE BIG CAGE (1933), a jungle adventure in which Beatty performed the thrilling lion-taming acts. In fact, it’s rumored that Milburn Stone, a rather bland leading man, was only hired onto CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN because of his diminutive stature and resemblance to Clyde Beatty.
Other than Stone, however, the acting is quite good for this sort of picture. Evelyn Keyes looks gorgeous in her beautiful outfits and is completely natural, even when spouting dubious dialogue. Acquanetta is also unbelievably beautiful, and she does a good job, working the whole movie in short, sequined dresses and pantomiming everything she does. She’s like an animal in a lot of ways, the way her eyes follow things, the way her lips curl when disappointed or angry, and the way she stomps more than walks. Also impressive is John Carradine in a low-key role. I love me some John Carradine, and in this film he could’ve turned into the later Carradine, mugging for the camera and camping it up as a mad doctor. Instead, he reigns his performance inwards, and we can easily see how he could charm women. He also exudes an innate intelligence. The man was a terrific actor, and it’s too bad he was relegated to high-camp roles so often in his later years. A lot of people should watch his earlier work to see how good he truly was.
As noted before, the gowns in this movie are pretty spectacular for a B-picture. This is due to Vera West’s costume design. West was the gown designer behind most of the Sherlock Holmes movies of the 1940s, as well as THE GOOD FAIRY (1935), GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1934), MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (1935) and SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943), as well as ALL the major Universal horror films of the thirties and forties. She designed the gowns for 342 movies, almost all at Universal.
CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN was directed by stalwart Edward Dmytryk, who also helmed such classics as THE CAINE MUTINY (1954), CROSSFIRE (1947), BACK TO BATAAN (1945), and HITLER’S CHILDREN (1943). The son of Ukrainian immigrants, Dmytryk started working at Universal as a messenger boy at the age of fifteen. Later in life, he was one of the infamous Hollywood Ten who refused to cooperate with HUAC and Joseph McCarthy. He refused to name names as communists, and he ended up in prison. After a few months, he testified again, informing on several “communists.” He always believed he had done the right thing, but he was never forgiven by the rest of Hollywood, and his career stalled out in the 1970s.
Overall, CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN is a bit predictable, but that doesn’t lessen its entertainment value. This is a fun movie, and it moves amazingly swiftly. That’s a lot of plot and action for 61 minutes! The acting is generally very good, the make-up is cool, and the big cat action (thanks again Clyde) is truly jaw-dropping.
I give CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN three glands out of four.
© Copyright 2013 by William D. Carl