1910s & 20s * 30s * 40s * Pre-50s * Frankenstein * Atomic Angst * 1950 * 1951 * 1952 * 1953 * 1954 * 1955 * 1956 * 1957 * 1958 * 1959 *
1960 * 1961 * 1962 * 1963 * 1964 * 1965 * 1966 * 1967 * 1968 * 1969 * 1970 * 1971 * 1972 * 1973 * 1974 * 1975 * 1976 * 1977 * 1978 * 1979

Friday, November 30, 2012

Captive Wild Woman

Yes, mad scientists and apes were having a run of popularity in the 40s. Only a few months after Monogram Pictures released their "Ape Man" (March of '43), Universal Pictures had their "Ape Woman" in theaters. Captive Wild Woman (CWW) was the story of a mad scientist who turns a gorilla into a sultry young woman. John Carradine stars as the mad scientist. Once again, bodily fluids was the key. It seems unlikely that Universal was copying Monogram, so mad scientists with apes just must have be "the thing to do" at the time. The poster is misleading, by the way. The woman shown in the arms of the ape is wearing "Paula's" circus costume, but Paula was the ape. The only person carried by the ape (Paula/Cheela) was Fred, but that wouldn't have made as good of a poster.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Fred Mason, circus animal trainer, returns from Africa with many lions and tigers, and one big female gorilla named Cheela. He taught her some tricks on the long voyage. Fred's girlfriend Beth, as a sick sister, Dorothy. She takes her to a renowned scientist, Dr. Walters (Carradine). Through Beth, and Fred, Walters gets a tour of the circus. He covets Cheela for his experiments. He arranges with a fired animal trainer to steal Cheela. Walters also discovers that Dorothy has exceptional levels of "sex hormones" (??) He sets about transfusing Dorothy's abundant hormones into Cheela. Eventually, Cheela loses ape-likeness and starts looking more like a human woman. Walters' nurse objects to it all, so Walters decides she will be the brain donor so Cheela will have a human brain. Meanwhile, Fred and circus owner, Mr. Whipple, discuss the big cat act. The hoped for star trainer won't do it, so Fred decides to do it himself. Walters has renamed Cheela as Paula Dupree and made sure she obeys his commands. (she never speaks). He takes her to the circus (for some reason). Fred has his mixed cats in training. A lion and tiger fight and must be broken up with a fire hose. During training, Fred is knocked over by a toppled pedestal. The lions and tigers circle around fallen Fred. Paula, rushes into the cage and stares down the cats who back away in fear. Fred is amazed at her power over the cats and insists that she be part of the act. This goes well. She watches, the cats behave. She smiles at Fred. After the big dress rehearsal, Fred kisses Beth. Paula stomps off in a rage. Her rage starts her turning back into an ape. Ape-Paula climbs into Beth's bedroom to kill her, but a landlady interrupts, screams and gets killed. Fred worries that Paula is nowhere, but show opens that night. He opens without her. Things go well enough, until a storm brews up. Meanwhile, back in the lab, Beth demands to see her sister. Walters thinks he's found a new brain donor for Cheela. Beth releases Cheela from her cage. She kills Walters and runs off. Beth fetches Dorothy off the table. Cheela runs through the dark and stormy night to the circus. The thunder has the cats upset and a lion has Fred down. Cheela roars away the lion and carries hurt Fred out. A policeman mistakes the act as an attack and shoots Cheela dead. A narrator says how Walters was tampering where mortal men shouldn't. The End.

Why is this movie fun
Even MORE mad scientists and apes. Who would have thought? John Carradine does a terrific job as the evil scientist. He's both suave and ruthless. Acquanetta (who plays Paula, the ape woman) is excellent eye candy. The pace is quick, most of the time. The animal act footage makes for a visually active low-budget film.

Cultural Connection
Who knew that mad scientists and gorillas were such a hot item? From the viewing vantage point of late 20th century, sci-fi seems so automatically the realm of flying saucers, big-headed little aliens, rocket ships and mutant monsters. Such a different world it was before The Bomb. After The Bomb, there with an inescapable mood of doom that infused nuclear-angst sci-fi. Those "mad doctors" of the 40s were bad, sure, but they were manageable. In fact, they usually died in the end. Compared to the gloom of post-apocalyptic films, the mad scientist problem was almost cozy.

Dang Nazis -- Produced during the height of World War Two, audiences had no doubt what "evil" looked like. Mad scientists only had to sound vaguely nazi-like to be assured of an evil aura. At one point, Dr. Walters monologues to his poor doomed nurse about his "dream of creating a race of super men." There ya go. Walters is a nazi. There is no doubt about his evil.

Mixed Monsters -- Universal's ape-woman is a hybrid of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (though sort of in reverse) and like a reverse version of The Incredible Hulk. There is a dash of Frankenstein, in that Walters is the mad scientist tampering with poor lives. There is a bit of Dr. Moreau and his Panther Woman.

Repeated Animal Act -- Modern viewers might not spot it as quickly, but audiences in 1943 were more likely to. Most of the animal/circus footage in CWW was reused from Universal's 1933 film The Big Cage, starring Clyde Beatty (who really was a lion tamer in circuses). CWW's Milburn Stone resembled Beatty well enough, that with some costume matching and careful editing one can easily imagine it is Stone in all the animal shots. But no. The Big Cage was a popular film that got a few re-releases after its initial run. Odds are, the audience of 1943 would recognize that lion-tiger fight that had to be hosed down, etc. as coming from The Big Cage.

Acquanetta -- The film was also Universal's attempt to launch the career of sultry starlet, "Acquanetta". (stars with just one name are not new). Said to have been born Burnu Acquanetta, an Arapaho indian orphan in Ozone, Wyoming, or Mildred Davenport. Her origins were kept mysterious, but mystery can help a career only so much. There's no denying her physical attractiveness, but that can only take an actress so far too. Her film roles never rose above B-films, such as CWW and Tarzan the the Leopard Woman ('46) She dropped out of the film industry in 1951. Perhaps this is partly Universal's own fault. Her role in CWW amounts to little more than standing there, looking pretty. With no lines whatever, and only some close up eyes shots, Acquanetta got no opportunity to project a personality to like. (such as needed for a leading lady role).

Sequel Worthy -- Unlike Monogram, who let their Wolfman alternative  -- Ape Man -- just fade away, Universal pushed Ape Woman into two sequels. The first, Jungle Woman also featured Acquanetta and filled out more back story. The second was Jungle Captive. This also featured the Ape Woman, but played by someone else. Just for the sake of completeness, those two should be up next.

Bottom line? CWW is a low-budget marginally sci-fi film. It's not the bottom of the barrel for the "mad doctor" genre. Director Ed Dmytyk does keep the pace brisk and the many animal shots keep a sense of action, even if they're recycled footage. CWW isn't a high point in Universal's B movie roster, but it's not bad.


Randall Landers said...

Universal learned as they went along that you can generally repackage a movie concept/monster three times successfully. I think that holds true even for today.

Darci said...

IMDB lists CWW debuted in June 1943. A comparable character, Giganta, debuted in Wonder Woman #9 (on sale May 24, 1944). I wonder if "Charles Moulton" saw CWW, or if there was a pulp character that inspired them both?

Nightowl said...

I'm not an expert on pulp characters, but in film, there seems to be a sort of background trope of the animal-woman. Lota, the "Panther-woman" from Island of Lost Souls is clearly one of that set.

Not to play amateur psychologist, but these animal-women seem to provide a sort of two-fold role. On the one hand, they act as an 'opposite' to proper civilized ladies. (note the contrast in Lost Souls). On the other hand, they act as a fantasy of the "free" woman completely uninhibited by cultural restraints.