Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception until your screens glows infinite

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Paula of the Apes: CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, JUNGLE WOMAN, JUNGLE CAPTIVE (Scream Factory Universal Horror Collection VI)


An oft overlooked part of Universal's monster pantheon, Paula Dupree, the gorilla/human hybrid, starred in her very own trilogy: CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, JUNGLE WOMAN, and JUNGLE CAPTIVE, all released in a three year-span of 1943-5 (the height of wartime and--for some reason--the height of gorilladom - see RETURN OF THE APE MAN: Revisiting the Wartime Savage from a Post-Modern Perspective!). Like any number of popular monsters, she was regularly brought back from the abyss from the dead by unscrupulous (male) scientists, made a brunette human to suit their own likeness, but reverted back to animal form as soon as some dull as dishwater leading man overlooked them as romantic partners in favor some equally square blonde.

In all three films, Paula ends up shot, shot up, or otherwise killed. Three times! What a lives! And what a set from Scream Factory! All three films (+ another gorilla-friendly sub-classic) comprise Volume Six of their Universal Horror Collection, a series which rounds up all the titles that Universal didn't consider 'pantheon' enough to release themselves, i.e that don't feature one of Universal's chosen males: Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, Dracula, The Invisible Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Phantom of the Opera (this last one being, to most Universal fans, a dubious inclusion in the pantheon, at best, though an Abbot and Costello vs. the Phantom of the Opera would have been... no doubt unbearable.)

Naturally, all four look amazing, better than they ever did (on my old VHS tapes). The only thing wrong is the lack of so much as a five-minute documentary on Paula Dupree aka Sheela, the Gorilla. There's not even a bit of feminist outrage about why there's no documentary to accompany her overdue moment in the sun. There are commentaries from prolific Universal horror archivist author Gregory Mank, but I haven't listened yet, lest I realize he's already arrived at the same trenchant and pithy deconstructivist observations I have, and thus negate the power of my direct experience and dampen the ardor of my prose. I will hear him later.... rest assured I am far from done with this matter.  

Whatever your impressions, Paula the Jungle Wild Woman/Captive's origins as a character are easy enough to trace: she's clearly conjured by Universal idea men after noticing the box office generated by RKO's Cat People (which came out the year before). Like Irina (Simone Simon) in that film, Paula's animal instincts are triggered by raging jealousy and sexual frustration, bringing home the war-enforced separation subtext loud and clear. What soldier or homefront 21 year-old warrbride climbing the walls at home thinking about foreign women with their clingy claws out or handsome Lockheed shift managers couldn't relate?

A gorilla brain transplant melodrama that was recently introduced on TCM by its biggest fan, ape suit connoisseur John Landis, the set's fourth and last film is THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941), a groovy strangely noir-esque and poetic tale of a man wrongly convicted and executed whose brain is transplanted into a gorilla body after death and then comes back to find and kill the the gangsters who framed him and are now after his moll. It's interesting and cool but it's really Paula's boxed set. Don't try and steal her agency, you sexist/species-ist. It would be nice if Scream gave us an ape woman documentary. Even a commentary--even a five minute bit on the sexism that has led to the characters exclusion from the Universal pantheon. 

But the films themselves have never looked better. You'll be surprised at the attention given to spooky lighting Dmytryk's CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, it's so gorgeous now in the HD glimmer it's beguiling; and the beauty of Evelyn Ankers' face is more striking than it ever was on video or TV; her flawless white make-up; the planes of her face marvelous in their matte alabaster. Even her hats are dynamite.

CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN
(1943) Dir. Edward Dmytrk
Film: *** / Image - A+ / Extras - F 

We first meet her while she's happily (for some unknown reason) being lifted out of ship storage in a tiny little cage and loaded onto the docks of America for her life of exploitation by her new owner, the circus after a presumably normal life in Africa. She's a gorilla, at this stage in her accelerated evolution--i.e. she's a guy in a gorilla suit--but she's a naive sweetheart with way too much faith in the inherent goodness of her captor, a dullard lion tamer played by Milburn Stone. Her life might have been one of happy servitude, if only she didn't catch the eye of a visiting glandular specialist played with superbly creepy understatement by John Carradine. Like the evil fairy godfather of some kind of Moreau island Cinderella myth, smooth-talking Carradine turns her human--thanks to the glandular extracts from patient Martha Vickers (three years before trying to sit in Bogey's lap while he's standing up in The Big Sleep)--so she can land a prince charming, i.e. Stone, who prefers cool hat-sporting Evelyn Ankers. Vicker's older sister, Ankers read in a medical journal that Carradine fixed up "a completely deformed child" and also "reversed acromegaly 'due to a hyper secretion in the pituitary gland," which is why, for some reason not evident in her beautiful countenance,  he takes her kid sister to his isolated, creepy mansion "clinic" in the first place.

If Captive Wild Woman is actually good, rather than just kind of smirky and uncouth (due to the unconscious sexism and animal cruelty on the part the "hero"), it's thanks to the flair for horror shown by director Edward Dmytryk who takes the time to get the atmosphere and peripheral horror details just right, like the glint of madness in the eyes of John Carradine as he watches an offscreen Sheela strangle her drunken abusive handler; or the way his hillside clinic is constantly bathed in thunderstorms and billowing winds, contrasted with the moody, deathly still interiors. Naturally his operating room is hidden behind a false bookcase, far from prying eyes. That Ankers would just leave her sister alone for days in this spooky place seems rather careless, but as Carradine's picture is in all the medical journals, she reckons he must be trustworthy (as evinced by her engagement to the idiot Stone, she clearly places far too much faith in the patriarchy).

Our objections to Carradine's Mirakle-style plan in today's more enlightened world aren't as extreme as they might have been back in 1943, but meanwhile our compassion for women and abused jungle animals (namely the lions and tigers Stone forces to work together in his sick big top displays) make our 21st century hearts sink, especially when we hear he's captured and brought back "20-30 cats", all in these tiny crates that don't even give them room to turn around. Neither the cats nor the now-human "Paula Dupree" (Aquanetta) get a second glance of credit for making Stone the big shot he is. i.e. the cats aren't praised or rewarded for learning tricks (the way they seem to be in the Clyde Beatty footage that's intercut with Stone's, and which shows Beatty more of a hypnotist with a real connection to the cats rather than Stone, who is more like a dopey front for uncredited female agency (since Paula is able to control the animals through telepathy and a deep jungle connection, for some unexaplained reason - like a glandular side effect). And Sheela/Paula isn't awarded for her loyalty to lion tamer Stone, whose life she saves from outside the training cage with her moody stares, Stone just admits she can be a big help to him and assumes she'll always be there in the wings as long as he needs her (he doesn't ask her permission to use her this way; he acts Carradine's permission, like he's her pimp!

That's another big sore spot that can either be read as a dig on the expectations of returning vets to just boot all the working-during-wartime women out of their jobs, it's really Paula who trains the big cats with her staring, and Stone isn't needed at all. He should be fired and Paula hired full time, given a big hat to make her look taller, like Mae West as Tyra the lion tamer in I'm No Angel (yet there's no mention of her even going on the payroll, anymore than the cats themselves). Instead, super square Milburn is only too willing to take all the credit, with the indispensable Paula as forgotten as, perhaps, a stuntwoman or voice artist who dubs a character's singing voice, doomed to anonymity to foster the illusion of another actor's supremacy in all things. She does get some publicity but the papers admit they don't quite know how she figures in.

The other women in the cast fare no better at the hands of men: Carradine's long-loyal female assistant balks at threatening the life of Vickers (via partial brain transplants) in order to turn Sheela more human, so Carradine kills her without so much as a second thought (word to the wise: if you're going to turn your mad scientist boss into the authorities, don't boldly proclaim your intentions while alone with him down in their scream-proof secret basement). And Ankers' job at the circus (she's the owner's assistant) is treated as utterly superfluous to Milburn, to whom she's little more than chattel, another animal ("I hope you're as easy to train when we're married.") Poor Martha Vickers, meanwhile, is dumped off and left to the mercy of crazy Carradine; she exhibits no signs of illness whatsoever; her opinion is not asked as to whether she's comfortable being left at some male stranger's eerie house for an indeterminate amount of time; in short, she is as indentured to the patriarchy as Sheela the gorilla. When she displays a sign of trepidation, Ankers even chides her, treating her with the same infantilizing contempt with which she herself allows herself to be treated by Stone. Any sense of intuition of danger, being a feminine trait, is a sign of childish animal idiocy, while a magazine article is taken as a kind of gospel truth. Carradine's picture is in a medical journal, therefore a girl is betrayed by her own sister, the way Catholic parents might punish a child for saying a respected priest molested him after choir practice.

Unlike Stone's lion tamer, however, at least glandular expert Carradine is cool. He knows enough not to try to get married and he has no interest in Vickers, sexually; he's prideful but he recognizes his own psychopathic villainy, and it's all in the service of science and his wild ideas; he takes risks because he's driven to. There's no such excuse for Milburn's villainy because it's so unconscious and accepted by the social order that it takes us decades of slow-burn enlightenment to finally realize how vile he is. Carradine is way more likable purely for being so openly mephistophelian.

Martha Vickers is refused one phone call by sinister Carradine - Captive Wild Woman
Fortunately, Dmytryk --unconsciously or not -- is an ally; and in her way, though she's homicidally jealous, to the point of killing the house matron at Ankers' girls' residence after she climbs into her bedroom to kill her (over jealousy for Stone for some reason), she does end up slaughtering Carradine and then rushing to the rescue after the big top catches fire and the lions and tigers run loose and start chomping on Stone. Like Lota conveniently does for her man in Paramount's 1933 film, Sheela saves Stone's life, rescuing him from a mauling by Nero the lion before being shot and killed by a nervous cop who who doesn't deign to figure out it's a good ape or reckon he might kill Stone, who's slumped over her shoulder. And yet, two seconds after what should be her martyrdom, the circle has closed around Stone's white male privilege once more. Paula/Sheela is totally forgotten; the cop is not even reprimanded; Stone plans his big show to come (it doesn't seem to dawn on him he's lost his apron string safety net) and we actually end up with a homage to Carradine's looney doctor, whose ever-windswept sanitarium gets a final glide-over during a coda voiceover about the price of daring to delve into God's domain. 

Paula (Aquanetta) tries to restrain her delight at having these two grade-A specimens (J. Caroll Naish, left; Eddy Hyans, right) as her sole companions during her post-surgery convalescence
JUNGLE WOMAN
(1944) Dir. Reginald LeBorg
*1/2 / Image Quality - A / Extras - F

The second film in the Dupree saga is easily the worst, thanks to both the jumbled, lazy flashback structure and banal time-wasting bits of low-energy hamming by a woefully miscast J. Carroll Naish as whisper-talking psychiatrist Dr. Fletcher The narrative itself occurs as flashbacks illustrating Fletcher's whispery testimony at the second inquest for Paula, after he's both revived her from the last film and then killed her himself. Thus, the film is structured as a flashback but then the first part of the flashback is a flashback to the last film, all of which is stretched to tedium as Naish putters around one issue of the case after another, as if he hates to part with a single line of dialogue. At his tony sanitarium, the only inhabitants seem to be himself, a few staff members, his daughter (Lois Collier and her bland fiancee (Richard Davis) who drop by now and again-- and the gorilla he takes home from the circus fire of the last film, who then becomes Aquanetta again, but then walks away from her bed before Dr. Fletcher or the nurse notices the change. This means Naish gets to eat up more time as Fletcher wonders where his comatose gorilla's gone and where his cute amnesiac drop-in came from. While Fletcher tries to put two and two together, history repeats itself as another super bland idiot fiancee catches Paula's eye.

But neither that bland fellow nor Naish are even the real reason the film is such a drag. That dubious honor goes to Eddie Hyans as big old George (upper right), the orderly at Fletcher's sanitarium. He plays a needy Lenny-style imbecile with the kind of flat almost self-sabotaging half-assedness that makes you feel like a fool for even paying attention. As he falls into a childish obsession with Paula. (Why the hell wouldn't he?), lines like "I don't annoy her; I was just bringin' her lunch," or "aw, it's a gyp," sound like he's doing a drunk impression of Tammany Young in It's a Gift (1934), itself not a bad thing, when your drinking buddy does it at 3 AM, but not in a Universal horror film.

There are one or two great Lewton-esque scenes, both stalking scenes set at night on Naish's vast estate as Dupree (unseen) stalks Naish's daughter (again mirroring Irina chasing Alice in Cat People). In the best of the two, with nothing in the music to indicate danger; we see the couple out on a canoe out on the estate's groovy pond/lake at night. The scene is quiet, romantic, no music; everything is perfect enough we start noticing details like the moon, the reflection on the still water, and then something stirring below the surface, starting from shore but making a bee-line ripple-eddy straight towards the lovers' canoe. You can feel the typical over-emphatic mickey mouse composer chomping at the bit, begging to underscore everything with strings and woodwinds, and that he didn't bespeaks to someone, somewhere, along the film's assembly line, making a genuine eerie cinematic moment, simply by removing, rather than adding.

Meanwhile Fletcher us so dumb he still can't figure out what is going on; even with all the copious evidence, even without Milburn Stone showing up to try and fill in the blanks from the last film.  And Fletcher is so removed from cognizant reality, he refuses to call the police, even after George's body is discovered on the grounds, torn to shreds, not out of squirmy guilt but because he genuinely believes it was some wandering animal, and therefore just an accident not worth a policeman's time. One can only presume he's dangerously incompetent and not sociopathic, as the bodies pile up it never occurs to him to even consider hiring a security guard. The reason is probably pretty clear: in grand Universal B-lot style, nary an extra outside of stock footage may be found.

Even at only an hour long, even packed with footage from the last film, this is pretty slow going. Only the rage expressed by Paula has any resonance: the more angry she becomes the scarier she gets. All the while though one wonders why Aquanetta was cast in the role. Did some producer think she resembled some idealized fusion of Dorothy Lamour (then a hit at Paramount) and Simone Simon? Whatever the reason, she's too short to pack menace as a human, and lacks the eerie poise and dark feeling of ex-pat isolation that Simon brought to Irina. But, if she can't really act, she sure can glower, and that is something.


JUNGLE CAPTIVE
(1945) Dir. Harold Young 
**1/2 / Image - A / Extras - F

Jungle Captive is certainly terrible but at least it is atmospheric and miles above Jungle Woman (1945) thanks to an amusingly sinister turn by Otto Kruger and the always fascinating Rondo Hatton as the smitten killer assistant who first steals her body from the morgue (an ape woman's corpse just can't get a break). Hatton and Kruger are so good they aren't even the same genus as Naish and Hyans from the last film in the trilogy, so don't hold your past-film resentment against them. There is no pretending to be anything but shady with this pair. Standahl (Kruger) isn't even a doctor, just a laboratory scientist who sees Paula as the perfect loophole to the 'no experimenting on humans' rule in science (she's technically a lab animal), moving up a few steps from his experiments bringing life back to dead rabbits--with Rondo snarling and holding a gun on morgue technicians a far cry from dopey Hyans mooning over Paula and mumbling like some half-assed Bugs Bunny gangster flunky.

Once again, animal abuse and control plays a huge part --with Rondo whipping a Great Dane (fortunately, as with Milburn in the other film, just whipping the air or the ground in front of him) who is scared of Paula's lifeless gorilla body. But, always a welcome presence, droopy-eyed Jerome Cowan is Detective Harrigan of Homicide. and Amelita Ward is the fetching Liz Taylor-eyed assistant and, for some unknown reason, Vicky Lane steps in as Paula Dupree. Everything just got better! Almost. 


Another element that lifts this above Universal's tossed-off B-movie dregs: little bits of macabre deadpan humor, like Hatton advancing from behind on Ann, his big hands all looming in the grand 'Creeper' tradition, only to then just take off her coat,  and just the habit Kruger has of bugging his eyes out as the moody noir shadows hit his features just right; or Ann realizing too late that Kruger is the one who stole the ape, and Kruger kind of relishing her shock as he announces he needs her ("You see, Ann, I need you... I need your blood.") When she tries to reason with Molloch (Hatton), he's unswayed. Stendahl comments: "You see, Molloch (Hatton) is a true scientist. He understands the unimportance of a mere life when it might impede progress." Kruger could be awfully bland as a good guy, ala his sober sages in Dracula's Daughter and Magnificent Obsession, but when he's a villain he's pretty intriguing, eagerly playing those same noble features against type with a kind of aglow eerie relish. Here especially he's pretty good, maybe even better than he was Murder, My Sweet. And he and Hatton have a fine working colleague rapport, until of course, they don't.

Ann is pretty dimwitted but she trusts Kruger, who harvests her blood to bring back Paula and she's been nice to Molloch. That's where Stendahl makes his mistake, for like all ugly brute thug assistants, he develops a crush on the pretty victim. "Why, Molloch!" Kruger says, mockingly, "I believe you feel sorry for my pretty assistant. Don't be a fool! We're scientists, not sentimentalists." 

Elements like Kruger's wry delivery and Hatton's looming aside, there are other things to cherish here too, like the atmospheric almost James Wong Howe-ish lighting (which was never really in evidence prior to Shout's sublime Blu-ray restoration).

Unfortunately, these things aside, it's still kind of a shrug of a film thanks to the blank space where an ape woman should be. Paula never seems to shake her somnambulistic amnesia throughout the film.  She can barely be bothered to be jealous over some all human girl's luck with the men. It's all much more about Otto and Molloch vs. Detective Cowan and the 'good' couple, with Paula only real snapping to life when she has a chance to play rescuer as the lab inevitably (I think?) goes up in flames.

A few extraneous details: my old girlfriend was named Paula so I sampled more than a few lines from this movie in my DJ phase in the 90s, including "Paula's brain is gone. Her reactions are those of an animal." But that will mean little to you, though it took me a long time to realize it. In fact the reason I bought all three films on video tape over the years was because her name was Paula. It soothed my broken heart in many a way, even though our breakup was mutual and I didn't want her back, it was just that she was so far away, and I was suffering from missing her. Watching Jungle Captive, I still do. 
----

I could go into the MONSTER AND THE GIRL (1941) also included on this Shout Universal Horror edition and maybe I will at some future date. But I don't want to steal any more of Paula's agency than the world has already. She's too far gone now to ever be redeemed or suddenly re-valued, anyway, but why add insult to injury. Ignored and maligned by history, to ever have her likeness reproduced on a stamp, or an Aurora model, or even rate as either a coded lesbian archetype ala Irina in Cat People or a Halloween hairdo like The Bride of Frankenstein. She may have been exhumed and revived in the diegesis of her films, but never in real life. Though her closest cousin may well be the Wolf Man as far looks go (when she's right in between gorilla and human girl form) the bottom line is, Paula just doesn't know what she wants to be. Clearly her murderous  behavior has much to do with Irina's - in that being ignored and belittled and slighted by the guy who catches her eye makes her insanely jealous over the girl he prefers, leading to her turning all crazed with animal hatred and vengeance. That she and her writers never figure out where to go beyond that, stuck in and endless repetition, (or even reach that, effectively, in the third film) speaks woefully of their imaginations. Never quite all the way a bad guy or a good, her murders are all emotionally driven, failing the Bechdel test in so many ways, but paid for in the end by her coming to the rescue of the code-approved (i.e. human, white, Christian, heterosexual, and age appropriate) pair bond, killing the real villains, usually as flames lick her fur.

Maybe it's all that middle of the road-ness that stops her from connecting with audiences today. She lacks a James Whale / Karloff or Lewton/Tourneur combination to make her sense of all consuming isolation connect with wartime audiences (particularly romantic couples coping with prolonged, eerie foreboding while separated by WWII). Conversely, also also lacks a Browning / Lugosi combination to make the monster's sense of otherworldly Gothic sex fever resonate across deeper valleys of the unconscious. She lacks Chaney/ Siodmak fatalism, or even a Ricou Browning /Arnold sense of eco-awareness.

What she has instead is the story of absence; or a gaping void where her own arc and narrative might have grown outside of patriarchal manipulation and exploitation; women (and animals) are still recovering from such blatant encroachment, ever trying to shake the yoke of 'captivity' and finding it impossible, even in death. Lucky for her (as opposed to the gloomy Larry Talbot/Wolfman who seeks 'release' all through his last five or six films) after her third film she's able to finally, permanently die. In this one thing, maybe, she reigns triumphant. It must be.. glorious.

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