Captive Wild Woman (1943) ***
Back in my review of Dracula’s Daughter, I said that it wasn’t until the mid-1940’s that Universal Studios really got the hang of making cheap exploitation movies— “exuberantly lurid trash,” as I phrased it then. In case you were wondering just what I meant by that, allow me to call your attention to Captive Wild Woman.
First some background. 1942 was an important year for Universal as a purveyor of horror movies. That was the year in which the studio’s leadership figured out that it was more lucrative to release several cheap, quickie horror flicks than it was to spend the time and money producing one grand and ambitious film like Son of Frankenstein, a conceptual shift that would gradually make its way all around the world and persist to the present day. It was also the year in which Universal finally acquired a serious rival in the genre, for 1942 saw the release of Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People over at RKO. Cat People was a totally new kind of horror film for American audiences, and its success caught the folks at Universal with their pants down. An attempt by the venerable company to steal RKO’s thunder was inevitable, but the resulting movie proved that, even back then, the big studios could usually be counted upon to fail utterly to get it when confronted by the success of a smaller rival (or even the B-divison of another major studio). Whereas Cat People was sly and understated and ambiguous, Universal’s answer to it was loud and crass and obvious; when Universal looked at Tourneur’s masterpiece, all they saw was a movie about a woman who turns into a panther when she gets jealous or horny. So how does one trump that? How about having the girl turn into a gorilla instead?! Exuberant? Check. Lurid? Check. Trashy? Check.
It all begins when circus performer Dorothy Colman (Martha Vickers, who also played small roles in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and The Mummy’s Ghost) is diagnosed with some sort of glandular disorder, and referred to the care of Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine, from Voodoo Man and Invisible Invaders). Dorothy’s sister, Beth (Evelyn Ankers, of The Invisible Man’s Revenge and Son of Dracula), drops her off at Walters’s alarmingly gothic-looking clinic, and returns to town a few days later to meet up with her boyfriend, Fred Mason (Milburn Stone, from The Mad Ghoul and Invaders from Mars), who is just returning from an expedition to the wilds of some generic jungle land. Mason, like Beth, works for the same circus as Dorothy, but behind the scenes. His main job is capturing and training wild animals— the big cats in particular seem to be his specialty, although he also has a way with gorillas. And, in fact, Mason has brought a big-ass female gorilla he calls “Cheela” back with him, along with all the lions and tigers and things. (See what I mean about “some generic jungle land?” The only place on Earth you could go and expect to find lions, tigers, and gorillas all living together is a zoo.) She’s an exceptionally intelligent ape, and Mason hopes to be able to use her in a circus act he’s been trying to convince his boss, John Whipple (She-Wolf of London’s Lloyd Corrigan), to let him perform when the new season begins in a few weeks.
Of course, Mason isn’t the only one with an interest in the ape. Dr. Walters has been hanging out with Beth an awful lot since she committed her sister to his care, and he thinks an intelligent gorilla is just what he needs for the nefarious experiments he’s conducting on the side, as required by B-movie scientist union rules. Whipple refuses to sell Cheela, however, so the doctor is going to have to come up with something appropriately sneaky if he’s to have her. Opportunity comes knocking when Whipple fires one of his animal handlers for mistreating the ape; Walters correctly figures the alcoholic handler would appreciate a chance to “get back” at the beast that cost him his job. He arranges for the disgruntled circus employee to steal Cheela from her cage, and then relies on the animal’s understandable antipathy for the abusive drunk to get the latter man out of the way once he’s served his purpose. Now some of you are undoubtedly wondering what an endocrinologist could possibly want with a 600-pound gorilla, and I agree that it’s a damned good question. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait too long for an answer. You see, Walters believes that glandular secretions are the ultimate determining factor in vertebrate biology— he who understands how glands operate holds the power to control life itself. He’s already used hormonal treatments to correct all manner of developmental defects in his patients and to change the size, apparent age, and even sex of his laboratory animals. But Walters believes he can do even more. He thinks he has it within his grasp to change an animal of one species into a close approximation of one from a different, related species. You guessed it— Walters wants to turn Cheela into a human woman!
This is where Dorothy reenters the story. She’s been living at Walters’s clinic for a while, receiving regular hormone treatments, when the doctor gets it into his head that her malfunctioning glands are just what he needs to transform Cheela. Walters begins by drawing her blood to extract the super-concentrated hormones dissolved in it, but he soon begins scheming to remove many of her key glands altogether, and transplant them into the ape. Dorothy won’t survive such an operation, of course, and Walters’s nurse (Fay Helm, from The Wolf Man and Night Monster) speaks up in protest against the doctor’s mad plans. This is a big mistake on her part, in that Walters simply goes right ahead with his experiments after killing her and removing her brain for implantation within the gorilla’s skull. The upshot of all this is that Cheela is successfully turned into a lovely young woman whom Walters names Paula Dupree (Acquanetta, an “I’m too sexy for a surname” girl whose career took a mere nine years to flame out completely).
For reasons that defy explanation, Walters starts bringing Paula to the Whipple Circus, deliberately putting her in close proximity to her former trainer. This actually works out pretty well for Mason, because the girl unexpectedly rescues him from a very prickly situation. The world-famous cat-tamer Whipple had hired for the season has backed out of the deal, leaving the circus with no one but Fred to run the big animal acts. This is exactly the career break Mason was hoping for, but during his very first rehearsal, an otherwise minor accident puts him at the mercy of an enraged lion. While Beth and Whipple and Fred’s other friends at the circus stand around the cat cage shrieking in horror, Paula walks right up to the lion, stares it down, and saves Mason from certain death. Mason is so impressed that he immediately convinces Whipple to hire her as his assistant.
And now, finally, Captive Wild Woman finishes copying the setup to Dr. Renault’s Secret, and gets down to its Cat People rip-off business. She may be an ape in human form, but Paula is in love with Fred. But with Fred already engaged to Beth Colman, that’s one relationship for which there’s just no hope at all. When Paula sees Beth and Mason kissing, she flips out, storms back to her dressing room, and promptly starts re-monkeyfying. She attacks Beth at her home later that night, but is chased away by the cops before she has a chance to do anything but kill the woman’s maid. (Who’d have thought circus managers paid their secretaries well enough that they could afford domestic servants?) As Walters predicts when Paula comes home to his lab all swarthy and covered in fur, this bit of indiscretion is going to have serious consequences for him and the ape-girl both. Beth may not have gotten too good a look at her attacker, but she saw well enough to be reminded of both Paula and Mason’s vanished gorilla. She had been around to hear Walters express interest in buying Cheela from Whipple, and she also had time to read up on Walters’s groundbreaking work with glands and hormones in some of the medical journals he had lying around his waiting room when she brought Dorothy in to the clinic. And most importantly, Dorothy’s last act before having her glands removed and implanted in Cheela was to call her sister on the phone and express her growing distrust of the doctor. Taken together, it’s enough to make Beth want to drop in on Walters, check up on Dorothy, and try to see if the doctor has any half-humanized gorillas hanging around. This could go pretty badly for Beth— would you particularly want to square off against both a mad scientist and a jealous ape?— but she’s got an ace in the hole that will serve her well in any confrontation with Walters that may transpire. Evidently, she’s aware of the inflexible law of sleazy movie science which states that any monster, if presented with the slightest opportunity, will turn on its creator whether it makes sense in terms of the story or not, and she’s got solid, practical ideas of how to bring that law into play in her situation.
It’s amazing how well this movie works. Sure, it’s as dumb as the proverbial bag of hammers, and one cost-cutting measure or another can be observed in almost every scene, but Captive Wild Woman is so totally shameless that it’s next to impossible not to be charmed. John Carradine makes a great mad scientist, Acquanetta makes a great ape-woman (it doesn’t matter that her acting is unequal to the task of conveying a single human emotion when she’s supposed to be playing a gorilla), and Milburn Stone looks (from a distance) enough like the animal trainer in the stock footage lifted from 1933’s The Big Cage that you wouldn’t even notice the insertions if the ten-years-more-primitive film stock didn’t clash so much with the new footage. (The funniest thing about the extensive recycling of circus footage from The Big Cage is that even with such huge amounts of film coming absolutely free, Captive Wild Woman is still only just over an hour long!) But the coolest thing about the movie, to me at least, is the sheer irrelevance of the nominal hero to the main storyline’s resolution. The conflict here is between Walters, Paula/Cheela, and Beth, and our heroine is able to deal with it all by herself, without waiting for some male to come along and rescue her. Such a thing is rare enough in any decade (outside of the slasher genre, at any rate), but in the 1940’s, it was practically unheard-of. It gives Captive Wild Woman a leg up, making the movie a wee bit more than just an hour of dopey, undemanding fun.