Friday November 19, 2010 at 12:18

 Two obscure B films from the early Thirties, one from Columbia, one from  Paramount, both virtually impossible to see for decades. Now, thanks  primarily to Turner Classic Movies, much more easily seen.BLACK MOON (1934) Written by Wells Root  Directed by Roy William Neill Nita Lane (Dorothy Burgess) longs to return to the island of San  Christopher, where she was raised amidst the voodoo worshiping natives.  Her husband Steve (Jack Holt) allows her to return, accompanied by her  young daughter, her daughter’s nanny, and Lane’s secretary (Fay Wray),  but Steve Lane is unaware of his wife’s destiny: to be the new High  Priestess of the local cult.  This is an interesting precursor to Val  Lewton’s later, similar but superior I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Director  Neill, who would later do a consistently fine job with Universal’s  Sherlock Holmes series, tries to whip up an atmosphere of foreboding and  suspense, but is thwarted by a  script that stops short just as its climax is building, then  unsuccessfully tries to regain its momentum. Joseph August’s  cinematography is beautifully atmospheric, Holt is a likable though not  terribly interesting hero, Wray has little to do except look anxious,  Burgess does a nice job as the possessed Nita, getting strong support  from Madame Sul Te Wan as her voodoo worshiping former nanny  and Clarence Muse as the heroic, though unfortunately named, “Lunch”  McLaren. Though a number of scenes are strongly done - the deaths of a  wireless operator and the child’s nanny, several voodoo ceremonies, and  the not-quite-climax in the tower - the zigzag nature of the script’s  final third keeps the suspense from building properly. An interesting  failure from Columbia, mired in undeserved obscurity for decades, served  up in a sparkling print on TCM. (Not to be confused with Louis Malle’s  extraordinarily strange film of the same title from 1975.)MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933)  Written by Philip Wylie and Seton Miller Directed by Edward Sutherland Millionaire sportsman Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) is insanely  jealous of his wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) and takes immediate, deadly  action against any man who even looks at her. His first victim - a man  who chatted briefly with Gorman’s wife - is dealt with in the film’s opening  sequence and remains one of the most shocking and disturbing moments in  any pre-code film - perhaps in any film. His second victim is actually  her lover (John Lodge) who is secretly making plans to elope with her to  Paris. During a fund-raising dinner party staged at the zoo’s carnivore  house (imagine the liability waivers for such an event today), in full view of newspaper reporters and their cameras, Gorman  evidently releases a poisonous snake under the dinner table which  bites his wife’s hapless lover, killing him. When his wife later  confronts him, he denies his culpability with the film’s most outrageous line: “Do you think I  hid an 8-foot mamba down my pants?” Gorman is a sexual sadist who  enjoys his wife’s resistance when he  embraces her, paws her breast, leers in her face and laughs as she  shouts “I hate you!” Atwill is at his slimey best here, and Burke is  very good as Evelyn, proving she was more than just the exotic face  of ISLAND OF LOST SOUL’s Lota the Panther Woman. Her Evelyn is clearly  fearful of her abusive husband but does her best to break free of  him, using her wits and every resource at her command. Unfortunately,  the movie’s strengths as a twisted romance and horrific thriller are  undercut by scenes of Charlie Ruggles as a comic drunk  ex-newspaper reporter, now on the wagon, who gets a last ditch chance  job as Press Agent for the zoo. Ruggles, a gifted comic actor, does his  best with the role, but it is written as a befuddled stereotype who is  given nearly as much screen time as Atwill and Burke, and even more than  likable romantic leads Randolph Scott and Gail Patrick, when all the  character deserves is a scene or  two as comic relief. Sutherland’s direction is professional though  without panache, and Ernest Haller’s cinematography doesn’t provide the  atmosphere the film would have received had it been produced by  Universal, rather than Paramount. However, with a running time of 66  minutes, you don’t get the opportunity to be bored. (Watched on TCM, who  is, in partnership with Universal, distributing the film with four  other B horror films previously unavailable on DVD in an over-priced  package. The print is beautiful.)
 — Robert Deveau, The Farmer in the Zoo

Two obscure B films from the early Thirties, one from Columbia, one from Paramount, both virtually impossible to see for decades. Now, thanks primarily to Turner Classic Movies, much more easily seen.


BLACK MOON (1934)
Written by Wells Root  Directed by Roy William Neill

Nita Lane (Dorothy Burgess) longs to return to the island of San Christopher, where she was raised amidst the voodoo worshiping natives. Her husband Steve (Jack Holt) allows her to return, accompanied by her young daughter, her daughter’s nanny, and Lane’s secretary (Fay Wray), but Steve Lane is unaware of his wife’s destiny: to be the new High Priestess of the local cult.  This is an interesting precursor to Val Lewton’s later, similar but superior I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. Director Neill, who would later do a consistently fine job with Universal’s Sherlock Holmes series, tries to whip up an atmosphere of foreboding and suspense, but is thwarted by a script that stops short just as its climax is building, then unsuccessfully tries to regain its momentum. Joseph August’s cinematography is beautifully atmospheric, Holt is a likable though not terribly interesting hero, Wray has little to do except look anxious, Burgess does a nice job as the possessed Nita, getting strong support from Madame Sul Te Wan as her voodoo worshiping former nanny and Clarence Muse as the heroic, though unfortunately named, “Lunch” McLaren. Though a number of scenes are strongly done - the deaths of a wireless operator and the child’s nanny, several voodoo ceremonies, and the not-quite-climax in the tower - the zigzag nature of the script’s final third keeps the suspense from building properly. An interesting failure from Columbia, mired in undeserved obscurity for decades, served up in a sparkling print on TCM. (Not to be confused with Louis Malle’s extraordinarily strange film of the same title from 1975.)

MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933)
Written by Philip Wylie and Seton Miller Directed by Edward Sutherland

Millionaire sportsman Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) is insanely jealous of his wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) and takes immediate, deadly action against any man who even looks at her. His first victim - a man who chatted briefly with Gorman’s wife - is dealt with in the film’s opening sequence and remains one of the most shocking and disturbing moments in any pre-code film - perhaps in any film. His second victim is actually her lover (John Lodge) who is secretly making plans to elope with her to Paris. During a fund-raising dinner party staged at the zoo’s carnivore house (imagine the liability waivers for such an event today), in full view of newspaper reporters and their cameras, Gorman evidently releases a poisonous snake under the dinner table which bites his wife’s hapless lover, killing him. When his wife later confronts him, he denies his culpability with the film’s most outrageous line: “Do you think I hid an 8-foot mamba down my pants?” Gorman is a sexual sadist who enjoys his wife’s resistance when he embraces her, paws her breast, leers in her face and laughs as she shouts “I hate you!” Atwill is at his slimey best here, and Burke is very good as Evelyn, proving she was more than just the exotic face of ISLAND OF LOST SOUL’s Lota the Panther Woman. Her Evelyn is clearly fearful of her abusive husband but does her best to break free of him, using her wits and every resource at her command. Unfortunately, the movie’s strengths as a twisted romance and horrific thriller are undercut by scenes of Charlie Ruggles as a comic drunk ex-newspaper reporter, now on the wagon, who gets a last ditch chance job as Press Agent for the zoo. Ruggles, a gifted comic actor, does his best with the role, but it is written as a befuddled stereotype who is given nearly as much screen time as Atwill and Burke, and even more than likable romantic leads Randolph Scott and Gail Patrick, when all the character deserves is a scene or two as comic relief. Sutherland’s direction is professional though without panache, and Ernest Haller’s cinematography doesn’t provide the atmosphere the film would have received had it been produced by Universal, rather than Paramount. However, with a running time of 66 minutes, you don’t get the opportunity to be bored. (Watched on TCM, who is, in partnership with Universal, distributing the film with four other B horror films previously unavailable on DVD in an over-priced package. The print is beautiful.)


— Robert Deveau, The Farmer in the Zoo

Comments (View) / Share with Enemies


blog comments powered by Disqus