Captive Wild Woman
captive wild woman | edward dmytryk | griffin jay | henry sucher | john carradine | evelyn ankers | milburn stone | ape | sci-fi | universal | mad scientist | ted fithian | remake | the big cage | united states | acquanetta | turhan bey | llyod corrigan | ray corrigan | circus
Film: Captive Wild Woman
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Writers: Griffin Jay and Henry Sucher
Starring: John Carradine, Evelyn Ankers and Milburn Stone
This is a movie that I discovered when searching for horror from 1943. What surprised me was seeing that this was from Universal. It isn't one that is talked about much. I couldn't find this streaming, but it was on Blu-ray set that I picked up to check it out. What I did know coming in was that this had Evelyn Ankers. Queuing it up surprised me to see top billing to John Carradine. He's an actor I know from his later cameos.
Synopsis: a mad scientist doing experimentation in glandular research becomes obsessed with transforming a female gorilla into a human... even though it costs human life.
We start this at the docks. A large sea vessel is unloading. It is bringing back the haul that Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) has collected. There are a bunch of lions, tigers and other animals. Fred was sent by his boss, John Whipple (Lloyd Corrigan), who runs a local circus. Fred did better than expected. He's excited as well to show something else he captured; a female gorilla named Cheela (Ray Corrigan).
Also meeting him at the dock is Beth Colman (Ankers). She is seeing Fred while also working for John. There is a scary moment where the cage of a tiger isn't secured properly and it crashes down, breaking in the process. We see how good Fred is with animals as he captures it in a ticket booth.
The goal here is to incorporate all these new animals into an act. John tries to hire Clyde Beatty to lead the act, but he can't get him to come down. Fred wants to take a try at it. This is dangerous and John is worried about his well-being, he does agree to let him try at the least.
While he is gone, Beth has been seeing Dr. Sigmund Walters (Carradine). They met when trying to help her sister, Dorothy (Martha Vickers). She has an act in the circus, but unable to perform to an unknown ailment. She is sent to Dr. Walters to see if his treatments can help her. He believes that he can and she stays there.
Dr. Walters is hiding his true work. He has a Nurse Strand (Fay Helm) helping him. Dr. Walters has been using glandular material from one animal and trying to use it on others. So far, it hasn't been a success for long. Dr. Walters meets Beth at work and in turn, gets introduced to Fred. The doctor is taken on a tour where he sees how smart Cheela is. He also sees Gruen (Paul Fix) get fired for drinking on the job.
This gives our mad doctor an idea. He hires Gruen to steal Cheela. He doesn't hold up his end of the bargain though. Dr. Walters performs surgery, uses the abnormal glands from Dorothy and grafting them into this gorilla. It causes a change that he was hoping for. Cheela changes into a beautiful, unique woman he names Paula Dupree (Acquanetta). This upsets Strand, who is attacked by the doctor. Paula still has the nature of an ape and cares about Fred. She joins his act and gets jealous of Beth. This has effects that Dr. Walters wasn't expecting.
That is where I'll leave my recap and introduction to the characters. Where I want to start is that this feels like it is borrowing elements of The Strange Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells. We have a mad scientist who is doing experiments. Dr. Walters hasn't done it on the scale from the novel, but we see his first time combining a human with a gorilla and it works. Instead of using an island, it is brought to the United States. We are also incorporating in the circus as well.
Now that I've given that overview there, let me delve more into the elements. I think I'll get back to my original point of our mad scientist in Dr. Walters. First it would be that Carradine does a great job as this villainous character. I love this facade that he's a good guy. He charms Dorothy, Beth, John and even Fred. None of them know what he is doing or what he is capable of. Nurse Strand first experiences this when she defies him. Dorothy then does over time when she isn't getting better. Despite this not being a new idea, I thought it worked well in the framework of the story.
Another aspect to the story is this being an 'ape' movie that was popular in this era. There are shades of King Kong with Cheela being brought to the US. Now this gorilla is at least normal to its size. Ray Corrigan does a good job in the ape costume and it looks real enough so credit to that. There is a racist vibe to this movie that I picked up on. Acquanetta is a beautiful woman. She has an exotic look that works here. What I'm getting at this is that the ape is changed into Paula. This gave her an acting credit so there is that. I like how she plays this role. She doesn't speak, which is fitting since she was never taught. I don't mind this take for an ape film.
Something that is a negative is that the pacing is off. I personally found this boring. The reason is that this focuses so much on the training of the animals and then putting on the show. I get why it is used. It is filler. When we see this from afar, Beatty is Fred. It is archived footage. I give credit to Universal for doing what they did here as it only required them to film a bit. I didn't care for it though.
I'll then take this to the acting. I've already said that Carradine and Acquanetta were good. I'd say the former was the best performance in the movie. Ankers though is also solid as was Stone. The problem I have with the latter is that he cares only for his time training the animals, which I found boring. Lloyd Corrigan was good as his boss. Helm, Vickers, Fix and Ray Corrigan along with the rest of the cast rounded this out for what was needed.
All that is left this is filmmaking. I've already partially went into this. The cinematography here is fine. They don't do much with it, but we are still early in cinema. I liked the circus as the setting here. That is one that isn't used enough. The effects were practical. We get good time lapse to change Cheela into Paula and then back. Ray Corrigan in the ape suit was fine. There are also splicing footage to make the animals and actors are together. It also has archived footage for that as well. Other than that, the soundtrack and design of this was fine without necessarily standing out.
I also gave this a rewatch with the audio commentary on as well. This was done by writer/film historian Tom Weaver. He gave interesting insight into the actors like Carradine’s issue with hemorrhoids in another movie. There is information done through interviews with Acquanetta that is also referenced. The most interesting explains my issues with this movie. This is spliced with an earlier movie from 1933 called The Big Cage. This plot and the dialogue when it comes to the training of animals was taken from this prior movie. That makes this a semi-remake as well. There are creative aspects there that I did appreciate.
In conclusion, I thought that was blending different types of movies in a way that was interesting. We get elements of the mad scientist/sci-fi with an ape movie and even taking place at the circus. The acting was good. The bright spots there being Carradine, Ankers and Acquanetta. I'd also say that the effects were solid. This is made well-enough. My biggest issue is that it focuses too much on training the animals and I didn't find that as interesting. This is still a solid watch if you enjoy movies of the era, especially the classic Universal run.
My Rating: 6.5 out of 10