Universal Pictures kicked off the horror trend of the early 30’s with DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN , and soon every studio in Hollywood, both major and minor, jumped on the terror train. Paramount was the first to hop on board with an adaptation of Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE , earning Fredric March an Oscar for his dual role. Soon there was DR. X (Warners), THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (RKO), FREAKS and THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (both MGM), and THE MONSTER WALKS and WHITE ZOMBIE from the indies. Paramount released ISLAND OF LOST SOULS at the end of 1932, a film so shocking and perverse it was banned in Britain for over a quarter century, and still manages to frighten even the most jaded of horror fans today.
Based on the novel The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells, the film begins with shipwrecked Edward Parker being rescued…
Ex-carnival and sideshow performer Tod Browning had combined his love for the macabre and carny life in films before in two silent films with the great Lon Chaney Sr (THE UNHOLY THREE, THE UNKNOWN), but with FREAKS Browning took things to a whole new level. The cast is populated with genuine “abnormalities of nature”, legless and armless wonders, bearded ladies and skeletal men, a crawling human torso and microcephalic pinheads, parading across the screen to shock and frighten the audience. Yet it’s not the “freaks” that are the monsters in this movie, but two specimens of human physical perfection, their healthy bodies hosting malice and murder.
The film opens with a sideshow barker drawing a crowd to a horror hidden in a box, victim of what happens when you dishonor the code of the freaks – “offend one and you offend them all”. A flashback introduces us to the members of this dark carnival…
In the 1932 film Island of Lost Souls, Ruth Thomas (Leila Hyams) has reason to be concerned. She’s on the island of Samoa, awaiting the arrival of her fiancée, Edward Parker (Richard Arlen). When Parker’s boat doesn’t show up, it can only mean one thing. He’s been shipwrecked! Did he survive or was he lost at sea?
Well, Ruth need not worry. Parker did survive being shipwrecked. He was picked up by a freighter carrying a wide selection of animals to an isolated island. Unfortunately, when Parker complained about the way that Parker was abusing some of his admittedly odd-looking passengers, the captain responded by dumping Parker on that island as well.
On the island, Parker becomes the guest of Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton) and his assistant, Montgomery (Arthur Hohl). Parker also meets and finds himself becoming attractive to the seemingly naive Lota (Kathleen Burke). Though Moreau seems to be a good host, Parker grows suspicious of him. It turns out that there’s a room in Moreau’s compound, a room that Lota calls “the house of pain.” At night, Parker can hear horrifying screams coming from the room.
Initially believing the Moreau is torturing the island’s natives, Parker soon discovers an even more disturbing truth. Moreau has been experimenting with trying to transform animals into humans. Lota, it turns out, was once a panther and the woods surrounding the compound are full of other Moreau creations. Though Moreau claims that his intentions are benevolent, he rules his island like a dictator. The animal-men are kept in line by the Sayer of the Law (Bela Lugosi) and any transgressions are punished in the House of Pain…
The Island of Lost Souls was the first cinematic adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. (Perhaps the most famous adaptation came out in 1996 and is the subject of Lost Souls, a fascinating documentary that, I believe, can still be found on Netflix.) I watched it last night on TCM and I have to admit that I had a mixed reaction to it. On the one hand, the film’s atmosphere of mystery and danger is palpable and Charles Laughton’s performance definitely set a standard for all misguided scientists to follow. The human-animals are fantastic creations and the film’s ending still has some power. Bela Lugosi’s performance of the Sayer of the Law was superior to his work as Dracula. (As shown by both this film and Ninotchka, Lugosi was an outstanding character actor.) Kathleen Burke also does a great job as Lota, which makes it all the more interesting that she was apparently cast as a result of winning a contest that was sponsored by Paramount Pictures.
(On a personal note, I always find it amusing that pre-code films always feature at least one scene of an actress removing her stockings, even if the scene itself has next to nothing to do with the rest of the film. In this case, the legs belong to Leila Hyams.)
On the negative side, Richard Arlen is not a particularly interesting hero and, from a contemporary point of view, Island of Lost Souls is a rather slow-moving film. Watching it today requires modern audiences to make a bit of an adjustment to their expectations.
With all that in mind, I still recommend Island of Lost Souls. Watch it for Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi. Watch it as a valuable piece of cinematic history.
The 1930 Best Picture nominee The Big House opens with a black Model T car slowly pulling up to the front of a large and imposing prison. Handcuffed in the back seat of the car is a handsome, nervous-looking young man named Kent (Robert Montgomery). Kent is led into the prison where he is forced to hand over all of his possessions to a grim-looking guard. We find out that Kent has been convicted of manslaughter, the result of hitting someone while driving drunk. For the next ten years, this prison (which, we’re told, was designed to house 1,800 but actually holds 3,000) will be Kent’s home.
Kent finds himself sharing a cell with two lifers. Butch (Wallace Beery) is a coolly manipulative sociopath who alternatively counsels and abuses Kent. Meanwhile, Morgan (Chester Morris) tries to protect Kent and even helps him get his cigarettes back from Butch. These three prisoners represent the three faces of prison: Butch is the unrepentant criminal who is actually more at home in prison than in the “real” world. Morgan is the former criminal who has changed his ways but who is apparently destined to spend the rest of his life paying for his poor decisions. And Kent is the young man who has to decide if he’s going to be like Butch or if he’s going to be like Morgan. The Big House makes the still-relevant argument that the American prison system is more likely to turn Kents into Butches than into Morgans.
When the film began, I assumed that Kent would be the main character but actually, he’s secondary to most of the action. From the moment he first shows up, Kent is not particularly sympathetic and he becomes steadily less likable as the film progresses. Instead, the film is more focused on the always-scheming Butch and the regretful Morgan. While Morgan makes plans to escape from captivity and ends up falling in love with Kent’s sister (Leila Hyams), Butch spends his time plotting ways to take over the prison. For his performance as Butch, Wallace Beery won an Oscar but, seen today, it’s obvious that the film’s heart and soul belongs to Chester Morris’s Morgan.
Like a lot of films from the period, The Big House feels undeniably creaky when viewed through modern eyes. The Big House was made at a time when Hollywood was still trying to make the transition from silent to sound films. As such, the film’s pacing is slower than what contemporary audiences are used to and a few of the performances are undeniably theatrical. I can honestly say that I’m never been more aware of how much I take for granted nonstop background music than when I watch a movie from the early 30s.
That said, once you’ve adapted to the different aesthetic, The Big House holds up fairly well. Director George Hill films the prison like a town in a German expressionist horror film and Chester Morris’s performance remains sympathetic and compelling. If the plot seems familiar, it’s important to remember that The Big House is the film first introduced a lot of the clichés that we now take for granted.
The film’s best moments are the ones that deal not with Kent, Butch, and Morgan but instead just the ones that show hordes of prisoners — all anonymous and forgotten men — going about their daily life. It’s during those scenes that you realize just how many people have been crammed into one tiny space and why that makes it impossible for prison to reform the Kents of the world.
Gandhi once said that the true value of any society can be determined by how that society treats its prisoners and The Big House certainly makes that case.
After watching Barry Lyndon, I decided to continue to explore my DVR by watching another film that was shown as a part of TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar.
First released way back in 1935, Ruggles of Red Gap was nominated for best picture but it lost to Mutiny of the Bounty. Interestingly enough, both Ruggles and Bounty featured the great Charles Laughton. In Bounty, Laughton played a tyrannical villain, Capt. Bligh. In Ruggles, however, Laughton is the film’s hero, a gentle and comedic butler named Marmaduke Ruggles who, after having his contract gambled away in a poker game, finds himself living in the frontier town of Red Gap, Washington.
It’s also interesting to note that Ruggles of Red Gap is one of the few best picture nominees to receive absolutely no other nominations. To a certain extent, it’s understandable. Ruggles of Red Gap was made at a time when the Academy had less categories but still nominated ten films for best picture. As a film, Ruggles mostly serves as a showcase for Charles Laughton but, that year, he received his best actor nomination for his work in Mutiny. (At that time, there were no supporting categories. Had there been, it’s likely that Laughton could have received a lead actor nomination for Ruggles and a supporting nomination for Bounty.) The next time that someone complains that Selma only received two nominations, you remind them that’s one more than Ruggles of Red Gap received.
As for the film itself … well, for a modern audience, the film’s deliberate pace takes some getting used to. The film’s best moments occur at the start. Ruggles wakes up one morning to discover that his boss (Roland Young) lost him in a poker game. Ruggles spends the day meeting and attempting to get used to his new employer, a nouveau riche cowboy named Egbert Floud (Charlie Ruggles). The joke here, of course, is that Ruggles is stereotypically reserved and British while Egbert is loud, brash, and American. Ruggles lives his life by the rules of the class system. Egbert comes from a world where there is no class and everyone is equal. Ruggles refuses to call Egbert by his first name. Egbert gets Ruggles drunk. The scenes of Egbert and Ruggles in Europe are a lot of fun, largely because the two actors were obviously having a lot of fun playing off each other and Laughton clearly relished getting to play comedy as opposed to villainy.
The second half of the film features Ruggles settling into life in Red Gap, Washington. The citizens of Red Gap are, of course, all honest and hard-working folks who don’t have the slightest hint of pretension. (Red Gap may have been in Washington but it was obviously nowhere close to Seattle.) They welcome Ruggles into the community but they also mistake him for being a colonel and soon, everyone is under the impression that Ruggles himself is a war hero. It’s an odd subplot, one that doesn’t seem to really be necessary to make the film’s point.
And that point, by the way, is that America is a land where everyone is equal and where butlers have the same rights as their employers. Ruggles goes from being somewhat horrified by his new surrounding to being a proud American, an entrepreneur who is now capable of being his own man. And it may sound corny and I’m sure all of my cynical friends are rolling their eyes but you know what? Charles Laughton pulled it off. As uneven as the film may sometimes be, Laughton’s sincere performance holds it all together. He’s the main reason to watch Ruggles of Red Gap.
How proud of an American does Ruggles become? He’s enough of an American that he can even recite the Gettysburg address! Watch below!