Captive Wild Woman

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(5/10) Director Edward Dmytryk cuts and pastes together a surprisingly coherent and enjoyable tale of a gorilla being turned into a woman by a nutty John Carradine in his first mad scientist role. The 1943 film made the mysterious Acquanetta an over-night star, and garnered two sequels, despite the fact that one third of the movie is reused footage from an old lion-taming film.

Captive Wild Woman. 1943, USA. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by Ted Fithian, Neil P. Varnick, Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher. Starring: John Carradine, Evelyn Ankers, Milburn Stone, Acquanetta, Fay Helm, Crash Corrigan, Clyde Beatty. Produced by Ben Pivar. IMDb : 5.7/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 40% Rotten. Metacritic: N/A. 

1943_captive_wild_woman_004Come and see ACQUANETTA the VENEZUELAN VOLCANO as the terrifying APE WOMAN! Watch as she lures men to their death with her savage beauty! That wasn’t a tagline for Captive Wild Woman, I just made it up, but it could well have been.

When we think of the Universal monster movies post-1941, we usually think of it as the time when the studio simply milked money out of the series by teaming up their creatures in one bad B film after the other. But this actually wasn’t really the case. In 1943 Universal added yet another monster to its roster, and this time it was a woman, in the form of the exotic and mysterious actress Acquanetta as Cheela the ape woman.

An animal tamer called Fred Mason (Milburn Stone/Clyde Beatty) comes home with a whole batch of lions and tigers to his circus, which he means to tame and put on a huge show with. Along he brings a huge half-tame gorilla that has taken a liking to him. Her name is Cheela and in the monkey suit she is played by Ray ”Crash” Corrigan and out of the suit by Acquanetta. Mason has a girlfriend called Beth Coleman (Evelyn Ankers), who’s sister Dorothy (Martha Vickers) has a glandular problem, so Beth takes her to the leading scientist and doctor in the matter, Sigmund Walters (John Carradine).

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Crash Corrigan in his ape suit and John Carradine.

Dr. Walters has gone coocoo after he ”definitely established that by manipulating the glands of any animal it can be turned into any shape, size or form”, and now steals Cheela the gorilla in order to transform her into human form. This he does by using the glandular secretes of Dorothy, almost killing her in the process. His assistant Nurse Strand (Fay Helm) protests, so he kills her to. After the process, the gorilla Cheela has been transformed into the exotic beauty of Acquanetta, a mute and obedient creature.

Walters brings Cheela, or ”Paula Dupree”, as he names her, to the circus, where they find out that she has an uncanny ability to scare the lions and tigers into submission just by staring at them from outside their cage. She becomes Mason’s assistant, and as they prepare for the big show, and “Dupree” falls in love with him. But when she sees that Mason is in love with Beth, the emotions make her revert into an ape woman, and she flees back to Dr. Walters, who gives her a good scalding for being such a sentimental fuss and locks her up.

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Acquanetta as Cheela/Paula Dupree.

Suspicious that Cheela and Paula Dupree are one and the same, and worried for her sister, Beth seeks out Walters, who threatens to use her next as a glandular source … What will happen? Will the evil Dr. Walters prevail, or will Paula and Mason live happily ever after. Or will we learn that “there are some things that man is not supposed to tamper with”?

What’s peculiar about this film is that about one third of it is lifted straight from a 1932 movie called The Big Cage, starring real-life lion tamer Clyde Beatty, a minor celebrity in the thirties. Captive Wild Woman was a low-budget B film and Universal couldn’t afford a whole bunch of wild animals and circus staff, so the simply cut all they needed from the stock of the 1932 film, which included shots of the animals arriving on a boat, a tiger breaking loose at the docks, reel after reel of the big cats and other beasts being handled and fed, as well as a good deal of lion and tiger taming, as well as a whole circus show with numerous big cats, all handled by Clyde Beatty. This is the framework over which the screenwriters have built their story – making it a somewhat forced marriage between a circus film and a mad scientist/monster movie.

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Clyde Beatty with a lion.

This means that later Oscar-nominated director Edward Dmytryk (whom we’ve covered in The Devil Commands [1941, review]) has a lot of footage of the dark, curly-haired Clyde Beatty as the leading man taming lions and tigers. Enter Milburn Stone (previously met in Invisible Agent [1941, review]), a dark, curly-haired actor with an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Beatty.

What follows is a master-class in creative editing, set and costume imitation, and back-screen projection. Art directors Ralph M. DeLacey and John B. Goodman copy what they see in The Big Cage meticulously, and set decorators Russell A. Gausman and Ira Webb get the task of whisking out any barrels, crates, rakes and cages seen in the previous movie to match with the actors. The same task goes to long-time Universal costume designer Vera West, who gets to study in detail all the clothes of people appearing on screen, mostly Fred Mason, who must look exactly alike in every scene, and he goes through a whole number of costume changes throughout the film. Then just sprinkle in some magic by by Dmytryk, cinematographer George Robinson and editor Milton Carruth, and you can hardly tell they are two different films.

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An example of the film’s rear projection shots.

Especially impressive is of course the shots of Stone/Beatty taming lions. Dmytryk, Carruth and Robinson have studied the original shots of the films, picking up all those where Beatty’s face isn’t seen – and there’s a lot of footage of him with his back to the camera. There’s even a few short action sequences where his face is seen, but they are so quickly edited that you don’t necessarily notice the differences between the actors. When you do know it, it is clear that Beatty’s face was narrower than Stone’s. If you watch closely, you can also see their bodies don’t quite match up, either, as Stone had a slightly wider build than Beatty, who was quite lean.

But there are other scenes that are equally impressive, as in the beginning where Dmytryk sells the concept. We see handlers handle a row of tigers in cages, and Fred Mason and the circus director (Lloyd Corrigan) walk on set with the tigers in their cages shown as back-screen projection behind them. And in walk two EXACT copies of the handlers we saw in the original footage, and start talking to Mason. Sublime. Of course no-one is actually fooled, but that’s not the point. The point is creating a good illusion that an audience can buy into, and in this Dmytryk succeeds. This way he is able to make a movie that looks big, but was dirt cheap to film.

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Left: Clyde Beatty. Right: Milburn Stone.

Equally important is that Dmytryk keeps his own parts of the film well in hand. He already proved in the Karloff vehicle The Devil Commands that he has a feel for moody lighting and occasionally stunning camera angles, and George Robinson’s camera and lighting especially seem to like John Carradine’s face, of which we get many creepy close-ups.

This was John Carradine’s first outing as a mad scientist, just months before the zombie film Revenge of the Zombies. Here, Carradine does one of his best mad scientists, starting off as a highly likeable chap, and ending up as a complete madman. But unlike many of his contemporary rivals, Carradine underplays the role rather than overplays it. He had not yet started full-time hamming at this point, and lets his deep voice and stern gaze do most of the work, and it does its work quite magnificently, helped by the direction and lighting.

The other star of the film is naturally the captive wild woman, Acquanetta – an actress worthy of a book of her own, perhaps not because of her talents, but because of her life. More on that later. Acquanetta doesn’t do a very bad job as the ape woman, but it is her innate charisma, rather than her acting abilities that leave such an impact, and the fact that she didn’t speak probably helped.

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Acquaneta as the captive wild woman.

The ape woman makeup by monster maker legend Jack Pierce is flawless as usual, and we also see the usage of the old trick from the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (review) – using tinted filters to hide painted makeup, and revealing it in a single shot by removing the filter. The ape woman is one of the monsters created by Universal and Jack Pierce that is often omitted from the line-up of the studio’s great monsters. It’s a pity, as it is one of the very few female monsters of the era, and a pretty good one at that.

Captive Wild Woman got mixed reviews upon its release. New York Times film critic T.M.P. (Thomas M. Pryor) wrote: “Either you decide to meet this bit of scientific hocus-pocus at its own inane level or else you are likely to get hopping mad, since there is nothing to recommend in the story or the performances. It all depends on the mood you’re in. The picture as a whole is in decidedly bad taste.” However, The Hollywood Reporter was more positive, praising Carradine’s performance and writing that the “production … is an all-round good job”. Wanda Hale at the New York Daily News gave Captive Wild Woman 2,5/5 stars and noted that friends of “these kind of pictures” would get their “money’s worth in thrills”.

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John Carradine and Acquanetta.

The movie has a decent reputation among modern critics. AllMovie gives it 3/5 stars, with critic Hans J. Wollstein writing: “If Captive Wild Woman is much better than its hoary synopsis would suggest, and it actually is, much of the credit must go to a game cast and the usual good work by ace makeup artist Jack P. Pierce“. Moria, The Terror Trap and The Video Vacuum all give the movie 2,5/5 stars. Richard Scheib at Moria traces the film’s lineage to Jacques Tourneur’s influential cult horror flick Cat People, that was released just six months prior to Captive Wild Woman. However, he notes that the latter dispenses with the former’s psychological subtleties. Still, Scheib praises the editing, which makes the picture look a lot more expensive than it was. A.J. Hakari at Classic Movie Guide also notes the similarities with Cat People, “specifically those involving repressed sexuality and deeply-seeded instincts. Such themes are given a less serious polish here and are geared more towards spectacle than social commentary, but they’re present nonetheless, giving the story a whole new sense of depth just on the ‘hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ level.” Hakari notes that “it’s a silly-sounding premise that somehow pulls itself together into a more swift-moving and thematically-intriguing package than it easily could’ve turned out to be.”

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John Carradine.

John Carradine, who fell in love with Shakespeare at a young age had been around in the movie industry since the very early thirties, and was by this time known as one of the members of John Ford’s stock company, having had prominent and lauded supporting roles in films like The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), The Hurricane (1937), Stagecoach (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk, and most notably The Grapes of Wrath (1939). He had worked for Cecil B. DeMille in The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934), for Victor Fleming in Captains Courageous, Fritz Lang in Western Union (1941) and Rouben Mamoulian in Blood and Sand (1941). He appeared in the classic 1939 version of The Hound of Baskervilles alongside Basil Rathbone and played Abraham Lincoln in Of Human Hearts (1938).

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Carradine in John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath from 1939.

He had also had small appearances in sci-fi and horror movies, but generally stayed away from them, that is, until 1943. He appeared in both Captive Wild Woman and Revenge of the Zombies in 1943, and went on to do Voodoo Man (1944), The Invisible Man’s Revenge, The Mummy’s Ghost, Return of the Ape Man and played Dracula in House of Frankenstein – all in 1944. One reason for this sudden interest in cheap horror films was that he had just founded his own Shakespearean company and needed money to keep it going (which he eventually couldn’t do). When studios latched on to Carradine as a successor to Lugosi and Karloff, they were ready to pay him a reasonably high salary for what was often a reasonably short shoot. He could dictate salaries of over 3 000 dollars a week, even if he often played what was essentially a supporting character, even in low-budget movies. Appearing in such films also meant he was seldom caught up in long shooting schedules, and could work his stage routines and touring around the movies. Unfortunately for him, they also typecast him forever as the sinister villain and mad doctor.

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John Carradine and Acquanetta.

This became apparent especially in the early sixties when offers for A-list films became increasingly rare, and he found himself in clunkers like The Wizard of Mars (1965), The Astro-Zombies (1968) and Vampire Hookers (1978). On the other hand, it was probably his legend as a horror master that kept him working as an actor all the way up to his death in Milan in 1988. The flamboyant eccentric would spawn a second generation of acting Carradines (son David was no stranger to sci-fi), and appeared in at least over 200 films during his career, although his own tally went up to 500 at the end of his life. However, as with many stories in ”the Bard of Hollyood’s” life, this number should be taken with a grain of salt.

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Acquanetta in a publicity still for Rythm of the Island (1943).

Acquanetta hit Hollywood like a minor earthquake in 1943, with Rythm of the Islands and Captive Wild Woman. She was presented as “The Venezuelan Volcano”, an exotic beauty, and her mute role in Captive Wild Woman did nothing to dispel the mystique surrounding her. However, it quickly dawned on the press that she wasn’t actually Venezuelan, but born and raised in the United States. While she admitted that the Venezuela thing was something conjured up by Universal, she instead presented herself as born on an Indian reservation to the Arapaho people, as Burnu Acquanetta, but given up for adoption as 1 or 2 years old, and Christened Mildred Davenport. No proof of this ever surfaced, but Acquanetta held to this story until her death in 2004. Oddly enough, the black press almost immediately claimed Acquanetta as their own.

Nevertheless, Acquanetta insisted she was born on a reservation in Wyoming, but her story of how she ended up with a foster family hundreds of miles away in Pennsylvania has varied somewhat over the years. The truthfulness of the story can perhaps be judged from the fact that she also claimed to be an illegitimate descendant of the king of England. Although these kind of claims are hard to disprove, there is, however, a record from the 1940 census showing that on June 21 1921 a Mildred Davenport was born in South Carolina, and resided in Pennsylvania. According to the census her parents were African-American. It was probably the fact that her whole family was fairly light-skinned, like a latter-day Halle Berry, which made it possible for her to pass as a whole variety of ethnicities. And it didn’t hurt that promotional art from her films, which was at the time almost always painted or at least hand-colourised, made her out to be Caucasian.

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Rare colour photo of Acquanetta.

She was held in no high regard by the directors she worked with and had a hard time finding roles, as she was also known to be difficult to work with. After appearing in the sequel to Captive Wild Woman – Jungle Woman – and Dead Man’s Eyes with Lon Chaney Jr, both in 1944, she managed to break her contract with Universal as she refused to star in the third sequel The Jungle Captive (1945). She then signed to Monogram, but never made a film for them, as the studio found in impossible to work with her, as she turned down all scripts suggested. Her last big role came in 1945, when she played High Priestess Lea in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman in 1945. She did a handful of smaller roles in the forties and early fifties until she dropped out of acting, as her career didn’t progress. She was married several times, first to a Mexican millionaire and later to a wealthy car salesman in Phoenix. She became something of a local celebrity in Phoenix, as she did a daily run of live commercial segments for her husband’s firm, often turning them into segments concerning the company’s philantropic work and social issues rather than about the cars they sold. For a great interview with Acquanetta, check out Tom Weaver’s book Return of the B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers.

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Acquanetta with Crash Corrigan. To the right a still for the sequel Jungle Woman.

A fourth actor worthy of mention is Fay Helm, playing Dr. Walters’ sensible nurse Strand, who gets herself killed halfway through the film for protesting against human experiments. Helm hasn’t got more than a couple of longer discussions with Carradine in the movie, but she sticks in your head a lot more than Evelyn Ankers, who has far more screen time. While many of the leading ladies in Hollywood B films were little more than pretty faces with some rudimentary acting skills, often former models, with Helm there is a feeling of intelligence behind the acting (I think for some reason of Cate Blanchett), and she delivers what is perhaps the best performance in the whole movie, even out-acting John Carradine in their scenes together.

Helm had been acting as an amateur for a while when she was snatched up by Hollywood at 25 years old in the mid-thirties, mostly in minor parts until she was cast as the mother of Alvin Fuddle in the classic Blondie comedy films starring Penny Singleton. She played the role in four movies, before moving on to her second era of minor fame, as supporting character actress in a number of horror films between 1940 and 1946. Her best known role is perhaps that of Jenny Williams, Bela Lugosi’s first victim in The Wolf Man (1941). Acting-wise Helm outshone many of the leading ladies in her films, but for better or worse, even though a very beautiful woman, she lacked that that innocent Hollywood face that many of the starlets had, and wasn’t quite cut out for the femme fatale roles either. There was a maturity and intelligence in both her looks and acting that simply wasn’t there in the role descriptions of the leading ladies, and hence she was confined to lesser roles, that she carried out with grace. One of her best performances is in the noir gem Phantom Lady, starring Ginger Rogers (1944). Another memorable part was in another noir, The Locket, in 1946. This was also the year that Fay Helm decided she had had enough of working her ass off to play another small part as Mrs. this or Mrs. that and dropped out of acting. While she did consider a return to acting in the fifties after the advent of television, a medium that had given many forgotten actresses a second chance, she is quoted as saying that she realised that if producers had cast her as elder women when she was in her thirties, they would only cast her as grandmothers at 45, and decided against it. Too bad.

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Crash Corrigan and Acquanetta.

An mention must also go to Crash Corrigan, one of Hollywood’s most prolific gorilla men, as Cheela in gorilla form. Corrigan, a stunt man and a minor star as the male lead in the sci-fi serial Undersea Kingdom (1936, review) and a number of B westerns, carved out a career for himself as an ape actor, meaning he got himself a gorilla suit. These were quite expensive and time-consuming to make, so producers were happy to hire actors who had their own ones, and as a bonus had actually trained extensively to act as apes. At this, Corrigan was one of the best, perhaps outdone only by the original Hollywood gorilla man Charles Gemora. His background as an athlete, wrestler and stuntman also allowed him to do impressive stunts with the suit. Here he is once again able to inject a good deal of personality in Cheela, even though the rubber mask doesn’t allow for much facial movement.

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Evelyn Ankers and Milburn Stone.

As Beth Mason, the leading lady, we see Evelyn Ankers, an actress who is perhaps more than anyone associated with Universal’s later horror franchise. After a moderately successful acting career in England, she came to Hollywood in 1940, and was almost immediately cast as the leading lady in The Wolf Man, and that was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that involved, among others, the sci-fi films The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, review), The Mad Ghoul (1943), Jungle Woman (1944), and The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944). After breaking with Universal in 1945, she mostly played substantial or even leading roles at Columbia or Poverty Row studio PRC. She more or less dropped out of acting in the fifties, but appeared in nearly 70 films or TV series over her career.

Milburn Stone is best known as the beloved Doc Adams in the classic TV series Gunsmoke (1955-1975), a role for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe. Before that he had a prolific, albeit anonymous, career as a B movie bit-part player and supporting actor, including films like Invisible Agent (1942, review) and Invaders from Mars (1953). He is good, although not memorable, as Fred Mason, and does a fine job imitating ”the inimitable” Clyde Beatty, as he is credited in the opening titles.

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Martha Vickers and John Carradine.

The beautiful model-turned-actress Martha Vickers must have had second thoughts about her acting career at this point. Her first film was Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review), where she played a corpse. In this film she is one of the central plot elements, but when she turns up in the beginning of the film as the girl with a glandular disease, her one line consist of ”Well, I …” before Evelyn Ankers proceeds to tell all of her medical history to John Carradine, not giving poor Vickers a chance to open her mouth. In the rest of the film she plays – well, a corpse, or at least sedated. Eventually, though, she got her breakthrough as the naughty sister of Lauren Bacall in the film noir classic The Big Sleep (1946), and became a minor celebrity in the late forties, but her acting career took a dive in the fifties, when she mainly guested TV series.

Paul Fix, who plays the handler who steals Cheela for Dr. Walters, was a prolific character actor, whom we’ve encountered before as the assistant who gets killed in the beginning of Dr. Cyclops (1940, review). As most B character actors of the thirties to the sixties, his bread and butter were the westerns, but he did turn up in a number of sci-fi series in his later career. He appeared as one the leads in an episode in The Twilight Zone (1964), on the 1966 episode Where No Man Has Gone Before of Star Trek, played in an episode of The Time Tunnel and in Voyage to the Bottom of the Seas (both 1966), and turned up as Commander Kronus in the 1979 Battlestar Galactica episode Take the Celestra. He also appeared as the sheriff in the brilliantly hilarious Night of the Lepus (1972), where a small south-western town is ravaged by hordes of awfully cute, but gigantic killer rabbits. He is, however, best known for playing Marshal Torrance in the TV series The Rifleman (1958-1963). He also had substantial roles in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), El Dorado (1966) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970).

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Danish poster in the middle, with the title “Woman or Gorilla”:

In a small uncredited role we see staple heavy Anthony Ward, best known for playing the villain Killer Kane in the serial Buck Rogers (1939), and also appeared in bit-parts in Batman (1943), Mysterious Island (1951) and The War of the Worlds (1953).

Captive Wild Woman. 1943, USA. Directed by Edward Dmytryk. Written by Ted Fithian, Neil P. Varnick, Griffin Jay, Henry Sucher. Starring: John Carradine, Evelyn Ankers, Milburn Stone, Acquanetta, Fay Helm, Lloyd Corrigan, Ray ”Crash” Corrigan, Martha Vickers, Vince Barnett, Paul Fix, Clyde Beatty, Anthony Warde. Cinematography: George Robinson. Editing: Milton Carruth. Art direction: Ralph M. DeLacey, John B. Goodman. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman, Ira Webb. Costume design: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Assistant director: Melville Shyer. Sound director: Bernard B. Brown. Musical director: Hans J. Salter. Produced by Ben Pivar for Universal.

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