The Jungle Captive

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(3/10) The third and final instalment of Universal’s Ape Woman series was released in 1945 to an indifferent audience. The film piles one mad scientist trope on another as a nutty egghead conspires to raise the ape woman from the dead, using the leading lady’s vital fluids to do so. Nevertheless, it’s high camp and fairly entertaining if you’re in the right mood.

The Jungle Captive. 1945, USA. Directed by Harold Young. Written by Dwight V. Babcock, M. Coates Webster. Starring: Otto Kruger, Vicky Lane, Amelita Ward, Phil Brown, Rondo Hatton. Produced by Morgan Cox. IMDb: 5.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

1945_jungle_captive_004At the same time as Universal was wrapping up its classic monster series with House of Frankenstein (1944, review) and House of Dracula (1945), it was also trying to squeeze the last drops of profit out of one of its lesser known series, that of the Ape Woman. Edward Dmytryk directed a surprisingly good first entry, Captive Wild Woman (review), in 1943, and the studio followed up with a cheap, slapdash sequel, Jungle Woman (review) in 1944. Running out of good ideas for titles, the third and final instalment of the franchise became a combination of the former two: The Jungle Captive. Nevermind that there is no jungle in the film.

Also absent from the third movie is the original Ape Woman, the enigmatic Acquanetta, a poor actress but endowed with a natural magnetism that — with good direction — made the films she appeared in worth watching for her performance alone. The film does tie in with the previous pictures, though, if only slightly. If the first film took its cue from the Boris Karloff glandular horrors and the second tried to emulate Val Lewton’s Cat People, then the third one is a rather dull mystery thriller with a mad scientist thrown in for good measure. The ape woman herself is conspicuously absent for much of the running time.

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Vicky Lane as the ape woman and Otto Kruger as Dr. Stendahl. Lobby card.

When the body of Paula Dupree, the Ape Woman (now played by Vicky Lane) is stolen from the morgue, the police suspect, for reasons that remain unclear, the young doctor Don Young (Phil Brown). However, the viewer knows that it was taken by the disfigured giant “Moloch the Brute” (Rondo Hatton), who is forced to kill the morgue attendant in the process. The film spends some time with the police investigation led by Detective Harrigan (Jerome Cowan) and the film’s comedy duo, mortuary chauffeurs Bill and Jim (Eddie Acuff and Ernie Adams). Meanwhile Don and his colleague/girlfriend Ann (Amelita Ward) are planning their honeymoon, with the blessings of their boss, the kindly genius Dr. Stendahl (Otto Kruger). But of course, you can’t have a name like Otto Kruger in a Hollywood horror film from the forties without playing a mad scientist.

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Rondo Hatton, Phil Brown and Otto Kruger.

It turns out Mr. Moloch is secretly working for Stendahl, who in his lab at home (for once not in the basement) is trying to perfect a way of reviving the dead. Why experiment on the Ape Woman, you ask? Well, there’s actually a very plot-convenient, convoluted reason for this. Stendahl may be mad, but he isn’t going to perform dangerous experiments on humans — at least not dead ones, apparently. (If a few poor nightwatchmen and/or female assistants and close friends die in the process, then that’s regrettable but what’s a life in comparison to SCIENCE?!) So, as the previous movie concluded with a court ruling that the Ape Woman was not human; she was originally a gorilla, remember, but was enhanced upon by John Carradine in the first film to become at least half human, she is the closest human substitute he kind find who isn’t actually human. But when revived, it turns out Paula Dupree is suffering from the Frankenstein syndrome, meaning she conveniently gains and loses the capacity of speech from film to film, depending on what suits the plot. This time she is speechless, which doesn’t suit Dr. Stendahl at all, as he wants to present her as a thinking, talking human being to the scientific community. Thus, he kidnaps poor Ann in order to take stuff out of her and put them in Paula, thus making the Ape Woman human. Unfortunately there’s a risk that Ann will die in the process, but SCIENCE! Meanwhile Don (who has been ruled out as a suspect) is playing amateur sleuth with the police, trying to suss out what has happened to his girlfriend. And don’t count out the simpleton Moloch, who really doesn’t what Dr. Stendahl is planning to do to the pretty Ann. And of course, there’s always Paula Dupree, who, as we remember, as the strength of a gorilla and does not like being a guinea pig.

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Rondo Hatton and Amelita Ward. Lobby card.

The Jungle Captive has the feel of a Monogram cheapo despite being a Universal picture, and it feels like the cheapest of the three Ape Woman films. The script has more twists and action than Jungle Woman, and at least it never gets boring. It doesn’t feel like a Universal horror film, though, more like a horror comedy programmer made to fill a B movie slot. The script was written by studio hacks Dwight Babcock and M. Coates Webster, based on a story treatment by Babcock. A dime-store author, this was one of Babcock’s first screenplays, although he did work as one of the many people doctoring Universal’s script for The Mummy’s Curse (1944). He transitioned to TV in the fifties, but is perhaps best known for working on a number of horror films in the second half of the forties, including House of Dracula, House of Horrors (1946) and She-Wolf of London (1947). Webster is best known for his B westerns, but also wrote a number of suspense and mystery stories.

While the actions of the characters involved don’t necessarily make any sense, at least the script does so, to the point that there’s never any problem following the action. The story is banale to the point of absurdity and the lines make your ears bleed. The main sin committed by the writers, however, is the fact that they have almost completely omitted the ape woman from her own film. Oddly enough, this seems to have been something of a common themes in the Universal monster films of 1944 and 1945. In House of Frankenstein, the Frankenstein monster is almost completely redundant, and in House of Dracula, Dracula is done away with midway through. Still, there’s enough good things in The Jungle Captive to make it at least somewhat enjoyable if you’re in the right mood. Its tone is lighter than its predecessors and it’s got a bit of comedy, which, in this case, works to the film’s advantage. The acting overall is also quite OK.

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Otto Kruger with Gloria Holden in the 1936 movie Dracula’s Daughter.

Noted character actor Otto Kruger does his best Boris Karloff in the role as the mad scientist, balancing nicely between his dual personalities of the kind, grandfatherly mentor and the cold-hearted mad doctor. The fact that Dr. Stendahl, who is not a surgeon, is convinced that all he needs to teach himself how to complete a never-before-attempted brain transplant is a textbook on brain surgery is wonderful and quite adequately describes the level of ambition in the screenplay. The other actors do their job amicably, even if the cast is primarily filled up with B-unit stock players and bit-part actors.

Amelita Ward is not entirely convincing as the damsel in distress, Phil Brown somewhat more so in the male romantic lead, despite not quite possessing the typical male lead looks or habitus. An interesting trope common to almost all the forties horror films is that the romantic lead is invariably completely useless, mostly arriving at the scene of the action just in time to pick up the swooning damsel in distress after the monster has killed the mad doctor and set fire to the lab. Alternately he arrives at the scene swinging a a gun only to be subdued by a henchman and tied to a chair, which is what happens in this movie. Momentarily it actually seems as if The Jungle Captive is going to subvert this trope, but it is only a red herring, probably added to pad out the running time. Phil Brown had a long career playing supporting and bit-parts between 1941 and 1999, and would probably have remained rather forgotten if it wasn’t for one single role he did in 1977: that of Luke Skywalker’s uncle Owen in Star Wars (1977). About the role he said it “was a straight-forward curmudgeon — which I am anyway, so it was easy for me to play. I’ve been a curmudgeon for a long time.” More on Brown further down.

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Vicky Lane being made up as the ape woman by makeup artist Jack Pierce.

The draw of the two previous Ape Woman films had been actress Acquanetta — real name Mildred Davenport — whom Universal had built up a mysterious story around, dubbing her “the Venezuelan Volcano”, despite the fact that she was born and raised in the States and had no Latin American roots (she was a black actress). However, when the second sequel came around, according to an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, Davenport refused to reprise the role. Universal replaced her with another unknown, Vicky Lane. Lane’s career was short; she only appeared in a handful of movies in supporting capacity in the forties, and spent some time in Hollywood as a jazz singer before moving to Florida in the early fifties. Jack Pierce’s Ape Woman makeup is fantastic, as usual, and Lane does a good job with the physical aspects of the role, even if this only comes into play, really in the last ten minutes of the film. Apart from this, the character is either dead or in a zombie-like state, so Lane doesn’t really get any other chance to impress.

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Rondo Hatton.

The other “monster” of the movie is Rondo Hatton, a huge man suffering from agromegaly, a syndrome that makes certain body parts, such as nose, ears, jaw bone, hands and feet grow, even after the rest of the body is fully grown, causing some disfiguration. In Hatton’s case it also triggered gigantism. Hatton plays a variety on his “Creeper” character which Universal developed for him, this time playing the brute with a heart, as his Moloch tries to save Ann at the end of the movie. Hatton was not a great actor, but there’s a sincerity to his performance that is difficult not to fall for. Even in his most brutish roles, his sympathetic personality somehow shone through.

I think I can safely say that there are no modern reviewers who regard The Jungle Captive as a “good movie”, however there are those who are willing to look past the picture’s obvious flaws. Gary Loggins at Cracked Rear Viewer writes: “The budget is lower-than-low, but the performances and script are far better [than in Jungle Woman], and it makes a good finale to the Ape Woman saga.” Dan Stumpf at Mystery File praises the performance of Otto Kruger, and writes that The Jungle Captive is “marginally better than Jungle Woman“, however he notes that “if you look up the term ‘faint praise’ in the Dictionary, you may find the words ‘marginally better than Jungle Woman‘”. Mark David Welsh notes that the plot is “terribly absurd of course but Otto Kruger plays it straight faced as Stendahl and brings authority to the role, even as credibility disappears rapidly toward the horizon, cheerfully waving bye bye and throwing rude gestures at the audience at the same time”.

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Vicky Lane as the ape woman.

AllMovie gives the film 1.5/5 stars, and Cavett Binion calls it a “passable instalment”. He continues: “Though it holds its own against its predecessors, there is little of interest not already covered by the other two films, and Kruger is the least-effective mad doc (after John Carradine and J. Carroll Naish, respectively) of the bunch”. Derek Winnert awards The Jungle Captive only 1/5 stars and writes: “It does provide plenty of laughs though for those who like to scoff at bad movies. Universal Pictures was the pre-eminent studio for fantasy films in the Thirties, but this is a good example of its failures in the Forties.” Dave Sindelar shows no pardon, saying that it is “far and away the weakest of the Universal horrors I’ve seen to date.”

My personal opinion is that The Jungle Captive isn’t any more terrible than a number of other low-budget horror programmers made in the thirties and forties, despite its shabby reputation. But the overall feeling is that this is not a film that anyone involved in particularly wanted to make, nor was there an audience that was particularly excited to see it made. It brings nothing new to the game, as it simply rehashes mad scientist and murder mystery tropes that were old as the hills by the mid-forties. It’s a tired programmer that sort hijacks what little marquee value the Ape Woman series had without finding anything interesting to do with the title character. Rondo Hatton is simply made to reprise his Creeper character established in the Sherlock Holmes film The Pearl of Death (1944). Otto Kruger, while effective in the role, is really just an Ersatz Boris Karloff. Phil Brown struggles courageously against his inanely written character, and there are a few moments of delight in the film, seeing stage veterans Kruger and Brown going toe to toe, occasionally making a few sparks fly on screen. Editor-turned-director Harold Young was a capable helmsman, but got stuck making B-features with such titles as Machine Gun Mama (1944) and Song of the Sarong (1945).

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Phil Brown and Amelita Ward.

Film historian Tom Weaver has interviewed Phil Brown for his book I Was a Monster Movie Maker. Brown was a Stanislavski trained stage actor who was part of Lee Strasberg’s and Stella Adler’s Group Theatre in New York which sported noted members like Sidney Lumet, Elia Kazan, John Garfield, Frances Farmer, Franchot Tone, Lee J. Cobb and many more. When the group folded in 1941, many of its members, including Brown, moved to Hollywood. When it became known that members of the group had arrived in the city, many of the Los Angeles-based actors were interested in learning about the Stanislavski method, which soon led to Brown, along with Cobb, J. Edward Bromberg, Lloyd Bridges and a number of other actors, founding the legendary Actors’ Laboratory acting school and theatre company in Hollywood. Ideologically left-wing and open to all races, Actor’s Lab got in trouble with segregationists and finally the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and many of its members and former members, including Lloyd Bridges, Morris Carnovsky and Phil Brown were blacklisted. After trying to fight the blacklist for a while, Brown moved to London with his family, where he remained for 40 years, working as an actor, director (mainly for TV and the stage) and producer. It was the fact that he was based in the UK that gave him the chance to work on Star Wars, as Lucasfilm favoured UK actors for the scenes filmed in Tunisia, with pickups in London.

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Phil Brown as Uncle Owen in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).

As Weaver points out in his interview, it’s a bit surprising that a fairly young actor with the stage resumé of Brown’s would find himself in a Z-grade schlocker like The Jungle Captive, which Brown explains with the fact that in his early Hollywood days he tended to take whatever offers came by, in order to “put himself on the market”. However, he says that “In my long life in films, there are ones I’m proud of there are those that I’m not proud of. Weird Woman, The Jungle Captive and a thing called Pierre of the Plains (1942) fall into the latter category.” Brown goes on to mention that both Otto Kruger and Rondo Hatton were very nice people. In 1978 Brown appeared in a small role as a senator in the original Superman film )1978). He also narrated a three-part miniseries based on Ray Bradbury’s The Marian Chronicles in 1980, for the BBC. He passed away in 2006.

Janne Wass

The Jungle Captive. 1945, USA. Directed by Harold Young. Written by Dwight V. Babcock, M. Coates Webster. Starring: Otto Kruger, Vicky Lane, Amelita Ward, Phil Brown, Jerome Cowan, Rondo Hatton, Eddie Acuff, Ernie Adams, Charles Wagenheim, Eddy Chandler, Jack Overman. Music: Paul Sawtell. Cinematography: Maury Gertsman. Editing: Fred R. Feitshans jr. Art direction: Robert Clatworthy, John B. Goodman.  Makeup: Jack Pierce. Director of sound: Bernard B. Brown. Produced by Morgan Cox for Universal. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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