Thursday, January 21, 2010

Murders In The Zoo (1933)

"Millionaire sportsman" Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) is on an expedition to acquire new animals for a US zoo he is supporting. While he's in the frightening wilds of "the Orient", he also takes care of an admirer of his wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke). Sewing his mouth shut and feeding the would-be adulterer to the tigers is a perfectly gentlemanly reaction, I'm sure.

Ironically, Gorman's victim is not the man he should have taken care of. His actual enemy when it comes to keeping his wife down is his friend Roger Hewitt (John Lodge). Roger finally succeeds in convincing Evelyn to divorce her husband and marry him. The fact that Gorman is a murderous maniac who needs Evelyn to be frightened to have sex makes Evelyn's wish to flee rather understandable.

Alas, her husband soon gets wind of the plan and kills Roger during a dinner on zoo grounds with a neat little gadget that simulates the bite pattern of a Green Mamba, a type of snake Gorman has gifted to the zoo, purportedly so that the resident toxicologist Jack Woodford (Randolph Scott, looking not leathery at all) and his assistant/fiancé/zoo director daughter Jerry (Gail Patrick) can try and develop an anti-venom for its venom.

In truth, Gorman just thinks that Woodford would make for a wonderful scapegoat. Poor Roger won't stay the millionaire's only murder victim on zoo grounds, as Gorman has way too much fun with his new murderous hobby.

Theoretically, the rest of the film concerns Woodfords and Jerry's attempts to clear their names, in practice, we mostly have to witness the annoying comic relief of one Charlie Ruggles.

Yes, Murders In The Zoo belongs to the exclusive club of films single-handedly ruined by one comic relief actor, playing a character who has nothing whatsoever to do with anything happening in the film yet still pops out again and again without any care for silly little things like tension or sanity. Just think! He works in a zoo, but he's afraid of animals! Yes, I too could hardly contain myself, either.

There are some surprisingly well-done moments to be found when Ruggles is not on screen (probably half of the film, the "comical" escapades however feel much longer), but I never had the feeling that anyone responsible for the film had any clue what worked and what didn't work about it. Murders In The Zoo feels a bit like a movie made by our old friends the monkeys chained to typewriters in that there are small islands of quality among the intolerable gibberish.

It's not difficult to imagine a film that actually makes use of the gusto with which Atwill goes into his role, or of the uncomfortable feeling all his interactions with his wife Evelyn leave the viewer with. What exactly is going on in their bedroom?

The only completely satisfying sequences of the film are the scenes where Evelyn realizes what her husband has done to Roger and (with Kathleen Burke suddenly going from "pretty" to "damn impressive actress") starts to do something about it. This short detour into the world of pro-active and believably written women then ends with Evelyn essentially letting herself being killed by her husband. In other words, it completely goes to waste in the most clueless way imaginable, as is only fitting for the messy state the rest of the film is in.

After that, the film just peters out somehow. The mystery part gets some sort of end, but since the film is still more interested in Ruggles being unfunny than in its purported romantic leads or its plot, it's all very anti-climactic and doesn't seem worth the effort of talking about it or - to be completely honest - watching it.


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