Another well-known creature of the fairer sex was to be portrayed by Kathleen Burke in Paramount’s “Island of Lost Souls” in 1933. She attained the role of the “Panther Woman” following a highly publicized search for a suitable actress by the studio. The film, based on H. G. Wells imaginative novel, features Charles Laughton as a quite mad scientist who nearly succeeds in transforming animals into humans. In spite of her origins, the very beautiful Panther Woman evokes pity rather than fear.
Universal introduced another lady monster in 1935, with Elsa Lanchester (Mrs. Charles Laughton in real life, interestingly enough) portraying “The Bride of Frankenstein” in James Whale’s spectacular triumph. To this day, she is without question the most famous of all feminine film creatures. The following year the studio cast Gloria Holden as “Dracula’s Daughter,” with the female vampire of the title proving to have every bit as much blood lust as her dreaded father.
After a period of calm, it was Val Lewton’s “Cat People” in 1942 that introduced another popular female monstrosity. A descendent of an ancient cult, Simone Simon’s character is prone to become a killer leopard at the most inopportune times, particularly for one of her male counterparts in the film. A very literate and classy production, it is still recognized as one of Lewton’s finest psychological thrillers among the many he produced for RKO. Unfortunately, a 1944 sequel, “The Curse of the Cat People,” was much less satisfying.
In 1943, Universal was to inject a new monster creation into their renowned stable of creatures. Commonly referred to as the Ape Woman, the tale of Cheela the ape, who is transformed through scientific experimentation into the luscious Paula Dupree, was obviously inspired by the earlier “Island of Lost Souls.” With the services of renowned makeup artist Jack Pierce at their disposal, the studio produced a visually horrific beast for audiences. Ultimately, the series would encompass three films, with the first, and best, being the well-regarded “Captive Wild Woman.”
The film begins with animal trainer Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) returning from his latest safari with a horde of animals for his employer, John Whipple (Lloyd Corrigan), owner of the Whipple Circus. Among them is Cheela (Ray Corrigan), a gorilla with remarkably human characteristics. Mason relates that she is the most affectionate jungle animal he has ever encountered.
Mason’s fiancée, Beth Colman (Evelyn Ankers), is present at the dock for his return. She tells him of the recent health problems encountered by her sister, Dorothy (Martha MacVicar). In a flashback sequence, Beth tells of taking her sibling to see Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine), an endocrinologist of some standing. Dorothy is staying at Walters’ Crestview Sanatorium for treatment.
Fred and Beth arrive at the winter quarters, and Dr. Walters pays a visit. He is extremely interested in Cheela, and in inquires about purchasing her. Whipple tells him that she is not for sale. Upon returning to his lab, Walters finds that his latest experiment has resulted in the lab animal’s death. He becomes convinced he needs larger animals that possess the “will to live.”
Walters enlists the aid of a disgruntled former circus employee to steal Cheela. After the ape is loaded onto his truck, the scientist callously pushes the man into the gorilla’s grasp and stolidly watches as the beast wrings his neck.
Back at his lab, Walters and his assistant, Miss Strand (Fay Helm), transplant glandular material from Dorothy into Cheela. To the horror of the nurse, the ape transforms into human form. Telling the doctor that she cannot allow him to continue, Miss Strand informs him that at best he will have “a human form, with animal instincts.” Dr. Walters reaches the conclusion that he will need to place a human brain into his creation to successfully complete his experiment. He sacrifices Miss Strand for this purpose.
The brain transplant is a success, and the result is a sultry and exotic young woman who remembers nothing of her previous existence. Walters names her Paula Dupree, and takes his creation to the winter quarters for her first public outing. While watching Mason practice his animal act, an accident occurs. Paula rushes into the cage and saves him from the ferocious felines, who display an unnatural fear of her and retreat from her presence. Mason is dumbfounded, and offers the girl a job in his act.
After the final dress rehearsal, Paula becomes jealous of Mason’s fiancée. She goes to her dressing room and while having a tantrum, begins converting to animal form. Later that night, she climbs through Beth’s window planning to kill her, but attacks and brutally murders another woman instead.
The beast returns to Walters, and the doctor realizes that another operation is necessary to return her to human form. He can continue to use Dorothy for the glandular material, but will need yet another subject to replace Paula’s damaged cerebrum.
Beth receives a frantic telephone call from her sister, who expresses her fear of Dr. Walters and the forthcoming operation. Arriving at the Sanatorium to aid her sister, Beth is pegged by the good doctor as the next brain donor for Cheela. However, she proves resourceful in a pinch, releasing the ape from its cage. Cheela does Walters in and departs the lab, leaving Beth and Dorothy unharmed.
Performing his animal act solo, Mason finds himself trapped inside the cage with his unruly subjects. A powerful storm interrupts the performance, and the beasts attack the trainer. Cheela comes to his rescue once again, and carries him to safety. Unfortunately, a nearby policeman mistakes her intentions and mortally wounds the animal.
“Captive Wild Woman” works primarily for two reasons. A very solid cast in roles that suit their talents, and in the tradition of the truly great monster films, the creature of the title is a sympathetic one. The three murders Cheela/Paula commits are understandable, and in two cases, welcome acts of retribution. The other killing is attributed to her animal origin, yet her overwhelming feeling of jealousy toward Beth Colman is a very human, and quite basic, instinct.
The fact that Cheela twice saves the heroes life further endears her to the audience, and her demise in the film’s finale can’t help but leave viewers with the feeling that she deserved a better fate. In fact, it is the ladies that save the day throughout the picture. With her sister in peril, it is Beth Colman who races to her rescue, and her release of Cheela results in the downfall of the demented Dr. Walters.
The film is well served by director Edward Dmytryk, who went on to a rather impressive Hollywood career in spite of being derailed for a time by the Communist witch-hunt of the 1950’s. Among his credits are the 1944 classic “Murder My Sweet” with Dick Powell as detective Phillip Marlowe, and “The Caine Mutiny” with Humphrey Bogart in 1954.
Born in Canada, Dmytryk died at age 90 on July 1, 1999. He was married to actress Jean Porter for over 50 years.
The leading role of Paula Dupree was assigned to Aquanetta, who arrived in Hollywood via a modeling career. Nicknamed the “Venezuelan Volcano,” the dusky beauty was actually born on an Indian reservation in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in 1920. After making a name for herself as a Powers model, she was “discovered” by Walter Wanger, who arranged her first film appearance in his production of “Arabian Nights” in 1942.
Acquanetta’s horror film debut came in “Captive Wild Woman,” and her performance in it remains her most famous characterization. She would appear in two additional chillers for Universal the following year, the Inner Sanctum mystery “Dead Man’s Eyes” and another outing as the Ape Woman in the sequel “Jungle Woman.” Acquanetta left the studio in 1944, and would only make occasional films thereafter. Foremost among them was RKO’s excellent “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman” with Johnny Weissmuller and Brenda Joyce, released in 1946.
For John Carradine, “Captive Wild Woman” holds the distinction of being his first featured part in a Universal thriller. The actor had earlier appeared briefly in two of the studio’s classics of the previous decade, “The Invisible Man” and “The Bride of Frankenstein,” both directed by James Whale. His excellent outing in this film undoubtedly paved the way for him to continue in the genre, and he followed up at Universal with “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” as a more sympathetic mad doctor, and “The Mummy’s Ghost” in the role of High Priest Yousef Bey. He then portrayed Dracula, under the guise of Baron Latos, in the two House films, “House of Frankenstein” in 1944 and “House of Dracula” the following year.
The noted actor’s career continued up until the time of his death, of heart failure, in Milan, Italy on November 27, 1988. At age 82, Carradine had just completed yet another film.
In 1944, Universal reunited Acquanetta, Evelyn Ankers and Milburn Stone for a second Ape Woman film, ultimately entitled “Jungle Woman.” Also on hand to round out the cast were the reliable J. Carrol Naish, Lois Collier, Richard Davies and Edward M. Hyans, Jr.
The film begins with shadowy images on a wall showing a man being attacked by what appears to be a woman. He produces a needle from his pocket and administers its contents to his assailant. She falls to the ground, apparently dead.
The scene shifts to the coroner’s inquest into the death of Paula Dupree (Acquanetta), allegedly at the hands of Dr. Carl Fletcher (J. Carrol Naish). Induced to reluctantly tell his story by the coroner (Samuel S. Hinds) and district attorney (Douglas Dumbrille), Flether admits that he killed Paula. Yet, he also offers that there is more to the tale than what is on the surface.
Via flashbacks, it is learned that Fletcher was present on the opening night of the Whipple Circus and witnessed Cheela’s heroic act that saved the life of Fred Mason (Milbern Stone). After her supposed demise, the doctor acquires the body of the beast. He detects a heartbeat, and revives the animal. Fascinated by the creature, he purchases the late Dr. Walters’ estate, hoping to find the records of his experiments.
Apparently having no need of more glandular material or another brain, Cheela returns human form. She is at first unable to speak, and Fletcher diagnoses her condition as being due to shock. However, upon the arrival of his daughter Joan (Lois Collier) and her fiancée, Bob Whitney (Richard Davies), the girl suddenly becomes verbal, identifying herself as Paula.
Enamored with Bob, Paula’s jealous streak resurfaces. During a moonlight canoe ride, an unseen attacker capsizes Joan and Bob. Discussing the episode with Dr. Fletcher, they believe that one of the other patients, Willie (Edward M. Hyans, Jr.), is responsible. Unbeknownst to them, Willie has already paid the supreme price for his constant harassment of Paula.
Later, meeting with Bob in private, Paula shows him bruises on her shoulder, injuries she claims were inflicted by Dr. Fletcher. Meanwhile, the caretaker for the estate has made the doctor aware of the vicious killing of his dog and a flock of chickens. Armed with the broken lock to the henhouse, Dr. Fletcher confiscates Paula’s perfume bottle as well. After he returns to his study, Paula makes an attempt on his life. Just as he pushes her to the floor, Bob enters the room. Misunderstanding what he has seen, he takes Paula to another doctor for an examination.
Dr. Fletcher has the lock and perfume bottle analyzed by a fingerprint expert, learning that although different in size, the prints do indeed match. He is now convinced that Paula and Cheela are one and the same.
Bob has Paula examined by Dr. Meredith (Pierre Watkin), who does detect mental instability and extreme physical strength. When told she is already under the care of a doctor, he admonishes the young man to return her at once to her attending physician.
Arriving back at Crestview, Dr. Fletcher is met with the news that Willie’s mangled body has been found. He confides in Joan what he knows about Paula, and expresses his concern for Bob.
Paula and Bob return as well, and the latter finally tells her that he is going to marry Joan, which visibly angers her. Joan rushes to meet him as Paula disappears in the shadows. Learning the truth about the girl, he sends his fiancée to her cabin while he goes to the aid Dr. Fletcher.
After a search of Paula’s room fails, Dr. Fletcher tells Bob to check the rest of the house. Brandishing a hypodermic needle filled with a sedative, the physician heads outside to continue his search.
Paula pursues Joan through the woods to the cottage. Attempting to gain entrance, she hears the approaching Dr. Fletcher. She attacks him, and in the struggle, he accidentally administers a fatal overdose.
The flashbacks conclude and the D.A. expresses his disbelief. The Coroner parades the group, including the jury, to the morgue to re-examine the body of Paula Dupree. She is found to have reverted in death to the form of a half-human, half-ape monster. Dr. Fletcher is exonerated.
“Jungle Woman” has certainly received more than its share of criticism through the years. Admittedly, it is not as good as its predecessor, yet it does offer some chilling moments. The attack of the young lovers on the lake plays very well, and is perhaps the best scene in the movie.
The primary flaw of the film is simply that since the audience already knows the outcome, very little suspense can be generated. Joan Fletcher is placed in jeopardy on three occasions, yet since viewers know that since she is present at the inquest, she will certainly come away from her encounters with the creature unscathed.
Actually, the only character to fall victim to the Ape Woman is Willie, who trails off after the girl once too often. In spite of the fact that her mentally deficient paramour is a decided nuisance, his murder only serves to lessen the sympathy for the creature so craftily built up in the previous film. Paula’s only other act of mayhem, the killing of the dog and chickens, occurs off-camera and is verbally related to Dr. Fletcher by his groundskeeper.
In 1945, the Ape Woman made her final screen appearance in a second sequel entitled “Jungle Captive.” With Acquanetta no longer at the studio, Universal assigned the role of Paula Dupree to the lovely Vicky Lane. Joining her in the cast were Otto Kruger, Rondo Hatton, Phil Brown and Amelita Ward. Harold Young, who had earlier helmed “The Mummy’s Tomb” in 1942, was assigned the duties of director.
The film begins in the laboratory of the eminent biochemist Mr. Stendahl (Otto Kruger). As his assistants, Ann Forester (Amelita Ward) and Don Young (Phil Brown) observe, he successfully concludes an experiment to restore life to a dead rabbit.
Meanwhile, at the city morgue, the misshapen Moloch (Rondo Hatton) arrives to claim the body of the now dead Ape Woman (Vicky Lane). The inquisitive attendant begins checking his credentials, and is strangled for his efforts. Moloch escapes unseen with his quarry in a stolen ambulance.
With the Ape Woman’s body in tow, Moloch ditches the stolen vehicle over a cliff and proceeds with his own car to his final destination. He arrives at a desolate house and carries his cargo inside.
The police, lead by Inspector Harrigan (Jerome Cowan) manage to discover a clue, a medical smock, found near the wreckage of the ambulance. They trace it to Mr. Stendahl’s lab, where Harrigan finds that it belongs to Don, making him suspicious of the young lab assistant. Ann, present during his questioning, offers a fake alibi to cover for her fiancée.
Later, Stendahl abducts Ann and transports her to his secret lab, the desolate house on Old Orchard Road that contains Moloch and the body of the Ape Woman. He plans to use a portion of Ann’s blood to revive the creature. Moloch, enamored with the pretty new houseguest, becomes very protective of her. With her blood, the biochemist is successful in restoring life to the beast. In order to fully prove his theory, he knows he will need to convert her to human form. He sends Moloch to secure the records of the late Dr. Walters, which remain in the possession of Dr. Fletcher. A later dialog exchange reveals that the hapless Fletcher was killed during the theft.
Armed with the recorded knowledge gathered by Dr. Walters, Stendahl utilizes glandular secretions from his captive lab assistant to complete the Ape Woman’s metamorphosis. However, the brain of his subject has been damaged and possesses only animal instincts. He determines that a new brain is needed, and decides to use Ann as a donor.
Stendahl departs for his downtown lab, and the now very human Ape Woman wanders away. Moloch cannot locate her on the grounds, and goes to Stendahl’s office in search of his boss. He finds Don there, but is informed that Stendahl is out. Don notices that Moloch is wearing a fraternity pin that he had given to Ann. He trails Moloch back to the Old Orchard Road house, and is there captured by Moloch and Stendahl.
After binding Don to a chair, Stendahl and Moloch attempt to locate the missing Ape Woman. While they are engaged in their search, Don frees himself and tries to escape with Ann. Stendahl and Moloch thwart his efforts, and return them to the laboratory.
The police make a search of Stendahl’s downtown office at the Medical Building. Harrigan finds a utility bill receipt, indicating an Old Orchard Road address, paid by the biochemist. Remembering that the wrecked ambulance was discovered near there, he decides to follow up on the lead.
Don, tied once again to a chair, is forced to watch as Stendahl prepares for his next operation. However, when Don explains to Moloch that the brain transplant will result in Ann’s death, the once loyal henchman turns on his boss. Stendahl guns him down. Unbeknownst to the scientist, the gunfire causes the Ape Woman to revert to her beastly form. As he continues his preparations, the creature rises from the table and attacks him. With the scientist disposed of, she turns her attention toward the helpless Ann, but is in turn shot by the arriving Harrigan in the nick of time.
The film ends with Don and Ann being pulled over by the police and presented with a subpoena for them to appear at the magistrate’s office. A closer examination of the document reveals the purpose; to pick up their wedding gift from Harrigan.
While not one of the studio’s better entries, “The Jungle Captive” is well made and generally entertaining. However, it is a poor showcase for the title character, as she has very little to do throughout the film. In fact, one of its major drawbacks is that the creature spends most of her screen time either dead or strapped to an operating table.
The real menace of the film is the hulking Moloch. His presence only serves to lessen the fear of the title character. Since both he and Stendahl don’t seem very afraid of the beast, the audience has little reason to fear her either. Her ghastly actions are confined to the killing of one of Stendahl’s dogs, which occurs off camera, and her eventual fatal attack of Stendahl himself.
For Rondo Hatton, “The Jungle Captive” marked the beginning of Universal’s campaign to make him a major horror film star. Afflicted by acromegaly, a disease of the glands that causes severe disfigurement, Hatton apparently came to Hollywood from his native Florida in the hopes of pursuing an acting career. After laboring in minor roles for a number of years, Universal placed him under contract and sought to exploit his physical deformities in their thrillers. He was used to great advantage in the classic Sherlock Holmes entry “The Pearl of Death” in 1944. Kept out of view for much of the film, and given not a single word of dialog, his first appearance no doubt caused quite a shock to audiences of the day.
Following his work in the Ape Woman film, he was again assigned another non-speaking role, this time alongside the talented Gale Sondergaard in “The Spider Woman Strikes Back.” In 1946, he was featured in two offerings, “House of Horrors” and “The Brute Man.” Universal sold the latter title to PRC for distribution, following their merger with International Pictures and subsequent commitment to more prestigious films.
Hatton did not live long enough to see either of his last two features released. He died on February 2, 1946 as a result of a heart attack brought on by his illness.
Respected thespian Otto Kruger parlayed his talent into a successful career as a character actor. Born in Toledo, Ohio on September 6, 1885, Kruger began his acting career on stage. After a successful stint on Broadway, he made his first film appearance in 1923. Among his more memorable pictures were Universal’s 1936 classic “Dracula’s Daughter,” the Alfred Hitchcock thriller “Saboteur” in 1942, “Cover Girl” with Rita Hayworth in 1944, Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 masterpiece “High Noon” and the 1954 melodrama “Magnificent Obsession” with Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman. A series of strokes brought an end to the actor’s film work in the 1960’s. He passed away on September 6, 1974 at age 89.
While Kruger and Hatton are familiar names to Universal horror film enthusiasts, the other featured players are much less well known. Amelita Ward and Vicky Lane, both quite beautiful, are relatively obscure players. Lane was married for a time to actor Tom Neal, and spent her last years residing in Florida until her premature death in 1983, at age 57. Neither actress had more than a mediocre film career at best.
Leading man Phil Brown, who also served as dialog director for “The Jungle Captive,” enjoyed a long career in film, television and on stage in spite of falling victim to the Communist witch-hunts of the early 1950’s. He has attained a loyal fan following thanks to his role as Luke Skywalker’s uncle in the 1977 blockbuster “Star Wars,” and continues to make the rounds of nostalgia conventions throughout the country. Of course, he is also remembered for his portrayal of the jealous boyfriend David Jennings in the 1944 Inner Sanctum mystery “Weird Woman.”
Compared to the elaborate horror films Universal presented to audiences in the 1930’s, the 1940’s may indeed seem a decade of decline. The Ape Woman films, which stand completely as a product of that period, may well lack the artistic qualities achieved by some of the studio’s earlier titles. However, if one judges these films on the basis of an enduring ability to entertain and please audiences over an extended length of time, then their classic status is assured.
There is no question that the Ape Woman has not attained the stature of some of Universal’s other monster creations. Yet, despite her relatively brief cinematic career, Acquanetta remains a well-known personality of the era, largely due to her participation in “Captive Wild Woman” and its first sequel. That fact alone speaks volumes for the influence the continuing saga of Paula Dupree has had on viewers both then, and now.