While the list may vary from time to time, Charles Laughton always features amongst my top five favourite film actors. While he was never in competition with more 'beautiful' players, his infinite ability to lend shades and nuances to his characters makes him one of the most consummate of the many 'stars' who have graced the silver screen. Unlike many other charismatic actors whose film personae seldom vary, each of his roles is subtly different. It is therefore possibly something of a heresy for me to write that his role as the fiendish Dr. Moreau is not one of his best. In his movies, he did occasionally reach the border line between subtle histrionics and hamminess, and his performance here does occasionally overstep the divide.
This is not to conclude that the movie is not worth seeing since it has so much to commend it. I saw it originally some years ago at a repertory theatre, but it has not been much in evidence on these shores. In fact, the movie was banned in Britain on its original release like "Freaks" and for much the same reasons. However Criterion have now issued the film on a excellently remastered DVD in the U.S., complete with fine extras, and Masters of Cinema have a UK release planned for the New Year, so there is no longer any excuse for its not being better-known, expecially since it remains a far better film than the two subsequent "Island of Dr. Moreau" remakes (1977 and 1996).
Because of the remakes the story is pretty well-known. Based on a novel by H.G. Wells (who incidentally hated Hollywood's first take on his tale), it tells of a 'mad scientist' who decides to play God by fusing animal and human DNA to create new humanoid life in his so-called 'house of pain'. The 1930s were a great time for horror movies and all of the studios tried to have a go after Universal churned out a string of now classic monsters. This film was Paramount's entry in the genre along with the Frederic March's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and the little-known but atmospheric "Murders in the Zoo" -- not a bad track record at all. The somewhat oaken Richard Arlen plays a seaman rescued from the wreck of his own vessel, but then cast ashore by the drunken captain of the steamer that found him. He lands with a cargo of exotic animals and a disgraced doctor, a nice turn from Arthur Hohl, on Moreau's tropical island. At first he is taken in by the luxurious surrounds and his host's gracious manner, but soon discovers that much is amiss and that Moreau harbours secret plans for his future.
He discovers the population of 'successful' mutants, as opposed to Moreau's 'failures' who man (without being men) the power treadmills, and their leader, the "Sayer of the Law" -- a nearly unrecognizably hairy Bela Lugosi. It is his job to regularly ask his flock the questions laid down as the island's laws by the unassailable Moreau, who loves to brandish his fearsome bullwhip, to which the final chant is always "Are we not men?". Well, the viewer can easily see that they are indeed not men thanks to the brilliant make-up effects from the legendary Wally Westmore. In fact it is rumoured that Randolph Scott, Alan Ladd, and Buster Crabbe in early roles are numbered among these animal-men, but I defy anyone to spot them. The only female on the island is the 'Panther Woman' Lota played by one Kathleen Burke who purportedly was chosen from some 60,000 contenders in a contest to win the role, not that she was ever offered more than other exotic roles during her brief subsequent movie career. Moreau is hoping to be able to mate her with the now stranded Arlen, but help is on the way courtesy of his fiancee Leila Hyams who has hired Paul Hurst's trawler. Once an animal is allowed to kill at Moreau's behest, one of the sacrosanct laws has been broken and the final uprising and revenge are inevitable.
The film's director Erle C. Kenton is not one of the great auteurs, despire having churned out some 140 largely-B titles since the silent days. However he has done wonders with the material here. Running only 70 minutes the film is an atmospheric marvel with genuine frissons of fear and dread, with nary a wasted scene. The film retains its power even today; I only wish that I could say as well that this was one of Laughton's best.
I'm hoping to see Scorsese's "Hugo" sometime next week, so hopefully that review will be my next posting.