Saturday, 30 June 2012

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

An adaptation of H.G. Wells' "The Island of Dr Moreau", "Island of Lost Souls" stars Charles Laughton as Moreau, Richard Arlen, as the hero and Bela Lugosi as one of Moreau's creations.

Edward Parker (Arlen) was on his way to meet his fiancée when the ship he was in sank. The sole survivor, he is saved by a merchant ship on its way to Moreau's island, with a cargo of wild animals. However being a reckless hero he antagonises the captain who leaves him with the cargo in the hands of Moreau...

I never read the original novel (published in 1896), but it's obvious Darwin's theories were Wells' s inspiring source. The motif of playing god, of seeing how far you can tamper with Nature and get away with it, were a clear inspiration for late 19th century writers. Moreau, the god, keeps his beasts under strict control by forcing them a mantra of rules which they must obey, among them, "you must not kill ". His own downfall comes, unsurprisingly, when he breaks his own rules while trying to hold onto to power. The ending is something to behold, and probably the reason the film was banned in the UK on its original release (it was probably not an easy view in a colonial context) - it also shows what the ending of Tod Browning's "Freaks" could have been if MGM hadn't got cold feet. As for this film, it was finally allowed in the UK with cuts in 1958, and in 1996 without them. To illustrate how times have changed, the uncut version is now rated PG, the second lowest rating the BBFC issues - how times change.

Laughton is a pleasure to watch. He plays Moreau with a camp delight which surpasses even his Nero in DeMille's "The Sign of the Cross". In a sense, in 1932 Hollywood and in Laughton's hands, the film becomes a duel between the evil gay man and the straigh hero, played rather blandly by Arlen (who I saw to much better effect recently in "Beggars of Life"). Arlen's character recklessness is just a way to assert his macho heterosexuality, as his is "must get to my fiancée" constant speech. Unsuprisingly, the hero's victory is more due to the intervention of others (the Panther Woman) than his own, as he can't stop and think (as it probably affect his street cred). Moreau's demise reminded me of that of another gay man in cinema, the ever faceless Sebastian Venable in "Suddenly, Last Summer". I wonder if Tennessee Williams got inspiration here for his play (or for that matter, Gore Vidal, who co-wrote the script with Williams).

Arthur Hohl held his strong against Laughton and Kathleen Burke was allowed to show some female sexuality (with the pale excuse of being not exactly human), while the rest of the cast (Lugosi included) is pretty indifferent.


Anonymous said...

I have never heard of this film - and I don't know why as I'm a bit of a Laughton fan. I always feel as if he was born out of his time. And his one directorial effort was incredible!

How DO you feel about chocolate btw?

Miguel said...

I love it :)