RARE & VINTAGE: Murders in the Zoo (1933)

Not every great movie becomes a cultural touchstone.  Some simply escape notice, some are obscured by time, and some are actively suppressed.  In this column, Jared adopts a few orphaned films in need of a good viewing.

I could say that I decided to watch Murders in the Zoo because after our Mystery of the Wax Museum episode, I wanted to follow up with another pre-code Lionel Atwill film, but the truth is that I watched Murders in the Zoo because the title of the film is Murders in the Zoo, and I am just so fucking tickled by that title, and I will continute to repeat that title, Murders in the Zoo, at every opportunity.   You might expect that with a name as artlessly direct as Murders in the Zoo, that Murders in the Zoo is either an Agatha Christie style drama or a Scooby-Doo style comedy.  Good news: you get both.

“Curtain-calls” in film were an enjoyable but brief and rarely-resurrected trend.  Rather than a static title card of dramatis personae, you would see short clips of the actors in motion, along with their names and the characters they were playing.  In Murders in the Zoo, footage of friendly animals fade into images of the primary players.  A performing seal transforms into Charlie Ruggles, the comic relief character who’s trying to promote the zoo while struggling to downplay the murders in the zoo.  A dove and an owl are replaced by Gail Patrick and Randolph Scott as the tertiary love interests who use zoological science to stop a series of zoology-themed murders in the zoo.  It’s delightful.  It’s fun and it’s novel.  What a charming movie this is going to be.

Then Murders in the Zoo begins and Lionel Atwill is stitching a man’s mouth shut with coarse twine.

“You’ll never lie to a friend again, and you’ll never kiss another man’s wife.”  Atwill says this, and then leaves the man, bound and permanently gagged, in the middle of the Indo-Chinese jungle.  When Atwill rejoins his wife at camp, they’re informed that Taylor has been mauled to death by tigers.   The general brazenness of Murders in the Zoo suggests that his death occurred off-screen not for the sake of propriety, but only because they lacked the budget to film a full-scale Bengal tiger eating a man alive.  Meanwhile, Atwill feigns shock and dismay for the wannabe adulterer.

Atwill’s wife, played by Kathleen Burke, isn’t stupid.  She knows that a tiger attack is a murder-by-proxy when her husband is around.  In the next scene of Murders in the Zoo, she seems distant—deeply unhappy and yet resigned to her condition, as she tightens a fluffy fur stole around herself, and stands trapped on the deck of a ship very far from her home.  With barely a word spoken, this visual introduction makes it clear that she too is a caged animal, a highly-prized acquisition in Atwill’s exhibit of interesting creatures.

Murders in the zooHere we have an inversion of the sympathetic villain.  He treasures his wife, and eliminates any threats to her virtue.  Sure, he kills her beau by stabbing him with the severed head of a green mamba, but the motivation is jealousy, which is an emotion we can sympathize with.  He’s an extremist, but not a lunatic.  But when they return home after the evening’s murder in the zoo, Atwill enforces his devotion, ignoring Burke’s heartbroken protests as he clutches her savagely, his fingers splayed out, claw-like.  (Again, in Murders in the Zoo, it’s the visuals that best communicate the subtext.)   By this point, we are made to regret sympathizing with him.  He is an absolute beast, and the fact that we were able to put ourselves in his shoes implies that we are actually lacking in human sympathy.  It demonstrates that we are better moved by primal urges, such as jealousy and righteous anger, and that we all have within ourselves the potential to commit murders in the zoo.

Throughout Murders in the Zoo, Atwill lies, connives, and bides his time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.  Nowhere is this more evident than when his wife escapes with evidence that could convict him.  Atwill takes the time to don his hat and coat before heading out the door to follow her, and pauses to finish his cigarette before breaking into the zoo to murder her in the zoo.  He expresses his devotion, and begs for her love and forgiveness.  And when she refuses, he coldly pushes her into a gator pit.  Just as he deceives the characters around him into believing that he’s a guileless naturalist, he deceived us into thinking he ever truly cared for Burke as a person.  In the end, no one in Murders in the Zoo is a person.  They’re all exhibits that we’ve come to see get murdered in the zoo.  And while Murders in the Zoo delivers on its promise (of murders, in the zoo), it also reminds its spectators that there are animals on both sides of the cage.

The cage in the zoo where the zoo-murders are.

In Murders in the Zoo.

P.S.: Congratulations on reading the entire article!  I’m guessing you’re pretty interested in pre-code Hollywood films, then.  There are oodles of great pre-code movie reviews at Pre-code.com—give it a look!

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About Jared Latore

Jared Latore is a Chicago-based author, writer and podcaster, and the co-host of the Alcohollywood podcast.

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