cast: Charles Laughton, Richard Arlen, Kathleen Burke, Leila Hyams, and Bela Lugosi
director: Erle C. Kenton
68 minutes (12) 1932 Visionary retail
reviewed by Gary Couzens
Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is shipwrecked then rescued. After an argument with the ship’s captain, he is left behind with the mysterious Dr Moreau (Charles Laughton) on his lonely Pacific island. But there is more to Moreau and his island than at first appears.
This is the first of three versions so far of H.G. Wells’ novel The Island Of Dr Moreau and despite some dated aspects it remains the best. Wells, however, disliked the portrayal of Moreau as a sadist rather than the flawed idealist of the novel. The film proved too much strong meat for the British censor, who banned it outright in 1933 and only passed it, with cuts, in 1958. This video release marks the first time the film has been commercially available in its complete form, and TV showings have been rare. Even nowadays the film has the power to disturb, particularly when Parker realises precisely what Moreau is up to: using vivisection to turn animals into men and women. This was probably a major reason for the original BBFC ban, along with the overtones of bestiality when Parker finds himself attracted to panther-woman Lota (Kathleen Burke). Burke’s costumes are quite revealing in this pre-Hays Code movie: in some shots her nipples are clearly visible! (The 1977 and 1996 remakes, which reverted to Wells’ title, replaced vivisection with genetic engineering, reducing the impact of the story’s references to the ‘house of pain’.) Erle C. Kenton began his career with the Keystone Kops and ended it with Abbott and Costello; he will never go down in history as a great director, but at least made this one distinctive film. He keeps the story moving; at just over an hour, the film has absolutely no fat on it. Richard Arlen is solid if undistinguished as the hero, ceding the acting honours to Charles Laughton’s smirking psychopath. Leila Hyams has a nothing-much part as Ruth, Edward’s girlfriend who comes to Moreau’s island to rescue him. Bela Lugosi turns up as the Sayer of the Law and amongst the uncredited bit parts can be found Buster Crabbe, Alan Ladd and Randolph Scott.
Visionary’s print has a clear soundtrack (in the original mono obviously, and as good as can be expected from a film made only five years into the talkie era). However, visually this edition is deficient: high contrast and flickering, looking at times as if it had been dragged through a sandpit. Karl Struss was one of the great cinematographers of the time, and this copy does his atmospheric work no favours. Undoubtedly these were the best materials available (barring a complete digital restoration, which would have been very expensive), and fortunately the film is strong enough to survive it.