I am a huge Lionel Atwill fan, so it is a treat to talk about this dark little gem of a film produced in 1933 from Paramount Pictures. MURDERS IN THE ZOO was not produced at Universal Studios yet had the look and feel from the cinematography supplied by Ernest Haller who would go on to win an Academy award for something called GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
The opening scene is one of the most horrific of the 30s, next to material from ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), FREAKS (1932), and THE BLACK CAT (1934). In French Indochina, big-game hunter Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) is seen using needle and thread on a fallen colleague. He is not tending to a wound however; the man rises toward the camera, his hands bound behind his back and his lips stitched shut. Gorman has sentenced a man to die in the jungle because he kissed his wife.
The pattern is set for a traditional ‘jealous husband’ story with a grisly twist. Gorman is bringing back animals for a zoo exhibition, intended to save the facility from financial ruin.
Peter Yates (Charles Ruggles) is hired as a press agent who comes up with the idea of staging a fund dinner for the wealthy, surrounded by caged animals. Something goes wrong; death occurs in the person of a snake both literally and figuratively. The victim is Roger Hewitt (John Lodge) who happens to be involved with Gorman’s wife (Kathleen Burke). Death arrives on the scene more than once through venom, crocodiles and perhaps the most hideous of all is the python bringing death silently.
MURDERS IN THE ZOO is a brilliant film showcasing Lionel Atwill shades of villainy through very clever dialogue, a glance, up turned eyebrow or a simply cold stare. Catch an early role of young cowboy leading man Randolph Scott as researcher Doctor Jack Woodford. Charles Ruggles as the press agent supplies comic relief, which seems improvised. It was not the best example of this and becomes silly distraction.
MURDERS IN THE ZOO was directed by Edward Sutherland, who was an original on screen Keystone Kop. It was co-written by the prolific team of Philp Wylie and Seton Miller. See this picture if you can with a running time of a mere 62 minutes. It is well worth it.