Sunday, December 29, 2013

‘Island of Lost Souls’: Anna May Wong as the Panther Woman?

Although horror movies from the 1930s were the first kind of film that I really got into as a kid, my enthusiasm for them hasn’t withstood the test of time.  Today, they seem rather awkward, overblown, and unintentionally laughable.  Also, I’ve grown a little skeptical of a genre based on the idea that we must fear something, rather than understand it.  However, a few ’30s horror films still hold up. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is one.  For different reasons, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is another.  If I were to name a third, it would be Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1932), based on the 1896 H.G. Wells novel The Island of Dr. Moreau.

Island of Lost Souls spins the speculative story of one of literature’s prototypical mad scientists, Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), on a remote island in the Pacific, transforming wild animals into humans, or each feral beast’s approximation of a human, through the dexterity of his scalpel.  By the time the story begins, Moreau’s isolated island is overrun with half-witted half-man/half-animal creations, which the surgeon, desperate to shield himself from the public eye, tenuously keeps in check with his bullwhip.  Complications arise when a seafarer (Richard Arlen) washes up on the shores of Moreau’s outpost.  The doctor tests his anthropomorphic abilities by introducing his most perfectly realized creation — Lota (Kathleen Burke), an apparently flawlessly formed woman whom he surgically shaped from a panther — to the castaway.  The film queasily implies that Moreau wants to test his transformative abilities by seeing if the human-like animal Lota can mate with the unsuspecting human newcomer, an occurrence which seems promising when Lota falls in love with him.  

Richard Arlen, Charles Laughton, and Kathleen Burke
in ‘Island of Lost Souls’

I like Island of Lost Souls, despite a few drawbacks, not the least of which, as others have noted, is the stilted central performance of Arlen as the square-jawed matinee-idol hero.  Also awkward is the staginess of some scenes, such as the Arlen character’s woodenly choreographed fistfight with a ship’s captain.  But none of this puts off the viewer because Island of Lost Souls seems to revel in its contrivance.  At first, the film’s decor looks a little too artificial, especially to eyes raised on shot-on-location, and everything else about the film, from its plot to its execution, looks equally contrived.  So, it’s hard to take the movie’s far-fetched premise at face value.  But gradually, the eerie artifice evokes a menacing mood that validates the story’s unsettling theme — where does the human end and the beast begin? — with an unnerving credibility.  Furthermore, Laughton as Dr. Moreau throws himself into the goings-on with such magnetic brio that he makes the bizarre twists in the story utterly engrossing and believable.  Is it possible for an actor to be understated and over the top at the same time?  And this mood of danger is enhanced by Karl Struss’s chiaroscuro cinematography.

Dr. Moreau orders one of his creations to do his bidding.

But I wanted to say something about Island of Lost Souls that many will, I’m sure, find absolutely irrelevant: I wish that the role of Lota, the Panther Woman, had been played by Anna May Wong.  No disrespect intended to any Kathleen Burke fans out there, but the Panther Woman would be a fun role in which to see the underutilized Chinese American star, who actually did some work for the film’s studio, Paramount, at the time.  Anna May Wong champions are probably shaking their heads in dismay at my suggestion.  Some exotic, saronged plaything for a leading man, they might say, is not the best kind of role for our Anna.  And they may be right. Still, AMW played worse roles. I’d rather see her claw the scenery as the Panther Woman than see her throw herself into the role of Fu Manchu’s female offspring in Daughter of the Dragon (1931).

Anna May Wong

At any rate, my comment is neither here nor there.  It would have been impractical for Paramount to have cast AMW in Island of Lost Souls, even if the studio had her under contract at the time (I’m not sure if it did, but it may have).  If Paramount had indeed cast Wong, the kiss between Arlen’s character and the Panther Woman would have had to go: kissing between the races was not allowed by the Production Code in the 1930s.

Kathleen Burke (left) and Anna May Wong

Also, AMW in the cast would have brought to the surface something buried within the story: Dr. Moreau’s creatures as stand-ins for the non-white races.  Island of Lost Souls is a thinly veiled cautionary tale about what might happen if minorities ever rose against the white whip-wielders of Western society. In this respect, the hero’s flirtation with the Panther Woman doesn’t so much evoke beastiality, as it does miscegenation — and several influential people in those pre-civil-rights days saw little difference between the two.  By casting the white actress Burke in the role, Paramount was able to keep this theme out of the viewer’s face and in the back of his mind.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how it might have looked to see Anna May Wong’s incandescent face and reed-thin arms atop the Panther Woman’s sarong.  I can’t help but wonder how she might have given the role more grace and gravity.  I also can’t help thinking about all of the other Anna May Wong movies that never came to be.  (Ironically, she did star in an unrelated 1939 movie with a similar title: Island of Lost Men, a revamped remake of the 1933 movie White Woman, another Laughton vehicle.)

Kathleen Burke as Lota the Panther Woman

Anyhow, don’t let my what-ifs ward you away.  If you watch only a handful of 1930s horror movies in your life, make sure that one of them is Island of Lost Souls.

Trailer for ‘Island of Lost Souls’

Originally printed at in 2005

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