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Saturday, November 05, 2011

Halloween Harvest 2011 --- Island Of Lost Souls --- Part One

Island Of Lost Souls might as well have been London After Midnight for limited access viewers had in syndication days, being one many fans wouldn't see until VHS and laser discs brought it into homes. Rarity's reason was less station embargos (though a few locals may have been scared off by it) than Island's placement among all-or-none packaging of Paramount oldies leased by MCA with the pre-48 group's sale to television in April 1958. You could buy per picture at prices considerably upped in that event, though by the mid-sixties, broadcasters were more for transitioning out of mostly B/W fare this 700 title load contained. 1966 found ninety-six TV markets playing pre-48 Paramount in whole or part, our Channel 8 out of High Point, NC being among those blessed ...

Getting Island Of Lost Souls twice or so a year was rare privilege I recognized even then, later confirmed by friends grown up in deprived locales where the legendary chiller never showed up. Our Island tour-guide was Shock Theatre's Count Shockula, later Dr. Paul Bearer (both station employee Dick Bennick), his contribution helping to keep the Shock flag flying for near-twenty years. Now that I'm again in footie pajama mode, I'll pass along sad account of friend Brick Davis and how he missed Island Of Lost Souls one Saturday night in 1968.

We'd oft-talk on the phone  up to Shock Theatre's 11:30 start point, this occasion a special one because after all, it was Island Of Lost Souls, and we'd only seen it three or so times up to then. Right at the moment of flipping the dial, however, Brick's father arrived home from a customary sixteen-hour work day and announced they'd be watching Robert Wagner in White Feather instead, his argument being, why look at a black-and-white show on a recently acquired color set? Sound enough logic in 1968, but no comfort to Brick, who'd lost his Island fix for that year.

So now there is Island Of Lost Souls on Blu-Ray, happily cleaned up to a best possible look. For all said effort and higher definition, I'd say this is worth our long wait, Souls maybe last of the truly great horror arrivals to DVD. Much of monsters we revisit amount to sentimental journeying and letdown that follows. I watch a Night Monster or Mummy's Ghost now for what they meant to me then. Not so with Island Of Lost Souls, a bell-ringer that if anything gains power since Channel 8 stay-upping. I've looked at Criterion's rendering twice so far, the encore with Greg Mank's fabulous audio commentary (he really is the master at doing these).

Island Of Lost Souls has always had an almost-contraband reputation in scare circles, heavy hand of local and sometimes (other) country censorship banning it altogether or reducing footage down to what more  resembled a short subject. Trade digging reveals Island coming late to horror's first big splurge. A month before release, Paramount  tried to distance it from chiller classification, according to Variety's Inside Stuff column: Admittedly a horror picture, Paramount is trying to find a selling angle for Island Of Lost Souls that will eliminate reference to it as such. With the cycle of blood and thunder deemed passed, studio is afraid Lost Souls will do a dive unless the creepy angle is eliminated.

The way to that objective was emphasis on what from summer 1932, and prior to Island's production, would be the film's top selling angle, "The Panther Woman." An entranced public's question became, Who Will She Be? You could call Para's a tacky dress rehearsal for filmdom's later quest for Scarlett O'Hara, as no fewer femmes sought this exotic part than would later queue for GWTW try-outs. It was maybe less the part than hope of cracking Hollywood and most valued prize to Depression-folk, a steady paycheck. Theatres across the country goosed attendance by parading contestants across stages and running so-called "screen-test" footage before their feature program.

The scheme was helped in no small way by Paramount's assigning demon publicist Arthur Mayer the job of ginning up Panther Woman excitement. Mayer was the genius of horror exploitation whose Rialto Theatre on Broadway would be opening site for nearly all mid-30's to 40's horror flix forthcoming. He'd write about the Panther Woman in his 1953 memoir, Merely Colossal, the promotion of which ended in a dog fall, according to Mayer, because "the picture proved a resounding dud." Winner Kathleen Burke and several runners-up were trade-tabbed "Panther Girls" or Women, depending on moods of the moment. Neither designation got respect. Lona Andre and Gail Patrick were used in Paramount's western, The Mysterious Rider, wherein, according to Variety, Miss Andre emerges a ga-ga, eye-rolling ingénue much in need of dramatic training. So far as industry wags were concerned, these Panther Girl also-runs were just so much counterfeit currency. They'd all be let go by Paramount, Kathleen Burke's pink slip issued December 1933 (though she'd be back, as a free lance, for a support part in Lives Of A Bengal Lancer).

Part Two of Island Of Lost Souls is HERE.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another pithy, fun, fact-filled monograph. Gawd, your stuff is a constant delight!!!

== Ted Newsom

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Grand Old Movies said...

Enjoyable post about a terrific film, one of the major early-shock classic. Your sad story about your friend Brick is quite heartrending: imagine having to forego Laughton, Lugosi, and a saronged Burke for---Robert Wagner...

11:49 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

In 1970 I made a sweetheart deal with MCA Universal 16mm which allowed me to run everything from their library at Rochdale College in Toronto.

The key to my program was W. C. Fields. He was hotter than hot. I double billed him with stuff I wanted to see which was nearly everything they had. I not only got to see the films I had been drooling over in the pages of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND I got to see them in what were brand new 16mm prints with live audiences that had paid to be entertained.

ISLAND OF LOST SOULS impressed me then and still does. Laughton's portrait of Dr. Moreau is easily more monstrous than anything he created.

Rochdale was unique. The government of Canada decided to allow there the use of hashish, LSD, marijuana, mescaline and peyote. It was 18 floors. The higher up we went, the higher we got. So those audiences were in a state of mind that really allowed them to experience these films at their fullest.

One of my favorite nights was when I ran the Universal Frankenstein films (all 8) one after the other. ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN was easily the scariest of the bunch because the horror was played straight while Bud and Lou kept the laughter in all the right places.

Another favorite night was running Walter Huston in LAW AND ORDER (written by Huston's son, John). Som,e rowdies walked in half way through. Wondering what to do I looked on the screen and saw Walter Huston dealing with some rowdies in Tombstone. He stuck his hands in his belt, his black coat behind them, sauntered over and said, "'Pears to me you boys are looking for trouble."

"That's a good line," I said to myself. I was wearing a black coat like his. I stuck my hands in my belt, sauntered over and said, "Pears to me you boys are looking for trouble."

On screen the rowdies said, "Yeah, hadda ya' goin' to do about it?"

In front of me the rowdies said the same, "Yeah, hadda ya' goin' to do about it?"

"I guess I'm going to do whatever I got to do," said Huston.

"I guess I'm going to do whatever I got to do," I said following my cue.

On screen the rowdies got out of Tombstone while my rowdies quickly left my screening space. I had to bite my cheeks to keep a straight face.

The Criterion Blu-Ray (which I bought at once) is a beautiful restoration with dialogue restored that was censored out.

I have been waiting for this one for a long time and am very happy to see it made available as even then on 16mm I could not see it.

The Marlon Brando version takes a lot of abuse. I think it undeserved.

1:10 PM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

At least you got to see it. No amount of rabbit-ear twisting on my portable TV brought in the Connecticut station that once aired "Island of Lost Souls." I had better luck with Paramount's "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," but by the third reel it was like watching a blizzard. I finally recorded "Island" off New York's PBS affiliate decades later and even in its battered form was worth the wait. Can't wait to see the DVD.

5:14 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Great post... can't wait for more. And I love Reg Hartt's story!

As to the all or nothing MCA packaging of pre-48 Paramounts, I'd be insane to question you, John, on ANY of this... but.

Back around 1964-65, a tiny UHF station in Hartford, CT began their broadcasting day every weekday afternoon around 3:00 by running a pre-48 Paramount with, I believe, no commercial interruptions. Twice! (if the film was less than an hour, three times!) Alan Ladd, Hope, Crosby or DeMille were nowhere to be seen, however. Some of these were B's from the late 30's - early 40's (LOVE IN BLOOM and THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL pop to mind), but most were extremely early talkies. THE KIBITZER, SEA LEGS, THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY were the sort of curios I'd see, not letting onto adults, much less my teenage peers that I really loved this stuff! COCOANUTS and INTERNATIONAL HOUSE were there, a couple years before being gathered up into MCA's Comedy Classic package. I particularly had my 14 year old eye out for anything that looked halfway like a horror film (DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON with Anna May Wong and DOUBLE DOOR were two goodies I found) All evidence would seem to suggest this was what then passed for the rock-bottom-one-notch-above-an-Indian-head-test-pattern-super-cheap movie package.

Which is where I first saw ISLAND OF LOST SOULS on a summer's afternoon many years ago. Twice,actually. Back to back. I was in horror movie heaven!

6:03 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

You wouldn't be the friend Brick was always talking about to Maggie and Big Daddy, would you?

6:38 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Different friend, Paul ... and he's not the same Brick Davis that Cagney played in "G-Men", although that is where I came up with the nick-name for him ...

Dave, sounds like your station's package was bigger than our Channel 8's. MCA did sell groups of less than the entire 700, but buyers were expected to take large quantity if they wanted a good rate. One station that bought the library as late as 1966 was KTLA, so "Lost Souls" would at least have been playing the Los Angeles market through the late 60's and maybe into the early 70's.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Had I known about Brick's ordeal when it happened, I would have reported Mr. Davis to Child Protective Services for cruel and inhumane punishment to a mere child.

2:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer on "Island Of Lost Souls" ...

There was such a seriousness about so many of the horror and fantasy films made during the early thirties. It wasn't that they were made without regard for entertainment or the box office, but they were always more than a way of saying, "Boo!" Behind the grotesque makeups was a rather grim metaphyics that found expression in the line given Henry Frankenstein, "In the name of God? Now I know what it is like to be God." The heros and protagonists were men who sought God-like powers through science or the occult, while they remained all too human in their frailties. It was a Faust-like vision and inevitably a prescription for tragedy.

In Island of Lost Souls, Dr. Moreau is rather like Frankenstein, meddling in matters of life and death. Through surgery and genetic manipulation, he wants to accelerate the evolution of animals, thus demonstrating the natural origins of human life and his own mastery of it. His surgery is called the "House of Pain," and not without reason, but the results are often unsuccessful, even by his standards. His "manimals" are neither beasts nor men, and if they have souls, they are indeed lost. Nevertheless, his face is often wreathed in a sly smile as he contemplates his cleverness, his remarks ornamented with a chuckle. His appetite for other things is also gratified. The discipline of the whip is a matter of sport for him, as though the scapel didn't afford enough pleasure, while he takes a salicious interest in mating a man with the woman he created. He hovers in the background, observing them while remaining unobserved. He is a voyeur and the man his surrogate in the performance of the sexual act.

For all his power on the island, however, he remains a man and not a god. When his control is threatened, he has one of his creatures commit murder and thus topples the very order he sought to preserve. The whip and even the House of Pain were effective in disciplining the manimals only because they represented the authority of the Law. When the Law is violated by the Law Giver, nothing can stand.

Island of Lost Souls is not without style, with its mist-shrouded settings, and the performances, particularly by Charles Laughton, are most effective. Laughton suggests the kind of sadism that runs with the possession of power and the almost gleeful delight that attends the realization of having it. Strong stuff though its scenes of horror are, however, stronger still is the sense of moral degeneracy that underlies them.

5:49 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

This is all just wonderful stuff, John, and a subject truly worthy of these fascinating and insightful comments.

I can only once more say that you should have been living out here in L.A. back in the 70's and 80's. The "Movies Till Dawn" nightly program, which ran on independent channel 5, then owned by Gene Autry's "Golden West Broadcasters" used Island as an ongoing,roatting staple of Paramounts, and what's more, when their lease was clearly running-out, they started showing this and a few others (Mae West, Ruggles of Red Gap, so-on) weekly, then almost every-other nightly! Their time-slot usually allowed for double-bills so the name they used was literal. You could have easily joined the rest of us who were bleary-eyed zombies the next day, but the hang-overs were usually worth it!

This is of course a major entry in the amazing early thirties horror field so I won't add to the learned statements printed here. Except for two-quick things: Charles Laughton gives a performance of absolute purity as he often did in this period before he became CHARLES LAUGHTON, and started carrying excess-Wellsian baggage around. I think that's what adds so much to the terror he imparts here. The other thing, and nobody's mentioned this as I suppose it's a minor point: Who else but Paramount would end a film this totally "outre", even possibly distasteful to audiences of that time, with a popular, romantic jazz-tune (almost totally oblivious to the story it's just presented?) (I wish I knew the name -- Tallulah Bankhead sings it in a Paramount On Parade short of that same time).

Glad to see someone else remembers "Double Door" (with stage actress Mary Morris, who later became a dramatic coach at Carnegie Tech, in Pennsylvania, where her most famous pupil, and ongoing friend, was 40's actor William Eythe) -- that was also a staple of Movies Till, as was another one I recall, "The Witching Hour" with Sir Guy Standing. All great stuff!

Thanks again, John.


10:05 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks for your always fascinating input, R.J., Los Angeles must have been paradise for vintage film fans in those days of all-night late shows and independent stations running features more or less through the day as well. Several you mentioned, "Double Door" and "The Witching Hour," are among rarities I STILL haven't seen.

5:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


r.j. mentioned the "popular, romantic jazz-tune (almost totally oblivious to the story it's just presented)" that Paramount used for the ending (cast list) of ISLAND OF LOST SOULS but couldn't recall its title. It was the current hit song "I Guess It Had to Be That Way" (Music - Sam Coslow, Lyrics - Arthur Johnston), also heard in the 1933 Bing Crosby musical TOO MUCH HARMONY.

And by the way, if the main titles music may have sounded familiar to anyone it was taken from the 1932 Paramount feature THUNDER BELOW.

Another case of Paramount choosing unexpected and unlikely end cast music was for their 1933 picture TERROR ABOARD. After over an hour of all kinds of murder and mayhem we get the silly catchy novelty tune "Two Buck Tim from Timbuctoo" (written by Edward Heyman, Al Goodhart and Al Hoffman) as our end cast music. The song was a minor hit in 1933 although never given a real performance in any other film that I know of.

6:39 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Rich, I want to say thanks for supplying this wonderful info on music used in "Lost Souls" and other early-30's Paramounts.

You are the outstanding expert in this area, and your input is much welcome and appreciated.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Thanks, R.J., for the extra info on Mary Morris and reminding me of that other oldie THE WITCHING HOUR! I haven't thought of that one in decades! And as to DOUBLE DOOR, I'm a little fuzzy recalling all the plot contrivances but I think I'll always remember the odd title credit sequence. Worth the price of admission alone!

11:23 AM  
Blogger mndean said...

Oh, Double Door is worth it all the way through, Mary Morris creeped me out right at the opening credits before she even said a word.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I could have sworn I had seen Island of Lost Souls way back when, but when I popped the Blu-ray in my player I hadn't watched more than 20 seconds before realizing I'd never set eyes on it in my life. Credit two readings (30 years apart) of H.G. Wells's book, coupled with Forry Ackerman's vivid descriptions in Famous Monsters for creating a false memory, I guess. Anyway, I've seen it now, and it still packs a helluva punch.

John, or somebody, check out the beast-man who advances on Charles Laughton in the jungle at the 1:06:13 mark; is that not John Carradine?

4:04 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Dear Mr. Finnegan:

Thanks for the fill-in. I won a silent myself, in that I was almost sure it was a Sam Coslow song. I've never seen "Too Much Harmony" so it serves me right! But yes, "I Guess It Had To Be That Way" was indeed the song I now recall Tallulah sang in that Paramount short. Of course, Paramount like any other studio at that time never overlooked a chance to plug their own product and that's fine, but it's just such a wonderfully "ditsy" way to end a film that's already maybe just a shade too "ditsy" for it's own good! In case I didn't make it clear, I love it and wouldn't have it any other way!

It was once again my dear Father who really turned me on to "Double Door" which he remembered as a young man, and as always his recommendation proved correct. The added info on Mary Morris came my way as a result of researching the life of William Eythe for an upcoming project. I was sent by a collector, a great deal of fascinating, behind the scenes insight on his Fox films as a result of a regular stream of correspondence he kept-up with her while she was teaching at Carnegie Tech. He would tell her in some detail about films he was currently doing, directors he had (good and bad) relationships with, and who he was seeing socially. He was afraid, he said, of ending up like Don Ameche, who he likened to a businessman approaching the day's work rather mechanically and going home. Playing a scene with him, he wrote Morris, "is like having sex with an empty Coke bottle".

All best. R.J.

8:06 AM  
Blogger Robolly said...

The only time I can recall seeing IoLS was once or maybe twice when I was a kid in the early 70s in Chicago. Being a regular viewer of the Universal horror flicks shown on Creature Features, I was a big fan of Lugosi, so I was excited to see the film because of that, but was disappointed by his rather small roll (though my friends and I would often quote his lines from the movie).

Now that I've got the DVD and finally had a chance to see the movie again, I'm very impressed!

3:44 AM  

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