I remembered that the horror magazine Shivers (issue 25 and 26) ran a nice two part article on all of the various versions of Island of Dr Moreau in the run up to the release of the ill-fated 1996 version. Presumably some of the material that follows is going to get covered in Mank's commentary. The following extract was written by Jonathan Rigby and I hope it will be OK to quote the parts relating to Island of Lost Souls here:
Moreau himself first appeared in 1932. Despite its glamorous and sophisticated output, Paramount was close to bankruptcy, so Waldemar Young and Phillip Wylie were assigned to adapt Wells's novel - recrhristened Island of Lost Souls - with an eye to its most expoitable 'box office' ingredients, inventing new ones if necessary. (Wylie was a science fiction writer himself, incidentally; one of his books, which was later filmed, had the somewhat Wellsian title When Worlds Collide). Wylie and Young's chief innovation was a hefty injection of sex, centred on a love contest for the affections of the hero (here called Edward Parker, the adaptors fighting shy of the curious name 'Prendick').
Parker's blonde fiancee from the mainland was played by Leila Hyams, who had recently starred in Freaks, but in order to cast the role of dark and sultry Lota, Paramount decided to mount a nationwide 'Panther Woman' contest which very quickly grabbed headlines across the country. Out of some 60,000 entrants the finalists were Lonna Andre, Kathleen Burke, Gail Patrick and Verna Hillie, and on 29th September Paramount's panel - which included Cecil B. DeMille, Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian - awarded the role to Kathleen Burke.
Burke, who had turned 19 some three weeks earlier, was a fashion model and radio actress in Chicago. To emphasise the fairy-tale nature of the contest, however, Paramount put it about that she was a dentist's assistant. The filming was an uncomfortable experience for her; her skimpy costume was ill-adapted to the icy jungle set and her photographer boyfriend, Glen Rardin, made a nuisance of himself at the studio. The former footballer tried at one point to beat up the diminuitive director Erle C. Kenton, and was summarily ordered back to Chicago by studio executives.
Responses to Burke's feline performance were mixed. "The extra billing given Kathleen Burke as Lota, Panther Woman, is strictly for the marquee", Variety maintained. "Girl is too much like a girl to even suggest transformation from a beast. Her part is little more than a White Cargo bit". "Never having encountered a Panther Woman", retorted the New York Herald Tribune, "I cannot say how accurate Miss Kathleen Burke's impersonation is, but it must be said for her portrayal of the wistful half-woman that it possesses a certain bewildered, sad-eyed quality which manages to be rather touching."
Though a tragic figure, Lota is at the heart of Young and Wylie's most audacious and most deliriously offensive twist on Wells's evolutionary theme. Moreau's masterpiece, in Gregory Manks' phrase, "looks like a 1932 hooker all dressed up for a 'John' with a South Seas fetish", and is intended by her creator as a mate for the strapping young hero. The whole film is predicated on this startlingly sleazy premise and for the role of the new-look lascivious Moreau, bulging with barely-concealed perversions, Paramount couldn't possibly have made a beter choice than the British import, Charles Laughton.
Scarborough born Laughton, only six years out of RADA, had come to Hollywood earlier in the year after a string of dazzling performances on the London stage - most of them dazzlingly unpleasant. One in particular - the title role in Hugh Walpole's sadistic shocker A Man with Red Hair - seems to have been a precursor of his sweetly reasonable but deeply twisted Moreau. "His entrance", wrote Theatre World, "is like the first whiff of poison gas we were once familiar with . A thing so evil and malignant that it can paralyse one's power to combat it by its apparent harmlessness". The Observer was more succinct, "A very gargoyle of obscene desires". It was for this play too, that Laughton had perfected his expertise - reprised later for Moreau - with a bullwhip, practising for hours under the arches of Charing Cross somewhat to the revulsion of his mercurial wife, Elsa Lanchester.
[For Moreau] Laughton borrowed a doctor's appearance, notably his achor-shaped goatee, from an innocuous optician whom he'd visited while suffering from a minor eye infection, and about whom he had made mental notes while perusing his eye chart.
Laughton found the whole experience of filming Island of Lost Souls utterly loathsome. An animal lover, he was revolted by the vivisection details and nauseated by the unit's choppy steamer trip to Catalina Island, off the California coast. A host of caged animals were on board, whining and vomiting incessantly. When the beast-men extras were required to run past the bars and prod them, a tiger lashed out and tore one man's arm from its socket. Surrounded aboard ship by animals and in the studio by Wally Westmore's hirsute make-up creations, Laughton developed a hair phobia, even claiming to have found hair in his food. Elsa Lanchester reported that her husband never visited a zoo again.
Laughton was also disconcerted by his director Kenton, whom he considered a martinet and who insisted on demonstrating everything for the actors while dressed in a white suit and hat similar to Moreau's. He even presumed to show Laughton how to use the whip. Kenton had begun as a comic with Mack Sennett's troupe and would later direct vehicles for WC Fields and Abbott and Costello, as well as three entries in Universal's 1940s horror cycle. Before entering films he had been an animal exhibitor in vaudeville, so he was presumably unfazed by the animal-infested sea voyage. In fact, he and the cinematographer Karl Struss were thrilled when the ship was enveloped in thick fog and began impromptu filming there and then.
For Bela Lugosi, who played the small but striking role of The Sayer of the Law, the film must have been a chastening experience. Earlier in the year had had appeared in two 'poverty-row' productions, White Zombie and Chandu the Magician, as well as starring at Hollywood's Carthay Circle Theater in the play Murdered Alive, one of a number of sources for the Warner Brothers thriller Mystery of the Wax Museum. Now, barely a year after his refusal of the role of Frankenstein's monster on account of the heavy makeup involved, he found it expedient to submit to playing the leader of the Beast Men from under a face-full of fur. He's still unmistakeably Bela Lugosi, however; his over-ripe vocal technique actually benefits the role, and is even weirdly moving when he wails "His is the House of Pa-a-a-in!"
Among the other Beast Men were future stars Alan Ladd, Randolph Scott and Buster Crabbe. Wally Westmore's creatures are by turns comical, pitiful and menacing, and the climactic scene in which they drag their whip-cracking white-suited oppressor to an appalling death in his own 'House of Pain' is nightmarishly unpleasant. It must also have had curious resonances for Depression-era audiences. The shot in which, at a sign from Lugosi, they smash Moreau's instrument cases, and taloned hands reach hungrily for the glimmering scalpels within, is not easily forgotten.
The film premiered at New York City's Rialto Theater on 11th January 1933. Paramount's ad campaign for its 'surging rhapsody of terror' was suitably rabid: 'He took them from his mad menagerie...Nights were horrible with the screams of tortured beasts...From his House of Pain they came re-made...Pig-men...Wolf-women...Thoughtful Human Apes and his masterpiece - the Panther Woman throbbing to the hot flush of love!'.
The New York Herald Tribune was fulsome in its praise for Laughton - "More and more does it seem that Mr Laughton was wasting his time on the stage; that he should have been rescuing motion pictures for us long before this" - and noted that "with most of the Neanderthal extras in Hollywood made up to represent some of Boris Karloff's wilder dreams, the new film at the Rialto has a certain nightmare or, more accurately, hangover quality..."
The New York Times claimed that "There is a suggestion of Frankenstein and also something akin to Emperor Jones about this ghastly affair...Although the attempt to horrify is not accomplished with any marked degree of subtlety, there is no denying that some of the scenes are ingeniously fashioned...". Variety predicted (erroneously as it turned out) that "Paramount will make money with this picture, and so will every exhibitor...While the action is not designed to appeal to other than the credulous, there are undoubtedly some horror sequences which are unrivaled...".
An enthusiastic reception in America was followed, two months later, by the film's passage to Britain....
The ninth item in Film Weekly's 'News Snapshots' section of 31st March 1933 brought sad tidings for British Horror fans: the first screen adaptation of HG Wells novel was to go the way of MGM's Freaks, another victim of the British censor's distate for Horror films. It was also banished from New Zealand and several midwestern states in the USA. Variety had perhaps sounded the warning bell when it observed, back in January, that "Literally the [film's] proper title is Island of Lost Freaks. It is decidedly a freak picture...".
Faced with the censor's complaint that the film's theme was 'against nature', Elsa Lanchester's tart response was "So is Mickey Mouse". The child of radical Marxist parents, she was well acquainted with London's socialist aristocracy. So much so that in 1928 HG Wells - royalty in that circle - had written two silent 'shorts' for her, Bluebottles and Day Dreams in which her husband Charles Laughton had made his first, fleeting film appearances. But five years on, no one was better pleased with the censor's decision than Wells himself, who considered Island of Lost Souls a vulgarisation of his novel, being particularly offended by Laughton's portrait of Moreau.
Thanks to Eros Films, Laughton's performance finally appeared on British screens, with an 'X' certificate, in November 1958. The Monthly Film Bulletin observed that "In spite of its age, it compares favourably with most of the horror films currently issued...Some parts are colourlessly acted, and stock situations creep in, but the impression of a spine chilling and truly 'fantastic' reality remains to stamp this as a first class Horror film."