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Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Manimals, Part 1 (originally published 6/01)

Ever since Darwin blurred what we had formerly imagined to be the bright line separating humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, storytellers have been playing around with the notion. To be sure, the image of a half-man, half-animal goes all the way back to ancient mythology, where we find the goat-footed Pan and the bull-headed Minotaur. Since the latter part of the 19th Century, however, the blending of human and animal in fantasy fiction has stood firmly in Darwin's shadow. The result is that stories about creatures that are part-human and part-animal no longer strike us as purely magical fantasy. Instead, we perceive them as the fantasy of exaggeration.

It is in this post-Darwinian tradition that the movies have spent their entire existence. Through the years, filmmakers have been consistently fascinated with the idea of mixing man with animal. Take, for example, the currently playing comedy film, "The Animal." In it, Rob Schneider plays a man who receives transplanted animal organs and finds his behavior altered accordingly. For a sampling of how earlier filmmakers have handled the premise of characters with one foot in the human race and the other foot (or paw, or fin) in the animal kingdom, look for these titles on home video.

"The Island of Lost Souls" (1933). At the height of the initial debates over Darwin's theories, H.G. Wells published a startling novel called "The Island of Dr. Moreau" (1896). It tells the story of a mad scientist, Dr. Moreau, who has moved his laboratory to a remote island in the South Seas where he can pursue undisturbed his horrific experiments. His ambition is to surgically alter animals so as to convert them into viable humans. He is, in a very real sense, playing God by trying to force evolution's hand with his scalpel rather than letting it take its natural course. But Moreau is a clumsy god, still learning his trade, and the pathetic creatures he has created, although walking upright and endowed with speech, are never far from their animal origins. "The Island of Lost Souls" is the first of many film versions of this creepy tale, and for my money it remains the best. Although the script takes great liberties with Wells's narrative, Charles Laughton shines in the role of Moreau, capturing his megalomania as no one else ever has.

"Captive Wild Woman" (1943). By the early 1940s, Universal Pictures had established itself as Hollywood's horror film headquarters with a roster of successful monsters including Frankenstein's Monster, Dracula, the Mummy, and the Wolf Man. They did not, however, have an ongoing female horror character. "Captive Wild Woman" was intended to correct that omission. John Carradine plays a mad scientist who succeeds in transforming a female orangutan into a human being. As a woman, the former ape is given the name Paula Dupree (played by Acquanetta, who enhanced her exotic image by using only the one name). Paula finds work with the circus as an animal trainer. She's exceptionally good at it, especially since she seems able to communicate with the animals on some primal level. The trouble begins when Paula develops an emotional attachment to a fellow trainer. Unfortunately, he's already spoken for. When Paula sees him embracing his fiancee, it becomes clear that the beast in her has remained all too close to the surface. It's one thing to turn catty in the throes of jealousy, but this woman just goes ape.

"The Incredible Mr. Limpet" (1964). In this lightweight but amusing fantasy, Don Knotts once again plays the mousey pipsqueak character on which he practically held a patent during the 1960s. Here he is a fish-fancying bean counter who wants to do his part in the Second World War, but who has been rejected by the Navy. When he accidentally falls off the Coney Island Pier, he finds himself magically transformed into a fish. He retains his human brain and power of speech, however, and is therefore able to help the Navy track enemy naval vessels. This film is not currently available for purchase on video, but you'll find plenty of used copies available for rent.

The zoological smorgasbord is just beginning. Next week we'll look at still more cinematic tales of humans who walk on the wild side.

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