Tuesday, 31 March 2015
The Pre-Code Blogathon: Island of Lost Souls (1932)
The Pre-Code Era overlapped with another historic period in American film history. It was on February 12 1931 that Universal premiered its film Dracula in New York City. This marked the beginning of what can be considered the "Golden Age of Horror Films", an era that can perhaps be ended with the release of Dracula's Daughter in 1936. Given the Golden Age of Horror overlapped with the Pre-Code Era, it should come as no surprise that many of the horror films released in the period were much more intense in terms of content than what would follow. Indeed, while Universal's well known horror films only occasionally overstepped the bounds of what was considered acceptable at the time by many, other studios would push the envelope with regards to content. This was particularly true of the horror films produced by Paramount. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) ran afoul of state and local censorship boards even upon its initial release. Paramount's 1932 horror film Island of Lost Souls would as well. In fact, in the end it could well have been the most controversial Pre-Code horror film besides MGM's Freaks (1932).
Island of Lost Souls was an adaptation of the 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells. The novel centred on an Englishman named Edward Prendick and his time on an island on which the scientist Dr. Moreau was intent on creating human beings out of animals. While Island of Lost Souls would retain the idea of a traveller and his encounter with Dr. Moreau (played by Charles Laughton in the film), it would also take a few liberties with the source material. The least of these may have been the change in the protagonist's name, from Edward Prendick to Edward Parker (played by Richard Arlen). A more substantial change was the addition of two new characters. One was a traditional, Hollywood love interest in the form of Parker's fiancée Ruth Thomas (played by Leilia Hyams). The other was a more complex character, that of Lota the Panther Woman (played by Kathleen Burke). Island of Lost Souls departed from the novel in other ways as well, including introducing sex into the mix as well as having a traditional, Hollywood ending rather than the slightly more complicated end of the novel.
Despite being based on a best selling novel by H. G. Wells, Island of Lost Souls faced opposition even before production on the film began. The Studio Relations Committee (the MPPDA's body charged with implementing the Code at the time) expressed a great deal of concern with regards to Island of Lost Souls. They warned that the idea of crossing humans with animals would be a risk and even advised that the film "..should be abandoned." They also expressed some concern over Dr. Moreau's line, "Mr. Parker, do you know what it means to feel like God?" Paramount ignored the the Studio Relations Committee and went forward with the film. And, as history shows, Dr. Moreau's famous line remained in the film.
Even by today's standards it is easy to see why the Studio Relations Committee would have objections to the film. Dr. Moreau doesn't only want to make humans out of animals, but it is fairly clear that he wants the hero Parker to mate with Lota the Panther Woman. One of Dr. Moreau's "beast men", Ouran also tries to assault Parker's fiancée Ruth. Dr. Moreau performs his operations without anaesthetics and makes free use of a whip against his "beast men". One can easily see why the Studio Relations Committee would have cause for concern.
Indeed, it should come as no surprise that Island of Lost Souls faced a good deal of censorship across the United States upon its initial release. The Kansas State Board of Review passed the film only after extensive edits were made to it. Virginia's state censorship board rejected it twice before Paramount threatened them with a lawsuit. The Virginia state board then passed Island of Lost Souls, although it was with several cuts to the film. Of course, Paramount could not threaten legal action every time Island of Lost Souls faced censorship, as they would have soon found themselves buried in legal bills. Fourteen different regional censorship boards outright rejected Island of Lost Souls.
The film would also face censorship outside the United States. In the United Kingdom the British Board of Film Censors banned Island of Lost Souls outright. It would not be seen in Britain until 1958. Even then it was only after several cuts had been made to the film and it was given an "X" Certificate (meaning no one under 16 could see the film). Several other countries also banned the film, including Denmark, Germany, Holland, Hungary, India, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Given the reception it received upon its initial release, it should come as no surprise that Island of Lost Souls suffered greatly once the Code started being more strenuously enforced in 1934. Indeed, when Paramount wanted to re-release the film in 1935, the Production Code Administration rejected it entirely. When Paramount wanted to reissue the film in 1941, the Production Code Administration only allowed it after any references Dr. Moreau made comparing himself to God were cut, as well as the doctor's line "Man is the present climax of a long process of organic revolution. All animal life is tending to human form," and any reference to Dr. Moreau's intention for Parker to mate with Lota the Panther Woman. Sadly, Island of Lost Souls would not be entirely restored until 2011.
While Island of Lost Souls is regarded as a classic by many today, H. G. Wells himself disliked the film, and referred to it s "...a travesty of his intent..." He apparently felt that it was a vulgarisation of his work that emphasised horror and sadism, and that it entirely missed the more subtle philosophical underpinnings of his novel The Island of Doctor Moreau.
While it is true that Charles Laughton's Dr. Moreau is more a sadistic megalomaniac than the misguided idealist of the novel, I personally think H. G. Wells was wrong. I think Island of Lost Souls actually does address the philosophical themes of The Island of Dr. Moreau and does them quite well. Certainly the theme of the folly of human interference with nature, a theme that can also be found in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is present in the film as it is in the novel. The film also does a fairly good job of addressing the theme of man's responsibility towards his fellow living beings that is found in novel. Arguably, the film does an even better job of addressing the themes of cruelty and pain than the novel does. While Island of Lost Souls was certainly shocking for its day and is still disturbing even today, it was never a mere horror film, even though it seems H. G. Wells thought so. In fact, much of the reason Island of Lost Souls retains its power to disturb is that it addresses themes that people usually do not like to think about.
Not surprising given the censorship it faced, Island of Lost Souls did not particularly do well at the box office upon its initial release. Fortunately over the years it would develop a following until such time as many regard it as a classic. Despite two more adaptations having been made (both titled The Island of Dr. Moreau--one released in 1977 and another in 1996), Island of Lost Souls is still considered by many to be the best film adaptation of the novel. Island of Lost Souls has also had a lasting influence. It has been referenced in everything from Sullivan's Travels to The Simpsons. Rock bands from Devo to Oingo Boingo have taken inspiration from the film. While Island of Lost Souls faced a good deal of censorship and did not do particularly well at the box office upon its initial release, it has since become regarded by many as one of the all time great horror films of the Thirties.