1933, USA, A. Edward Sutherland
I love pre-code films. In 1934 the Hayes Code went into strict effect, cracking down on all the sex, drugs and rock and roll that was going on in film. Suddenly married couples in the movies were sleeping in twin beds with one foot firmly planted on the floor. That’s why the first The Thin Man movie is such a hilarious drunken party and subsequent films in the series get progressively more on the wagon.
Up until that point, films of the early ’30s were often wild and racy, and sometimes shocking, even by today’s standards. Good examples of the era are Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and early-career films by bad girl Barbara Stanwyck, Illicit (1931) and Baby Face (1933), which crowned her the queen of pre-code Hollywood.
The entertaining thriller Murders in the Zoo falls in this group, with an opening sequence involving a jealous big game hunter sewing a man’s mouth closed. “You’ll never kiss another man’s wife” he says as he finishes his handiwork, climbs aboard an elephant and rides off, leaving him to the jungle lions.
Transporting a menagerie of wild animals to the Municipal Zoo, the adventurer (creepily portrayed by Lionel Atwill) uses a fundraising dinner at the zoo (in the carnivore house, no less) as the set-up for the murder of his wife’s lover. When his wife confronts him, (“Surely you’re not suggesting that I kept an eight-foot-long snake in my trousers during dinner…”) he coolly dispatches her to the crocodile pit. Even though the film commits the silly, but classic, murder mystery faux pas–Meet me in the lab in the dead of night Mr. Gorman, I’m going to accuse you of a double murder without the benefit of notifying the police–it’s satisfying, with a couple of nice twists at the end.
Here’s the Gist: You gotta love a movie where the murderer carries a poisonous snake head around in his pocket. [***]