Throwback Thursday: The Natives are Restless on the Island of Lost Souls

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

It’s all about the Panther Woman.

There’ve been a few adaptations of H. G. Wells’s novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, but in my opinion the best one is the first full-length feature from 1932: Island of Lost Souls. And the majority of that opinion is based on Kathleen Burke’s portrayal of Lota the Panther Woman.

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Poster art for Island of Lost Souls. Kathleen Burke’s character got placement over the actual actress, whose name doesn’t even appear.

While not hewing incredibly close to the original novel, the plot is roughly the same. A man named Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is shipwrecked and left on an island where the owner is one Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), who has been experimenting on animals to make them more human. Eventually the beast men revolt and nature takes its course. The movie does leave out a great denouement from the novel, in the process missing the allusion that all of humanity is one step away from reverting to barbarism and our bestial nature. However it adds an interesting love triangle between the shipwrecked Parker, his fiancée, Ruth (Leila Hyams), and Lota.

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Parker protecting everyone.

Kathleen Burke skillfully portrays a character who is at once (or in turns) innocent, primal, and a young woman falling in love. There’s a great scene in which Lota and Edward kiss, and she is so excited by this new experience that her claws accidentally scrape his back. He is frightened and horrified and says as much, but in Lota it’s all in her reaction—she, too, is frightened and horrified, but for entirely different reasons. Her body language in this scene (and others) really stands out, giving an amazing balance that is usually lacking from female roles of this time period as they were written. Burke’s role is sparsely written here as well, but she adds a nuance that was probably not expected of her, and it adds a much needed air of reality to this classic “monster” movie.

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Kathleen Burke as Lota.

And really, this was the pinnacle of the monster-movie craze, with Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Invisible Man all being released between 1931 and 1933. Island of Lost Souls fell smack dab in the middle of that and tried to cash in on the craze. It took a lot of inspiration from the atmosphere of those films—along with Dracula himself, Bela Lugosi, to play the animal men’s leader—and set the scene really well for King Kong, which would be released a year later. If you’re at all a fan of the classic monster movies from Universal, then Island of Lost Souls, from Paramount, should definitely be added to your list.

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Dr. Moreau tries to get some alone time with Lota.

Charles Laughton chews the scenery well as the cold-hearted, all-in-the-name-of-science Dr. Moreau, but it’s the humanity at the heart of the “monsters” that made all of these films so popular. In almost all of them, the monsters tend to be the ones the audience is led to empathize with in the end, and it’s usually a human agent who is the true evil.

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Directing an animal man to get Lota.

Surprisingly, the film was originally banned by the Board of British Film Censors, but probably not for the reasons you think. You’d think it might have been the man-on-panther-woman action, but it was actually due to scenes of vivisection that appeared in the original cut. The film was edited heavily to tone that down, but in today’s society, even with some of those scenes edited back in, you’ve probably seen worse in a science textbook, or even on the news. It was re-edited in 2011 for the Criterion Collection and earned itself a PG rating.

Island of Lost Souls is a quick 71 minutes of film, but you might find yourself getting a little bored during the Ruth scenes, and that is not a fault of Hyams but of the era (and some might argue that the more things change on that front, the more they stay the same). Otherwise, the movie unfolds at a brisk pace and has lots of sights to show you. Consider it recommended as a strong film, and an interesting example of what studios other than Universal were doing in the 1930s to capture that monster magic.

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Just focus on the book, Parker.

This film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion. It is currently available via Netflix, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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