His Wicked, Wicked Ways: Lionel Atwill, Murders In The Zoo, and The Depraved Aesthetic

In Paramount’s 1933 horror film Murders in the Zoo, Lionel Atwill sews a man’s lips shut, poisons a rival with snake venom, and throws his wife to the crocodiles.  For us Lionel fans, it’s prime Atwilliana–not to be missed.  For those of you who don’t know, or haven’t yet seen, an Atwill film–what are you waiting for?

One of the great horror stars of the 1930s and 40s, British-born Lionel Atwill is today best known to connoisseurs of golden-age Hollywood horror.  He really did stand apart.  “Few villains in the history of films,” Michael Pitts writes in Horror Film Stars, “have been as suave as Atwill.”  Suave is the word; there was nothing grungy about Lionel.  His clothing, diction, hair–even his way of holding a cigarette–were impeccable.  If he looked, as he often did in his early films, as if he had stepped off a stage drawing room, perhaps because, in a manner of speaking, he had. According to Gregory Mank in his invaluable book, Hollywood’s Maddest Doctors, Atwill was “second only to John Barrymore as the most acclaimed Great Actor of Broadway in the 1920s.”  Atwill definitely had acting chops.  He was, notes Pitts, “an established stage star of the first magnitude,” famed for his interpretations of Ibsen and Shaw, a celebrated matinee idol who acted with the likes of Nazimova, Katherine Cornell, and Helen Hayes; his “1920 Broadway portrayal of Deburau,” writes Mank, “ranked as one of the legendary stage performances of the decade.”  Such a background is an unusual pedigree for a horror star, but then, Lionel’s career was unusual in many ways.

However, what endears Atwill to his fans is not just his acting talent, which was considerable, nor his polished, aristocratic manner, which gave him a constant air of amused superiority, even when enmeshed (as he frequently was) in deeds of the most doubtful morality.  It’s a paradoxical quality that we can only call a refined, leering perversity.  “The leer was the thing,” says Mank; Atwill “seemed to get a kinky kick out of his more aberrant villains,” appearing “to have a strange, unnerving attraction to the wicked and the bizarre.”  Most horror stars are memorable because they express qualities opposed to horror:  Karloff conveyed a dark, poetic pathos; Lugosi possessed a loony grandeur; even the junior Chaney aspired to a crude, inarticulate sorrow.  But Lionel was simply depraved.  Mank describes him as “the thinking man’s horror star, keen to suggest all variety of sex and depravity.”  As the late William K. Everson noted, in Classics of the Horror Film, Lionel could “suggest general tendencies towards unspecified depravities which his scripts never intended.”

Our American Heritage dictionary defines ‘depraved’ as “morally corrupt; debased.”  And certainly MITZ has its share of debased depravities; its plot, per Everson, is “merely an excuse for a series of horrors.”  These are perpetrated by its main character, the rich, haughty big-game hunter Eric Gorman (Atwill), who collects wild animals for the title zoo, and who goes to extreme lengths to eliminate his unfaithful wife’s paramours.  The wife is played by luscious Kathleen Burke, looking far more soigné than in her Panther Woman get-up from Island of Lost Souls, Paramount’s pre-Code horror shocker of a year earlier; based loosely on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, it contained, like MITZ, levels of sex, perversion, and violence that would not be allowed after the 1934 Breen office crackdown.  (See our earlier entry on The Sign of the Cross for more on pre-Code cinema.)  Pre-Code horror looks tame in contrast to what Everson calls “the physically repellent obsession with gore and clinical detail” of today’s gruesome cinematic offerings; but then, film horror today is often a matter of recurring, mechanical jolts, meant to prod equally mechanical yelps from mind-numbed audiences too jaded to react to anything else.  There was a measure of deliberation in pre-Code horror.  It wasn’t a mass assault on viewer senses, but more an apprehensive build-up toward a nasty climax.  Look at MGM’s notorious Freaks (1932), featuring real circus-sideshow performers in a story of humiliation and revenge; or Murders in the Rue Morgue (also 1932), with scenes of a dead woman stuffed up a chimney and the (truly ghastly) torture of a prostitute, and you’ll have a pretty clear notion of depravity, specified or not.

A sterling (as it were) example of this nasty-climax build-up, and of depraved behavior in general, can be seen in MITZ’s memorable opening scene.  Everyone who writes about MITZ mentions this scene; it’s not only horrific, it captures Atwill’s essence in what Mank calls his “definitive performance.”  After the credits, we open on a tropical tableau, where members of a hunting expedition are forcibly holding another man on the ground. Straddling this prone man is Gorman, his arm moving, his face focused; he happens to be–sewing.  It turns out he was hunting more than game.  “A Mongolian Prince taught me this, Taylor,” Gorman remarks, in the manner of one dispensing embroidery tips to the local sewing circle.  “An ingenious device for the right occasion.”  Snapping the thread, he continues, “You’ll never lie to a friend again–and you’ll never kiss another man’s wife.”  It’s only after Gorman leaves that the full impact of what he was doing hits us–Taylor (his name might be a pun?) rises up and staggers to the camera for a close-up, revealing that his lips have been neatly stitched together.  The revelation is definitely a shocker, but what gives the scene that extra frisson is Lionel’s particular handling of it.  Another actor would have played the scene with conventional menace; but it’s Lionel’s urbane matter-of-factness, his intentness on his task (Ernest Thesiger’s phrase, “stitchin’ bitch,” comes irresistibly to mind) rather than on his victim, that makes the action at once hilarious and horrible (note how precise the stitches are).  The depravity comes through in just that slight tilt in emphasis–the immersion in the doing of something dreadful, and doing it well.

Such elegantly brutal touches are evident in Atwill’s performance throughout MITZ, as, in the following scene, when Gorman greets his wife with a big smack on her lips.  Told that Taylor (a would-be lover) has decided to leave their expedition, she anxiously asks, “What did he say?”; to which, “with the sardonic aplomb of which he was a master” as The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies describes it, Lionel replies, “He didn’t say anything.”  That tiny pause Atwill takes before pronouncing these words is a maliciously witty stroke, signaling both character and actor’s gleeful relish of the joke on Gorman’s victim.  (The Web site And You Call Yourself A Scientist! puts it best: “It is, truly, moments like that that can make someone…the fan of a particular actor, for life.”)  The climax, in more ways than one, comes late in the film when Gorman, whose dispatch of another victim has stimulated him to the point of sexual arousal, starts groping his wife.  “Now you’re going to make love to me,” the lady complains, as Lionel fondles her shoulder, paws her torso, and practically clutches her breast, his face distorted by its characteristic leer.  It’s a funny but disturbing moment, mainly because Lionel looks to be vicariously enjoying Gorman’s sadism.  “One of the most remarkably vile performances of the era,” Mank calls it, without exaggeration.  No wonder the New York Times, in its MITZ review, described Atwill’s acting as “almost too convincing for comfort.”

More than anything, it’s Atwill who makes MITZ watchable today; as Everson notes, the film is “a showcase for [his] bravura nastiness.”  Indeed, when Atwill isn’t around the movie degenerates into the type of lame suspense comedy that was inflicted onto the plots of early-1930s horror, here via the antics of Charlie Ruggles as a tippling, animal-phobic zoo press agent.  The fault isn’t entirely Hollywood’s; horror and mystery plays of 1920s Broadway, such as The Cat and the Canary, frequently included that most dismal of characters, the comic servant, as a wink to the audience not to take everything too seriously. Hollywood continued the tradition, injecting shrieking maids and wise-cracking reporters into the bloodcurdling goings-on of Dracula, Mark of the Vampire, The Vampire Bat, Doctor X, and The Mystery of the Wax Museum.  The last three also starred Atwill as that most hoary of horror standards, the mad scientist/inventor (he’s a mad artist in Wax Museum, but that can be considered in the insane creator category), during a remarkably busy year (1932-1933) for him.  Atwill started making films during the silent era, and his first talkie was a paternal-love melodrama adapted from one of his plays; he would continue to appear in ‘straight,’ non-horror films (e.g., Captain Blood, The Great Garrick, To Be or Not To Be, in a very funny turn as a blustery ham actor) throughout his career.  But it’s in horror that he found his niche, “abandon[ing] matinee idol glory on Broadway,” writes Mank, “in favor of whipping, shooting, torturing and transplanting in the cinema.”

Horror seems to have stirred something in Atwill’s actorly depths.  He always managed to infuse his performances with deliciously perverse hints, “committing atrocities,” wrote David Bryant and George Rehraus in a 1973 Film Fan Monthly appraisal, “with a deft touch.”  Mank notes how Atwill in the title role in Doctor X seems erotically aroused when watching another character in the film remove an artificial limb.  It says something about Atwill’s meticulousness as an actor that he could bring this deftness to even seemingly mundane actions.  In his most famous part, that of the one-armed police inspector in Son of Frankenstein (1939), Atwill’s up-and-down cranking of the inspector’s mechanical arm becomes a  mini-study in obsessive-compulsiveness, each crank calculated to an exact angle.  Even in Atwill’s cheap B programmers churned out by Universal in the early 1940s, such as The Mad Doctor of Market Street or Man-Made Monster, viewers can always catch moments of that “wonderfully wicked flamboyance,” as Mank calls it, when the actor, with that distinctively crazed Atwillian gleam in his eye, seems transformed into a fleshy embodiment of the Imp of the Perverse.

If audiences responded to Atwill’s onscreen depravity, they may have sensed that, like the Times reviewer, it really was too close to home.  Hollywood publicity, says Mank, portrayed him as “an aristocratic voluptuary, reveling in the wicked fame his screen infamy won him.”  However, not all was winks and nods to a credulous public.  Rumors circulated about Lionel’s off-screen, real-life perversities, including cross-dressing, sado-masochism, and group sex. Atwill had a distinct taste for the fleshpots, and his marriage to an heiress, and the wealth and social prestige it brought him, seemed to stimulate these pursuits. Then, in 1941, the lid blew off.  Hauled into court for questioning about an orgy at his Hollywood home, where an underage girl was in attendance and during which pornographic movies were screened, Atwill lied under oath (“like a gentleman,” he said, to protect his friends) and was later convicted of perjury. Per Mank, the actor was now perceived as a “self-confessed degenerate” by the film colony, which ostracized him.  Atwill bravely continued his career; Universal still gave him work in the ‘monster-rally’ movies it produced in the mid-1940s, and he also acted in poverty-row efforts and low-budget serials not worthy of his talent; but he always brought a scrupulous professionalism and occasionally even the old Atwillian flair to these roles.  He continued acting almost literally to the end, dying of throat cancer in 1946, shortly after completing a scene in a serial.   His ashes were stored for decades at the Chapel of the Pines Crematory, and reportedly were only recently claimed by a family member.


A.D.S., “An Imaginative Killer,” The New York Times, April 3, 1933

And You Call Yourself a Scientist! Web site, http://www.aycyas.com/murdersinthezoo/htm

Bryan, David and Rehraus, George, “Lionel Atwill,” Film Fan Monthly, Jan. 1973, #139

Everson, William K., Classics of the Horror Film, Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1974

Mank, Gregory William, Hollywood’s Maddest Doctors: Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive, George Zucco, Baltimore, MD: Midnight Marquee, 1998

——, “Lionel Atwill 1885-1946,” Films in Review, March 1977, Vol 28, #3

Milne, Tom, and Willemen, Paul, The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies, New York: Harper & Row, 1986

Official Lionel Atwill Web Site & Fan Club, http://lionelatwillfanclub.tripod.com

Pitts, Michael R., Horror Film Stars, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1991

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