(director/writer: Rowland V. Lee; screenwriters: from the book by Melville Baker & John Kirkland/Louise Long/Dan Totheroh; cinematographer: Lee Garmes; editor: Harold D. Schuster; music: Louis de Francisco; cast: Loretta Young (Eve), Gene Raymond (Zani), O.P. Heggie (Dr. Grunbaum), Wally Albright (Paul Vandor), Paul Fix (Heinie), Murray Kinnell (Garbosh), Ruth Warren (Katrina), Lucille Ward (Miss Murst), Niles Welch (Mr. Vandor), Russell Powell (Toski); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Jesse Lasky; 20th Century Fox; 1933)

“Think Blake’s Songs of Innocence.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Rowland V. Lee does a fine job directing and co-writing this whimsical pleaser that is adapted from a book by Melville Baker and John Kirkland. It’s an oddball fantasy-like romantic drama set in the world famous Budapest zoo (Douanier Rousseau), involving three innocents seeking refuge in the zoo after closing hours and being searched for by the authorities. Lee Garmes’ photography in black and white is magically luminous and gives the film a delicate look that is most appropriate for this story about characters who are too child-like for the outside world.

Zani (Gene Raymond) was raised in the zoo when his mom died at an early age and his zoo keeper father was gored to death by an animal. The kindly zoo manager and veterinarian Dr. Grunbaum (O.P. Heggie) has looked after Zani all these years and now employs him, pleased that he understands the animals so well. But Zani has this thing about women wearing fur coats which he says needlessly causes animals to be killed, and he steals a zoo visitor’s fox stole after being warned in a prior incident by Dr. Grunbaum that if does so again he will be fired. Grunbaum has no choice but to tell Zani’s sourpuss foe, the assistant caretaker Garbosh, to find Zani and hand him over to the police. Zani is an animal rights activist before there was such an animal. Eve (Loretta Young) is a very pretty orphan girl who is about to turn 18 and be turned over as an indentured servant (which means her adult life will also be slave-like). If she runs away she’s subject to arrest. Under the charge of Miss Murst, the orphanage’s mean-spirited head mistress, the girls have been visiting the zoo once a week for the last 10 weeks. In that time, Zani has flirted with Eve and urged her to run away and be with him. On this occasion she does, and that has Miss Murst notify the zoo officials. To complicate things further a playful little rich boy Paul Vandor is visiting the zoo with his nasty governess Katrina and when he can’t get a ride on the elephant Rajah because the zoo is closing, he runs away and hides in the zoo. Paul’s parents notify the police, and when night comes there’s a search of the grounds by the city police and all the zoo workers. The three lost souls are hiding from the cruel real world, but the story really concerns the child-like adults who have been sheltered all their life from the real world and hope that love can keep them free.

The zoo at night takes on the look of a lush Garden of Eden, as Eve and Zani (it might as well be Adam and Eve) find each other and make vows of love. She tells him that she wants to live in a cottage and raise a family, and the animal loving and athletic Zani smiles as if that’s what he also wants to do. Soon the couple is joined by a frightened Paul, who stumbles upon their hidden cave hideout and is made to feel safe by their warmth. But they are discovered by a sadistic maintenance worker nicknamed Heinie (Paul Fix), who when he isn’t tormenting the animals by throwing lit cigarettes at them is goofing off. This sets of a fantastic series of events, which culminates in the tigers accidentally let out of their cages and Paul trapped inside the ‘Big Cat’ house and trembling with fear under one of the cages. Zani redeems himself by risking his life entering the tiger’s cage and pulling the child out by rope to safety. These shots of animal bedlam were fantastically visual, as all their pent up rage at being caged is unfurled before the camera.

Think Blake’s Songs of Innocence and you have the essence of this film’s lyrical fairy-tale tone. Its theme reaches out for the need of freedom and overcoming of one’s fears that would have been perfectly accomplished, even without dramatics, but its concluding scene of peachy happiness and conformity achieved seemed a little much.

REVIEWED ON 2/23/2004 GRADE: A       https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/