Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Film Review: Zoo in Budapest

"Zoo in Budapest" ** (out of ****)

"Zoo in Budapest" (1933) is a movie I had looked forward to seeing for years. Only because the film took place in Budapest (for unaware readers, I'm Hungarian). During the 1930s and 40s a great many films were centered in Budapest. Films like William Wyler's "The Good Fairy" (1935) and "One Heavenly Night" (1931). But sadly "Zoo in Budapest" is not as good as those movies.

The main problem with "Zoo in Budapest" is it wants to be all things at once. It wants to be a romance, an adventure movie, a comedy, and an animal rights movie. In the end it becomes nothing. Just an unsatisfying combination of genres which don't belong together. There is little to care about the characters and practically no chemistry between the two lead actors; Gene Raymond and Loretta Young. And why on earth the movie is suppose to take place in Budapest is beyond me. The Hungarian setting adds absolutely nothing to the film. It could have been the Brooklyn zoo or the Los Angeles zoo. They didn't have to pretend they were in Budapest.

Gene Raymond stars as Zani, one of the many zoo keepers. He is an animal lover and enjoys playing with the "wild" creatures at the zoo while young children watch. Zani feels the animals are harmless and dislikes when he sees people mistreat the animals. He is something of an animal rights activist because he even steals furs from various women at the zoo. Humans should not wear furs in Zani's opinion. I also wondered how on earth did the writers come up with the name Zani? Did they mean Csanyi (pronounced Shawny) which is short for Sandor (which means Alexander)? I've never met a Hungarian with the name Zani.

Loretta Young is Eve (which isn't even a Hungarian name to begin with. Why couldn't they call her Agnes?). She is an orphan. Every Thursday Eve and the other orphans go on a field trip to the zoo to learn about the animals. Eve desperately wants to escape. She has also managed to catch the eye of Zani, who encourages her to run away. One day Eve finally escapes and hides out in the zoo until closing time.

Right now a lot of readers may jump the gun and feel they have the entire movie figured out. It is a romance picture between Zani and Eve, right? I wish! There is also a little boy, Paul Vandor (once again, what the heck kind of name is Vandor? Did they mean Sandor, which is also a Hungarian surname?) who wants to ride the elephants. While his caretaker isn't looking he also hides in the zoo until closing time.

But wait, there's more! The police are soon looking for Eve after it is found out she has escaped. The zoo is their only clue. The police are also after Zani because he has stolen another fur. And the police are looking for Paul after his parents report the incident. So everyone is on the run and soon or later you know they are all going to meet.

The movie plays around with atmosphere almost making it appear as if the zoo has been transformed into a private island, a love nest for Eve and Zani. And there are some romantic moonlight scenes which evaporate quicker than fog as the movie hops, skips and jumps to other plot points.

The zoo is not a romantic location, so for the life of me I can't figure out what director Rowland V. Lee and his writers were hoping to accomplish. If "Zoo in Budapest" was an action movie maybe it would make more sense. But Gene Raymond isn't Tarzan and Loretta Young isn't Jane.

At this point in time Loretta Young wasn't Loretta Young yet, the major Hollywood star of films such as "The Bishop's Wife" (1947) and "The Stranger" (1946). She was just a young actor at Fox studios, trying to become a star and Fox gave her a good push. Strangely enough this is the third movie, which I know of, where Loretta Young plays a Hungarian. Shortly after this movie she would appear in "Caravan" (1934) with Charles Boyer, another forgotten Hollywood romance. And she was in "Ladies in Love" (1936) which makes much better use of the Hungarian setting. They even put a real Hungarian in it, Paul Lukas (!).

Gene Raymond wasn't a major star yet either. Though he did appear in "Red Dust" (1932) with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, which had some risque scenes (this is the movie where Harlow is naked wearing a barrel). Later that year he appeared in "Flying Down To Rio" (1933, which I have reviewed). That was the first film Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in together.

Unfortunately the romantic aspect of the film is very weak. We never really believe Zani and Eve are on the brink of a great romance or even that they love one another. What a shame since you had two rising stars here and the film doesn't take advantage of them.

The movie ends with a cliffhanger sequence (which I won't reveal) but it just further leaves you scratching your head. What is this all about? What was the point of this scene. To redeem Zani for stealing the fur? To show us he is not a bad guy? It doesn't resolve anything for the Eve character. By the end of the movie it tries too hard to tie everything up. I knew I should expect a happy ending, but, it just felt rushed and underdeveloped.

The cliffhanger sequence though may have foreshadowed things to come for Rowland V. Lee who would go on to direct horror films. One of his best known is probably "Son of Frankenstein" (1939), which served as the basis of the Mel Brooks comedy "Young Frankenstein" (1974).

I'm really sorry I can't recommend this movie. My loyal readers know of my great appreciation for classic Hollywood films. Still I'm sure there are going to be a few old-timers like myself who may want to sneak a peek at the movie because of their love for classic Hollywood movies and/or an interest in some of the stars. The problem is I don't think the movie will inspire a second viewing. Watch "Caravan" instead.