The 1933 pre-Code fantasy takes place almost entirely within the confines of the Budapest zoo.
The rivers of our streaming services are swollen with VOD product aimed at the animal lover. From Wild About Animals: Baby Animals to Animal Bloopers to Animals Are Amazing—and that’s just from the first of 262 pages worth of Amazon Prime hits on “animals”—these titles are filled with creatures that may or may not talk but are invariably cute enough to make 90 minutes coast by on a barebones framework—a documentary clip reel, a lame rom-com or a family crisis in which an animal teaches a human something about life. Animal heroics have a long tradition in cinema going back to the German Shepherds of the silent era, but certain furry detours have largely been left to the celluloid reference books. Among the strangest of these is the 1933 pre-Code fantasy Zoo in Budapest. You have never seen anything quite like it.
This unusual romance takes place almost entirely within the confines of the Budapest zoo. Zani (Gene Raymond, not to be confused with game-show host Gene Rayburn) is an enthusiastic young zookeeper who has spent most of his young life among the animals. His father was a zookeeper before him, but was mauled by a lion when Zani was a boy. The kind Dr. Grunbaum (O. P. Heggie) took the orphaned boy under his care, but as Zani grew up he’s become a nuisance, stealing furs and leather handbags from zoo patrons—not to sell them, but to burn them. (This anti-fur stance would make the film a natural repertory program for an environmental film series.)
Zani may be a kind of feral child, but he’s a graceful one; he leaps over guard rails with a glee that makes Raymond’s sexuality quite clear to today’s audiences (he was married to singer Jeanette MacDonald but was reportedly arrested numerous times for having sex with men). He’s not exactly what we think of when we think of pre-Code romance, but that’s his role; Zani‘s siren song lures another young orphan, Eve (Loretta Young), who has a crush on the zookeeper and leaves her group to hide out in the zoo. Into this lair wanders yet another innocent, a boy who has become separated from his parents; he, too, takes refuge among the animals.
And those animals! They’re adorable, like a deer who gets a gentle weighing in Dr. Grunbaum’s office. But they’re also ferocious, like the mother lion out to protect her cub and a panther that seems to look forward to the 1942 Cat People (the child-like innocence of the principals likewise seems to anticipate its 1944 sequel Curse of the Cat People).
Director Rowland V. Lee, who made the perhaps better remembered 1934 version of The Count of Monte Cristo starring Robert Donat as a more traditional hero, walks a precarious tonal balance between romance and jungle fantasy. The director makes something unexpected out of conventional cinematic language; a reaction shot for a more typical film might pan from one human character to another. Here, the camera might move from a skeptical Dr. Grunbaum to one of the shrieking animal heads hanging on his office wall. It’s as if Lee is giving voice to disembodied animals, watching their human captors and mulling over their revenge. Cinematography by Lee Garmes (who knew how to get maximum smolder out of Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express) works up to a dreamlike atmosphere as Zani and Eve wander through their Edenic idyll. Yet Lee and his charges also make clear that the zoo is a prison, for humans trapped by convention as well as animals kept far from home.
It’s curious that Hollywood imagined Hungary of the time to be at all like Zoo in Budapest; while Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 comedy The Shop Around the Corner depicted a more quaint representation of old world charm, this offers a picture of the city that is both admiring and fearful—they let the animals out of the zoo over there! Zoo in Budapest was recently restored and screened as part of a preservation showcase at the Museum of Modern Art. But it is available in what may be an edited but perfectly watchable version on YouTube. It’s weird! And wonderful.