Monday, January 17, 2011

Nabongo Pongo Overlongo: Down in the jungle something stirred...

So long ago.
Jungle movies. So, so long ago.
Jungle movies were once popular enough to be conveyor belted out to the masses in endless slight variation; now they look like they were made on another planet. Preserving attitudes more unsavoury than one cares to remember went unquestioned in what is still, for many, living memory, and openly celebrating the bone-headed speciesism of their main characters, jungle pictures are historical documents indeed.
Hard to imagine, now, anyone hearing that there was a new jungle picture coming to their local and instantly reaching out to phone the babysitter, but that must have been the way it was. They made millions: someone had to love them. They made serious, po-faced documentaries, with animals being blown to crap for real. They made sneaky pseudo-documentaries, with library footage and faked inserts of men in gorilla suits. They made popular jungle-based fiction series: Tarzan is merely the best remembered of many. They made artful pastiches like King Kong, spoofs galore, and dozens of third rate supporting mellers, with fuzzy, decades old jungle footage mixed with new scenes in which Poverty Row starlets in pith helmets pretend to look awed as they peer through jungly creeper on a set smaller than their bedroom, troop off camera, come in again from the opposite direction and look awed all over again.
Needless to say, it is in these at the cheaper end of the genre that the most modern-day fun is to be had, and PRC's Nabonga (1944) and White Pongo (1945) are about as cheap as they come. (But not quite as cheap as they come: see The White Gorilla and die.)
Made within a year of each other - same director, same six-foot-square jungle set, same library footage, fractionally different plots, slightly different titles... tell me it wasn't party time every day at that studio!
Hey, remember that jungle picture we shot a couple of months ago? Seems to me it's about time we made it again!
I watched them one after the other with a big glass of something beautiful in my hand the whole time, so it's already impossible for me to remember with absolute certainty what bits go with what movie, though I think I'm still up to speed on the broad outlines provided I get this written down fast enough: Nabonga's the one where a little girl who survived a jungle plane crash is raised by a gorilla (Ray 'Crash' Corrigan in a zip-up ape suit), turns into Julie London in a professionally-tailored sarong, becomes revered by the natives as a white witch and duels with Fifi D'Orsay for the affections of Buster Crabbe. Pretty sure that's right. Set the comments box aflame with indignation if I'm wrong. Whereas White Pongo is the one where Maris Wrixon and a bloke doing the stupidest cockney accent I've ever heard mount an expedition to the jungle and encounter Ray 'Crash' Corrigan in a white zip-up ape suit. As I say, it's been a long night, but I'm pretty sure that both films involve the ape falling into the same pit.
I also see from my notes that I felt the need backaways to jot down the following exchange of dialogue from Nabonga, after Buster encounters Julie's strange, primitive jungle girl for the first time, and witnesses her amazing ability to subdue a rampaging Ray 'Crash' Corrigan with jungle know-how:
Buster (awed): You must be the white witch I've heard so much about.
Julie: I am Doreen.
Incidentally, you may be thinking that White Pongo is just about the silliest title for a film you've ever heard. If so, you'll be delighted to learn that the original shooting title was Congo Pongo. I have a theory that the title of the first draft screenplay was Congo Pongo Wongo Dongo, but I haven't been able to actually prove it yet.
Now for some zoology. Here's how Ray carries off Julie in Nabonga:

And here he is showing us how a fluffy white gorilla would carry off Maris in White Pongo:

You'll notice that in both cases the technique is pretty much the same. The only possible conclusion, then, is that human-carrying dexterity is neither adversely nor beneficially affected by the relative colour or fluffiness of the gorilla's fur.
Tell that to the poster illustrators, who presumably did the Nabonga poster one cold Monday morning, and the White Pongo one after a Friday lunchtime scotch and cocaine rampage:

What did I learn from these films? I learned that if you're the only blonde woman on an arduous jungle expedition you're probably asking for trouble if you put on a slinky evening gown with feather trim collar, and that if you dig a pit in the ground to catch wild animals, chances are that the funny guy on the expedition will fall in it too. The rest of the time I was too busy staring at Julie London to learn much of anything.

There's a great Julie London website that reproduces this priceless article written by PRC publicity hacks for the film's press book, that tries to claim that the apes in the film are genuine (the credits read: 'Gorilla ......... Nabonga', with no mention of poor Crash at all!):

Making jungle pictures is not the easiest way to make a living and is fraught with danger, as all those who worked in and on the PRC’s thriller “Nabonga,” now playing at the . . . . . . Theater, can testify. In the first place , working with animals is always difficult, but working with two gorillas, including the huge Nabonga who has the title role, is something else again.
From running an elevator in a department store to portraying the part of a gorilla's daughter in her first motion picture was the dramatic step taken by Julie London, pretty young film aspirant who makes her debut in PRCs "Nabonga." (...)
Since the exacting part calls for her to play with her “protector” a huge gorilla, and cut capers with monkeys and tropical birds, Julie’s first day on the set was a series of startling experiences.
First, she was introduced to Nabonga the gorilla, who has an important part in the picture as the human actors... Cameras started to grind as director Sam Newfield called ‘action.’ She strode through the jungle with a monkey perched on her shoulder. Then Nabonga lurched into camera view and the monkey screamed, jumped for the nearest tree, and fled, chattering and gibbering. It was some time before the monkey was calmed and shooting resumed.

Quick - phone the babysitter!


Steve Miller, Writer of Stuff said...

"White Pongo" is one of those films that's been calling to me for years, based on the title alone... but some other film always distracts me. Some day, I will witness the fluffy ape in all his glory.

Jonny Metro said...

Fun post. It's always good to read about these silly little sub-sub-genres that have fallen out of favor. And that White Pongo poster is badass!


Mykal said...

Matthew: forgive my late comment to this fine post (I've been working on giving "you know where" a reboot). Another fine post here, full of great research. The "Jungle Picture" phenomenon has been severely undernoted by movie historians. I suppose the cause for this stems from having a hard time dealing with the wildly dated sociological attitudes expressed therein. The subject of political correctness, from either liberal or conservative vantage point, has become so tiresome. “jungle” also became a very popular theme in comics books and movie serials around the same time.

I think audiences were entranced by the concept of the primitive, which this movie grasps by the horns. Anyway, I'm rambling. Great post on a great theme. I am loving PRC month!!

Jonny Metro said...


Just wanted to let you know that I chose this post as one of my favorites of January, and included it in the fourth "issue" of Spatter Analysis.

Check it out!