Monday, February 7, 2011

The Girls of PRC: Jungle formula

Time, friends, to salute the heroic efforts of those luckless starlets who struggled nobly through the swampy absurdities of that eccentric pair of PRC jungle movies I discussed here.

White Pongo offers us Mari Wrixon in its relatively dignified lead role (though when I say relative, I obviously really do mean relative), but Nabonga is lifted into even higher plains of weirdness than would otherwise be the case by one of the oddest female casts of any film that ever snuck out of Poverty Row: Fifi D'Orsay and Julie London.
Together at last! Only PRC could get those names on the one marquee, and with Ray Crash Corrigan and his ape suit too. What major Hollywood studio could hope to compete? It's a wonder they even tried.

First, Maris.
The comely blonde who ignites the White Pongo's libidinous urges is a familiar face from skid row movies, mainly at Monogram, where she appeared in The Face of Marble with John Carradine, and managed to avoid the titular menace of The Ape, as the paralysed heroine whose plight so moves kindly doctor Boris Karloff that he kills an escaped gorilla, skins it, and goes out at night wearing the skin and murdering people for their spinal fluid. That way Maris will walk again and the ape will be blamed for all the murders. Does it work out that way? What do you reckon.
Also at Monogram, she co-starred with the great, truly great Frank Albertson and Ace the Wonder Dog in Silent Witness (1943), perhaps the only film in the world that I want to see even more than I want to see Women In Bondage (1944), in which Monogram puts a dream cast - Wrixon, Anne Nagel, Tala Birell and top-lining Gail Patrick! - in (to quote Ted Okuda's essential Monogram Checklist) " a story of the degradation and brutalising of women in Germany where members of the SS Elite Troops are appointed to become fathers of children by women who are selected for motherhood by the Reich."
What on earth is this film like to watch? I only wish I knew. How on earth do Monogram handle the material? Surely not with their usual tastelessness or it would never have gotten past Breen, even allowing for whatever propaganda value it may or may not possess...

Like many another Poverty Row heroine, Maris appears unbilled in scores of walk-ons for the majors - look for her in High Sierra, Meet John Doe and Phantom Lady for starters. She made her last film in 1951, and died in 1999. She was the wife of film editor Rudi Fehr and the mother of film editor Kaja Fehr: they collaborated on the editing of Prizzi's Honor and were jointly Oscar nominated. Rudi died the same year as Maris; Kaja is still editing away.

How in the name of all that suffers and weeps did did Fifi D'Orsay end up in Nabonga?
The celebrated "French Bombshell" (actually a Canadian) and star of vaudeville and pre-Code comedies may have been past her prime and in PRC's price bracket by the time the opportunity to cast her came along - but that still doesn't make the pith-helmeted sight of her playing straight in a cheapo jungle movie any the more explicable. A talented and charming presence in musicals and saucy farce, her presence here transcends bizarre and sends the film to hitherto unreached heights of casting weirdness.
She also did PRC duty in three films where the working title made it onto the finished print: Submarine Base (1943), Dixie Jamboree (1944) and Delinquent Daughters (1944). All a long, long way from the Great White Way.

And then, to top that, they get Julie London, making her screen debut as Doreen of the jungle.
Julie, needless to say, is the sultry chanteuse whose smoky renditions of pop standards made her a permanent fixture on fifties jukeboxes, beloved especially by men who responded to the obvious erotic charge with which she imbued such numbers as Nice Girls Don't Stay For Breakfast, Love For Sale and My Heart Belongs To Daddy. It's also a thrill hearing her deliver that classic of musical sexism Wives and Lovers. Nobody could have been better cast as the woman who made a washed up alcoholic of Tom Ewell in The Girl Can't Help It, and now haunts him in his dreams, singing her signature hit Cry Me A River. Probably nobody could have been better cast in Nabonga either, come to that.
And can any other singer boast as many fantastic album covers?

These are just the tip of the iceberg.

1 comment:

kochillt said...

Julie London ended her acting career starring opposite her husband Bobby Troup in the teleseries EMERGENCY! (she died after a stroke in 2000). After one final feature in 1947, Fifi D'Orsay turned to television in the late 50s, appearing with Henry Daniell in "The Grim Reaper," one of the more terrifying episodes of Boris Karloff's THRILLER. In 1931, very early in her screen career, she was among a bevy of stars in the comedy short "The Stolen Jools," featuring cameos from Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Wheeler and Woolsey, and Laurel and Hardy. That same year, she turned up in WOMEN OF ALL NATIONS, with none other then Bela Lugosi (she died in 1983). And THE APE was not the first time Maris Wrixon had worked with Boris Karloff, she was uncredited in BRITISH INTELLIGENCE, released earlier in 1940, but completed at Warner Brothers in March 1939 (this was the main studio contract that got Karloff through the horror ban that devastated Lugosi).