Saturday, December 18, 2021

Gorilla, mon Amor: Ed Wood's THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (1958) + UNTAMED MISTRESS (1956)

(Night #2 of the 12 Days of Ed Wood Acidemic Holiday Special) 

"If you must go into the jungle, leave her there!"


It all started with a 1930 faux documentary called INGAGI - which mixed real silent African safari footage with newer North American wildlife (armadillos, alligators, tortadillos) and staged footage of native (topless) women being offered up to lusty gorillas. A censor outrage (especially as it proposed to be a true documentary), today its relentless scenes of unconscious white man cruelty (shooting elephants, crocodiles, etc.) and racism (with native children labeled 'pygmies' living "wild as march hares") is what outrages us, but at the time it was the Christian protest against the depiction of gorillas who've mated with (and reproduced with) the local black women, and the women being topless, that caught in the censor's craw. Regardless or because of, it was a huge hit and very influential. Even those who didn't see it knew all about it and the lurid theme really caught on with the general public, dovetailing with anxiety about Darwinism and resulting in a host of old movies featuring gorillas lusting after white women (could they be next?) and a lot of work for stuntmen with their own gorilla suits like Ray "Crash" Corrigan. 

Once the code sunk its castrating claws in (around 1934), these apes couldn't even get a fade-out with their sexy prey before being plugged by the timely hero. This was the law...

In 1956, Ron (MESA OF LOST WOMEN) Ormond struck a gong and declared: Law... no more and unleashed his UNTAMED MISTRESS (1956) on a slack-jawed public. 

Velda (Jacqueline Fontaine) is the titular mistress, wild, savage, busty. She grew up with the apes in deepest Africa, was mated to their 'chief,' then 'rescued' by a Maharaja (Brian Keith) who relays the tale to a pair of white hunters after they rescue them in the 'jungle.' This allows Ormond to finally get to use a sizable chunk of (quickly forgotten) of an old Sabu film he made, to be used for a flashback. Seems this maharaja came to Africa on a hunting expedition, didn't see a single animal, fell for a local girl who didn't like him, heard a jungle boy named Sabu was tipping off the animals (but never saw him -part of the deal Ormond made for the footage--no Sabu), then lost his fortune; obtained a cursed shrunken head; roamed the plains as a penniless freelance guide; found Velda after killing her ape lover in a fight; and now we're back -- he's dying now and asking these young hunters to return that cursed shrunken head to its point of origin, and to bring Velda (who hates him) back to her 'people.' 

All caught up, the 'raj cautions the age and species-appropriate Jack (Allan Nixon) against Velda (they've already fallen in love, sort of) : "Do you not believe," he cautions, "that someday her soft caresses could turn into hairy steel claws at your throat?" 

He dies. Velda dances in celebration. Jack and his crew haul off on safari (a desert ranch fills in for the Congo) with Velda as guide. Jack doesn't want to know about Velda's past--doesn't want to even think about it--but the older guys in the safari say "Wise up Jack - she's not a woman, she's a beast."  A lush and fecund brunette with a low slung peasant blouse and pale skin that has somehow eluded a tan, Velda's no beast, but she does love Jack rather roughly. He's unnerved.

Like all B-movie safaris, there's a lot of wandering around, pointing at mismatched stock footage (courtesy Ormond's neighbor's safari vacation movies) and narrating what we see ("the zebra, as usual, was comical to look at...") All very familiar to matinee filmgoers. But no other narration of such footage had previously dared to ask: "Could natural selection influence the mating instinct of a girl who was brought up half-human, half-gorilla?" What a question. 

It's mellow but never dull. A shrunken head magically flies into Velda's hands while she dances. She pulls up her skirt to show her plump things and twirls around the shrunken head. Where is the music coming from? Later, natives attending a tribal dance in the stock footage wear shirts and baseball caps, clearly modern Africans out on the weekend, shot by the neighbors. One wonders what they'd think if they knew they were portraying headhunting savages who send a beautiful maiden each year to placate the lusts of a neighboring gorilla tribe."Every year Garuda come for sacrifice," explains Velda, "for girl." 

"The natives consider it an honor," declares Jack's guide. "None of the have ever been found dead." Hmmm.

Whatever your thoughts on what that means, it's worth sticking around for the sudden, lurching, super WTF finale. In fact, it's cathartic and strangely apt. All the times you felt bad for the gorilla dying at the end of horror and mystery movies, all of it paid in full! 

A hit in the mid-50s southern markets, Untamed must have tapped right in to the sludgy vein of their miscegenation and anti-evolution anxiety that was fermenting in the wake of the pre-code interspecies outrage Ingagi (1930) and in advance of the Civil Rights era.
Today it hits for different reason, the love of classic drive-in subversion as a reward in itself. Personally, I love it, because of all the time I spent as a child rooting for the bad guys in my afternoon cartoons, for example, the bad guys on Speed Racer. Day-after-day I tuned in, thinking this time they'll win the race, just from the law of averages. Finally my mom could stand it no more - and told me the facts - the bad guys would never win, ever. Never ever.

Until Ron Ormond struck that gong

Two years later: Ed Wood and Adrian Weiss (Jack's brother) sidestepped the unconscious racial subtext altogether by pairing the gorilla with a civilized modern (white) woman, newly married, and made it less about 'did they or didn't they?' and more about reincarnation (the Bridey Murphy story was big at the time) and the idea that, in a past life, a human could have been "queen of the gorillas."  

Welcome, then THE BRIDE AND THE BEAST (1958)!

Dan (Lance Fuller) is a big game hunter millionaire with an adult male gorilla (named Spanky!) behind the secret panel in his boudoir. New bride Laura (Charlotte Austin) wants to meet him!  The honeymoon is literally stormy, with crashing thunder and flashes of lightning and Laura's mind no doubt on the brute behind the door. Dan's study is laden with taxidermy animals and animal skin rugs to set the mood for her ape connection. She sleeps in a white angora sweater (one of Ed's, no doubt) that she rubs a lot, as if chilly, but in a languid, beguiling way. She seems psychically connected to Spanky and that night she dreams of the jungle, as if channelling Spanky and encouraging him to break the bars and come to her. Spanky does! Dan wakes up in time to shoot Spanky right as he tears off her nightgown. She doesn't sleep well after that, just keeps rubbing that angora fur sweater, and whisper-talking about a 'weird sensation.'

Man, everything really takes on a sinister sense of dislocated giddy wonder when Ed Wood is writing the dialogue. Nothing is played for carny side show sleaze or cheap laffs because Ed's compassion for his freaks is without measure.  We root for the ape to get the girl from the beginning, and she's never less than respectful to both man and beast, even apologizing to Dan for causing him so much trouble. And while never does anything evil per se, we can't help but feel there's something 'off'' about him, something akin to Herb Evers in Brain that Wouldn't Die. He keeps Spanky is a cage in the basement lit by torches and accessible via secret panel, straight out The Monster Walks or The Ape Man. Clearly, he's cruel in an unconscious 50s way when it comes to imprisoning animals, and we root for the ape to break free and carry his bride off into the night. Instead Dan shoots him. Now we like him even less.

The next morning, Dan declares her receptive reaction to Spanky's caress in the boudoir was not "normal." Dan knows a hypnotherapist who puts her under and learns she was once 'queen of the gorillas!' (and it's OK, because she's a white gorilla).  Will an African safari let her work it out of her system?   Not sure why Dan thinks bringing her to the land of the apes is a good idea. But for us, and for Laura, and Africa's single gorillas, it surely is ideal.

Then the film gets--- according to some critics, including monkey suit maniac John Landis--a little dull. To represent Africa without having to leave California, Weiss folds in lots of tiger (!) footage from Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948) and safari shots from Bride of the Gorilla (1951) with Laura's dreamy narration. Maybe Landis doesn't care for such cost-cutting measures, but me, Ive always had a soft spot for scenes of actors shooting at stock footage animals. Though some of the driving and chasing down giraffes and antelopes scenes--evocative of Hatari--are kind of alarming, one may rest assured the actors were nowhere around any of these creatures. Furthering the abstraction, when Laura dreams her way into the jungle past, the animal footage is shown in negative and overlaid with hypnogogic spirals and Austin's pretty sleeping face. As her zonked hypnotized voice, Laura names each animal is it appears in the footage via her past life ape POV ("trees and vines don't seem to bother me. I push right through them.")

Ed spares us the usual cliches. Laura is no puling victim or savage wanton, neither category standard 50s wives, i.e. either subservient or ball-busting. Instead she's legitimately capable and seems genuinely turned on by Africa ("the jungle really gets in your blood, doesn't it?"). She digs the danger; she doesn't mope over the animals being killed, nor try to rescue prey items from carnivores the way Tarzan does. ˇhe jungle is her happening and it freaks her out! Speaking throughout the movie in a cool sexual purr, she's both mature and open-minded, gentle yet reaching deep in herself in pursuit of some strange 'sensation.' And all throughout, Austin doesn't overdo it or make the character ridiculous, campy, or belittled, neither tamed nor untamed, but just present, receptive, mature, even when gushing in a rhapsody over her angora sweater ("soft like kitten's fur -- it felt so good on me") while under past-life hypnosis.  

All told, I'd rather see Bride and the Beast twice than the entirety of the Captive Wild Woman trilogy once, so there you go.

Both Beast and Untamed Mistress are currently on Prime and elsewhere, floating through the internet like savage dreams..You'd be a fool to miss them. Come to think of it, you'd be a fool to see them, too. 

Darwin, you old so-and-so, you must feel pretty proud of yourself. 

"You'll feel rested," notes the hypnotist, "but you'll want a cigarette."

1 comment:

  1. You are a champ for peeping these. Bestial love can be unnerving.


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