Thursday, March 03, 2022

Noisemakers: NABONGA! (1944) , BOWANGA, BOWANGA (1951), EEGAH! (1962)


12 Days of Ed Wood, Night 8

Like everyone, I have a soft spot for old crappy, stock footage-jammed jungle movies from the 30s-40s (and sometimes 50s) but---as befitting the times--with a caravan of caveats: no children (that means you, "Boy"); no caged animals; no wasting time with excessive frolicking chimps (especially ones confusingly named "Cheetah"); no prey-favoritism (i.e. "Boy" rescuing antelopes from starving leopards); and above all no race-favoritism (Jane making Tarzan protect obviously bad white guys from indignant natives and/or disgruntled animals). I also dislike when a film wastes too much time on montages indicating a long boring trek through jungle heat, and arguments with suspicious native porters. Oh and I hate the ones filmed in color, unless the color is really well restored. I'm also not a big fan of Johnny Weismuller, truth be told and that dumbstruck blankness I see in his eyes. So what's left? 

Plenty, as it turns out, I love white women living as savage goddesses; the meta-clever practice of mixing new actor footage with older jungle stock footage; crocodiles (with alligators discreetly thrown in), real snakes and rubber snakes dangling limply from threes; witch doctors wearing goofy Egyptian-style hats, and cool native idols with jewels in the center of their foreheads...

And guys in gorilla suits! 

(PS - The reviews below all contain Spoilers, unusual for me, must be all the Forgotten Horrors volumes I've been reading lately. )

Aka Gorilla!
(1944) Dir. Sam Newfield

Firs thing that strikes me with the potted frond PRC jungle "thriller" Nabonga is the quiet. There's almost no music at all, just the the sounds of the jungle ever present but low in the mix: distant howls of gorillas and lions, the calls of birds, and whatever else happens along, all low and mellow in the mix as if we're safe in the cool of the reptile house during a hot trip to the zoo. Maybe that's the reason I'm such a fan of this terrible movie? I taped a truncated version long ago as a kid in the very early-80s, off a PBS show called Matinee at the Bijou, so maybe I'm biased. My brother and I watched it every night for months.

The story opens with a small plan caught in a storm over the Congo: an embezzler, the loot, and his young daughter, going down. You can guess the rest. They crash. Little Doreen nurses a shot-up gorilla back to health and it becomes her protector after her father dies. The girl will grow up to be Julie London. The gorilla (Ray "Crash" Corrigan), who her evil embezzler dad dubs Samson, will make sure his stolen jewel fortune stays hers and that Samson kills anyone who comes looking for it. 

Flash forward ten years or so; there are tales of the "white witch" who lives in a "house with wings" in the interior, a rumor which will catch the ear of the Gorman (Buster Crabbe) the grown son of the disgraced financier who was jailed for Doreen's dad's crime. Gorman's interest catches the notice of a beady-eyed crook Carl (Barton MacLane) and his shady French partner Mimi (Fifi D'Orsay - right). Much skulking and fighting, shooting at dangerous animal stock footage, wrestling with alligator stock footage, and pointing at playful animal stock footage ensues, contrasted with  Doreen clad in a sarong (made from the airplane's curtains?), absently eating an apple, playing with a monkey, or putting parrots on branches, all while Samson keeps passing predators at bay. 

The only debit for me personally is that most everyone is glazed over in sweat most of the time, especially shirtless Togo, the native guide Gorman rescues from various fates; Mimi is the second worst, dripping under her pith helmet with mom shorts and clunky holster. Luckily, for a breezy contrast, we have Doreen, just a sarong and a flower in her hair, sulkily mad--once they finally meet-- Gorman doesn't want to sleep with her. But even if Samson weren't listening right outside, fixing to bounce Gorman around the set the minute he touches her, Gorman's natural censor-mandated shyness would keep him pure. So Doreen fumes just like little Carmen in The Big Sleep, only with less biting.

Sitting around next to each other on some jungle rock, Gorman mansplaining concepts of right and wrong while Doreen looks right through him, these two young low-key actors convey an almost Lake-Ladd Glass Key chemistry.  Though he tries to convince her to fork over the jewels, she brushes off his manly ultimatums without even getting mad. With her pleasingly nasal rasp voice and sleepy-eyed 'Carol Lombard on half-quaalude' delivery of offhand lines like "Father always wanted Samson to kill people" she chills the blood slightly, in a good way, the dark version of Lombard explaining proteges to William Powell in My Man Godfrey. She may be just getting started but she's already cool! Her future as the world weary chanteuse who made "Cry Me a River" a unique standard of hipster disaffect is all but assured.  

 Crabbe's main strength has always been a muted good cheer, but in Nabonga he doesn't have time do dilly-dally, so despite the attraction he's both a prick about wanting the jewels and amusingly nervous about Samson's constant looming. Luckily, Doreen just ignores his demand she "do something!" to rescue a snooping Marie once she arrives near the cave and is set upon by the overprotective Samson. We see in him and his character that sense of intrinsic moral rightness that more often than not gets those around him killed or annoyed.

Marie survives and then convinces Gorman to trap Samson in a cage to free up "his" access to the jewels. It all leads to double crosses and a long fistfight with Carl, who lives just long enough to plug the poor ape a bunch of times, before getting what looks like his arm ripped off (the details of the rending are partially obscured by the flora), leaving everyone in the cast safely dead but our handsome low-key couple, now free of impediments (i.e. Doreen has lost her protector so is no longer safe from the blessings of civilization.) It's a pretty tidy resolution (wasn't Gorman supposed to be shot?) but what are you going to do to in a film that runs naught but a tidy Newfield-hour?  There's not even time for a kiss at the end. The final close-up of the pair is spent mourning the mighty Samson while Gorman assures her going home with him to New York or wherever and giving up her only source of wealth means she's destined to be very happy. Uh huh.

PS- when I did a search for "Nabonga" on The top result asked: "Did you actually mean napping or numbness?" 

The reptile house strikes.

(AKA Wild Women)
(1951) Dir. Norman Dawn

The most important thing to remember about Bowanga, Bowanga (aka Wild Women), a tale of male explorers finding an all-white female tribe in "Africa," is that it is not Wild Women of Wongo (1959) nor Prehistoric Women (1950) nor the 1952 Untamed Women (though Untamed Women is another title Bowanga sometimes goes by). Those three (lesser) films are marred by an irritatingly smug aura of 50s male entitlement and 'patriarchy restored!' endings. Bowanga on the other hand is  genuinely subversive, a refreshing saga of reverse sexism that plays it more or less dead straight. A better title would have been "the White Sirens of Africa," which is how these women are referred to (or 'The Ulama' by the frightened natives). As far as I know Bowanga Bowanga is a meaningless phrase unless it has some dirty connotation to the 50s raincoat crowd. But whaddaya gonna do?

The key thing that makes it all work is the deadpan approach. The library score treats it all as a serious jungle thriller in that time-honored safari-stock-footage-packed B-movie tradition. We're treated to pleasing black-and-white Bronson Canyon and shoreline scenery that syncs well with stock footage of frolicking orangutans, patient leopards watching from tree branches, and--to add to the post-structural confusion--North American groundhogs, owls and a moose. The believably Amazon (i.e. big and tall), sexually aggressive white sirens are, once found, portrayed as both ennobled and empowered by their self-government. Only one of their tribe wants to go off with the men at the end, because she falls in love. The rest stay as they are, unconquered. Best of all, these women laugh at the men's feeble attempts to be tough. As the queen, intimidating Dana Broccoli talks like a drunk lisping Zsa Zsa Gabor. When the handsome alpha male threatens to use "force" to resist her plan to sacrifice the other two men to the fire god, she just bats him effortlessly to the ground, laughing "haha no force!" In order to spare himself by proving his 'stwong' status, one of the non-alpha men engages in the best girl vs. Amazon fight to the death since the one between John Terlesky and Gorgo (Deanna Boher) in Deathstalker 2 (1987), no faint praise.

Another reason Bowanga works: the men. The men in Perhistoric Women and Wongo are all dumb handsome or comic relief jokers just waiting to either usurp the power dynamic and restore 'nature's way' of patriarchal dominance. The men in Bowanga on the other hand are are in legit trouble. They include handsome hero Trent (Lewis Wilson), a comic relief Italian called Count Sparafucile (Don Orlando), whose much less annoying than the usual comic relief on these expeditions (he sings opera!), and Kirby (Mort Thompson), who they find dying of hunger and thirst out on the plains. As usual with these films, when you find a wounded or parched survivor in the jungle, he tells you his story via a flashback of silent jungle serial stock footage (it is the law!), which in this case involves a boy (dressed like Huck Finn) and two native girls hiding inside a cabin while a giant python and leopard alternately try to kill them and each other. Somehow this leads us straight into the pointed spears of the Ulama.

These men, first ga-ga-ing over the white sirens story then  then seeking to escape once they're successful and realize the sirens, i.e. "the Ulama," aren't the pushovers they thought. Taking them prisoner one at a time, the Ulama plan to marry the alpha male lead to the queen, and to sacrifice the other two to their fire god (it is "jungle" law!). During a tribal music making celebration replete with blonde drummers, a girl in a furry-tailed bikini does a kind mad semi-stripper shimmy (top). We also see the girls hunt (i.e. interlock with gazelle stock footage), sing by the fire, eat watermelon, spit the seeds out, and bathe by a lovely waterfall (i.e. they bathe in back yard pond intercut with waterfall footage). 

There are some movies like this where you can feel the resentment and seething distrust emanating from the half-naked girls over being gazed at, hampering the idea that they are a strong bunch of Amazons. This is perhaps a result of some groping director or verbally abusive producer making the shoot a chore, eager to put the women in 'their place' lest the powerful women they play give them the 'wrong' ideas. But then there are movies where the filmmakers seem to genuinely love strong women, and the actresses playing them seem to be having a grand time, neither taking it so seriously it becomes a downer (like the 1967 Prehistoric Women) nor playing it so broadly it becomes camp the (i.e, the 1950 Prehistoric Women). The girls in Bowanga do it right, playing it in a deadpan cool Switchblade Sisters kind of way, i.e. in on the joke but still badass.

That said, Bowangam Bowanga is not perfect: when we see a scene early on of a giant gorilla (Ray Corrigan?) holding hands with a white native girl as they stop to look at the white hunters, we're encouraged to hope this will turn into an Untamed Mistress/Bride of the Beast type of thing. Very exciting to imagine these girls protected by some big gorilla muscle ala Julie London in Nabonga. 

Sadly, that gorilla suit is never seen again. 

Anyway it's all over too soon to get mad, climaxing with a chase along the beach and a sudden use for the fireworks Sparafucile  mentioned at the beginning. As the tribe begrudgingly salutes farewell from the cliffs, the three white men and the girl who helped them escape link arms, singing, and skipping into the sunset like they're headed off to see the wizard or dub Lina Lamont. 

Nobody is oppressing nobody. That is a miracle.


(1962) Dir. Nicholas Merriwether (Arch Hall Sr.)

The 7'2" giant known as Richard Kiehl (The Spy who Loved Me; The Humanoid) finds a great early role as a giant prehistoric man living out in the Palm Springs desert who abducts foxy Roxy (Marilyn Manning), irking her towheaded, apple-cheeked, gas jockey crooner boyfriend Tom (Arch Hall Jr) in this drive-in schlock "classic." Pitched somewhere between a goofy (but deadpan) comedy and sci-fi/horror, it's a bit of doomed romance, fish-out-of-water comedy, dune buggy bragging, guitar crooning, and anthropological sexy nightmare.

Events kick in when Roxy locks eyes with a giant cave man crossing the road in the dark and empty desert night, after driving home from visiting Tom at the gas station. She tells her dad (director/producer/nepotist Arch Hall Sr.) about the encounter; and eager for a book to write, he sets off to scout around the area and see for himself. When he doesn't meet them at their appointed desert rendezvous the next day, Roxy and Tom eat up some time tooling through the desert sand in his ginchy yellow dune buggy. We learn Tom puts water into his tires so they get better traction in sand. Cool tip! What he's not good at, we can glean from Roxy's frustration with him, is "sealing the deal." When they spend the (day-for) 'night' around a (never seen) 'fire' after an unsuccessful day searching, the only relief from their strained relationship comes from on e of his not-bad Donny and Joe Emerson-esque sad-sweet songs about some other girl, named Valerie. The song is OK, but it doesn't necesssarily have the desired effect. Before Hall can awake the next day, Roxy has been literally swept off her feet by lusty Eegah, who brings her back to his cave boudoir, luckily dad is already there, lying helpless with a broken collarbone, trying to establish basic communications (he's learned the giant's name is "Eeegah")

Unlike most hormonal monsters, Eegah is not necessarily bad nor is he good; he's merely a giant savage with no social conditioning and no outlet for his bristling hormonal urges (being all alone in his Bronson cave for way too long). So we have Roxy trying to keep Eegah distracted with singing and so forth while immobilized dad shouts encouragement to "keep his mind on something else!"

Hall Sr. really comes into his own as an actor in this stretch of the film, alternately flippant and consoling, with a nasal but resonant voice that evokes a slightly drunker and more patronizing version of Lyle Talbot. It's also pretty clear he dubs Eegah's low end Popeye-esque muttering (which gives the two of them a kind of unspoken link, as if Eegah is some unconscious incestuous projection ala Forbidden Planet). To keep Eegah occupied, Roxy shaves off his beard (symbolism!), while singing "Whiskers." She makes eating, drinking, and sleeping pantomimes, and is introduced to the mummified heads of Eegah's ancestors Eventually, all out of distractions, the romantic music surges up as Eegah starts tearing off her clothes. Meanwhile dad can only yell: "Don't upset him!" 

Thus Eegah is succinct and potent in conveying the dangers of being a hormonal male who has not learnt restraint prior to the introduction of a sexy babe. All we men have to learn to reign in our desires, lest we become sexual predators before we can even graduate middle school. What makes it all the weirder is the uniqueness in the monster annals of this sort of scene, making the film worth checking out in and of itself.  Eegah is just too big for his uncivilized nature not to be a direct threat to civilization, and virgin or not, sex with a giant would probably be kind of a chore for a 'teenager' of Roxy's small stature, though part of her is still responding (that big shaven Kiehl jaw works its magic). Still a night with a teenage werewolf or the creature from the Black Lagoon would be far worse. 

Manning, bringing out the beast.

Meanwhile, every time we cut from the cave and Roxy's nervous distraction tactics to the blazing sun with ineffectual Tom waving his widdle wifle around and yelling her name, a blare of ominous music plays up, as if he's losing his mind. Fans of his sneering psycho in The Sadist will wince at the thought Hall Jr. too may have lapsed back into savagery. I haven't seen The Sadist myself but I hear he's amazingly creepy, and watching Eegah! I believe it. With his pouffy hair and 'Michael J. Pollard hit by a shovel' face there's something about him where you would probably feel both relieved and unnerved if he was dating your daughter. He seems psycho on the edges but reliable in the center, and in the best scene in the film, he rescues Roxy and her father, while Eegah chases the dune buggy, nearly grabbing onto the back seat several times, throwing boulders when the buggy gets far enough away down the cliff, all filmed from the backseat of the buggy to create a very realistic and scary stretch we'd see later aped in films like The Terminator.

one of Eegah's relatives

Despite being a goofy kick, Eeagah! has some real speculative insight about the existence of a race of giants in the antediluvian era (i.e. Goliath, Gilgamesh, Genesis, 6.4) Is Sasquatch just one of the old giants of old, the Nephilim, who didn't sit still for a shave from the Roxy of modern civilization? (1) 

Eegah, like Lobo with that angora sweater in Bride of the Monster, is left a piece of Roxy's perfumed cloth to haunt him as he recovers from Tom's bullets. He even puts the cloth under the nose of his ancestral heads so they can smell her eligibility to join the family. Finally, lovestruck and hormonally locked-in, poor Eegah takes a drink from his sulphur spring (perhaps the key to his longevity) and then heads down the mountain, easily tracking her down to the Palm Springs hotel lodge, where the rest of the cast seem to spend all their free time. Out back by the pool, Tom is playing with his band, singing a slightly more upbeat song with yet another girl's name in the title ("Vicky").  Roxy doesn't even notice. She's missing Eegah ("I just know something's happened to him"). Dad, arm in a sling, smiles and says she's just like her late mother. He watches the kids dance and doesn't get it - it looks like fighting to him, he says.

Soon enough, it will be. Eegah is making his way through the restaruant!

It's worth it just to see giant Eegah beating up on Hall, throwing people like assistant and future Rat Pfink a Boo-Boo director DP Ray Dennis Steckler (there with his wife/star/muse Carolyn Brandt) into the swimming pool and ripping it out the deep end pool ladder and waving it over his head to smash on the gathered cops does the heart good. Eegah may not know how turn door knobs, or what the door sign that says "Ladies" means. But that's okay, Eegah, girls love a big dumb savage, especially, like Samson in Nabonga, once they're safely dead. Tom, Gorman you better step up your game! Dearly departed virile giant ape monsters done laid down the gauntlet! 


1. I was told by a spirit guide that the reason for the flood was that the watchers wanted to expunge the giants from the earth, but that some of them survived, those high in the mountains where the waters did not reach.  Hiding for centuries, they're immortal and able to move in and out of other dimensions to escape detection (the 'Watchers' turned off that feature in our DNA so we wouldn't be able to escape our time/space confines and be able to track them back to Mt. Olympus/Valhalla/Heaven, whatever, and try to usurp them) which is why we've never caught one or found a body. Already wild and untamable, the aeons have seen the giants revert back to precambrian savagery but they are still more advanced than us, due to more 'activated' watcher DNA than we're allowed. Make of that what you will, Arch Hall Jr.! 

See also the Other 11 Nights of Wood, and Wood-esquery:

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