Saturday, March 02, 2024

The Joy of Recycling: THE WHITE GORILLA (1945)

If your idea of endlessly re-watchable half-asleep outsider gold /accidental surrealist multi-meta collage is the same as mine--which seems almost impossible--viddy well the THE WHITE GORILLA (1945), streamable everywhere. and don't even bother trying to figure out what's going on with all the flashbacks and animal reaction stock footage cutaways. It's better that way. Just find the best transfer you can, wait until you're nodding off in your easy chair with  slippers, loyal wolfhound, glass of port, and unlit pipe at your side, and stream away (you can find it on my YouTube mix Vintage Jungle Madness). Why? Low stakes, a pleasing narration, and the gorillas, and the liberating sense of 'seeing the seams', whereas the tools of covering lack of budget are revealed. Stock footage, foreign releases, public domain classics, home movies, silent documentaries--whatever is in the fridge, so to speak, can become integral to some story tellable only by the few actors and sets you have at your temporary disposal. When it 'works' it's priceless, that sense of found object outsider art you might get at the gallery show at a mental hospital.  
Ed Wood validating his cross-dressing via blue collar conversation heard over industrial footage of steel girders pumping white hot out of the forge, or building a movie around a home movie of Bela Lugosi sniffing a flower outside his house for Plan Nine--it's like poetry structured from whatever word magnets happen to be on the fridge. And what about the way 1981's Game of Death II composites a Bruce Lee performance out of classic footage (stretching back even to when Lee was a child actor), outtakes from Enter the Dragon, and even Lee's actual funeral? Ingenious, even if it, or especially because, it never quite gels. And Curtis Harrington Queen of Blood with young pre-fame John Saxon and Dennis Hopper as astronauts encountering a a martian queen conjured up via footage from a Russian sci-fi film?  Sublime! Peter Bogdanovich making Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women from a different Russian sci-fi film by folding in new scenes of Mamie Van Doren in a blonde wig and glittery silver hip huggers? I'm floating on a lava sea of Lady from Shanghai references. And like Ed Wood's Bride and the Beasand the Luigi Cozzi Godzila Redux, of late, two composite gems I keep on my emergency dial, so to speak, made eminently hypnotic by the ingenious methods they use to match footage from disparate places. I've recently found a new favorite... alas it's barely an hour long. Would it was a million.

 (1941) Dir. Harry L. Fraser
Starring  Ray "Crash" Corrigan

"The jungle.... weird...."

Godardesque meta manna cascades like a waterfall, thundering library stock music crashes and recedes in glittering harp glissandos over the credits proudly kicking off the post-modern edge with a credit that says "An All-Star Cast." We know right away that the normal handrails of narrative are going to be coming and going. And then there is Ray Crash Corrigan"--usually inside a gorilla suit or doing stunts-- stars, narrates, and probably fights himself. He's kind of got an Ed wood drinking buddy vibe (I hear they were). He's no milquetoast. He's played gorillas in every movie ever made, and here is in a gorilla movie, as a human, (and probably also one or both gorillas). We're off and walking! We cut through the usual roster of dangerous African animal stock footage as his narration sets the scene, and the result: magic. Flashbacks are composites of three sources: animal footage, which silent film characters react to but was clearly shot in a totally different place (sometimes it even seems like a zoo) and then Steve in a separate frame as well, shot later--each in turn reacting to something it can never share a frame with - leaving us watching suddenly feel eyes on us: god watching us watching Steve watch silent serial stars watch even older safari footage. We feel seen, at long last. 

And hurrah for Corrigan, mostly underplaying as Steve Collins, a chewed-up guide who stumbles out of the African jungle and into the trading post (the actual only non-stock set) where three white guys are drinking and kvetching about jungle noise. Naturally after a drink to steady himself he starts with his tale of the doomed safari he was guiding, and how his client, Bradford "wouldn't listen" to him. And would always camps near a stream ("always near a stream,"--an odd detail, he'll mention again, though we never see one, or even a camp). And so we flashback to the meat of the movie, highlights lifted from the only known surviving chunk of an old silent serial Perils of the Jungle (1927). Silent Tarzan Frank Merrill is Bradford, sporting an arm band tattoo (or claw mark) and getting into all sorts of scrapes with animal footage while searching for 'the Cave of the Cyclops' (just a statue, alas). We get lots of lions try to break through the cabin door, while sad-eyed apes look on, or charging elephants, angry natives running hither an yon, a little jungle boy (it's all good cuz he's fiercely Hawksian deadpan rather than Sheffield cutesy) who does all the deux ex machina rescuing, including operating the arm of the cyclops statue so the tiger men think his crazy mother--who wears horns and rattles a skull stick--speaks for the gods. 

Steve, wishing he could help
These scenes are all narrated by Steve and peppered with regular cutaways of him peeking out from behind bushes or up in trees, periodically offering rationalizations like "with the lions between my hiding spot and the endangered party, I was powerless to help" to explain why he never shares their frame.  Like a good guide that he is, he merely bears witness. 

Yes, he's less of a fighter and more of a rationalizer, and Corrigan does his weirdest bit of acting when spying his nemesis the white gorilla through the trading post window back in the present, while about to take a shot of whiskey. Instead of pounding it to steady his nerves like a real man he lets it slip through his fingers in the most ridiculously forced manner, and starts this intense little pule / whine of "there it is," almost like he's in a long bathroom line. Then he's back to narrating derring-do with lions always trying to break down thatched huts ("as the lions continued their attack, I thanked my lucky stars for my decision I made never to be caught too close to Bradford...")

Since Corrigan is usually the one growling and snarling (he plays every gorilla in 40s movies), it's surprising to hear his soothing, masculine and low-key voice that fits him perfectly. He's kind of a beefy, normal looking guy, but the lyrical language and conversational way he speaks (in a kind of repetitive hypnotic style where the key word of the previous sentence is the first word of the next) creates a pleasant kind of trance. Distant jungle noises outside the trading post, the nature footage, and the rich music, and foley for the silent film flashbacks, all run under his voice, like soothing 'green noise.' It's mostly seamless, even if they sound recorded on vastly different equipment. 

Furthering the pleasant sense of dislocation is the use non-spatial distance and tribal relations in this part of the jungle ("jungle where the natives hated the white man.") Steve says he and Bradford stayed at he old man's camp 'for months' while coming ever closer to finding the treasure via his coveted map. So they trek all day and then turn around and trek back? The inner jungle turns out to be almost two-dimensional, with native villages overlapping each other and the camp in a foggy blur where no shot seems aware of its connection to the one that precedes it. It turns the camp of Bradford, and the trading post are all no more than few miles the Cyclops cave (which is where Steve leads Bradford and co about to to be fed to a pair of anachronistic tigers--clearly stock footage of them trying to climb up the concrete wall in the zoo enclosure-- as a sacrifice). When the other guys at the post go off to check it out they're back the next day, it's just long enough to give Steve just time enough to face off with his deadly alabaster foe, and rescue the girl. Her strategy: shoot once, scream three times, throw the gun to the ground and pass out at the white gorilla's feet (Steve notes "as I passed her rifle laying on the ground, I knew something had happened").

The climactic highlight is a battle with the much larger black gorilla, who slaps his own face and conks the white one with a big stick from behind his back. The likely grim fate of Bradord, the jungle boy, his horned mom, Bradford, and the daughter of the blind treasure hunter better left unsaid. The other men return from checking it out and note there were only bones and the two tigers. Since that's where the surviving chunk of Perils ends too, Case closed! So Steve is going home to America with the rest of them, rationalizing once again in his conversational, muffled tone: 
"After all, we have no right to the jungle. It belongs to the natives, and the animals, not the white man. It was theirs before we came, it should be theirs now." 
All is right with the jungle, the white outsiders are all gone--even the little jungle boy--and Steve has learned some important things.  Even as they walk away his narration continues, no longer bearing witness, but just imagining the jungle's denizens giving the gorilla a kind of moment of silence as a sign of belated respect.  Considering the blithe unconscious colonial racism and animal mistreatment on display in 99% of all other jungle movies from that era, it's almost woke. Not that you'll be by then, if you watch it late at night in bed like I do, almost every night, always near a stream. 

1 comment:

  1. I watched this and it is also one of my new favorites. Seeing the 20s footage mixed in with the 40s stuff is a trip in itself!