Sunday, March 14, 2010

Son of Ingagi (Hollywood Productions/Sack Amusement, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a weird little “race” movie called Son of Ingagi, whose title was one of the biggest cheats about the piece — it promised a sequel to one of the most notorious movies ever made, Ingagi (1930), whose producer, Nat Spitzer of “Congo Productions, Ltd.,” passed it off as a newly filmed nature documentary about Africa when it turned out that half of it was stock footage lifted from silent-era nature films (including armadillos, alligators and eucalyptus leaves, none of which are native to Africa) and half of it was staged in the U.S. with African-Americans. The most famous scene in Ingagi, in which a gorilla kidnaps a native girl and (presumably) rapes her, was shot on a Hollywood soundstage with Charles Gemora (well-known ape impersonator) playing the gorilla and a Black woman whose face was familiar from Central Casting’s directories as the girl.

Son of Ingagi was an even worse ripoff than its predecessor; its producer, Richard C. Kahn (who also directed), went to the “race movie” studio Hollywood Productions and recruited an all-Black cast — including Spencer Williams, Jr., who also wrote the script — to do a pretty standard-issue haunted-house movie (the working title was actually Horror House) featuring a female mad scientist, Dr. Helen Jackson (Laura Bowman, who seemed to be shooting for “Black Maria Ouspenskaya” as a type), who calls Black attorney Bradshaw and insists on making out a will — for which she refuses to pay him any more than $5. Meanwhile, Robert Lindsay (Alfred Grant) and his fiancée Eleanor (Daisy Bufford) are finally getting married — the wedding is filmed through some interesting double-exposure shots that are by far the most visually interesting part of the film — and they plan to hole up in that house (which Robert owns) for the duration of their honeymoon, only their friends throw them a surprise party and Dr. Jackson lurks outside and stares at them through the window.

It turns out Dr. Jackson is keeping an ape-man in the basement, locked in a cell, but sometimes it gets out and causes mayhem. Its name is “N’Gina” and it’s played by one Zack Williams, and the makeup (no one is credited — or blamed — for it) is one of the worst jobs in cinema history: he looks like a normal person except for some vaguely ape-shaped hair stuck on his scalp and cheeks — he looks less like a were-ape than like Louis Armstrong in his King of the Zulus get-up for the 1949 New Orleans Mardi Gras parade — and a few tufts of extra body hair on what otherwise look like perfectly normal human arms. The conception seems to anticipate The Wolf Man (1941) and even more The Mad Monster (1942), PRC’s ripoff of Universal’s original (in which, as here, the monster was kept by a mad scientist and usually locked up, though occasionally the bad guy sent it on killing errands), but Son of Ingagi is far tackier than either and we never get a clear idea of just how the monster came to exist in the first place. (Maybe we were supposed to assume it was the offspring of the gorilla’s rape of the human girl in the original Ingagi.)

The worst thing about Son of Ingagi is that it’s dull, dull, dull: the actors (if, as Dwight Macdonald said of Haya Harareet, we can call them that for courtesy) all recite their lines in the kinds of race-movie monotones that sound like they’re at their first day at drama school — a lot of race movies had casts this bad (one wonders where all the Black people who could act were) but at least others came with people with genuine star charisma, like Herb Jeffries, Mamie Smith or Lena Horne — there’s no one here with that kind of appeal and they’re sorely missed. Director Kahn doesn’t help, and neither does Williams’ script; the story utterly fails to create any sense of tension or terror, and the plodding direction doesn’t supply any thrills the writer left out. Occasionally Kahn gets in a shot with visual interest — when the thing kills Dr, Jackson she’s holding an inkwell, which spills out on the ground and is obviously meant to symbolize her blood (which you probably couldn’t show under the Production Code in 1940) — but like a lot of other “B” directors, including ones who worked with white actors, he has utterly no sense of pace.

This film just ambles along at a pace that makes a snail look like a rabbit by comparison, and it finally expires 61 minutes after it began (the print we were watching was a download and it appears to be nine minutes shorter than the original theatrical release, though in a film like this shorter is actually better!), with Robert and Eleanor alive, well and still together — and blessed with the $50,000 in gold coins that were Dr. Jackson’s legacy and to whom she left them — while most of the rest of the dramatis personae are dead and the ape-monster is consumed in a fire that burns up the house (earlier another fire destroyed the foundry where Robert worked, so the $50,000 comes in handy just when he’s in need of both a new home and a new job).