Sunday, January 2, 2011

Nabonga (PRC, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Nabonga — the titles helpfully explain that the word means “gorilla” — a PRC production from 1944 by director Sam Newfield and his brother, producer Sigmund Neufeld, written by Fred Myton but at least visually and technically far better than many of the movies that came from this team. Cinematographer Robert E. Cline does some nicely atmospheric lighting of a location that (like the one in next year’s PRC jungle non-epic, White Pongo, also about a gorilla and also featuring Ray “Crash” Corrigan in the gorilla suit) seems to have been a real outdoor location looking like a rain forest and not a studio-constructed soundstage “exterior.” What’s more, Cline and editor Holbrook N. Todd do a surprisingly good job of matching new footage with the miles of stock jungle clips we see in this project, and the actors — star Larry “Buster” Crabbe in particular — are at least personable and used to the requirements of the genre. Also, David Chudnow’s assembly of stock music is more appropriate, and more sparsely deployed, than the norm for a PRC movie, which definitely helps.

The problem with Nabonga is Myton’s script; he seems to have been PRC’s go-to guy when they wanted to rip off a major-studio film and make it just different enough to avoid a plagiarism suit. Myton did that with The Wolf-Man in The Mad Monster and with Dracula in Dead Men Walk, and here what he comes up with is a version of Tarzan of the Apes with the genders reversed: it starts out with a plane speeding through a rainstorm. Three people are aboard: an anonymous pilot, embezzler T. F. Stockwell (Herbert Rawlinson) and his daughter Doreen (played by Sam Newfield’s daughter Jackie). We’ve already seen a telegram alerting the Egyptian authorities to arrest Stockwell and hold him into custody long enough for the U.S. to seek extradition, but he’s in the plane because he’s fleeing and he seems to have flown long enough to get over the interior of sub-Saharan Africa before the plane crashes (at least we’re told the plane crashes, and we hear a sound effect under a black screen, because PRC’s money apparently didn’t extend either to a stock shot of a plane crash or the model work needed to create one), Stockwell shoots the pilot (why?) and he and his daughter live in the jungle, with him showing the fortune in jewels he stole and warning her never to give them up to anybody for any reason.

Ten years pass and Stockwell père dies, while Stockwell fille grows up to be Julie London and to be hailed by the natives as the “white goddess.” Ray Gorman (Buster Crabbe) arrives in pursuit of the Stockwells and their stolen fortune — the official synopsis says he’s the son of a banker whom Stockwell tried to frame for his crime, but that’s not all that clear in the film itself — and fights his way through thickets of stock footage to get to the camp where “white goddess” Doreen Stockwell holds forth and insists on keeping the jewels, which she has no idea are valuable but which she regards as pleasant playthings. (Doreen doesn’t seem much more mature as a young woman than she did as a child.) Also in the dramatis personae are the local slut, Marie (Fifi D’Orsay, still appealing but getting a bit long in the tooth for this sort of role), and Carl Hurst (Barton MacLane), who’s after the stolen jewels for himself and uses Marie to get them for him. There’s a lot of fighting before “Samson,” the gorilla played by Corrigan (though he’s billed as “Nabongo” in the credits, maybe because someone at PRC nursed the hope that people would see that and think a real gorilla had played the role — fat chance: this is one of the most blatantly obvious ape suits in Hollywood history!), gets out of the cave into which Ray was tricked into putting him in and saves the day, eliminating the bad guys and leaving the good guys to leave Africa together for, presumably, a new life they can start on the reward they’ll presumably get for turning in the stolen jewels.

It helps that Doreen at least can speak English well (like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, though not like MGM’s!), though that doesn’t help much since she’s obliged to speak English written by a clunky screenwriter like Fred Myton, and there’s nothing here that would lead one to question Julie London’s later career change from actress (if, in Dwight Macdonald’s immortal words, I can use the term for courtesy) to singer, and for all his skill matching his jungle shots to ancient stock clips, cinematographer Cline is utterly unable to make London look any better than a moderately cute young woman — this person certainly doesn’t look like the slinky, seductive presence on her album covers a decade later, ably illustrating all those sensual ballads (notably “Cry Me a River”) she recorded in the 1950’s, usually backed by the great jazz guitarist Barney Kessel — and her hair also shows up dark (a common problem in black-and-white films featuring redheads, though the color processes of the 1930’s and 1940’s weren’t much more flattering to them: in Technicolor redheads tended to look as if their heads were on fire).