Saturday, March 17, 2012

Bowanga Bowanga (Norman Dawn/Continental, 1951)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The bad movie was Bowanga Bowanga: White Sirens of Africa, which I’d just got in an order from TCM Home Video on a DVD from the “Something Weird” label — with two other films on the same disc, Wild Women of Wongo and Virgin Sacrifice. The film was preceded by a promo for Something Weird showing some of the other items in their catalog, including some of the early Russ Meyer nudies and Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast and Wizard of Gore, two films you’d have to pay me to see. Apparently shot under the working title Wild Women, Bowanga Bowanga is a 1951 production from something called Continental Pictures, produced, written and directed by Norman Dawn, and which opens over stock footage of Africa’s jungle regions with an unctuous narrator explaining that some of the stories about Africa are from people’s imaginations and some are true, and hinting that the plot of this film is the latter when it’s actually quite obviously from a very impoverished human imagination. Indeed, there’s so much stock footage in this movie that it approaches — far more than any of Ed Wood’s own movies did — the aspiration Wood once had (or at least was claimed for him by the writers of the Ed Wood biopic, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp) to make a movie entirely out of stock footage without any original shooting at all. Between the stock clips — some of them awesomely beautiful, some of them just tacky — and the wall-to-wall musical score (at times during this film you’ll wonder what’s older, the stock footage or the stock music), this film isn’t “weird” or even campily bad so much as just annoying.

The star is Lewis Wilson, who eight years earlier had become the first actor to play Batman on screen — and in some ways the best; certainly he was more credible in the Bruce Wayne identity than anyone in the role since, and he was in good shape but still looked visibly weary after every action scene, reminding us that Batman wasn’t a super-powered person but an ordinary human who had willed himself to be a superhero and had trained, both physically and intellectually, for the job. Alas, by the time he made this Wilson was eight years older, considerably less athletic and far less challenged by this role than he’d been by the Caped Crusader. He plays Trent, who goes off into the African jungle for a hunt with his buddy Kirby (Mort Thompson) and while there meets another white guy, a comic-relief character named Count Sparafucile (Don Orlando). Any opera buff will recognize the name instantly as the hit-man in Verdi’s opera Rigoletto whom the title character, jester at the court of the Duke of Mantua, hires to kill the Duke for despoiling Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda — only Gilda, who’s genuinely fallen for the Duke, gets killed in the Duke’s place. The Rigoletto reference in the character’s name is obviously deliberate on Norman Dawn’s part because throughout the movie Sparafucile sings the aria “Caro nome” from Rigoletto, which is sung in the opera by Gilda as she’s dreaming of the hot young guy who’s been cruising her from outside her window and has disguised himself as the student “Gualtier Maldé” when he’s really the lecherous Duke. Anyway, after a lot of stock footage of various spectacular animal fauna (including an elk, which is not native to Africa) Trent sees a vision of a woman standing on the edge of a cliff, silhouetted against the sun, singing in a haunting “vapor voice” and creating the one genuinely impressive image in any of the footage Dawn shot for this movie (as opposed to the enormous accumulation of stock in the rest of the film). Eventually the three intrepid hunters meet the white sirens of Africa — a group of women who look like calendar models of the period (and probably were!) and who either babble to each other in a made-up gibberish tongue that’s supposed to represent their native language, or mangle English in a way that’s not discernible as anywhere close to a real accent of anyone in the actual world who’s learned English as a second language.

Eventually the queen of the sirens orders Trent to fight the best warrior in her tribe to figure out if he’s strong enough to be worthy of her; if he wins, he’ll be married to the queen and provide the necessary male input to propagate their race, and if he loses he’ll be thrown into a pit of fire supposedly representing a sacrifice to the tribe’s “Fire God” (though we never actually see the pit — Norman Dawn’s budget obviously didn’t extend to that). At first he’s visibly reluctant to fight a girl — even one who’s obviously in better shape than he is — but eventually he wins, and meanwhile the other women in the tribe are fomenting a revolution because they don’t see any particular need to off the other two guys just so the queen can be the only one who gets a man for herself. Finally the white guys get away and run through the fields of jungle, or whatever, and they’re accompanied by the cutest and most domesticated of the sirens, who becomes Trent’s girlfriend. Bowanga Bowanga is the sort of frustrating movie that isn’t quite bad enough to become camp and isn’t good enough to work as anything else — and though the setting is Africa instead of outer space, it’s really the same sort of plot as Fire Maidens from Outer Space, Queen of Outer Space, Cat Women on the Moon and all those other weird male-fantasy movies of the 1950’s in which an intrepid group of males end up in an all-female community and put out enough pheromones to let the girls (not women, girls) know what they’ve been missing.