Wednesday 21 April 2010

White Pongo (1945)

Director: Sam Newfield
Stars: Richard Fraser and Maris Wrixon
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

Even though we're about to visit West Africa, the opening music by an uncredited Leo Erdody feels rather Arabian. By the time we get through the introduction that tells about 'vast areas of dense forests and swampland as yet unseen by white men' and 'virgin territory penetrated only by the Congo river', we half expect to see a giant cobra being summoned out of a basket, but no, it's just a bunch of half naked savages leaping around a tiny campfire. What makes it special isn't the natives, or even the fact that the most recognisable name in this debacle, Guy Kibbee's brother Milton, is strung up by his wrists presumably waiting to be sacrificed. It's that there's some lunatic leaping around in a white gorilla suit pretending to be the missing link. He's actually Ray Corrigan, who worked inside most of the ape suits Hollywood put into movies, at least when he wasn't playing Tucson Smith or Crash Corrigan in western series.

Milton Kibbee is Gunderson but he isn't for long. He escapes, with help, and makes it back to civilisation long enough to rave in his delerium about the white ponga that he saw before dying of jungle fever. No, that isn't a typo, this creature is called the white ponga even though the movie is called White Pongo. You'd think that filmmakers would be a little more careful than that but then consistency really doesn't seem to be high on their priority list. Neither does pacing because I almost dropped off a number of times as the safari party at the heart of this story slowly journey towards where they believe the white ponga might be. Every time they got out of their canoes I hoped it would be to actually get on with the story but no, they always ended up back in their canoes again. The picture is only 71 minutes long to begin with, but if you subtract all the stock footage and the padding you have a short film that would run no more than half an hour.

Gunderson is the setup, because his ramblings while dying are conveniently overheard by anthropologist Peter Van Dorn. He believes every word of it because apparently anthropologists don't have to be suspicious or scientific or anything. The man rants, 'the white ponga, I've seen it,' while incoherent and he's sold. To be fair Gunderson brought a diary back with him too that conveniently didn't get wet while he swam down the Congo, but how a diary can provide incontrovertible proof of the missing link I really don't know. Even that only talks about a white gorilla and I know enough science to realise that a white gorilla doesn't automatically equal the missing link. At least we know the white ponga is out there because we saw it even before we saw Peter Van Dorn, so we don't really care. We just go along for the long ride. Here we go riding in our canoes. Here we go walking through the jungle. Here we go gathering nuts in May.

Padding out the party are a bunch of Brits that he invited along, chief among them his oldest and dearest friend, Sir Harry Bragdon of the Royal Society of Explorers, played by Gordon Richards, who made a lot of movies without getting a lot of credits. I do need to see Curse of a Teenage Nazi though, with its six multinational women arrested by the Germans in Shanghai. His daughter Pamela is the token woman of the party, but she was born on a safari and loves adventure. Of course that doesn't mean that she doesn't scream like a girl when she wakes up to see 'a huge beast with flaming eyes' looking into her hut. She even takes a frilly frufru dress with her so she can woo the rugged guard that she has her father assign to her personally. Actress Maris Wrixon was a regular in uncredited roles too, with the occasional lead, such as in another movie featuring Ray Corrigan in an ape suit, as the object of Boris Karloff's scientific charity in The Ape.

Bragdon's secretary, Clive Carswell, is Michael Dyne in his first credited role, and it's painfully obvious he's going to be a traitor from the first moment we see him, with the hots for Miss Pamela to boot. He's a chauvinist, all about keeping his beloved from danger even though she looks down her nose at him. There's also someone called Baxter though quite what he's doing with this crowd I have no idea. He's some sort of Cockney moron with an Australian accent even though he's played by an actor from Illinois and I think I spent the entire film stunned by his opening pronouncement. Instead of a simple 'Hello' when he's introduced to Van Dorn, he blurts out instead, 'The bally blasted sparrow flew up the blinking spout then the bally blasted rain came down and drove the blighter out!' I'm not sure if he's supposed to be a raving lunatic or an ethnic slur. He gets to pretend to be a gorilla later on, so I'm leaning towards the former.
I'm used to slow pacing after submitting myself to the slowest monster in the history of cinema in last week's instalment of Cinematic Hell, The Creeping Terror, but this one doesn't have an excuse. There's every opportunity for action, with a couple of characters even there under false pretenses: one is there to find a goldfield and go home rich, another under orders from the Rhodesian Secret Service to trail a killer. Yet writer Raymond L Schrock and director Sam Newfield manage to utterly fail to instil any feelings of menace, suspense or tension whatsoever into their movie. Thus far the most interesting thing that's happened is the white ponga rescuing a little chimp on a leash from a native village because he sounds like R2D2. Maybe he's really a jedi and we'll find out what planet he comes from in episodes seven to nine. Maybe he's just Crash Corrigan pocketing an easy paycheck, at least if he can find pockets in his monkey suit.

It takes an hour for something to actually happen that we care about and that's not good in a seventy minute movie. Finally though, if we've managed to stay awake this long, we're treated to a bizarre gorilla fight, a black gorilla fighting a white gorilla, both using tree branches like staffs. Maybe that jedi theory has some weight to it, but the branches don't turn into double headed light sabers however much we wish it. They're fighting over Miss Pamela, because the white one carried her off for some hot monkey love in the jungle and he wants to keep her. Well, OK, he pulled her necklace off. This is 1945, after all. Rosa Parks wouldn't refuse to give up her seat on the bus for another decade yet, so you can imagine how people would scream at a gorilla making out with a white woman, even if it was a white gorilla. They'd cut out the merest suggestion of sex from the re-release of King Kong. What chance did White Pongo have?

Well at least it would have been interesting. What we have is as devoid of interest as any other film I can remember. It isn't actively bad because it isn't actively anything. It's the most passive film I may ever have seen. This is a film full of people standing around trying to work out when the plot is going to turn up and wondering if someone had left it on one of those canoes to just float down the Congo. Perhaps through some crew member's carelessness, someone in a native village somewhere in that unpenetrated virgin territory has a blistering script that nobody else in the world has seen. I can't help but wonder whether anyone got paid because when it came time to pick up their cheques, Sigmund Neufeld Productions could have pointed out that none of them had actually done anything. It would have been accurate, at least. OK, Baxter fell into a pit pretending to be a monkey. Does that really count?

Writer Raymond L Schrock may have a cool name but I'm not sure what else he has. He has over 150 writing credits and he even directed five films but the vast majority of those were way back in the silent era, as far back as 1915. The only films I've seen that he wrote are entries in detective series, mostly nondescript, like The Secret of the Whistler, The Millerson Case and Crime Doctor's Gamble. The latter two are part of the ten film Crime Doctor series and with only one missing, I can say that Shrock's two are the worst of the lot. Even William Castle couldn't salvage the latter and you could usually depend on him to come up with something interesting. The most interesting thing here is that the party's native guide is called Mumbo Jumbo. No, I'm not kidding, and I'm not kidding when I tell you I couldn't work out if he had a really well shaped afro or he was wearing a fez. I'm not sure which would be more inappropriate.

Now, I'm sure you're wondering what happened to the white ponga, given that the frickin' movie is named after him, admittedly erroneously but the intent is clear. Well, the Bragdon party does acquire a little background on him when they track down the native village that Gunderson escaped from. The mysterious Dr Gerig, who points out that his name isn't important, is the one who sent the diary back to civilisation with Gunderson. It's the diary of Dr Frederick Theodore, who had captured the white ponga and kept it in a cage made of branches in order to study it, but one fateful day it escaped and killed Dr Theodore and his expedition. So, you can be sure that whatever Sir Harry does with the creature it won't be to stick it into a cage made of branches, right? Wrong. That's precisely what he does. The end. No eighth wonder of the world, no Empire State Building, no 'beauty killed the beast'. Just the end. Are you bored yet? I am.


Anonymous said...

Having seen Horrors of Spider Island last night, I think it challenges this one for the slowest monster title...

Hal C. F. Astell said...

By an amazing coincidence Horrors of Spider Island is the movie I have slated for my Cinematic Hell review for the 28th. It'll have to be slow to challenge The Creeping Terror though. That alien shag carpet monster was so slow its victims literally had to hang around waiting for it then climb into its mouth to be eaten. I'm looking forward to being boggled too.