Friday, January 29, 2010
Upon a dark horse came..WHITE PONGO!!
When WHITE PONGO arrived in the mail I eagerly anticipated seeing Ray 'Crash' Corrigan in action. I had spent weeks accumulating titles in a gorilla suit film list by combing through any site that popped up in a google search for gorilla. I took the list and headed out to scour Victoria for any of these titles but was more than a little shocked when I could not find a damn thing ( PLANET OF THE APES titles don’t count as gorilla suit films and although I love them, warts and all, they will not be covered here). I went home crestfallen that this poor excuse for a metropolis did not offer the depth of culture a refined man like me was entitled to. Ebay was a natural place to hunt the beasties down and a selection of reasonably priced, public domain films could be had. Along with WHITE PONGO, I had also purchased a Roan Group double feature of THE GORILLA (1939) coupled with NABONGA.
WHITE PONGO was an Alpha Video release and if you haven't purchased one before be warned - the quality ranges from acceptable to unwatchable trash. PONGO is in moderately good shape though the dialogue track is somewhat muffled by background hiss. There are certainly some rough spots – the opening sequence is a bit shaky – but considering this gem will never see a Criterion Collection treatment, it will do just fine.
The film opens with a map of the Dark Continent – a slightly off camera figure gestures to the heart of Africa with a wooden pointer and we are informed that it is there that the mighty Ponga resides. Now mind you, the soundtrack is far from clear but I don’t think I heard the beast referred to as PONGO through the entire 72 minutes. Maybe the producers decided it had a better ring for the promotional material. We are carried off to the rugged jungles and find some poor white bugger tied to a post as ‘Negritos’ have a merry dance around a fire. How Gunderson got himself in this predicament I didn’t catch but another European, Dr. Gerig, apparently has the freedom to stroll about and unties the helpless fellow. When the natives retreat to their huts, Gunderson makes a break for it, diving into the nearby river. As he begins to swim away, he is astonished by the appearance of the mighty jungle beast White Pongo, er, Ponga. The snowy creature attacks a wandering Negrito couple and gives the gent a sound thrashing as the maiden runs off screaming.
Gunderson makes it back to civilization but he has seen better days. Feverish and ranting, he stuns his hosts with outbursts about the white gorilla. Among his things they discover a journal from a lost expedition that had sought to find the Missing Link. The fabled White Ponga was captured by the missing explorers and subjected to the “standard mentality test”, he aced his exam and became the only example of the bridge between primate and man. Naturally, the European intelligentsia immediately mounts an expedition to bring the beast back. Unfortunately, with his role as plot device fulfilled, Gunderson expires.
The party prepares to head off into the Green Hell and our cast of players are introduced; Sir Harry Bragdon, elder scholar and his brash, strong willed daughter, Pamela; the complete wet noodle and snooty secretary to Sir Harry, Peter Van Dorn; the rugged, stoic rifleman Geoffrey Bishop; and the German (1945 – hmmm Nazis??) expeditionary leader Hans Kroegert. A love triangle between Pamela, Peter and Geoffrey is quickly established – Pamela is indifferent to Peter’s advances and Geoffrey just wants to do his job and not be bothered by Pamela’s attentions. As the group makes their way down the river, we are treated to a lengthy sequence involving White Ponga maintaining his distance from the other brunette apes as they feed. In one shot, three suits are visible in the frame – two of them definitely Crash’s, used in earlier films. Ponga’s facial features differ from his earlier suits and has a wilder, stylized look.
During the journey, Pamela attempts to engage Bishop in some witty chatter but Peter won’t have any of it – he’s not a gentleman and has no place talking to such a fine lady. Pamela responds with a little venom and asks Daddy if Bishop can be her personal guard. Bishop doesn’t seem too enthused but he grimly performs his duty. Arriving at the Negrito village Gunderson escaped from, the white explorer’s trade with the natives as Sir Harry and Peter locate the mysterious old man. Ushering them into the safety of his tent, he tells the tragic tale of the lost expedition and hands over the maps to White Ponga’s territory. Armed with a solid lead, they make off down the river as the natives get restless. Keeping pace along the banks, White Ponga has spotted the comely Pamela and he’s not about to pass up the only pale haired biped he knows.
Thinking they have put enough distance between themselves and the testy Negritos, the expedition makes landfall and treks towards the Ponga stomping grounds. The party quickly finds gorilla tracks as well as remnants of a previous settlement created by the lost researchers. In a shockingly brief transition, out of the jungle and shattered remains, a stockade and fort complex complete with hinged doors, furniture and fixtures rises up. Apparently the porters were bearing crates of Ikeas African Jungle line. A gorilla trap composed of collapsible doors and a deep pit is also crafted with blinding speed. The good Doctor is confident he will lure the beast by surrounding the trap with ‘meegum’, a plant foodstuff the hairy brutes adore.
Aching for another peek at the platinum sweetie, Ponga makes his way into the encampment and deftly locates Pamela’s room. Either the heavy breathing or the missing link musk rouses Pam from her slumber, and she lets out a right proper scream that sends the gorilla running and alerts the whole camp. “It was a huge beast with flaming eyes!” No trace of the beast is found and her claims are dismissed as bad dreams. According to her learned companions, gorillas are not climbing creatures – however, Bishop makes note of some tracks near the palisades.
Pamela remains persistent in her attempts to woo Bishop. She corners him alone, all dolled up in flashy nightgown that any self respecting lady would pack for a deep jungle trek. I guess the heat finally got to Bishop – he dives in for a long sweet puckerup but is rudely interrupted by the jealous secretary. Now Dr. Bragdon strolls into the whole sorry scene and Bishop is discharged for his unseemly behavior.
A clanging bell alerts the camp - the trap has snared a gorilla. The eggheads are disappointed to find that an ordinary simian has been caught and a ladder is lowered to allow it to escape. Better luck next time.
Burnt yet again by the object of his desire, Peter approaches the shifty German and offers to throw in with him. A plan to hijack the expedition is imminent with the intent to abandon the Doctor and his associates, and head off for gold fields nearby. With the nefarious agreement made, the innocent research party is trussed up. The traitorous Peter drags Pam off, with the natural assumption that some tight bindings and a forced march through the jungle will make her realize what a catch he is. Once the dastardly villains are on their way, Bishop reveals he is, in fact, a servant in Her Majesty’s Secret Service, prompting the good Doctor to reassess his opinion of the lad. After freeing himself and the others, they give chase.
In no time at all, Pam manages to escape, Hans further reveals his nasty side, and the annoying fop Peter takes a slug in the back. Thanks Hans, where were you 30 minutes ago? Pamela runs wildly through the jungle but has been shadowed by White Ponga. Hans goes stomping off after Pamela but quickly finds himself at the wrong end of a very hairy fist. Ponga gives the dastardly kraut a thorough, brush obscured thrubbing yet still manages to keep his lustrious coat free of blood. Helpless Pam is carried off like luggage as the native porters make the sensible choice to head in the opposite direction.
With his lovely prize cradled in a bed of straw, Ponga patrols the perimeter of his cave and frightens off a pesky lion. Unfortunately for our romantically confused simian, Pam is far from down and makes a break for it. The randy gorilla gives pursuit and in moments comes upon his girl recovering from a spill. Her screams alert both the search party and another gorilla who decides to challenge Ponga. A titanic battle ensues; angry snorts and broken tree limbs are hurled to and fro. While the mighty beasts engage in the time honored struggle for supremacy, the hairless apes in khakis scoop up Pam but remain, transfixed by the clashing behemoths. White Ponga’s adversary goes down for the count and the coup de grace is delivered with a hefty tree branch. Drunk with victory, Ponga spots his gal pal and lumbers towards the amazed group. A rifle crack sounds after the command to wound the ape is given.
Poor White Ponga is trapped once again, caged by chuckling captors who comment that his appearance will startle the world. Lip locked lovers Pam and Bishop close the film with nauseating flare. After KONG you would have thunk that clever apes of the world would be wary of blonds.
Before moving on, a few aspects of this film beg to be ridiculed. Firstly, the wildlife of the wild and lush primeval forests happen to include a number of species that are glaringly out of place. A black bear cub offers some comic relief. Deer and monitor lizards share house with lions and tree monkeys. The stock footage is used to pad out a film and keep production costs down but sticks out like an ugly sister. The racist treatment of the African natives is not particularly out of place in a film of this age but the laziness in writing their dialogue is. The primary black lead Joel Fluellen plays Mumbo Jumbo (!!), head porter to the nefarious Hans. His spoken part consists of the typical broken English a white audience of that era expects to hear but in his final scenes he is inexplicably speaking fluent English.
White Pongo was shot in 1945 for the Poverty Row studio, PRC (Producers Releasing Corporation). Industry workhorse Sam Neufield directed and had a reputation for cranking out films in 3 or 4 days; easily believable when viewing White Pongo. Sam had shot such gems as TERROR COMES TO TINY TOWN and DANGER! WOMEN AT WORK - a small sample from almost 300 films over a 40 year career. Neufield had worked with the hairy superstar Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan on two earlier films, NABONGA (1944) and THE MONSTER MAKER (1944) and may have been familiar with the multi – talented cowboy from the host of saddleback cheapies he directed through the thirties. Maris Wrixon, the fair Pamela, had also encountered Ray on a previous film, THE APE (1940) but had nary a scene that was as intimate as those in this picture.
If you are still reading this entry perhaps there’s a chance you will enjoy this film as much as I did. Far from a classic, WHITE PONGO manages to hold your attention for the brief hour or so and considering the low budget and insanely brief shooting schedule it performs well as a jungle flick curiosity. Although I am terribly fond of this turkey I would never claim it to be anything other than it is – grade z schlock that at the very least avoids being dull. The cast is perfectly serviceable although none really standout. The stock footage and bizarre audio effects are nerve grating at times but the true gem in this picture is the title star himself. Gorilla suit appearances were often used as a singular gag but a select number of films actually revolve around the simulated simians. From my exceptionally narrow perspective, WHITE PONGO is one of Corrigan’s best films despite the general mediocrity of the other elements. His gorilla is distilled from the fears and dreams of a modern, unsophisticated ticket holder – the beast is a grotesque caricature of the wild man of Darkest Africa. Ponga’s visage appears to have been crafted by a madman in the throws of a terrible fit.
So who is ‘Crash’ Corrigan? And what would motivate a man to sweat in pounds of yak hair and receive no billing? With this entry running on more than I had planned, the story of the gorilla cowboy will have to wait until my next installment. So sharpen your spurs and comb your back ‘cause the ape that could shoot a six gun will be coming at ya before the cows come home.