Wednesday, March 23, 2011
NABONGA (1944) and THE SAVAGE GIRL (1932)
PHENOMENALITY: (1)*uncanny;* (2) *atypical*
MYTHICITY: (1)*fair*; (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*
Going by the two illustrations from these jungle flicks, one might think they were pretty similar: your basic "girl, guy, and a gorilla" films. But though both of them are unassuming potboilers, there are some structural differences between the two that illustrate why my tenth and last trope, "astounding animals," can appear as "uncanny" in one framework but "atypical" in another.
One significant difference is that though SAVAGE GIRL does have a white girl palling around with a chimpanzee for no textually-explicable reason, there really isn't anything "astounding" about the chimp (aside from his looking much bigger in the art than he is in the film). The chimp hangs around with the leopardskin-clad "Savage Girl" (Rochelle Hudson) and then pretty much disappears as the film concentrates on its real theme: whether the girl gets tamed by leering reprobate Alex or "nice guy" Jim. There are a couple of references to the nameless girl as a "white goddess," but she does nothing to foster that impression: probably the writers tossed out this familiar trope to implicitly explain why the African natives left the girl alone. But this "white goddess" lacks the imposing qualities given a similar character in 1931's TRADER HORN. Thus, despite her being loosely patterned on other, more extraordinary jungle foundlings, Nameless Girl doesn't measure up as an uncanny heroine despite wearing an "outre outfit," and the natives in her bailiwick lack any exotic tropes, despite the script's hilarious allegation that they practice "voodoo."
NABONGA isn't written much better but it does take more advantage of the "girl and her gorilla" myth-theme. True, in contrast to the familiar TARZAN paradigm, in which rape-happy apes constantly grabbed young white girls as objects of lust, the viewer never quite knows why the gorilla (Samson, played by Ray Corrigan under the peculiar nom de gorilla "N'bongo") is attached to Doreen (Julie London), who lives in the jungle in the wreck of her father's plane and also wears a leopardskin onepiece. Samson's relationship to Doreen seems cribbed more from ANDROCLES AND THE LION, since the gorilla first meets the girl when he's been wounded by white hunters and she offers to help him. Thus their relationship seems more like that of siblings than mates. And although Samson does try to kill white hunter Ray whenever he gets close to Doreen, she has only to command Samson to stay away and the gorilla obeys: acting more like a surly brother than a jealous would-be-lover. Most of the film concerns the attempts of Ray to learn the truth about Doreen's embezzler father, while two villains, white hunter Carl and bargirl Marie, attempt to trap Samson for sale to a zoo. In the unsurprising end Ray gets away with Doreen and Samson tears apart both Carl and Marie, their death-agonies discreetly offscreen.
Discretion, however, suggested more than mere violence to author Alex Vernon, who in his book ON TARZAN alleged that Marie does get not just killed, but also raped, by the ape.
And yet, even though nothing in the script overtly suggests Samson as being warm for the human form, there's one mythically-intense moment early in NABONGA, in which a rogue gorilla intrudes on Doreen's home and Samson savagely drives the rival away. At this point alone, NABONGA does stray into the psychological terrain of Edgar Rice Burroughs' and his rape-happy apes. Thus Samson, because he is at once an ape and yet seems like something more as well, does qualify for the trope of "astounding animals," and shifts this otherwise routine film into the realm of the uncanny.