White Pongo / Adventure Unlimited (1945) -**
I don’t think anyone would argue with me if I said that the median quality level for gorilla movies was lower than that for nearly any other genre. Yes, there are a handful of decent enough gorilla flicks scattered across the ages, and even one acknowledged classic, but the vast majority of the things stink worse than the ape house at your local municipal zoo. With the industry standard as lax as it is, and with the rest of the studio’s history to guide you, you might think you can imagine what a gorilla movie from the Producers’ Releasing Corporation would be like, but in truth, I rather expect that many of you actually can’t. Even after year upon year of warping my mind with the likes of The Mad Monster and The Devil Bat, I was still taken aback by the totality of White Pongo’s failure to meet even the most forgiving expectations of technical competence, artistic merit, or just simple entertainment value as that concept is generally understood. But as my longtime readers have surely deduced by now, we have a slightly different— and decidedly non-general— understanding of that last term around here, and by the twisted yardstick of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting, White Pongo has at least a little bit to recommend it.
We begin with a typically pathetic 40’s Hollywood representation of an African village. The men are all dressed up for hunting/battle, performing some kind of ritual dance. There’s also a white man (Milton Kibbee, from The Flying Serpent and The Mad Doctor of Market Street) tied to some sort of bamboo rack some distance away from all the action, and my guess is he hasn’t got much longer to live if all goes according to plan. Then another white guy, an old man who introduces himself as Professor Gerig (Egon Brecher, of The Black Room and Werewolf of London), sneaks up beside the bound man and begins “stealthily” undoing his restraints. Gerig explains that he was part of the Dierdorf expedition ten years ago, and though he has long ago resigned himself to living out the rest of his days here in the jungle, he cannot abide the thought that his and Dierdorf’s discoveries should remain unknown to the civilized world. Gerig gives the other man (whose name is Gunderson, by the way) Dierdorf’s diary, and extracts from him a vow to carry it with him when he makes his escape. That escape, incidentally, is assisted by the activities of a white-furred gorilla— a white pongo, to use the native term for the big apes— which we may safely assume has something to do with those “discoveries” Gerig was talking about.
Some time later, Gunderson makes it out of the jungle, but he has contracted some awful fever along the way, and he is half-dead when he arrives at a European colonial settlement somewhere along the Congo river. He survives just long enough to hand over the Dierdorf journal to his doctor (Larry Steers), who shows it in turn to an anthropologist friend of his named Sir Harry Bragdon (Gordon Richards). If the diary is to be believed, the Dierdorf expedition found and indeed temporarily captured a hitherto unknown missing link in the evolutionary lineage of man, a highly intelligent gorilla with white fur. Though there is initially some debate among Bragdon and his closest colleagues, Peter Van Dorn (Lionel Royce) and Hans Kroegert (Al Eben), over the credibility of the journal and the advisability of a follow-up expedition, Gunderson’s death decides them in favor of launching a foray into the jungle to follow in Dierdorf’s footsteps. After all, it would be a shame for so many to have died only to have their discoveries vanish into the mists of rumor and legend.
In addition to a pair of riflemen employed by Kroegert, a third marksman named Geoffrey Bishop (Richard Fraser, from Bedlam and The Picture of Dorian Gray), and the usual mob of native porters under the command of a more civilized African named— seriously, no lie, no willful mishearing of dialogue— Mumbo Jumbo (Joel Fluellen, of White Goddess and Monster from Green Hell), the scientists will be bringing along three other companions. Bragdon never does anything of this sort without his secretary, Clive Carswell (Michael Dyne), so his inclusion in the project is a given. Nor, apparently, is it conceivable to trek hundreds of miles deep into unexplored jungle without comic relief, and so along comes a fat man named Baxter (George Lloyd), whose greatest point of distinction is what must surely be the most appalling fake Australian accent yet captured by sound-recording equipment. Finally, Bragdon brings his daughter, Pamela (The Face of Marble’s Maris Wrixon, who had earlier faced another unusual gorilla in The Ape), in order to introduce that all-important element of jealousy and backstabbing to the plot. Carswell, you see, is in love with Pamela, and she has been stringing him along for years. In point of fact, however, she is much more strongly attracted to Geoffrey Bishop, and eventually contrives to have him assigned as her own personal guard. Bishop, for his part, knows a manipulative cock-tease when he sees one, but his initial resistance to Pamela’s wiles neither spares him from constant friction with Carswell nor stops him from sucking face with the girl at length during the final shot of the film.
From the moment the explorers clamber into their canoes until the final reel, White Pongo is almost completely innocent of plot. It does, however, have a whole fucking lot of stock wildlife footage, some of which may even have been shot in Africa. It also has a great many clips of man-in-a-suit gorillas sitting around in a clearing, making odd clucking sounds at each other, and of White Pongo himself spying on the explorers from the underbrush. The latter would be a trifle more convincing if the white ape didn’t make so goddamned much noise while maintaining his surveillance. At some point, the Bragdon expedition puts in at the very village where Gunderson was held prisoner, affording them the opportunity to meet Gerig themselves, and to hear his stories about his own trip into the bush. On Gerig’s advice, they make camp in the same spot as the Dierdorf gang, where Baxter builds a ridiculous and none-too-effective pit trap with which to capture White Pongo. The whole crew then sits around the campsite doing virtually nothing, until Carswell gets so bored and so crazy with jealousy over the way Pamela has been ignoring him in favor of Geoffrey that he goes to Kroegert and asks to be let in on his secret plan. The fact that Kroegert has a secret plan for Carswell to be let in on comes as news to us. Kroegert admits that his true purpose in accompanying Bragdon concerns not the white ape, but an unexploited goldmine which he has reason to believe is somewhere in the vicinity, and Carswell agrees to join him, provided that he be allowed to bring Pamela along so that he can rape the shit out of her during slow periods in the gold-prospecting workday. Kroegert says that’s fine with him. The two slimeballs (with the help of those riflemen of Kroegert’s) are successful in their mutiny, leaving all the rest of the white folks tied up at the campsite while they commandeer Mumbo Jumbo and his men for their own purposes. Luckily for our heroes, Geoffrey Bishop turns out really to be a secret agent of the Rhodesian colonial government, and he effortlessly James Bonds his way out of Kroegert’s trap, freeing the others after he has done so. And of equal importance, White Pongo picks this moment to do something other than hide in the bushes at long last. The ape rescues Pamela from Kroegert and his flunkies, Bishop and Bragdon rescue Pamela from the ape, and White Pongo sort of stumbles to a halt without ever delivering on the promised transportation of the missing link to London— presumably because something like that would have cost money.
Frankly, it surprised the hell out of me when White Pongo made it past the 70-minute mark. Even at that short a running time, you can practically hear the movie huffing and puffing with overexertion well before the closing credits, and indeed, if you cut out all the stock wildlife footage, I doubt you’d have more than three quarters of an hour of film left over. From what I’ve seen, director Sam Newfield generally did at least a little better than this, and I suspect most of the problem lies with Raymond Schrock’s utterly worthless non-script. Most of the time when I talk about actors not having enough to do, I mean that their parts were underwritten or failed to take advantage of some conspicuous skill or ability which they possessed. In this case, however, that phrase should be taken absolutely literally, as virtually every member of the cast spends most of their screen time just sort of standing around, delivering lines which amount to nothing more than small talk, almost totally meaningless when given more than the most cursory examination. And then there’s White Pongo himself. Poor White Pongo gets to do little more than rattle tree branches about and jump up and down in place while pant-hooting until the movie is well-nigh over— and he’s the for-Christ’s-sake title character! Wretched, dumb, and occasionally outright offensive (offhand racism is par for the course with these movies, but a head bearer named Mumbo Jumbo is just beyond the fucking pale), White Pongo serves as a catalogue of nearly everything that can possibly go wrong with a 1940’s jungle flick. By my reckoning, that makes it worth sitting through at least once, provided you’ve got some friends to help you heckle and/or some intoxicants to make it go down a bit smoother.