Monday, January 09, 2006

Illegitimate dad of 'Kong'


One of the Depression's highest-grossing films was an outrageous fabrication, a scandalous and suggestive gorilla epic that set box office records.

By Andrew Erish, Special to The LA Times

A safari venturing into unexplored territory stumbles upon natives who sacrifice a woman to a large gorilla in order to spare the rest of their tribe.

It sounds like a scene from Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's legendary "King Kong," but it's actually part of the climactic sequence from the film "Ingagi," released three years earlier. "Ingagi" is largely forgotten, but "Kong" might never have gotten made if not for the success of its scandalous predecessor.

"Ingagi" arrived in 1930 to satisfy a hunger for jungle pictures piqued by Theodore Roosevelt's African safari and fueled by the success of such nickelodeon hits as "Heart of Africa," documenting a 1915 Kenyan safari by Lady Grace Mackenzie, and "Hunting Big Game in Africa," a phony account of the Roosevelt trip filmed entirely in a Chicago studio by Col. William Selig, one of the most successful and innovative producers of the day.

As only a handful of zoos and circuses exhibited apes during the early 20th century, movies featuring all forms of monkeys emerged as a popular genre, and some filmmakers, such as William S. Campbell, seemed to specialize in monkey-themed films, with "Monkey Stuff" and "Jazz Monkey," in 1919, and "Prohibition Monkey" in 1920. Schoedsack warmed up for "King Kong" by directing "Chang" in 1927 (with Cooper) and "Rango" in 1931, both of which prominently featured monkeys in real jungle settings. The debate about evolution at the Scopes monkey trial of 1925 further spurred interest in primate pictures.

Capitalizing on the craze, Congo Pictures Ltd. released "Ingagi." All advertisements for the film explained that "ingagi" means "gorilla." And every ad and article stated that the movie documented an authentic, scientific two-year expedition in the Belgian Congo, produced by Sir Hubert Winstead of the Royal Geological Society, who appeared in the film along with American sportsman Capt. Daniel Swayne.

Congo Pictures, formed expressly to make the film, could afford only one print, and it arranged for a two-week run at a theater in San Diego, where it played to more than 40,000 people. But efforts to interest New York-based film distributors failed, and Congo had to book "Ingagi" theater by theater.

Congo rented Chicago's Garrick Theatre, advertising the film as "an authentic incontestable celluloid document showing the sacrifice of a living woman to mammoth gorillas!" The Motion Picture News credited "lurid lobby advertising depicting a gorilla fondling a near-nude native woman" for drawing crowds to the Garrick.

"Ingagi" was an unabashed exploitation film, almost immediately running afoul of the Hollywood code of ethics created by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Assn. (MPPDA), a consortium of the major motion picture studios popularly known as the Hays Office. A week after "Ingagi's" Chicago debut, the Hays Code was modified to state that: "Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden" and "Complete nudity is never permitted."

The lure of the forbidden

That was a plus for "Ingagi." Exploitation cinema during Hollywood's "Golden Age" deliberately dealt with subject matter that the Hays Office prohibited, luring customers to "forbidden spectacle." And "Ingagi" was loaded with it.

The movie follows white hunters Winstead and Swayne, accompanied by cameramen and black porters, into the Belgian Congo jungle in search of a tribe that engages in human sacrifice to a band of gorillas. Along the way they encounter a 65-foot python, shoot a baby rhino and observe animals at a watering hole. The party also discovers a new species of animal, the tortadillo.

A cameraman is killed by a wounded lion, and upon entering " 'Ingagi' Country," the hunters stumble upon a tribe of shy pygmies. There are glimpses of naked women foraging in a thicket, then native porters briefly capture a gorilla that overpowers them and escapes. Finally, the hunters watch as a bare-breasted woman is carried off by a gorilla, but Swayne saves her by shooting the beast dead.

The film moved from Chicago to San Francisco, where it opened April 5 at the Orpheum, which was owned by RKO. Variety reported that the movie had been offered to every theater along Market Street.

The Orpheum had been the crown jewel of western vaudeville until Joseph Kennedy secretly bought a controlling interest in the monopolistic Keith-Orpheum circuit, then turned around and sold the theaters at an enormous profit to David Sarnoff to help Sarnoff's RCA recording process become the standard used for talking pictures. The new company, Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO), soon killed off vaudeville and became one of the five major motion picture companies in Hollywood.

The advertising campaign remains striking for its innovation — and its success. Handbills offered a hyperbolic synopsis of the film. Ads in the Chronicle reiterated the film's prurient aspects, suggesting evidence of a missing link between humans and apes, and asked "Was Darwin Right?" Artwork depicted a topless African woman held by a gorilla.

Congo transformed the Orpheum's lobby and foyer with painted canvases of African scenes, stuffed zebras and hyenas, and a life-sized lion attacking a gazelle. A loudspeaker broadcast jungle-sound records from a hidden phonograph, stopping passersby in droves. The ticket booth became a straw hut. And the ushers wore puttees and pith helmets.

Despite ticket prices ranging from only 30 to 65 cents, the film earned almost $4,000 on its opening day and outgrossed the competition throughout its monthlong run.

The movie was so successful that RKO had additional prints made and booked the film into at least seven more of its theaters, including the Oakland and Los Angeles orpheums.

By May, "Ingagi" was in 14 cities, breaking box office records in every theater it played. Newspapers referred to it as "the gorilla 'sex' picture," and the movie was such a hit that a Tin Pan Alley songwriter published a tune titled "My Ingagi."

Most critics raved about the film, but some questioned its authenticity. Yet the San Francisco Chronicle continued printing "Ingagi" press releases. "By actual film record," one such story ran, "one man was killed and another seriously mauled in this exciting encounter." Booking theaters on its own as an independent production unaffiliated with the Hays Office, "Ingagi" was free to run anywhere it could gain approval from the censor board of a state or a Canadian province. According to Hays Office files at the Motion Picture Academy Library, the Ohio censor insisted that scenes of close dancing between native men and women be removed, that all nudity be edited out of the film, that narration and title cards implying that women were sacrificed in order to consort with gorillas be eliminated, and that all references and images of hairy children as offspring of the unions be deleted.

On May 21, Congo took out an ad in the trades listing receipts from 14 cities that totaled $642,300. But that same day the Hays Office ordered its members to cease from distributing or exhibiting "Ingagi." And oddly, it wasn't because of the insinuations of relations between the African women and gorillas, but because Congo Pictures had represented the film as authentic when in fact it wasn't.

The Hays Office revealed that "Ingagi" was a conglomeration of stock shots from older films, including a significant portion of Lady Mackenzie's "Heart of Africa," and the scenes of the women with the gorillas had been shot at the zoo William Selig had created for filming jungle movies.

The Hays ruling was prompted by an investigation by the national Better Business Bureau, which found that there was no such person as Sir Hubert Winstead. Nor was there a Capt. Daniel Swayne.

Its report also revealed that the American Society of Mammalogists deplored the film's "numerous fictitious features which are misleadingly mingled with genuine natural history records." One expert noted that the "tortadillo," proclaimed as a new discovery to science, was a "turtle with wings, scales and a long tail glued on to it."

The Los Angeles Examiner reported that "Central Avenue Negroes" were employed as African tribesmen, and that the pygmies "were Negro children from Los Angeles' black belt." It was also noted that Jackie, better known as the trademark MGM lion, and its trainer Mel Koontz staged the scene in which a lion attacked one of the expedition's cameramen.

It soon came to light that Nat Spitzer, the president of Congo Pictures Ltd., was the real producer of "Ingagi," and also the film's narrator. He claimed that the movie was 85% authentic and that the remaining shots were directed by William S. Campbell at the Selig zoo "for the purpose of obtaining suitable transition sequences to round out the picture."

When asked by the Better Business Bureau whether the scenes between the "Ingagi" and the "native" woman were authentic, he replied that they were "absolutely genuine."

The Hays decision to ban "Ingagi" led RKO to drop the film from its theaters, but Congo Pictures brokered even more lucrative deals with independent theaters, and those theaters did much better business than ever before. "Ingagi's" notoriety pulled in the crowds, setting box office records from Kansas City to Baltimore to the Dakotas, with audience response divided between those who found the whole thing hilarious and those who were repulsed.

Even after the "Ingagi" canards became public, the film was approved for showing in Illinois and Massachusetts, known for their notoriously tough censors. More startling was the reversal of the Ohio censor, who approved the film in its complete form, with the only stipulation being "that the advertising used must state that the picture is not authentic."

A policy takes shape

On June 22, an Advertising Code of Ethics was adopted by the Hays Office, in large part as a response to the "Ingagi" scandal. Congress was beginning to heed the protests of independent producers and theater owners who asserted that they were victims of unfair trade practices by the Hays Office. Realizing that an official ban of "Ingagi" would subject it to further charges of monopolistic practices, Hays soon backpedaled and declared there was no ban — it was up to the individual member theaters whether or not to show "Ingagi."

Congo followed up by placing a series of ads in newspapers and trade magazines around the country to argue its case before the public, declaring "THE BATTLE IS ON!" It boasted that after 13 weeks in release in 29 cities, "Ingagi" had grossed more than $1 million in box office receipts.

The battle was, indeed, on. At the end of July, Byron P. Mackenzie, African game hunter and son of "Lady" Mackenzie (who it turns out wasn't legitimately titled at all), sued Congo, charging unauthorized use of his mother's "Heart of Africa." Three months later, the court awarded Mackenzie a judgment of $150,000 against the company.

The Humane Society jumped on the anti-"Ingagi" bandwagon, threatening to lead a boycott in conjunction with various women's clubs and the Campfire Girls of America against all movies not approved by their organization. "Ingagi" was cited as one of the worst offenders for showing cruelty to animals, though ironically those scenes in which animals had been killed were lifted from films of years past.

Then in October, a detective working for the Hays Office finally prevailed upon Charles Gemora to sign an affidavit admitting that he had portrayed the principal gorilla in "Ingagi." Up to and including his work in "Ingagi," every role Gemora played was intended to fool the audience into thinking it was watching a real gorilla. He hinted to Motion Picture magazine that the threat of being blacklisted by the Hays Office if he didn't spill the beans about "Ingagi" was what led him to finally admit his role in the affair.

It took until 1933 for the Federal Trade Commission to issue a conditional "cease and desist" order against the showing of "Ingagi," by now long played out. Congo was to cease representing the film as a true and authentic record of an expedition in Africa, "or any other country," unless all the scenes of "Ingagi" were actually made in Africa.

The commission included in its report the old laundry list of canards, its only revelation being that "Ingagi" was a fictitious name for "gorilla," no such word having been found in any African language dictionary.

Beyond bad taste

Much of "Ingagi" is kitsch of the sort only bad, low-budget filmmaking can produce. The soundtrack consists solely of meandering organ music and narration that offers occasional flashes of wit amid the condescension. An extended shot of a tribe dancing is accompanied by: "The African native is very emotional. He dances, and how he dances. Such a dance must be seen to be fully appreciated…. Like something out of an opium smoker's dream."

The actors playing Winstead and Swayne in the Campbell-directed sequences wear fedoras and Bermuda shorts, but are intercut with genuine safari footage of hunters in pith helmets.

The movie purports that not only are tribal women sacrificed to the "Ingagi," but some otherwise barren women mate with the gorillas by choice in order to conceive. At the climax of the film, a naked woman emerges from the bush to mourn her dead gorilla lover. But "Ingagi's" most offensive moment shows a topless black woman cradling a baby adorned with patches of glued-on fur, described as "a strange-looking child, seemingly more ape than human."

There don't appear to have been any contemporary statements issued by the NAACP or leading African American newspapers regarding the inherent racism of "Ingagi." But it's undeniable that both filmmakers and audience helped exploit degrading attitudes toward blacks. While it's true that "Ingagi" contains many entertaining moments, they are overwhelmed by the suggestions of black women mating with gorillas, among the ugliest, most disturbing concepts in movie history.

Since it was produced and distributed independently, "Ingagi" isn't listed on any box office charts, which base their figures on those supplied by MPPDA-member companies. But it's likely that "Ingagi" earned about $4 million, making it one of the highest-grossing films of the Depression. Like many independent productions of the era, "Ingagi" has virtually disappeared since relatively few prints were made and none were properly maintained. In fact, only 1 1/2 prints are known to exist in American archives.

Although producer Merian C. Cooper never listed "Ingagi" among his influences for "King Kong," it's long been held that RKO green-lighted "Kong," despite the studio having fallen into receivership in the midst of the Depression, because of the bottom-line example of "Ingagi": Gorillas plus sexy women in peril equals enormous profits. And if that was indeed the case, there's no doubt that "King Kong" was by far the best thing to be spawned by "Ingagi."


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