PopMatters has been avidly following Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray series called Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture, yet we were hardly prepared for Volume 8. In his commentary track, curator and historian Bret Wood calls the film a “sprawling, dishonest, spectacular, offensive, inhumane hodge-podge of a motion picture”, and he’s the one producing the disc.
Resurfacing like a sour dream from America’s cinematic subconscious is a long-suppressed phony documentary, Ingagi (1930), an overwhelmingly profitable and controversial release banned for false advertising by the Federal Trade Commission. Here treated to a 4K restoration from two tinted Library of Congress prints, it’s at once among the most tiresome specimens of the series and one of the most revealing and culturally significant.
The film claims to belong to the once-popular genre of ethnographic and safari documentaries, and much footage is lifted from one such item of 1915, Heart of Africa. A lost film, Heart of Africa purports to record the African safari of one Lady Grace Mackenzie, who used to travel with her film and put on shows. She was also a con artist who told inflated stories and bilked everybody. Historian Kelly Robinson, who has her own entertaining commentary track, finds the hoaxing masculine appropriation of a hoaxing woman’s safari hunt to be a delicious layering of fraud upon fraud.
At least the Mackenzie footage was really shot in Africa and boasts the film’s only claims to documentary authenticity. This part includes African dancers of unidentified provenance, which leads our Ingagi narrator to toss off comments about “African flappers” and “our modern dances” and even to call attention to what we’re allegedly too edified to notice. “You may observe that many of the native women are quite shapely,” he says. In reference to “two dusky Adonises”, he avers, “I was invariably impressed by the amazing physique of these fellows.” The narrator pretends to be one Sir Hubert Winstead, the guy we see in the pristine California-shot shrubbery with his colleagues and allegedly African porters (“our boys”), and the quality of whose footage contrasts so obviously with the ragged, scratchy 1915 footage.
After teasing the viewer with an opening statement about an obscure tribe that sacrifices one woman per year to local gorillas and how this may cure barren women, the film plods for an alternately tedious and repulsive hour of safari footage with numerous animals, often being shot. Like Marc Allégret and André Gide’s perfectly serious Travels in the Congo (Voyage au Congo, 1928), the film opens with footage on a European ship before arriving at the Congo. There’s footage of a hippo’s carcass being rolled by locals, and of course, there’s dancing. Among the more egregious elements of this hour are the flagrantly fraudulent “tortadillo” (a tortoise with wings and some kind of long armadillo tail attached to the shell) and the alleged pygmies who are simply played by children.
Finally, the last two reels get to what audiences paid to see. We have a mishmash of footage of various monkeys and apes, some naked women (hired and filmed in Los Angeles), a topless sacrificial victim (ditto) sitting moodily on a log, and, presented in the distance and obscured by flora, a barely glimpsed child whom the narrator insists is some weird hybrid. Insert monosyllable of queasy exasperation here.
Also present is the secret and real star of our show, legendary ape-actor Charles Gemora, in one of his impressive handmade gorilla-suits. Wood tells us it’s the same suit he wore in Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg, 1932), just before the animal takes off its head to reveal Marlene Dietrich in an Orphan Annie wig singing “Hot Voodoo”. Now that’s research. The filmmakers’ clever obscuring techniques for the phony gorilla emerging from the brush remind me of the notorious fuzzy Sasquatch footage, but if we start getting into the evolutionary links between ape movies and Bigfoot, we’ll be here all day.
How did Ingagi get made? Robinson traces phony Africa documentaries to producer William Selig, who once staged a Teddy Roosevelt look-alike shooting an old lion (for real) in a Chicago studio and distributed the same to hoodwinked audiences.
By this point, audiences were used to safari films and African documentaries, so exploitation producer Nat Spitzer founded Congo Pictures and made this indie production for states-rights distribution by cobbling old footage with new. He needed a gimmick to make it stand out from other old-hat or old-helmet pictures, and he found it in the distasteful, salacious, and brazenly racist animal-sex implication. This seems to be something that America’s White audiences were not only prepared to believe but wanted to believe if we judge by the whopping estimated gross of $4 million.
Three years later, explorer-filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack would grace the world with King Kong, and we beg leave not to believe they never saw Ingagi. As both commenters point out, RKO executives clearly saw Ingagi and made tons of cash from it in their theatres. At the very least, this must have disposed them to produce their own movie about a big gorilla snatching a damsel. That film, perhaps unwittingly, carries all kinds of historical subtext about slavery, forced transportation to the New World, hucksterism and cinematic exploitation, the rage of the exploited, racist fears of miscegenation, and the symbolism of apes.
Robinson discusses how quickly, in popular culture, the threatened female becomes a White woman instead of an African. If we see the gorilla codified as “Black”, this signifies both a fear of inter-racial rape and the only culturally acceptable way to mine repressed desire for what society forbids. The opposing tropes of the rapist and the sexually desirable partner have been a double bind for Black males, not so much two sides of a coin as a deoxyribonucleic strand of mutually reinforcing fear and desire at large in American culture. Robinson points out that the case of Alabama’s “Scottsboro Boys” occurred in 1931 and that a white judge went so far as to declare that sex between Black males and White females could only ever be rape.
Robinson traces the cultural history of gorilla/human breeding from an iconic French sculpture of the 19th Century through the 1920s craze for “monkey glands” and beyond. The tenacity and ubiquity of the trope is astounding, and Ingagi is the seminal crossroads of the faux-documentary and the gorilla thing. Wood quotes from an Ingagi promotion that links it to the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial to prove its topicality.
Robinson even touches on the history of strippers in burlesque houses who used the gorilla schtick. She describes one astonishing specialist who danced as half-woman, half-ape, with one half fighting the other. A whole thesis topic is there. I’m reminded of the song in Bob Fosse‘s Cabaret (1972) where Joel Grey’s Emcee courts a female gorilla and sings “If you could see her through my eyes”, leading to the punchline “She wouldn’t look Jewish at all”, thus turning the trope into a comment on Nazi anti-Semitic racism.
Wood believes most viewers in 1930 were on to “the gag in Ingagi” (as one headline put it) but that some viewers were fooled. Robinson believes it was easy for ignorant viewers to be hoaxed, and she quotes a couple of reviews to support that. Whether Mr. and Mrs. America believed the film’s gibberish, nobody seems to have been disposed to condemn the racist idea at its center. When the film’s fraud was exposed, which happened fairly quickly, the tenor of outrage centered on lying to the public, not vicious racist implications.
A 2006 Los Angeles Times article, in cataloging various groups that complained about the film, states, “there don’t appear to have been any contemporary statements issued by the NAACP or leading African American newspapers regarding the inherent racism.” Surely that’s a topic for further research since I find it hard to believe.
The Offspring, ‘The Ape’
As a sign of both the origin and legacy of Ingagi, Kino Lorber has also recently released William Nigh’s The Ape (1940), a Monogram B picture starring Boris Karloff as a charming mad scientist who gets the idea to disguise himself as an escaped gorilla so that he could harvest the human spinal fluid he needs to cure polio because that kind of thing always works.
The Ape is a much more harmlessly entertaining absurdity than Ingagi, but the connections are stronger than a guy in an ape suit. Writers Kurt Siodmak and Richard Carroll were revising a 1934 Monogram picture called The House of Mystery, also directed by Nigh and based on a play that debuted on a Hollywood stage in 1924. The playwright was Adam Hull Shirk — whose obvious expertise in matters simian led Nat Spitzer to hire him for the script of Ingagi!
Meanwhile, Spitzer would work as production supervisor on Guilty Parents (Jack Townley, 1934), which can be found in Volume 7 of this Forbidden Fruit series. The connections never cease.
The exhumation of Ingagi is timely. Robin R. Means Coleman’s critical study Horror Noire, which was made into a 2019 documentary by Xavier Burgin, discusses this now-obscure movie with an outsized impact, and now here it is. In the new century, exposure to Ingagi may have the socially redeeming effect of encouraging Caucasian audiences to renounce their Whiteness, or at least learn more about its ideas and implications and how they’ve evolved in many directions. For if the film uses “documentary” as a cover to exploit racist ideas about mating with animals–and does it ever–it also uses its own racism as a cover to exploit titillating desires about bestiality, an “animal” appeal of sex that’s so deeply unconscious as to need a few layers of mental mediation to rear its ugly head.
At another extreme of the human/beast trope (but all manifestations are extreme) is some kind of “furry” obsession. One example can be found in Carl Reiner‘s deliberately offensive Where’s Popp (1971), scripted by Robert Klane from his novel, in which a White male Jewish character played by Ron Leibman is raped by a gorilla and likes it (shades of Cabaret). The trope makes us wonder if there’s a subtextual racial message here as well.
Among the more direct offspring of Ingagi is Son of Ingagi (Richard C. Kahn, 1940), the first horror film with an all-Black cast. This was among many “race movies” that played in African-American theatres, off the radar of mainstream Hollywood or White audiences. The script was by pioneering Spencer Williams, known for TV’s Amos and Andy and for writing and directing the all-Black religious fantasy The Blood of Jesus (1941), now in the National Film Registry. In fact, Son of Ingagi appears to have led directly to the gig for The Blood of Jesus.
Son of Ingagi, which can be found on YouTube, isn’t a true sequel but clearly capitalizes on the title’s public knowledge. It does so for its own purposes in presenting non-stereotypical characterizations aimed at entertaining Black audiences. Therefore, it doesn’t come close to being as offensive or uncomfortable as its “father”. Its title seems to assume implicitly that its target audience wouldn’t be offended.
Thus, African-American artists could appropriate, reclaim, and even subvert virulent notions, such as when Oscar Micheaux responded to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1914) by making Within Our Gates (1920) and The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) to reverse its racial tropes about rape.
That’s another reason why it’s important to see the objectionable originals. Kino Lorber has done an important service for historians and horror buffs, not despite cinema’s queasiest and most racist elements but because of them.
Erish, Andrew. “Illegitimate dad of ‘Kong‘”. Los Angels Times. 8 January 2006.
Means Coleman, Robert R. Horror Noir: Blacks in American Horror Films from the 1890s to Present. Routledge. 2011