Sunday, November 4, 2012

#21: Nabonga

Drive In Movie Classics
Disc 6: Side B

After embezzling a small fortune in money and jewelry from a Cairo bank, T.F. Stockwell (Herbert Rawlinson) flees by plane over the African jungle. His young daughter Doreen is along for the ride--worst “Take Your Daughter To Work Day” ever--and when the plane crashes during a thunderstorm Doreen runs off into the jungle, where she befriends Sampson, a giant gorilla played by non-gorilla Ray Corrigan.

Years later, Ray Gorman (Buster Crabbe), son of the bank owner, arrives at a village on the outskirts of the jungle in search of the missing fortune. There, he overhears a hunter discussing the White Witch, whom natives say came from a great bird that fell from the sky. Gorman is intrigued. When he saves the life of tribesman Tobo (Prince Modupe), Tobo offers to take Gorman to the mountains where the White Witch is said to live.

The next day, they venture off into a roughly twenty-square-foot patch of jungle, where they’re menaced by stock footage of leopards, lions, alligators and other wild beasts. Close behind them are the seedy bar owner from the village Carl Hurst (Barton MacLane) and his assistant Marie (Fifi D’Orsay), who hope to get their hands on the fortune before Gorman does and who find themselves obliquely threatened by still more stock footage.

Eventually, Gorman and Tobo find Stockwell’s crashed plane, where they‘re attacked by the hulking Sampson. Tobo is frightened off--and unceremoniously disappears from the rest of the movie--but Gorman is saved by the White Witch herself, who turns out to be Doreen (Julie London) all grown up. What follows is a strange, seemingly endless series of scenes during which Gorman tries to simultaneously seduce Doreen and explain to her that her father is a thief.

“Whether you like it or not I’m going to take that stolen fortune back to the people it rightfully belongs to,” Gorman tells her. “And I’m not going to let a stubborn little savage like you stand in my way.”

“What are you trying to say?” asks Doreen.

“I’m trying to tell you I’m going to take that stuff back.”

“If you do,” says Doreen, “I’ll call Sampson.”

“I’d like to wring that pretty little neck of yours,” says Gorman with obvious affection.

Imagine a Cassavetes’ film with its conflicted characters, its meandering dialogue, its emotional highs and lows, then replace Peter Falk with a barrel-chested man in a pith helmet, put Gena Rowlands in a leopard-print dress, and set it in a cave--then you might have something like Nabonga’s circuitous, talk-heavy second act.

Thankfully, Carl and Marie finally arrive at the jungle lair to break up the monotony. Carl and Gorman fight. Carl shoots Gorman. Doreen tries to protect her treasure. Carl threatens Doreen. Gorman, still alive, saves her at the last minute, and Sampson, as you might expect, rampages. That’s about it. It’s quite fun--no surprise there, since it was directed by b-movie veteran Sam Newfield, who, among his 273 directorial efforts, helmed the Mystery Science Theater classics The Lost Continent and I Accuse My Parents. If nothing else, Nabonga’s a reminder of a simpler time, when a couple palm trees wobbling against a painted backdrop were enough to imply a jungle and a sweaty man in an ape suit was considered a viable stand in for the real thing. Verisimilitude, characterization, narrative, drama, irony, genuine emotion, relatable situations, and all that other hogwash--that’s for the Cassavetes of the world, not the Nabonga’s.   

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