If a long-mislaid but vividly documented Depression-era motion picture called Ingagi should ever re-surface – in the manner that such lost-and-found titles as the 1931 Spanish-language Dracula or the 1912 Richard III have cropped up, in unexpected out-of-the-way locations – its rediscovery alone would justify a monumental curatorial celebration and an overpriced DVD edition.
The film probably does not deserve as much, except perhaps on grounds of sheer obscurity and an ironically monumental influence. Never having viewed the picture, I am of course ill prepared to dismiss Ingagi as an unwatchable trifle. But primary-source screening notes from my late mentor, the film archivist and historian George E. Turner, describe a muddled combination of silent-screen expeditionary footage with staged bogus-safari scenes.
Ingagi is hardly the first of its kind, but it appears to have established a precedent for presenting an imaginary journey into unexplored regions as an authentic record of a scientific expedition. As such, it collected a reported $4 million in box-office returns – back in the day when a buck was still a dollar – and inspired numerous imitations.
The cryptic title became a household word: Such comedy acts as the Three Stooges and Hal Roach’s Our Gang ensemble devoted gags to Ingagi, and as late as 1939–1940 the actor-turned-filmmaker Spencer Williams, Jr., invoked the term with an otherwise unrelated picture called Son of Ingagi. During a visit at Dallas in 1993, Julius Schwartz cited the original Ingagi and a 1937 knockoff called Forbidden Adventure in Angkor as inspirations for the recurring “Gorilla City” subplot that distinguishes DC Comics’ Flash series of the 1960s.
Ingagi means “gorilla.” The name is pronounced, when uttered at all, as “in-GAD-ji,” although some speak it more like “in-GAGGY.” The film is a gag, all right – a smirking hoax that appears to have been taken altogether too seriously by organizations as oddly matched as the American Society of Mammalologists and the Ku Klux Klan.
The screen-story concerns an expedition into Africa to investigate legends of a gorilla-worshipping tribe. The credits state frankly that Ingagi was written by Adam Hull Shirk, a melodramatic playwright whose filmography also includes such ape-escape escapades as 1934’s House of Mystery and 1940’s The Ape, but the presentation suggests authenticity. Having out-lasted various perils of the wilds, the explorers find the sought-after colony and witness the abduction of a woman by a huge ape. The safari moves along to find the tribe comprising gorillas and human females. The gorillas attack, and the explorers kill a 600-pound specimen. One of the women mourns the death of what appears to have been her mate. The scientists (term used advisedly) return home with evidence of incredible discoveries.
The film’s marketing campaign appealed more directly to the science of mass-appeal sensationalism: “HALF-APE HALF-HUMAN – WILD WOMAN … QUEER HALF-BREED CHILD…,” along with such claims as “AMAZING DISCOVERIES OF JUNGLE LIFE! THE SCIENTIFIC MARVEL OF THE AGE!” Such ballyhoo was the stock-in-trade of studio chief Nathan “Nat” Spitzer, an old-time carnival impresario.
Intercut with the genuine safari footage (pirated from Lady Grace Mackenzie’s game-hunter expeditions of the 1910s) are fictional episodes filmed in California. George Turner’s notes from showings during the 1940s describe a purportedly venomous reptile as a tortoise, decorated with laminated wings and armor from a scaly anteater. Various creatures and botanical specimens from the Americas are seen in the mock-African setting.
Members of a preview audience in Los Angeles in 1930 recognized Ingagi’s abducted tribeswoman as a bit player well known at Central Casting. The principal gorilla is played by Charles Gemora (1903–1961), whose string of ape-impersonations in 1930 also included The Unholy Three at MGM Pictures, an Our Gang short called “Bear Shooters” at Roach Studios, and The Gorilla at First National Pictures.
A combination of emphatic advertising and widespread controversy made Ingagi a tremendous commercial success. The editor of Screenland, a show-business tradepaper, wrote: “Not only is [Ingagi] the greatest movie hoax …, but the most offensive.” Dr. William C. Gregory, of the American Museum of Natural History, announced that the Society of Mammalologists “expresses its utter disapproval…”
The American Nature Association characterized the film as “an imposition on the public, a blot on the moving-picture industry, and a serious threat to the usefulness of moving pictures” but in the same breath acknowledged the film to be “good entertainment.” Various regional boards of censors condemned and/or banned the film. The family of Lady Grace Mackenzie, whose hunting safaris had yielded much of the film’s authentic imagery, filed suit against Nat Spitzer’s Congo Pictures, Ltd., and won a $150,000 plagiarism judgment.
Spitzer persisted, nonetheless, with a nationwide release on March 15, 1931, overcoming even a New York censors’ ban on grounds of “nature faking.” A profitable run followed during the fall at NYC’s Central Theatre.
Seldom has so much ruckus been raised over so little. In a late-in-life interview with George Turner, Charles Gemora said he had staged the gorilla-enclave scenes for $5,000 and sold the filmed results to Spitzer for $7,000. The moneymaking accomplishments of Ingagi, in turn, inspired such imitations asForbidden Adventure in Angkor and Love Life of a Gorilla, both from 1937.
By 1937, of course, the machinery of institutionalized censorship had changed appreciably, what with a 1934 takeover by the Roman Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency of the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors Association and its affiliated Production Code Administration.
The producers of Forbidden Adventure in Angkor, which transplants the apes-and-women scenario to Southeast Asia, managed to maneuver around the Production Code by showing chief censor Joseph I. Breen one version while putting an entirely different cut into distribution. (A memorandum from Breen toAngkor’s Dwain Esper forbids “dialogue which in any way brings up the idea of possible sexual intimacy between women and monkeys.” Breen appears to have been incapable of telling a mobilized gorilla suit apart from a monkey – although it bears noting that Angkor’s own narration neglects to distinguish between the great apes and the lesser primates.)
I had mentioned the odd kinship between Ingagi et seq. and the “Gorilla City” element of the Flash comic books. Said Julius Schwartz, to that effect: “We just took out the ‘women-love-apes’ business and gave the gorillas a higher intelligence. If the Comics Code Authority had known where we were coming from with that idea, we’ve never have gotten away with it!”
Hints continue to surface that a print of Ingagi may have survived – maybe even likely so, in some guardedly obscure private collection or a long-abandoned film-shipping warehouse. Precedents for such discoveries range from the single-print finding of the once-lost Gothic Western Smoking Guns (1934) to the entire Tyler, Texas, Black Film Collection, now safely housed at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
One persistent account suggests that Ingagi had been misappropriated, well into the last century, as a tool of indoctrination by the Ku Klux Klan, whose leaders would have relished the outlandish depiction of African tribal life. This notion would seem consistent with the Klan’s known usage of D.W. Griffith’s conspicuously bigoted The Birth of a Nation, from 1915, for comparable purposes. So corrupt a use, however, cannot have been part of the strategy of Ingagi’s producers, who were more interested in luring a thrill-hungry mass audience than with advancing any crackpot social-political agendas.
The persistence of Ingagi as an influential film, in any event, proved such that found-object tribal footage, with or without gorillas, was still finding its way into new pseudo-documentary pictures beyond the mid-century mark.
In 1959, a theater-manager uncle of mine named Grady L. Wilson booked a movie of this tantalizing nature called The Mating Urge into one of his classier downtown venues in Amarillo, Texas. A police raid followed, scandalizing our family with its on-the-spot news coverage while provoking heavy-duty box-office traffic from customers who figured they’d better hurry up and catch this attraction before the print could be confiscated. The booking was one of those limited-run roadshow engagements – outside the conventional channels of film distribution. By the time the case, such as it was, could be formally dismissed in Misdemeanor Court, the film had run its intended course at a profit.
Every time I would attempt to bring up this topic with my Uncle Grady, thereafter, he would laugh it off and change the subject. By the time of his death in 1968, the mystery of that notorious showing had compounded itself immeasurably. Then during the 1980s, I sought out Amarillo’s since-retired chief of police, Wiley Alexander, and asked him whether he might remember anything about his vice-squad raid on The Mating Urge at my uncle’s State Theatre.
Alexander grinned, as if caught off-guard by the ghost of a memory. Then he burst out in a horse-laugh: “Well, y’know, your uncle and I – we were old-time pals, and he was a great prankster.
“So he had this chancy ol’ picture comin’ in. And a pretty tame li’l’ ol’ thing, it was, too, about courtship rituals in the Third World. Had a good lurid title but not much in the way of an advertising budget.
“And so ol’ Grady and I, now, we figured it out that if that picture could get itself raided, so to speak, then it’d stand a better chance of makin’ some money,” said Chief Alexander. “That ‘raid,’ as our ever-vigilant local newspaper called it – why, that was nothin’ but an old-fashioned publicity stunt! And it worked, too!”
By 1962, a more radical re-invention of the Ingagi phenomenon had asserted itself for a fresh wave of big-screen exploitation mania: The commercial success of the Italian-made patchwork film Mondo Canetriggered an entirely new craze of gawking at forbidden images from a safe distance.
Recommended viewing: Ted Bonnitt and Eddie Mueller’s 2001 documentary film Mau Mau Sex Sex, which addresses the bogus-safari expeditionary films as crucial elements in the history of exploitation cinema.