(3/10). Acquanetta the Ape Woman returns in a 1944 sequel to Universal’s Captive Wild Woman. The first 20 minutes go by in flashbacks from the original picture, before the wild woman is resurrected and goes ape, off-screen, in a mental asylum. An ill-conceived and clumsy effort, this is a monster movie without a monster, trying feebly to emulate Val Lewton’s Cat People.
Jungle Woman. 1944, USA. Directed by Reginald Le Borg. Written by Bernard Schubert, Henry Sucher, Edward Dein. Starring: Acquanetta, J. Carrol Naish, Lois Collier, Richard David, Samuel S. Hinds, Evelyn Ankers, Milburn Stone, Tom Keene, Clyde Beatty, John Carradine. Produced by Will Cowan and Ben Pivar. IMDb: 5.1/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
In 1943 Universal Studios updated their roster of monsters with a new addition: Paula Dupree, aka Cheelah then Ape Woman, played by the alluring newcomer Acquanetta in the movie Captive Wild Woman (review). While little remembered by others than hardcore B movie fans today, the film was a moderate success, and a sequel was quickly locked down. True, the gorilla woman died at the end of the film, but something as inconsequential as death has never stopped a Universal monster.
But before we move on with the sequel, a few words about the first film are required — not least because much of it is rehashed through flashbacks in Jungle Woman. Those familiar with Captive Wild Woman will remember that the film was primarily based at two locations: a circus, where leading man Fred Mason (Milburn Stone/Clyde Beatty) tamed lions and tigers, and an asylum where mad scientist Dr. Walters (John Carradine) turned one of the circus gorillas, Cheelah into a woman with the help of glandular extracts from Mason’s girlfriend (Evelyn Ankers). We also remember that Paula Dupree, the “captive wild woman” or ape woman if you will, was a mute who fell in love with Fred Mason after being assigned as his assistant. At the end of the film Paula Dupree had reverted back into full gorilla mode. In the bittersweet finale of the movie Paula/Cheelah was shot dead when she attempted to save Fred from the tigers and lions threatening to eat him, as a stage hand mistook her benevolent action as an attack. So as far as we knew, Cheelah/Paula was dead, as stated. We’ll get back to this.
Another thing friends of Captive Wild Woman will remember is that huge chunks of that movie were lifted from a 1933 circus film called Big Cage — in which real-life big cat performer Clyde Beatty was handling up to a dozen lions and tigers at the same time in a big circus cage. Future Oscar nominee and Cannes winner Edward Dmytryk spliced together a surprisingly fluid and coherent movie by matching his own footage (including Beatty lookalike Milburn Stone in the lead) and the lion taming scenes from Big Cage. The film also benefited from the ominous sexuality of the mysterious, mute Acquanetta and an overall good cast.
Which, finally, brings us to the film at hand. Jungle Woman opens with a dramatic shadow play, in which we see a man getting attacked by a woman, whom he seems to subdue with a syringe. Next, we encounter Dr. Carl Fletcher (J. Carrol Naish) at a coroner’s inquiry into the death of the woman whose shadow we apparently saw earlier. Fletcher pleads guilty to killing the woman, who we learn is the same Paula Dupree we encountered in the previous film. What now ensues is a barrage of flashbacks and reused footage as Naish, as well as the stars of the previous movie, Evelyn Ankers and Milburn Stone, proceed to tell the coroner and the residing judge the plot of Captive Wild Woman, with an ample dose of reused footage from both that film AND Big Cage. In fact, the lion’s share of the movie’s first 20 minutes is lifted directly from Captive Wild Woman. And it must be said that director Reginald Le Borg is not half as talented at splicing together films as Dmytryk was.
The main achievement of all this flashbacking is that we are told of Cheelah’s death scene in Captive Wild Woman from the perspective of Dr. Fletcher, who sat in the audience that fateful evening. While the ape was pronounced dead at the scene, Fletcher could detect faint life signs, and quickly purchased the “body” in order to bring it to his lab and revive it. Thus we are given the all-important explanation of how yet another “dead” Universal monster is back for a sequel.
And this is where our movie proper begins, with a scant 40 minutes of running time left to go. Mind you, the entire plot is still told in flashback. What happens now is that at some point efter rescuing Cheelah, the gorilla breaks out of its cage (off screen) and transforms into Paula Dupree once again (off screen). Dr. Fletcher and one of the inmates at his asylum (which was formerly Dr. Walters’ asylum) go ape hunting on the grounds but instead of a gorilla they find Paula Dupree, who has had the good sensibility of putting on a nightgown after she became human. Perplexed by the mute stranger in the garden, Fletcher immediately enrolls her as one of his patients and soon learns that she possesses incredible strength, as she decimates a metal ashtray with a single hand. And no-one is more surprised than the audience when Paula suddenly starts to talk as soon as handsome young Bob (Richard David) walks into Fletcher’s office. Paula, it seems, has a crush on young Bob, but there’s a hitch: Bob is already spoken for, as he is the fiancé to be of Fletcher’s daughter Joan (Lois Collier).
Now we are about 25 minutes into the picture, and I’m sure you all can imagine where this is going. There’s a couple of mysterious deaths on the hospital grounds (off screen), someone tries to sabotage Bob’s and Joan’s romantic evening (AT THE ASYLUM GROUNDS!) and after an excruciatingly long time Dr. Fletcher finally starts putting one and one together, and the big reveal of the film is that PAULA DUPREE IS THE APE WOMAN! A fact that the audience had been well aware of a year before the film premiered.
Anyone looking for any sort of logic in Jungle Woman will be turning their brain inside out. Despite the fact that the movie spends 20 minutes trying to reconnect the dots from the first picture, the new plot just throws curveball after curveball. Just to point out a few questions I have: The original film clearly states that Dr. Walters has a hard time keeping Cheelah/Paula in her human state, and that she needs regular injections in order not to revert to her gorilla state. Then why does she suddenly and out of the blue turn into a woman in Jungle Woman, seemingly able to shapeshift back and forth at will? Plus, it was established in the first film that Paula was a mute. How and when has she suddenly learned how to speak? Of course, the idea that she suddenly understands human notions such as that the sky is blue and a cat purrs and that a woman should put on clothes when moving about other people was a problem already in the first movie, but it gets exaggerated here. Then, of course, one can question some of the motivations of the humans in the picture, but this is a given in these B horrors, so there really is not much point in going into this.
If Captive Wild Woman was a low-budget film by Universal standards, then Jungle Woman is yet another step down. Barring the sequences cut from the former film, Jungle Woman basically takes place in a number of rather nondescript rooms and a backlot jungle set. The direction by Reginald Le Borg is not bad per se, and there are a number of quite effective sequences, most of them involving a non-speaking Acquanetta and a bit of atmospheric lighting. One of the main problems with the film, however, is that almost everything happens off-screen, betraying either a lack of time or money, probably both. The striking ape woman makeup from the first movie shows up only for a few seconds here (barring cut-ins from Captive Wild Woman), and even then, I’m pretty sure it’s not applied to Acquanetta, but a dummy. And this time, they haven’t even bothered to hire a gorilla actor, perhaps because resident ape man Crash Corrigan was busy elsewhere with his gorilla suit. This means that save the flashbacks from the old film, this monster movie doesn’t even really have a monster.
This was only Acquanetta’s second movie role, proper. Her lack of acting experience was remedied in Captive Wild Woman by that fact that she was mute the whole picture through. Because say what you want about Mildred Davenport, which was her real name, she had a sort of primal, piercing presence which almost made you buy into the fantasy that she was, in fact, some strange exotic creature found in the jungles of Venezuela and dragged in front of he cameras in Hollywood. This aura still remains in Jungle Woman, and is eventually what makes this film as enjoyable as it is, despite its many flaws. However, the decision to have Paula Dupree speak this time around does hurt Acquanetta in the long run, as her lack of acting abilities become clear as soon as she opens her mouth. Also, anything she does on screen except scowl is terribly stiff and amateurish, and she walks around the sets almost like Vampira in Plan 9 From Outer Space. I’m not sure whether this was a conscious decision by director Le Borg, or if it was simply a way of having her do anything. In fact, Acquanetta was set to work with Le Borg a year earlier, on The Mummy’s Ghost, starring Lon Chaney Jr. In an interview with Tom Weaver, Le Borg reveals that she was so nervous on the first day of shooting that movie, that she tripped and fell when walking a set of stairs, receiving a mild concussion in the process. According to Le Borg, producer Ben Pivar didn’t want to take any chances of Acquanetta ruining the shooting, so her role was recast with Ramsay Ames.
As stated, however, Acquanetta’s acting isn’t the problem with Jungle Woman, neither is the acting of anyone else involved. True, this was not J. Carrol Naish’s proudest moment, but ever the professional, he pulls the film together. Even the romantic lead, Richard David, whose IMDb page yawns open, is quite OK in the movie, if a bit over-eager. Lois Collier is likewise serviceable as the romantic female lead, and she comes off especially well in the more tender moments. Collier had her fair share of similar pictures in her career, playing in Weird Woman (1944), Cobra Woman (1944), Jungle Queen (1945) and Slave Girl (1947). Her only other sci-fi outing came in 1952 when she played the female lead in the Republic serial Flying Disc Man from Mars. Primarily, though, she was stuck in westerns. Milburn Stone and Evelyn Ankers turn up for a couple of lines, and by this time, Ankers could do this in her sleep.
The main problem of this film is that it is an ill-advised affair from the very start, a sentiment that seems to be shared by everyone involved. Film historian Tom Weaver has interviewed screenwriter Edward Dein, director Le Borg and Acquanetta, who all claim that they hated the movie, but had to make it as they were under contract at Universal. After firing the young studio head Carl Laemmle Jr., who was more than anyone responsible for the studio’s string of legendary horror films in the mid-thirties, the new management was ill-equipped to manage the studio’s horror legacy. In the forties the classic horror franchise sputtered along with endless sequels to the Frankenstein, Mummy, Wolf Man and Dracula series, of ever diminishing quality, almost all cobbled together around a reluctant, alcoholic Lon Chaney Jr. Some degree of class was upheld in the simultaneous Sherlock Holmes franchise starring Basil Rathbone. And then there were a number of one-offs, some very bad, like Dr. Cyclops, like The Mad Doctor or Market Street (1942, review), some rather decent, like Man Made Monster (1940, review), but mostly uninspired and middling. Unsure of the studio’s own brand and style, producers soon started to try and emulate success stories at other houses. One such surprise hit was RKO’s psychological horror thriller Cat People from 1942, a low-budget entry produced by Val Lewton and directed by Jacques Tourneur. The atmospheric, low-key movie played with innuendos, sexual subtext and mystery, and, crucially, had enigmatic females both protagonists and antagonists.
Cat People sent subtle shockwaves through the B movie universe, and the Paula Dupree character in Captive Wild Woman was without doubt Universal’s way of trying to cash in on the hype. But Jungle Woman, with its darker atmosphere and more subdued plot was clearly inspired by Lewton’s movie. Unfortunately it fails on most of the accounts where Cat People succeeded, and has none of that film’s psychological complexity or narrative finesse, despite the fact that some scenes seem to be lifted almost straight from their inspiration. One could defend Universal if one took into account that Ben Pivar had substantial trouble getting the script for Jungle Woman cleared by the Hays office. Much of Paula Dupree’s sexuality had to be downplayed, and, for instance, the censors were adamant that the movie had to make clear that Cheelah/Paula was in fact clothed when she went through the transformation from gorilla to woman, even if the transformation took place off screen. That’s why we get the bizarre scene of a gorilla seemingly picking out a dress from clothesline between all its rampage. Not that this prevented Universal from playing up the sex angle in their marketing: Acquanetta was pictured in a short, revealing “native” dress on all poster art, one never seen in the actual film. In fact, throughout the movie she wears ordinary, rather modest, street clothes and never does anything even remotely sexually provocative. But this is beside the point: ramping up the sex angle in the movie wouldn’t have made it any better.
Any film that feels the need to recap a previous movie for the first 20 minutes of its 60-minute running time should know that it’s in trouble. Furthermore, it’s most effective scene is the opening shot, which, when repeated as a climax in the end already feels like old hat. Unfortunately, that opening shot and the rehash of the previous film(s) is about all the action that we get, as the film settles into talking head mode, thereon after. With the exception of a halfway exciting scene where Paula tips over Ben’s and Joan’s canoe, nothing actually happens. Or rather: a lot of things happen, but the audience is always told about them after the fact by some character who has witnessed the incident in question, or if we’re really lucky, we may hear something happening off screen. The dialogue is outrageously bad, as are all character motivations and reactions. It’s the kind of movie where the audience knows all the answers from the get-go, and just waits for the protagonists to catch up. Granted, this may work in such instances where we actually care about the characters on screen, or where the solving of the mystery is played out in some exciting or intriguing way. That does not happen in Jungle Woman.
Jungle Woman received murderous reviews upon its release. The New York World-Telegram wrote: “After Jungle Woman is over you may have a furtive desire to turn your self into a gorilla just once — and wreck the theatre”. Kate Cameron of The New York Daily News noted that apart from the “stilted” Acquanetta, the rest of the cast play their roles “with assurance, trying to give the absurd story a semblance of quality”. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times simply asked: “What’s Universal trying to do to us? Make monkeys of us all?”.
Later critics have not been much kinder. Tom Weaver in his book Universal Horrors, the Studio’s Classic Films 1931–1946, notes that it is often cited as one of the worst, if not the worst, of Universal’s horror films (I would argue that that honour goes to Life Returns, 1935, review). According to Weaver, “Jungle Woman is just a glum, boring misfire”. Ian Champion at History of Horror Movies calls it “mainly a turgid talk-fest”. A.J. Hakari at Cineslice calls it “a movie that pays so little mind to the conceit at its core, it ends up making a solid case for why it shouldn’t even exist”. Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings rates it as “a waste of time”, while Dan Stumpf at Mystery File labels it a “crime against cinema”. AllMovie gives it 1/5 stars, as does Derek Winnert, calling it a “hilariously banal, incredibly cheap-looking […] sequel”. A stray voice of forgiveness comes from Richard Scheib at Moria, who awards Jungle Woman 2/5 stars, writing that it “is slightly above the routine”. According to Scheib, Le Borg “creates some occasional atmosphere”, and he also praises the presence, if not the acting, of Acquanetta: “Her mysterious foreign beauty and accent […] gives the film an eerily exotic appeal”.
Personally, I’m going against the grain and siding with Scheib on this one. Sure, Jungle Woman is a bad movie, and it’s not even so-bad-it’s-good stock, as it is much too boring to qualify as such. But I have reviewed much worse fare on this blog. It’s still a Universal production, and despite the sad decline of the studio’s horror franchise, the movie still has the talent and resources of a big studio behind it — and it shows, even in a low-budget clunker like this. Le Borg does create an atmospheric vibe in a number of sequences, J. Carrol Naish brings some much needed class and energy to the acting, taking his cue from the Edward van Sloan playbook, and the film does benefit from the raw, albeit untrained, charisma of Acquanetta. The plot is crap, but at least it’s something different from the n:th Poverty Row variation on Bela Lugosi kidnappning girls in order to suck out their life force. I laughed and sighed out loud at the bungled script, but I didn’t find it a chore to sit through.
One of the reasons the Ape Woman franchise has a bad reputation in some circles are the racial connotations. Especially in the first film, when Paula Dupree reverts to gorilla, she goes through an intermediate stage which could be interpreted as blackface. Some critics at the time lambasted the films for giving credence to the notion that the “African race” was an intermediate stage between the Caucasian and the ape. One of the movies’ harshest critics was John T. McManus, a left-wing journalist and civil rights supporter, who accused Universal of spreading Nazi propaganda. “In Mein Kampf,” McManus wrote, “Hitler calls the Negro a ‘half-born ape.’ Jungle Woman illustrates the point, changing a Hollywood glamor girl into an ape and vice versa with the Negro stage inserted right where Hitler says […] Apparently it is to be an annual outrage unless somebody passes a law against propounding Nazi race theories in America.”
Which brings us to the hotly debated topic of Acquanetta’s own ethnicity. For a longer text on Mildred Davenport/Acquanetta Burnu, please see my article on Captive Wild Woman. In short, Ms. Davenport was one of those young women who was spotted by a talent agent at Universal, and through the odd workings of the studio system suddenly found herself a contract player without a day of acting experience behind her. Her “exotic” looks garnered her a spot as a backup Maria Montez, Universal’s number one Latin star at the time. Dubbed “Acquanetta Burnu, the Venezuelan Volcano”, she was heavily featured by Universal’s PR office, despite the fact that she had no known Latin roots. Acquanetta herself claimed all her life to have been of Native American and British stock, born on a reservation in Wyoming, and partly descended from British royalty, and adopted by an African American family by the age of 1 or 2. No evidence of such an ancestry has ever been found, and later researchers have found paperwork that attests that she was born in South Dakota to African American parents in 1921. It is also worth noting that the black press in the US immediately claimed Acquanetta as one of their own when Captive Wild Woman came out. Whatever the truth behind Mildred Davenport’s ethnicity, it further complicates the debate around the racial connotations of the Ape Woman franchise — it is also worth noting that in the final film, Jungle Captive (1945), Acquanetta was replaced by a Caucasian actress.
Acquanetta left Universal in 1945, despite being signed to a 7-year contract, in her own words because she refused to play the Ape Woman one more time. She then did what is perhaps her best-known mainstream role, as high priestess Lea in the independently produced post-MGM Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan entry Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946) — not exactly the escape from animalistic roles that she had hoped for. The campy and critically ridiculed film did little to improve her standing in Hollywood, and her career slid quickly, as she found herself out of work for five years, until a string of small, often uncredited, roles in independent productions in 1951, after which she dropped out of acting completely. One of her few credited roles post-Tarzan was in the ridiculously bad Lost World ripoff Lost Continent (1951), produced by Poverty Row stalwart Sigmund Neufeld and Lippert Pictures and starring, incredibly, Cesar Romero.
J. Carrol Naish was a somewhat unlikely horror movie staple in the forties, as he was normally a well-respected character actor, at the time of Jungle Woman between Oscar nominations for his work on films like Sahara (1943) and A Medal for Benny (1945), the latter for which he received a Golden Globe. On the other hand, Naish appeared in over 200 films over his career, spanning from 1930 to 1971, from cheap serials and Z-clunkers to respected A-listers. Coming from a versatile background, Irish American Naish was born in 1896 in New York, served in WWI, and got his acting chops as a song and dance man in vaudeville. He travelled the world with the merchant marine and learned up to eight languages, and worked with a number of stage troupes in the US, before his talent was picked up by a Hollywood scout in 1929. Naish was especially revered for his aptness for dialects and languages, and was at one point referred to as “a one-man United Nations”. His dark looks meant he could be pegged as a number of ethnicities, and he played just about all of them; Asian, Arab, Latin, Native American … perhaps all, apart from his own Irish stock, as he was deemed to dark to play Irish. In radio, he became the voice for Italian American culture in the long-running show Life with Luigi, in which he played Italian immigrant Luigi Basco. His perhaps most lauded film performance was also as an Italian WWII soldier in Sahara. Apart from his talent for playing foreigners, what attracted horror movie makers to him was his brooding, dark energy, and he was often cast in villainous roles.
SF and horror fans got their first glimpse of Naish in a more sympathetic role, however, in the surprisingly good ape man film Dr. Renault’s Secret (1942, review), in which he played the poor victim of a mad scientists experiments rather than the madman himself. One of his more racially problematic roles came in the 1943 serial Batman, where he played the Japanese villain Prince Daka. He did his first tour as mad scientist in The Monster Maker (1944, review), and then followed up with Jungle Woman. He turned in another sympathetic performance as the tragic hunchback Daniel in House of Frankenstein (1945), and even had the dubious honour of playing Dr. Frankenstein himself in the 1971 movie Dracula vs. Frankenstein, a turgid film with the distinction of being the last movie made by both J. Carrol Naish and Lon Chaney Jr, both in starring roles.
Apart from the already listed actors, Samuel S. Hinds as the coroner is worthy of mention. Silver haired Hinds actually didn’t appear in quite as many genre pictures as horror and SF fans like to remember, but like afore-mentioned Edward van Sloan, he was always memorable, often as a kindly father or authority figure. Along with van Sloan, he played one of the “excited weather men” in the pioneering post-apocalyptic film Deluge (1933, review) and had a small role the protagonist’s father John Vincey in the lost world adventure movie She (1935, review). In 1941 he had a prominent supporting role in Lon Chaney Jr.’s first horror SF piece Man Made Monster (review). Jungle Woman was actually only his fourth and last science fiction entry.
In a small role as a fingerprint expert we see minor western star Tom Keene, now going by the moniker Richard Powers, in order to avoid his typecasting as two-fisted western hero. Keene had a background on stage, but made a splash in Hollywood B-westerns in the late twenties thanks to his rugged good looks and beefcake physique. However, his one claim to immortality is the fact that he managed to get cast in one of the major supporting roles in Ed Wood’s magnum opus Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).
Cinematographer Jack MacKenzie and editor Ray Snyder were both part of Universal’s B unit and Jungle Woman uses mostly canned music for a nondescript suspense carpet. On the roster are Universal staples like set decorator Russell A. Gausman and makeup artist Jack Pierce, but as mentioned, none of these have much to do in this picture.
Despite the claims of the film’s most heavy-handed critics, Jungle Woman isn’t Universal’s worst horror film, even if it comes close. I found it engaging enough for a run-through, but it’s not one I will be returning to. Perhaps best left to completists.
Jungle Woman. 1944, USA. Directed by Reginald Le Borg. Written by Bernard Schubert, Henry Sucher, Edward Dein. Starring: Acquanetta, J. Carrol Naish, Lois Collier, Richard David, Samuel S. Hinds, Evelyn Ankers, Milburn Stone, Douglass Dumbrille, Nana Bryant, Pierre Watkin, Christian Rub, Alec Craig, Eddie Hyans, Tom Keene, Clyde Beatty, John Carradine. Music: Paul Sawtell. Cinematography: Jack MacKenzie. Editing: Ray Snyder. Art direction: John B. Goodman, Abraham Grossman. Gowns: Vera West. Makeup: Jack Pierce. Produced by Will Cowan and Ben Pivar for Universal Studios.