Or, does harmless, hokey kitsch age well?
by Kevin Flanagan
Though my golden age of exploitation film is the 1960s-1970s, when American International Pictures and Hammer Studios reigned supreme and fly-by-night outfits continuously released interesting, sensationalist fare, cheapo genre films are much older. Serialized adventures were popular from the late 1920s through the 1940s, encompassing mystery, Western and horror subjects in a manner familiar to radio audiences. Never prestigious works of art, these cliffhangers were babysitting fodder (dump the kids in the cinema on Saturday and have the rest of the day to yourself) and helped keep the cinema the ascendant entertainment medium until the deluge of television.
But sensationalist serials weren’t the only sort of exploitation in town. “B” pictures thrived in all shapes and sizes, often provided by the so-called “Poverty Row” studios. Sometimes clocking in at less than an hour, these films usually exploited some sort of hook—thieves are robbing graves, poor parenting will ruin a teenager’s life, BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (in fact, the name AND premise of a 1952 film)—and were often very poorly constructed. Toward the beginning of this cycle of “B” films comes Monarch Productions’ SAVAGE GIRL (1932), a silly and formulaic trip to “darkest Africa” (which looks a bit like an abandoned field outside of New York).
Jim Franklin (Walter Byron) is renowned for his ability to capture and tame wild animals. Brilliantly-named, blotto millionaire Amos P. Stitch (Harry Myers) approaches Franklin in a stupor, praising him for his skill and hazily propositioning him to go on safari and capture some wild beasts so that he can build a personal zoo at his mansion. After learning that Stitch is “on the level,” the two hire a cruise liner and sail across the sea. Hooking up with treacherous Alec Bernouth (Adolph Milar) upon arrival, they set out in search of prizes. They capture a lion, but wake up the next day to discover that it had been set free by the mythical “White Goddess” (Rochelle Hudson), a comely and young White woman who lives among the animals. The hunters capture her: while Franklin pities and begins to fall for the girl, Bernouth tries to rape her. Thwarted, he sets a local tribe against Franklin and Stitch. During the final confrontation between Franklin and Bernouth over the Goddess, Franklin is saved by a gorilla, dispatched against Bernouth by one of the savage girls’ monkey friends.
The film is exceedingly silly and clunky. The “Kuleshov effect” is put to good use, though, in building the environment. Can’t afford to shoot a safari film in Africa? No problem. Splice documentary footage of animals—or footage of caged animals at the zoo—in between shots of the actors to suggest that they actually have traveled across the world! And, as always, cut your losses and wrap the narrative up abruptly.
Yet, despite the problems, including the culturally-determined, casual racism (the Black actors at the African port wear diapers, and only one Black man gets multiple lines, each of which conforms him to stereotype), the film has a bit of charm. In one sequence, the drunk Stitch looks up at a stuffed lion’s head, which winks at him. Later, as Franklin and Stitch leave for African, the cabby mentions that he has always wanted to go to there, so the whimsical Stitch brings the man and his car with them. That the cab later runs out of gas in the middle of the jungle ends up being a minor plot point.
With all this in mind, my bigger question is over the ways in which kitsch morphs over time. While this film was certainly viewed as a goofy, harmless entertainment for families and moviegoers upon release—in fact, as is somewhat typical to the time, the film begins with text imploring the audience to enjoy the good-hearted adventure they are about to see—it seems to have become a kind of subaltern bit of bad movie history. Neither as bad nor outrageous as many bad films, it represents the almost endless fodder that film history has left us with. There are dozens of cheap jungle adventures from the 1930s-1950s (I personally own at least 15 of them), and they could almost never conceivably be considered in-good-bad-taste by today’s standards. By our standards, they are hardly sensationalistic outside of the racial representation. Some of the icons in the films are recognizably kitsch—the comely woman in leopard-hide dress, the outdated bourgeois men in safari garb leading the ill-fated expedition—but they have been eclipsed by things in worse taste. What I guess I’m getting at is that some of the “B” genres of the era still hold up, namely some of the gangster films and horror pictures, but these jungle tales are best left in the shrink-wrap.