Nabonga (1944)

Last week, I wrote about Tarzan actor Buster Crabbe playing the second fiddle to Johnny Weissmuller. This week, it is Crabbe’s turn to play the lead, and his sidekick is a very interesting actor named Prince Modupe. If not for these two actors, the B-movie Nabonga would have been easily forgotten.

Prince Modupe and Buster Crabbe in Nabonga (1944)

Every once in a while, one of the Tarzan actors would turn out to actually have an acting talent, and would go on to make a decent acting career. Crabbe was one of these. Like Weissmuller, he was an Olympic swimming gold medalist. He made his Tarzan appearance in a 1933 serial, Tarzan the Fearless. The serial is now lost, but a feature film version remains. Interestingly it was produced simultaneously with Weissmuller’s first Tarzan for MGM, due to conflicting contracts (somewhat similar to the situation with James Bond in the 1960s). Crabbe followed a long tradition of Tarzans recruited for their physique rather than any actual acting talents. Indeed, his Tarzan role did not allow for much acting on Crabbe’s part.

This is where history loops back, because the story of Nabonga centers around the girl Doreen (played by Julie London) who is stranded in the jungle and raised by her father and a gorilla. It is clearly inspired by the story of Tarzan, and undoubtedly made to capitalize on the Tarzan films (still with Weissmuller in the lead at this time). So Crabbe comes back to the Tarzan theme, but from the opposite direction, so to speak, as the romantic interest of the female “Tarzan”.

Prince Modupe plays Crabbe’s sidekick Tobo. At a time when black people generally were subject to simplified stereotyping, Modupe managed to play roles where he actually appeared as a human, not as a stupid native or savage or servant. Born in French West Africa, Modupe’s village had very little contact with white people, yet young Modupe (“Prince” was originally his royal title, apparently) managed to get a European education and later worked in the US as a writer, composer, producer and actor. Beyond that, I was able to find very little information on the Internet, but this is one personality whom I would love to find out more about.

The nice chemistry between Crabbe and Modupe lifts this film from the turkey pit and actually makes it enjoyable, at least in part.

One more actor deserves to be mentioned, namely Ray Corrigan. The guy in the gorilla suit. The suit was apparently Corrigan’s private property, and some periods of his career he specialized in gorilla roles.

This film is best enjoyed as a celebration of National Gorilla Suit Day, which is on Friday, January 31. National Gorilla Suit Day was first conceived as a joke by Mad Magazine artist Don Martin, but is today celebrated every year by fans of Martin and fans of gorilla suits alike.

Buster Crabbe, Julie London and Ray Corrigan in the gorilla suit, in Nabonga (1944)

Nabonga
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Year: 1944
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Director: Sam Newfield
Stars: Buster Crabbe
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (704×528)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)

Swamp Fire (1946)

Today it is exactly thirty years since Johnny Weissmuller passed away, the most iconic of the many Tarzan actors on the silver screen. Weissmuller, who was already famous for his achievements as a swimmer, including five Olympic gold medals, was the first to portray the ape man in a sound movie. When Weissmuller’s acting career started, Tarzan’s popularity was going downhill fast. Weissmuller’s twelve films turned that trend, and without them it is possible that Tarzan would not have such a strong iconic presence today.

As Weissmuller’s Tarzan career was nearing its inevitable end, he also made the film Swamp Fire. This is, in fact, Weissmuller’s only major role where he did not play either Tarzan, Jungle Jim or himself.

Buster Crabbe, Carol Thurston and Johnny Weissmuller in Swamp Fire (1946)

In Swamp Fire, Weissmuller plays Johnny Duval who returns home to the Louisiana bayou after service in World War II. But due to his traumatic experiences in the war, he cannot go back to his old job as a bar pilot. Duval wants to marry his old sweetheart Toni, but then there is the headstrong and rich city girl Janet Hilton, who has decided that she wants Duval for herself. To complicate things further, Buster Crabbe (who had also played Tarzan, in the film Tarzan the Fearless (1933)) plays Mike, who is also after Toni’s heart.

I guess, this being the Big Man’s death date and all, one should be respectful. But then, mommy always told me to tell the truth too and, truth be told, Swamp Fire would be a pretty nice little romantic melodrama if not for Weissmuller in the lead. Because while most of the other actors do what can be expected under the circumstances, and Buster Crabbe is really good, Weissmuller is mostly stiff and unconvincing. His acting repertoire turns out to be very limited, as he uses the same mannerisms here as in his Tarzans. But while they work there, they fail here.

This film is best enjoyed for the very unusual pairing of two Tarzan actors. Not only that, but Virginia Grey (Janet Hilton) had previously played against Weissmuller in Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), and it would appear that the film is shot in the same swamp jungles as the very first Tarzan movie, Tarzan of the Apes (1918). For a final Tarzan connection, the film includes a Tarzan tribute scene where Duval wrestles with an overgrown alligator.

Carol Thurston, Johnny Weissmuller and Virginia Grey in Swamp Fire (1946)

Swamp Fire
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Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 9 min
Director: William Pine
Stars: Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (688×519)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.4 G)

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

It may perhaps seem like constructed languages, such as Star Trek’s Klingon or John Carter’s Barsoomian, have only started to appear in movies and on TV during the past few decades. Sure, a language like Na’vi in Avatar (2009) that was created directly for the movie – with the complexity of a natural language and a large base of fan speakers – that kind of thing has not been seen before Klingon. But Esperanto, originally constructed as a tool for peaceful communication across borders, was used at least as early as the classic silent film Der letzte Mann (1924), and the earliest attempt to create a dedicated language for a movie may have been the subject of this week’s post, namely Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.

Naunton Wayne, Basil Radford and Dame May Whitty in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The language in question is spoken in the fictional European country which through different sources is variously known as Mandrika, Bandrieke, Vandreka, etc. The film begins at a hotel in a small town where the only train out is delayed by snow.

The language can be heard in many brief dialogues throughout the movie, though without the original script, it is impossible to analyze whether it is actually a complete language with coherent grammar and vocabulary, or just so many nonsense syllables. One of the few sentences which is both easy to make out and easily translated is spoken as “Reinefetado eš fenito.” (We are out of food.) This would seem to vaguely suggest a Romance language, though some sources claim it is a mashup of many different European languages.

Constructed language can serve several different purposes on the silver screen. Often, it is used to provide credibility to a fantasy culture, such as the elves in The Lord of the Rings (2001) or the vampires in Blade (1998). But in The Lady Vanishes, this is not the main reason. Hitchcock could have just as well used an existing language, and an existing country.

The purpose is rather to create ambiguity about the underlying identity of the country. The interesting blog Reel Club has a post about Hitchcock’s political messages in this movie, and how he criticized England’s blindness in the face of the dangerous European situation. (In my opinion, Reel Club is perhaps overinterpreting some aspects, but essentially the reasoning is very good.) From that perspective, it is plain that Bandrika (the most common spelling, I think) is a Germany in disguise, and the Bandrikan language is part of that disguise. The viewer, of course, was supposed to infer as much, but there was no war and Germany could not be pointed out as the enemy just yet.

Over in America, about the same time, several films were released that used Esperanto for the same purpose, including Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1939). The technique is similar to that used in e.g. Dark Journey (1937), where the action is moved to a historical period (World War I) in order to provide the necessary setting for the political allegory.

Though far from Hitchcock’s best, The Lady Vanishes is competently made and in many ways a typical and very adorable Hitchcock thriller. Hitchcock’s amazing sense of perspective and focus is seen in a few instances, and as always, the plot holds a good deal of psychological interest. There is also a bit more comic relief than in most Hitchcocks.

This film is best enjoyed by lovers of train thrillers. Hitchcock had an excellent sense of the dramatic possibilities offered by the limited space in a train.

Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938)

The Lady Vanishes
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Year: 1938
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Stars: Margaret Lockwood, Michael Redgrave, Dame May Whitty
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (624×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1,017 M)

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

Flash Gordon, one of the pioneer adventure and science fiction comic strips, debuted 80 years ago tomorrow. The strip, famous for its powerful and detailed art, as well as its fantastic monsters and unexpected plot twists, has been adapted to the screen on numerous occasions.

One of the better such adaptations, Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All, is available for download from the Internet Archive. It was originally conceived as a live action movie in the late 1970s, but it was decided that it would cost too much to make and was redressed as an animation instead. That animated movie, in turn, was converted into a Saturday morning cartoon series, and the finished movie lay waiting for three years until it was finally aired in 1982.

Thun, Flash Gordon and Barin in Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

The basic plot is familiar to all who know their Flash Gordon. Flash, a world-famous athlete, is travelling in a plane with reporter Dale Arden as they are hit by a meteor storm. The plane crashes, but the two are rescued by half-mad scientist Dr. Zarkov. Zarkov takes them aboard his spaceship and they all fly to the planet Mongo where they have to save the Earth from the evil Emperor Ming the Merciless.

Overall, this particular film follows the plot closer than most (certainly closer than the 1980 live action feature, the only redeeming qualities of which are Queen and Max von Sydow). An added subplot about Hitler’s connection with Ming neither adds nor subtracts anything substantial.

The strength of this film is its script. It pulls off the balance between faithfulness to the source material and the different requirements of the film medium in an excellent way. The pacing is just right and the characters are good. I am not all that fond of the animation, though, which is in the style of the Saturday morning cartoons it was later turned into. But if you enjoy that kind of stuff then the animation is decently well made. Me, I would have preferred a much more realistic style, similar to Alex Raymond’s art on the original strip.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of Flash Gordon, but anyone who likes some good escapism should find this to their taste.

Flash Gordon battles Emperor Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All
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Year: 1982
Running time: 1 h 5 min
Language: English (Japanese subtitles)
Stars: Robert Ridgely, Diane Pershing
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Windows Media (1.6 G)