Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Wild Women of Wongo (Jaywall Productions, Wolcott Productions, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Wild Women of Wongo, a really peculiar 1958 indie from Florida (the production is credited to Jaywall Productions and Wolcott Productions, companies obviously named for the film’s director, James L. Wolcott) that was profiled in the last Harry and Michael Medved book on bad movies (before Michael turned into a supposedly “serious” Right-wing commentator lamenting the coarsening of the culture by “liberal” Hollywood) based on a script by Cedric Rutherford that achieves a sort of demented silliness. The film opens with a voice-over narration by a woman representing herself as Mother Nature, over some stock shots of the natural beauties of Florida, explaining that 10,000 years ago she made a mistake: she created adjacent countries called Wongo and Goona, and in Wongo she made all the women beautiful and the men homely, while in Goona she made all the men beautiful and the women homely. The story basically deals with how the Wongo women discovered and ultimately won the Goona men, all of this under the threat of the “Great Dragon” (actually a crocodile to which the Wongo women periodically sacrifice one of their number as part of their religion) as well as a group of ape-men who supposedly are going to invade from a fleet of canoes and conquer both Wongo and Goona. The Wild Women of Wongo isn’t as bad a movie as its reputation: Harry Walsh’s cinematography is genuinely beautiful (and actually benefits from the film being in Pathécolor — the fact that there are literally no interiors and therefore all of it is shot in natural light, save for an underwater sequence with one of the Wongo women successfully wrestling and killing the Great Dragon, helps a great deal) and Wolcott’s direction (assuming it is indeed his and not the illustrious guest he hosted on the set — more on that later) is competent and serviceable. The weaknesses of this movie are the silliness of the concept and the way it got expressed in Rutherford’s writing and the highly stilted delivery of the actors — yes, this is one of those movies in which (in Dwight MacDonald’s words) the term “actor” can only be used for courtesy, but it’s not clear how much of the first-day-of-drama-school monotone we hear from virtually everyone in this movie (the line readings are so bad a parrot upstages all the human actors!) is the fault of the on-screen performers and how much is because Rutherford and/or Wolcott wanted it that way.

The plot is an assemblage of clichés that Rutherford doesn’t even bother to resolve; the outside threat from the ape-men, which provides the initial motivator for the plot (in hopes of building an alliance between Goona and Wongo to repel it, one of the Goonish men travels in a boat to Wongo — only once the Wongan women get a look at him, they want him rather than their own homelier men, and the jealous Wongan men react by condemning him to death — a fate he barely escapes, racing down the beach to his canoe and frantically rowing his way out of there), simply disappears in mid-movie. So does the ritual that the Goonish men have to go into the jungle for “one moon” (meaning one month) without weapons and not have any interactions with women, and when they come back they get a Goonish woman as a bride (and there’s a quite cruel group shot of the Goonish women to indicate what a dubious prize that is) — only the Wongan women just happen along to the Goonish men’s encampment and spoil the whole thing. Eventually, of course, the Goonish men pair off with the Wongan women, the Wongan men pair off with the Goonish women (we’re supposed to believe they find each other appealing!), the ape-men just disappear from the plot altogether and the film grinds to a close — and given that this movie was probably aimed at the grind-houses and the drive-ins the term “grinds to a close” for once seems appropriate. It also doesn’t help that the carefully worked out schema of the story seems to have eluded either the talents or the capabilities of the casting director: though we’re told that the Goonish men are hot and the Wongan men are hopelessly ugly, the Wongan males are distinguishable from their Goonish counterparts only by being a bit heavier-set and given horrible blue-grey hair dye (indeed, my own tastes run so much towards the “bear” type some of the men playing Wongan males did more for me than the Goonish ones did!), while the high priestess of Wonga is a rather homely-faced woman, though with a good enough bod that she acquits herself reasonably well in the dance the movie’s plot stops right in the middle long enough for us to see. And the ape-men, to the extent we see them at all, aren’t the ugly, swarthy creatures we were expecting but aren’t bad looking themselves.

The most famous aspect of The Wild Women of Wongo had to do with the presence of one of America’s most illustrious playwrights, Tennessee Williams, on the set; indeed, there was one rumor (repeated as fact by a trivia commentator on that Williams actually directed much of the movie as a favor to Wolcott and for the novelty value of doing something he’d never done before. Not true, said Harry and Michael Medved: according to their account, members of the University of Miami football team were pressed into service to play some of the male characters, and Williams was having an affair with one of these men, so he’d show up on the set of The Wild Women of Wongo and wait for his boyfriend de jour to finish filming so the two of them could go out and have fun. Indeed, according to the Medveds, Williams was so bored by the proceedings on the Wild Women of Wongo set that he kept falling asleep, and director Wolcott worried that his snoring would get on the soundtrack and ruin the film! Not that that would have mattered much; though there are far worse movies than Wild Women of Wongo (like Shriek of the Mutilated, The Wild, Wild World of Batwoman, The Creeping Terror and Manos: The Hands of Fate), and one can at least appreciate the beauty of Harry Walsh’s lovely photography of all that Florida scenery, this one is pretty dull and doesn’t even have the saving grace of being wretched enough to work as camp.