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Illegitimate dad of 'Kong'

One of the Depression's highest-grossing films was an outrageous fabrication, a scandalous and suggestive gorilla epic that set box office records across the country.

January 08, 2006|Andrew Erish | Special to The Times

A safari venturing into unexplored territory stumbles upon natives who sacrifice a woman to a large gorilla in order to spare the rest of their tribe.

It sounds like a scene from Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack's legendary "King Kong," but it's actually part of the climactic sequence from the film "Ingagi," released three years earlier. "Ingagi" is largely forgotten, but "Kong" might never have gotten made if not for the success of its scandalous predecessor.

"Ingagi" arrived in 1930 to satisfy a hunger for jungle pictures piqued by Theodore Roosevelt's African safari and fueled by the success of such nickelodeon hits as "Heart of Africa," documenting a 1915 Kenyan safari by Lady Grace Mackenzie, and "Hunting Big Game in Africa," a phony account of the Roosevelt trip filmed entirely in a Chicago studio by Col. William Selig, one of the most successful and innovative producers of the day.

As only a handful of zoos and circuses exhibited apes during the early 20th century, movies featuring all forms of monkeys emerged as a popular genre, and some filmmakers, such as William S. Campbell, seemed to specialize in monkey-themed films, with "Monkey Stuff" and "Jazz Monkey," in 1919, and "Prohibition Monkey" in 1920. Schoedsack warmed up for "King Kong" by directing "Chang" in 1927 (with Cooper) and "Rango" in 1931, both of which prominently featured monkeys in real jungle settings. The debate about evolution at the Scopes monkey trial of 1925 further spurred interest in primate pictures.

Capitalizing on the craze, Congo Pictures Ltd. released "Ingagi." All advertisements for the film explained that "ingagi" means "gorilla." And every ad and article stated that the movie documented an authentic, scientific two-year expedition in the Belgian Congo, produced by Sir Hubert Winstead of the Royal Geological Society, who appeared in the film along with American sportsman Capt. Daniel Swayne.

Congo Pictures, formed expressly to make the film, could afford only one print, and it arranged for a two-week run at a theater in San Diego, where it played to more than 40,000 people. But efforts to interest New York-based film distributors failed, and Congo had to book "Ingagi" theater by theater.

Congo rented Chicago's Garrick Theatre, advertising the film as "an authentic incontestable celluloid document showing the sacrifice of a living woman to mammoth gorillas!" The Motion Picture News credited "lurid lobby advertising depicting a gorilla fondling a near-nude native woman" for drawing crowds to the Garrick.

"Ingagi" was an unabashed exploitation film, almost immediately running afoul of the Hollywood code of ethics created by the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Assn. (MPPDA), a consortium of the major motion picture studios popularly known as the Hays Office. A week after "Ingagi's" Chicago debut, the Hays Code was modified to state that: "Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden" and "Complete nudity is never permitted."


The lure of the forbidden

THAT was a plus for "Ingagi." Exploitation cinema during Hollywood's "Golden Age" deliberately dealt with subject matter that the Hays Office prohibited, luring customers to "forbidden spectacle." And "Ingagi" was loaded with it.

The movie follows white hunters Winstead and Swayne, accompanied by cameramen and black porters, into the Belgian Congo jungle in search of a tribe that engages in human sacrifice to a band of gorillas. Along the way they encounter a 65-foot python, shoot a baby rhino and observe animals at a watering hole. The party also discovers a new species of animal, the tortadillo.

A cameraman is killed by a wounded lion, and upon entering " 'Ingagi' Country," the hunters stumble upon a tribe of shy pygmies. There are glimpses of naked women foraging in a thicket, then native porters briefly capture a gorilla that overpowers them and escapes. Finally, the hunters watch as a bare-breasted woman is carried off by a gorilla, but Swayne saves her by shooting the beast dead.

The film moved from Chicago to San Francisco, where it opened April 5 at the Orpheum, which was owned by RKO. Variety reported that the movie had been offered to every theater along Market Street.

The Orpheum had been the crown jewel of western vaudeville until Joseph Kennedy secretly bought a controlling interest in the monopolistic Keith-Orpheum circuit, then turned around and sold the theaters at an enormous profit to David Sarnoff to help Sarnoff's RCA recording process become the standard used for talking pictures. The new company, Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO), soon killed off vaudeville and became one of the five major motion picture companies in Hollywood.

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