Because I was in college during Mystery Science Theater 3000’s breakout years, I never saw much of it—just a handful of episodes and the feature film. Consequently, I’m not as well-versed as I might be in the so-bad-it’s-hilarious genre. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood led me to Glen Or Glenda? and Plan 9 From Outer Space, but I made the error (from an entertainment standpoint) of learning a bit about how Wood’s actual life diverges from Johnny Depp’s portrayal, which tends to make his pictures—Glen Or Glenda? in particular—way less uproarious. And then I spent many years watching old movies almost exclusively at New York City’s rep houses, which tend not to show stuff like Robot Monster and Manos: The Hands Of Fate. So I can’t definitively state that The White Gorilla (which somehow never got MST3K’d) represents the absolute pinnacle of what I’m sure the French must call le cinéma d’ineptitude. But it has to be pretty damn close.
There’s a catch, though. Roughly half of The White Gorilla, released in 1945, consists of recycled footage from a 1927 silent serial called Perils Of The Jungle. And the serial itself actually looks pretty darn entertaining, albeit in a thoroughly hokey way that would probably appeal mostly to small children. What pushes the film into camp-classic territory is director H.L. Fraser, who makes a valiant attempt to turn this ancient adventure story into a contemporary story by intercutting it with newly shot dialogue scenes. This, of course, necessitates concocting various explanations for why the (at the time) modern-day characters never seem to appear in the same frame as the folks who are running around in hand-cranked fast motion, and having a whole lot more exciting stuff happen to them. For example, what are marauding lions good for if they can’t serve simultaneously as a thrilling source of danger and a convenient excuse for craven inaction?
At the risk of losing some of you right away, I’ve included about a minute of the tedious expository setup for this sequence, just to provide a sense of how stagebound and stilted the ’45 material is. There are pleasures here as well, though, for the bad-movie connoisseur. It would seem almost impossible to mis-inflect the line “Man alive, what were they after?”, for example, yet this old dude somehow manages to make “Man alive” sound like the name of the person he’s addressing, rather than an interjection of surprise and alarm. There are also completely unmotivated cutaways during speeches to the people ostensibly listening to them, who react in random ways bearing no relation to anything they’ve just heard. “And the rest of the legend is that anyone who enters the cave” somehow triggers a look of sudden realization and concern from Vaguely Hispanic Looking Guy, while the sentence’s inevitable conclusion (“never leaves it… alive”) prompts a glance of what I can only term rueful disgust from Jowly Codger, who looks for all the world as if he’s just learned that his only daughter passed out drunk at a wedding reception yet again.
Dissolve to 1927, which in the context of the movie is supposed to be just the other day. When I first saw The White Gorilla, back in the mid-’90s, I just assumed that the names accorded to the silent-era characters—Bradford, Hanley, etc.—were completely made up, as they seemed anachronistic somehow. Now that I check the IMDB, though, I see that not only are those the original monikers, but Fraser was actually one of the serial’s writers, under the pseudonym Harry P. Crist. So he’s cannibalizing his own stuff here. And reasonably exciting stuff it is, too, by the standards of knockabout silent mayhem. I wasn’t able to get my hands on Perils Of The Jungle (all 10 episodes of which survive, apparently), so I can’t be sure whether we’re seeing the lion attack largely as it originally appeared, or carelessly hacked to ribbons—one shot of them prowling is repeated, among other infelicities. But it’s tough to deny the blunt effectiveness of Simba and friends repeatedly bum-rushing the camera at top speed, and there are even a couple of shots that look genuinely dangerous, with man and beast actually in the frame at the same time.
Most of the sequence, however, is a triumph of editing, deftly creating the illusion of a threat by juxtaposing shots of crazed lions with shots of cowering actors and letting our minds construct the terrifying scenario that implies. That’s how filmmaking works (or at least how it used to work before everyone became pointlessly obsessed with elaborate tracking shots. But I digress). What you don’t want to do with a fast-paced exercise in montage like this is call undue attention to the idea that a cut can represent a rupture in space-time. Enter our hero, Steve Collins (Ray Corrigan), who stumbles onto a nightmare in progress and proceeds to do absolutely nothing, because he’s 18 years too late. There’s no more effective way to defang a pride of pissed-off lions than to turn them into a pathetic excuse—the carnivorous equivalent of a really busy freeway you just can’t see how to cross, sorry guys. And just in case we wonder why he doesn’t use his rifle, there’s a helpful run-on sentence of voiceover narration explaining that it would only turn the lions on him, leaving him “at their mercy.” Meanwhile, good old silent-era Bradford manages to drive them all away using only a stick. Now that’s goddamn rugged.
Watching just this one sequence, you don’t get the full flavor of The White Gorilla’s bi-temporal ludicrousness—Steve spends the entire movie about five feet away from the action, always with some very good reason why he can’t intervene. (He doesn’t even fight the white gorilla—yep, there is one, added in 1945—because Corrigan, for some reason, also plays the white gorilla, even though it makes no difference who’s in the big rubber suit.) Even Tim Burton’s version of Ed Wood had more sense about how to recycle old footage: “The story opens on these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what’s causing them, but it’s upsetting all the buffalo.” Those inane repeated shots of Steve staring ineffectually from the bush demand expert heckling, and I can’t watch the lions attack without simultaneously a) wishing I could see Perils Of The Jungle and b) imagining how many zingers Joel (or Mike, I’m easy), Crow, and Tom Servo could have derived from a hero who never once does anything remotely heroic.