Saturday, July 16, 2005

Turkey Trot: The Naked Jungle (1954)

Mathematicians are often huge movie buffs, did you know that? The Siren didn't, until she worked for a number of them as a secretary in the late 1980s. One professor in particular (a genius with his name on many theorems) loved to drop by and have a chat or lob a trivia question at me. He came in one day to tell me his cable company had added American Movie Classics. This was, of course, back when that was still something to celebrate. "That's great," I said, "now you have a chance to see so many old movies."

"I'll tell you what I've discovered," he said. "A lot of old movies are dreadful."

Which brings us to The Naked Jungle.

Oy. Where to start? I bought the DVD for a famous perfume scene (a minor obsession of mine) and because it had the underrated, underdiscussed (and still living) Eleanor Parker. She got an Oscar nomination for her role in Caged as an innocent corrupted by a hideous prison system, and in the classic, beloved Scaramouche she played the sultry paramour of Stewart Granger. Obviously she had splendid range, but what happened here? She seems to have confused being ladylike with ramrod posture, swishing your skirts around as much as possible and confining yourself to three facial expressions (sympathy, indignation, and startled unease, the last being used to react to both marauding ants and Charlton Heston's attempts at lovemaking).

Parker plays the mail-order bride (yeah, right) of Charlton Heston. The year is 1901, and Heston has a plantation in a vaguely Amazonian region of South America. Here he merrily mows down the rainforest and grows who knows what, whilst bringing civilization to the aboriginal inhabitants lucky enough to toil in his fields. Now, the Siren does make allowances for time period. You just have to, or you wind up watching nothing made before about 1965. But some movies are easier to allow for than others. This flick's attitude toward the natives makes Gunga Din look like Cheyenne Autumn.

Anyhow, Heston has been here making a fortune since he was 19, and what with building a big villa and taming the Naked Jungle and all, by his own account he never got around to taming any Naked Wimmin. Now, male readers, ponder this question from the Siren. You have been more than a decade in darkest South America. You scorn to make whoopee with the local women. ("They have a name for the white men who go into the villages at night," snarls Heston. He doesn't elaborate, but that must have been some name.) Finally, your lawfully wedded wife arrives, and what a dish she is, in fact, she's Eleanor Parker. She greets you in her lace-trimmed period nightie, snowy bosom heaving. At that point, you

A. Hang out the "Do Not Disturb" sign and let your newly civilized native workers take care of the farm for oh, about a month.
B. Introduce yourself politely, then proceed as above.
C. Eye her suspiciously, clench your jaw, call her "Madam" about a hundred times, interrogate her about her past, pitch a total hissy fit when you find out she's been married before, and stalk off into the night.

If you answered "C," congratulations. You're ready for that Charlton Heston film festival.

This was the part where I decided to go ahead and finish watching the thing, because obviously we had left Reality Station and things could only get funnier. I did enjoy the rest of it, though I have might have a different attitude if I hadn't bought it on sale at Amazon.

So when Heston finds out that Parker is a widow, his jaws start working more furiously than ever while he talks about the piano he had brought up the river. It's a special piano, doggone it, nobody has played it before, he was SAVING IT and he wanted his woman to be the same way. Parker puts on her indignant expression and tells him, "If you knew anything about music, you would know that the best piano is one that's been played." Having delivered the best line in the movie, she swirls those skirts around and sweeps up into the bedroom.

The next few scenes are a lot of to-ing and fro-ing betwixt Parker and Heston. Heston gets more and more hot under the collar when Parker is around, until one night he asks her what perfume she's wearing. Is it one of the ones he brought upriver for her? "It's my own," she informs him. Swirl, swirl, exit. Heston drinks some brandy, clenches (even his temples get in on the act this time), then busts open Parker's doors a la Rhett Butler. "Why don't you wear the perfume I bought you?" he yells. He grabs a bottle and dumps about half of it on Parker. IMDB informs me that this was Heston's own bit of improvisation and Parker didn't realize he was going to do it. That must be why she pulls away from his embrace in a manner far more suggestive of a woman trying to avoid someone's halitosis than one who fears she's about to be ravished.

Chuck comes to his senses and leaves. Next day he announces that Parker has to go. He plans to take her to the riverboat himself. Unfortunately, when they embark on this journey they start encountering evidence that "marabunto," or soldier ants, are on the march and headed right toward the old homestead. The local commissioner (played by a positively svelte William Conrad) tells Heston, "You're up against a monster twenty miles long and two miles wide! forty square miles of agonizing death! You can't stop it!"

Of course, what a sensible person could do is get the hell out of the way, but this is a movie, and our man Chuck abruptly shifts gears from Charlton Heston, Man of Repressed Passion, to Charlton Heston, One-Man FEMA Squad. He has to stick around, you see, for the sake of the natives. If Heston abandons them, "they'll go back to the jungle and be just as they were when I found them!" he says. Gracious, we can't have that. Why would you want to be running around a tropical paradise practising native folkways when you could be picking crops?

After this we're in standard disaster-movie mode, and the dialogue and motivations get more ridiculous, and I don't want to post spoilers but is there anyone on the planet who thinks a studio is going to let Charlton Heston get eaten by ants in the final reel? No, not even if the producers have had enough of watching him act in the dailies.

At this point in his career, Heston was supernally handsome, and the cinematography was pretty. More than anything, however, The Naked Jungle gave the Siren even more respect for the genius of William Wyler and Orson Welles. The performances they got out of Charlton Heston in The Big Country and Touch of Evil are not disappointments at all; they're miracles.


Victoria said...

What words can I use to describe how much I love your site and your writing on cinema (well, any subject for that matter)? This article made me laugh till tears rolled down my face. I have to agree, many old films are awful, but some that have survived the test of time are true gems.

Campaspe said...

Thank you so much. There is a definite shooting-fish-in-a-barrel aspect to writing about a movie like this, but it truly was a hoot. Another great exchange was when Parker says that everything she's doing seems to be wrong, and "I'm trying not to irritate you." "I've noticed that," says Heston. "I find it irritating."

At least that bit was probably intended to be funny.