Rather than being the celebration of sin and lewdness that many would have you believe, I’ve always thought that pre code movies were, at their best movies made for an adult audience, and largely made without the need to look down on their paying public. They are saying “What you see is what you get – were all adults here, aren’t we?” Of course, in a heady climate of low brow dialogue and veiled reverences to loose morals, it was inevitable that some films would push the envelope too far and would run into trouble. Such is the case for the legendary Convention City, which was apparently so scandalous that the mere existence of a print would have corrupted the fabric of 1930s society beyond repair. Convention City is lost to us but luckily the second most notorious film of the pre code era still exists, albeit in a severely truncated form.
That film is Wheeler and Woolsey’s So This Is Africa, and the story of its making and eventual unmaking is a long and tortuous one. Now, I had planned to outline the saga but a quick look at the ever excellent “Give me the good old days!” reveals that, with the help of the New York state archives the story has been told far better than my words could do it justice. So I’d advise a quick trip to this link to be filled in on the sad tale of cinematic clipping. I’ll be here when you get back. *waits patiently, tapping foot* Right? Wasn’t it a fantastic piece of research? Sadly, after all that you're stuck with me again…
I was really looking forward to finally watching So This Is Africa, partly to see what all the fuss was about and partly to see if in fact there was anything left of the film as eventually released. From the sound of it, the movie as originally written would have been a raucous, low brow, innuendo-laden affair and perhaps the quintessential Wheeler and Woolsey vehicle, cementing their reputation as kings of pre code comedy. As released …well it’s not quite what it should be. Wheeler and Woolsey made So This Is Africa for Columbia after a brief falling out with their home studio RKO over money. As such, we miss out on the presence of the lovely Dorothy Lee, and the cast of familiar comic faces usually employed on their RKO features. In fact there is no one in the cast that I recognized, and this probably either says something about the importance of Wheeler and Woolsey to Columbia or the state of comedy at the studio at that time. However, the film does get a safe pair of hand in director Edward Cline who as well as being a former Buster Keaton collaborator had also worked with the boys on two of their previous films.
The plot concerns out of work lion tamers Wheeler and Woolsey’s trip to the wilds of Africa to help shoot the greatest jungle picture of all time. The reason they have been picked is because the leading lady, one Mrs Martini is afraid of animals and their lions are so moth eaten and toothless that she’ll feel safer making the film with them. However, once the premise is set up, it is quickly forgotten as we travel from one absurd jungle parody to the next. In fact the plot, and indeed the cast don’t seem to take things very seriously as the tone of the humour oscillates between being pitch black and downright silly. And the poor lions simply disappear once their duties as plot devices are done. Poor old mangy lions.
When we first meet Bob and Bert (thanks to a quick camera pan up the side of a skyscraper), we find the two down on their luck lion tamers about to jump out the window. There then follows a fairly bleak exchange as they discuss the best technique for killing yourself. Woolsey won’t jump as he feels that his partner’s jumping skills aren’t good enough and will only accompany him if he can get it right. One gets the impression that this is a regular ritual for the characters. Though not massively funny it’s a good example of how direct Wheeler and Woolsey’s comedy is, as they attempt to defy social airs and graces. There is very little of the comic business associated with other double acts, nor is there the heavily laboured vaudeville routines of many of the early sound comics. They display a confidence with the camera and generally don’t mess about, approaching situations and ideas head on and hoping for the best.
The doorbell rings and pulls them back off the ledge. It is a doctor, who looks at their lions and after proclaiming one of them dead (it's not, it just looks dead), decides that the lions need a vacation in Africa, and kept out of drafts. The boys meet up with the film people, the lions vanish and the film starts proper. However, before they leave there is time for a quick musical number in the hotel lobby (which looks slightly under rehearsed and suffers from some obvious cuts and over dubs) and a very funny gag involving the African tribesmen that for some reason are waiting in the hotel. The film producer remarks that they need to get to Africa as “the natives are getting restless” as the camera cuts to the tribesmen aimlessly milling around the lobby looking bored. Well, it made me laugh…
Thus far, there is nothing too risqué, but luckily the sheer silliness of the ideas keeps the film from ever getting dull. However, once we reach the jungles, it’s obvious that the dialogue gets a bit more adult, only because of the regular jumps and clicks in the soundtrack. Despite this, a few gems do survive almost intact. A reference to the “virgin trees” gets the response “Huh! They look pretty wild to me!” Later on during some chitchat between Mrs Martini and Woolsey, Martini mentions her gown and asks him “Do you think it’s becoming?” at exactly the moment that one of her shoulder straps falls down. He fires back, “It’ll be coming off any minute now!” About the only other surviving moment of adult humour is Robert Woolsey’s response to his partner’s disappearance during the night “You’ve been streetwa…sleepwalking again!” From what I’ve seen of the scripts, that’s the tip of the iceberg, but those censors really went to work on the picture, almost with religious zeal. As is usually the case in these situations, once they get the scissors out they just can’t stop.
Luckily however, So This Is Africa does not rely wholly on innuendo for its laughs. There are a number of very imaginative comic scenes in the film, most of which work well, but which are really not taken to their full potential. What struck me about the best scenes, and indeed most of the film itself was the sense of boredom with many of the clichés of cinema. The movie has fun with genre and narrative staples with an almost cynical resignation. One scene sees Wheeler, Woolsey and Mrs Martini (played by Esther Muir) engage in a spot of big game hunting. The three of them stand next to an obvious cheap jungle set as Woolsey shouts “Get that alligator!” We cut to really grainy stock footage of an alligator in the real jungle and back to Bert Wheeler shooting it with nonchalant ease. Next up, “Look! A wild panther!”, as this time we cut to the same grainy stock footage but this time amusingly of a giraffe. Bert shoots it anyway. Finally the cry is “A rhinoceros is charging us!” to which Bert responds, (after the stock footage, of the right animal this time) “I’m sorry, I haven’t got any more bullets”. The footage then runs backwards, letting Woolsey say melodramatically “We’re saved! He’s in reverse” Despite being a well deserved sending up of cheap jungle pictures, the way Wheeler and Woolsey play it is absolutely stunning. They say each line as if they where reading it for the first time with the most wooden delivery imaginable and in essence sending up their own picture for the very same flaws. It’s at once very modern (or post modern, if you like) and very funny, with a free wheeling sense of mischief that is largely absent from comic movies of the era.
Another interesting scene happens later when the boys and Mrs Martini begin discussing important plot points with each other but after saying each line we hear their internal dialogue in voice over. The voice overs start out quite conventionally but then get increasingly bizarre. Esther Muir is the absolute star or the scene in saying her line then turning to her right and staring off camera with determined concentration and furrowed brow as her internal monologue declares “This is a strange interlude” Bert Wheeler’s inner voice responds “Lies, lies, lies! I cannot stand this constant lying. Oh, I wish I were free of all this like a bird, like a bee, like a balloon!” For no apparent reason Robert Woolsey’s inner voice chips in with “Little does she know that she’s my sister’s mother’s father’s brother’s black cat’s niece. Say yes you weasel, say yes or I’ll brain ya!” The idea eventually comes to a head when Wheeler and Woolsey find that they can hear each others thoughts and start a fight in their minds. Needless to say each line is said with over the top melodrama and a far away look off camera. The scene is fantastic and again pokes fun not only at the clichés of film drama, film acting and cinematic language but also the tawdriness of the film itself. The scene, and the previously mentioned one both stand out because the performances from the players descend into parody and seemingly exist apart from the narrative flow of the movie itself. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Either the scriptwriter (Norman Krasna but I’d imagine that the script went though a number of hands before it was finished) or Wheeler and Woolsey themselves had some real frustrations with movie making to vent or people were enjoying themselves just a little too much on set whilst shooting the film. Regardless of motive, the scenes present interesting comic ideas and a rare example of truly irreverent humour. Never have I seen a Hollywood film of the era where the cast appear to be saying so openly that they don’t in any way take what they are doing seriously.
After these post modern shenanigans, the plot wheezes on to its inevitable conclusion. We meet the prerequisite Dorothy Lee replacement Raquel Torres, who does a good job with what she’s given but who, let’s face it just isn’t Dorothy Lee. Torres is part of a tribe of ferocious Amazons that (in another censor troubling idea) “love men to death at night”. The boys are captured by the tribe and are awaiting their fate worse (or better) than death when they are “saved” by a wandering tribe of Tarzans, who arrive in formation to take their mates. We last see Wheeler and Woolsey as they are dragged off by a couple of Tarzans to begin domestic life (they happen to be dressed as women as part of an escape plan) The whole chaotic mess ends with a caption declaring “Only a Year Later” where the pair, still in dresses busy themselves with washing clothes. They turn around to reveal a baby on each of their backs – have they by some freak of nature, been impregnated by their male kidnappers? No, of course not, (although in the original script who knows!) as a couple of jungle girls come to help them. Robert Woolsey gets the last line, “Boy! That’s Africa for you!” as the whole troubled production comes to an end.
Of course, we can forever wonder what the uncut version of the film would have been like. From what I’ve read of the script it’s certainly racier but it doesn’t sound particularly obscene, even for the times. Perhaps the problem was the sheer quantity of the innuendos and scantily clad women. Where most films would make just a couple of oblique sexual references, So This Is Africa shovels a constant barrage of veiled filth at the unsuspecting viewer. It’s interesting that the lobby card at the top of the page describes Wheeler and Woolsey as “sexplorers”, and perhaps this overt and open attitude to sex and more importantly, the marketing of the film in this manner lead the censors to get cold feet in a hurry.
At the end of the day, I can only judge the movie on what remains, and what remains is a pretty decent little comedy. It doesn’t have the rough, almost low budget charm of the team’s previous RKO features but is does have some very bold comic ideas and a genuinely anarchic spirit. Wheeler and Woolsey may lack the free form absurdity of the Marx Brothers at their best but the pair have a disarmingly irreverent view of the world where things seem at once real and earthy but equally ridiculous and trivial. So This Is Africa displays this spirit in spades and though ultimately there’s not many hints of it being a great lost masterpiece, it’s a miracle it exists at all so for that we should be thankful. Now can everyone check their attic tonight for that missing print of Convention City?