Ape for April: Ingagi (1930)
A common trope in classic movies is the use of a gorilla as a monster. This month we explore movies that feature gorilla suits.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: What have I done? I have wanted to see Ingagi for years ever since I saw the Our Gang short A Lad and a Lamp where Stymie describes his brother Cotton, who he believes has been transformed into a monkey by a wish Spanky made on a lamp, by saying, "He used to look like me, but now he looks like Ingagi." Until Kino put it out in 2021, it was very difficult to find, and the lore surrounding it made me all the more eager to see it. If I had known the pain I would inflict upon you, I never would have chosen it for this month's theme.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Ingagi tells the story of an expedition through darkest Africa. After having encountered an assortment of angry and not so angry animals, all of which are promptly captured, shot or both, the expedition stumbles across a tribe of half-human half-gorilla women and their children. After making this discovery, everyone goes home.
That’s all there is in regard to plot, but make no mistake, this is a horrifyingly stupid movie that will shock and repel anyone with any basic taste.
SG: I guess if you're reaching, you could compare the minimal plot to The Blair Witch Project, another independent pseudo-documentary that made a lot of money. Most of the films comprise of people wandering around in the wilderness until they accidentally stumble upon something shocking and perverse at the very end.
RB: As ridiculous and dumb as the movie is, the story behind it is fascinating and part of vintage movie lore. The first film to be released by Congo Pictures, Ingagi was a pop culture phenomenon, due in part on the way that the film was marketed, certainly one of the earliest examples of this happening. What audiences didn’t realize in 1930, is that they were being duped in one of the most notorious scams of early cinema.
SG: The film plays like a silent movie travelogue with sound dubbed in. The music soundtrack is repetitive, but it has a certain amount of appeal as an artifact of an earlier time when movies were learning how to use sound. There are a few interesting shots, like the swarm of baby crocodiles, but in these days of impressive 4K nature documentaries with extreme close-ups and time-lapse technology, Ingagi's reliance upon long shots makes it become tedious and dull quickly.
The disregard for animal life is appalling, and the racism is one of the film's most prominent features. In one scene a native woman is working and the narrator says, "May I suggest ladies that this is a wonderful and efficient way of reducing? You may observe that many of the native women are quite shapely."
RB: The film was purported to be a documentary, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. What it actually was is a lot of footage cribbed from a 1915 documentary called Heart of Africa (which is of dubious distinction itself, although at least it actually did show footage of a safari) and hastily shot footage filmed at the Griffith Park Zoo.
Immediately, people were suspicious and rightfully so. According to Exhibitors Herald-World, the Better Business Bureau immediately opened an investigation into the film and its claims of realism (specifically Congo Pictures called the film an “authentic celluloid document” which is laughable at best). Nobody could find Sir Hubert Winestead, whom we were told headed up the expedition. Well, he didn’t exist, so that makes good sense. The Palentology department at Columbia University viewed the film and gave a scathing list of issues with the film, including, but not limited to the following highlights:
The pretend discovery of a new and strange kind of animal, which evidently consisted of a perfectly good tortoise covered by a contraption of scales, wings and crest.
The showing in an African film (as among the strange animals of the expedition) of an armadillo, which is an animal found only in North and South America.
The showing in an African film of an orangutang evidently brought in from the Dutch East Indies.
The list goes on and on…
Even Frank Buck, well known animal trainer, called the film out: “There is not a single gorilla shown in the picture”. He recognized the orangutangs and chimpanzees as being well known trained animals used in films frequently.
SG: They try to pass a man in a gorilla suit off as a real gorilla and then try to pass off other types of primates as gorillas. At this time gorillas were very elusive animals so camera footage of one would have been an important accomplishment. These guys just exploited the average person's ignorance and passed off a ridiculous imitation.
The producer Nat Spitzer had a history with the circus where falsehoods and exaggerations were acceptable and expected. He used his skills to promote Ingagi. The editor of Motion Picture magazine wrote, "When there are men who are braving actual dangers for the sake of truth, it is obviously unfair for their credibility to be shadowed by the pretentions of a sensational hodge-podge masquerading as scientific fact."
RB: Meanwhile, Congo Pictures, was at the moment laughing as they went straight to the bank. Some reports state that the film actually made over four million dollars upon release, as they continually insisted that the film was 85% authentic, in spite of all of the evidence that was laid out before the public. The film was banned in Ohio by the censors, but theaters showed it anyway. It took until 1933 before the film was actually “officially” marketed as the absurd fraud that it was.
SG: It was a chore to watch this movie. I thought because it was a pre-code film that it would have some entertainment value through the shock of the scenario, but the presentation isn't entertaining in the least, and the most interesting part, the promised gorilla, doesn't come until the last 20 minutes of the movie, and it is a marvel that anyone can make it that far. Those who do will only be let down by the fact that it isn't even a real gorilla. One star.
RB: Ingagi stands as an example of how people can be duped into believing anything, if they want to believe in it enough. It is an asinine, obnoxious and insulting film. Unquestionably one of the worst vintage movies I’ve ever seen. Maybe the worst. Zero stars.