She was worried about making friends here, but as you can see she's become pretty much the person to know.
Above is a curious cover for Stuart Cloete's novel Congo Song, first published in 1943, with this Popular Giant version coming in 1952 fronted by excellent George Mayers cover art. This is a book we've kept our eyes on over the years. We finally bought it, but not this version. We have the 1958 Monarch Books edition with Harry Schaare cover art. We'll circle back to that later and tell you what it's all about. We expect sheer craziness.
Mogambo features the cruelest beast in all of Africa—and its name is Clark Gable.
As famous as Mogambo is, we'd never seen it, had never read a review of it, and had no idea going in what it was about except that it was a safari movie and a remake of the 1932 adventure Red Dust, which we'd also never seen. There are few hit movies—especially with stars the stature of Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, and Grace Kelly—that we don't know at least a little something about. So we cleared the slate, cooked up some popcorn in our special Lindy's hand-cranked popper, and settled in for a screening.
Shot in Kenya, Uganda, French Equatorial Africa (now Central African Republic), and the Tanganyika region of what is now Democratic Republic of Congo, the movie is about a hard-edged safari guide and hunter played by Gable (also the star of Red Dust, by the way) who tries to score with both Gardner and Kelly, and soon has them at each other's throats. These old movies often work on the presumption that the male star is irresistible—period. As a result, screenwriters were sometimes lazy. They'd fail to write the male lead with any charm at all.
That holds true here, as Gable is gruff, rude, twenty years older than Gardner, and almost thirty years older than Kelly. We're fine about the age difference, unlike the “age appropriate” crowd that thinks women are capable of making any decision except ones about whom they love, but because Grant is a complete sourdough some charm would have made Gardner's and Kelly's attraction to him more understandable. Handsome though he may be, here he's nothing more than moustache, hair tonic, and bossiness. But okay, Gardner and Kelly are both in states of need, and Gable is more than happy to introduce them to his bush snake, so what you get is a love triangle folded inside a Technicolor safari adventure. Fine.
The production is spiced up with majestic scenery, nice costumes, realistic animal footage, an overwhelming feel of the exotic, the tantalizing implication of intimacy with two of the most beautiful women in cinema, and a deft, assured performance from Gardner. In fact, while Gable is top billed, Ava gets nearly all the good lines. “Listen, buster,” she scolds Clark, “you and your quick-change acts aren't gonna hang orange blossoms all over me just because you feel the cold weather coming on!” That's a scathing way to call someone old and desperate. But Gable has his moments too. We liked when he blustered, “You know how it is on safari. It's in all the books. The woman always falls for the white hunter and we guys make the most of it.” That's meta, so we hear.
Obviously, tribespeople figure prominently, and you can discern marginal improvement in their portrayal since the days of Weissmuller's Tarzan. They're still just ornamentation in their own lands, but at least none lay down their lives to save a white man who's spent most of his screen time cracking a whip at them. Whew. Overall, we thought Mogambo was decent. Not great, mind you—because Gable deserved to play a more nuanced character and did not have that chance—but it was decent. It premiered today in 1953.
Up the river and into trouble.
Vintage Belgian movie posters are generally very nice. This one was made for Congo Crossing, which was titled Carrefour des proscrits in French and Het Kruispunt der Bannelingen in Dutch. The movie isn't actually set in the Belgian Congo. Instead it takes place in a fictional west African territory called Kongotanga, where George Nader and Virginia Mayo find themselves snared in an adventure that's part Casablanca and part African Queen. Sounds good, right? You can read what we wrote about the film here. There's no premiere date for Belgium but it probably played there in the spring of 1957.
Now that you've shot the continent's last white rhino can we do something I think is romantic?
Jonathan Latimer's African adventure novel Dark Memory needs a more grandiose title, because it's pure Hemingway, and you know how lyrical his titles were. Latimer's novel is about nature, and courage, and women. It reads as if he said to himself after finishing Green Hills of Africa, “I wonder if I could do something like what Papa did here?” Well, he could. Dark Memory is a totally absorbing safari tale, a slice of time long gone. Latimer is in what we call the “trusted” category. He's set-and-forget. He's a concierge who's never failed a customer. If he wants to take us on an African safari, all we can say is, “Where do we get our malaria shots?”
Today people who hunt big game are excoriated on social media, and we understand why. The animals they shoot are simply too rare and valuable to be killed for ego. The hunters of yesteryear also killed for ego, but did so under a more limited ecological understanding and more lax political circumstances. Some practices of the past shouldn't survive, and killing lions for their skins shouldn't survive any more than should gladiatorial combat with swords. Big game hunters of today know that these African animals will be slaughtered unto extinction, but they simply don't care. Some might not want to shoot the last one, or hundredth one, or thousandth, but they're offset by sociopaths who'd pay a fortune to usher a species to oblivion. It's basic economics. The rarer the animal the more someone will pay to kill it.
If you were to search Dark Memory for good explanations why people kill African wildlife you'd be disappointed. Killing to prove one's own courage, killing a silverback gorilla carrying an infant, all seems shallow and pointless even to the main character, Jay Nichols, part of a group slogging through the wilds of Belgian Congo. When he later refers to the shooting—actually his shooting—of that female gorilla as a murder, his feelings are made crystal clear. In one scene another hunter explains how, during his current duties guiding a party of Brits, they've killed two hippos. For no reason except vanity. Then he lists the other casualties: “Zebra, eland, antelope, kuku, oryx, wildebeest, hartebeest, topi, [impala], waterbuck, dik-dik, oribi, bushbuck, reedbuck. I can't remember them all. Yes, and a number of different gazelles. We've killed more than two-hundred animals.”
Latimer is a show-not-tell type of writer, but seems to suggest that, while shooting a charging animal may prove a type of courage, it's of the crudest kind. The same rough men don't have enough courage to be truthful. Nor do they have the guts to be evenhanded—they must always weight the scales. Fairness angers them, because then they lose their advantages. But the book is only partly about all this. There's a woman on the expedition, Eve Salles, and her role barely differs from that of the animals. She's to be conquered for vanity too. In the context of this difficult trek through the Congolese jungle, she will be left in peace only if she belongs to someone. If the cruel, intimidating asshole running the safari has his druthers, it'll be him. She resists this depressing reality, but how long can she last?
Latimer tackles his themes declaratively, methodically, repetitively, and close to flawlessly. The man could definitely weave a tale, but for modern readers it'll be uncomfortable because he occasionally takes the route of racism in his descriptive passages. That's often true of vintage literature. We write—for a living even—so we never cut ourselves off from good writing. There's always something to learn. But those who read for pleasure should focus on the pleasure first. You have no other obligation, because there's plenty of good writing out there that doesn't equate gorillas and black men. But if, like the hunters in this book, you can trek past the hazards, your patience and forbearance will be rewarded—with high tension, savage action, deep reflection, and extraordinary visual power.
In the end, Dark Memory turns out to be a safari adventure that deftly channels the mid-century classics—Hemingway, Blixen, and others. Like those books, there's a level of dismissal toward the inhabitants of the land the characters claim to love, yet also like those books, there's insight into that rarefied realm of rich white Americans in the African wild. Latimer, a highly regarded crime writer, added big outdoor adventure to his résumé with Dark Memory, and as far as we're concerned he pulled it off. Originally published in 1940, the cover at top is from the 1953 Perma-Doubleday edition, painted by Carl Bobertz. It's actually a Canadian cover. We know only because every edition we've seen online has the price of 35¢, and a small notation that says: in Canada 39¢. Ours being 39¢, it must be Canadian. Brilliantly deduced, eh?
Bogart shows the way for the makers of Congo Crossing.
This poster for Congo Crossing has all the elements—firearms, some romantic nuzzling, and a huge crocodile. The trifecta. So we watched it, and what you get here is a Technicolor adventure set in the fictive West African land of Kongotanga, which sits geographically on the border of Belgian Congo, and is a stand-in thematically for Casablanca. Which is to say Congo Crossing uses the basic set-up of Casablanca—transitory expats and shady types in an ass-end outpost riven by local political tensions and power struggles. Virginia Mayo plays a wanted woman fleeing a murder charge she picked up on the French Riviera, George Nader plays the rakish stud who you aren't sure whether to like at first, and in the supporting cast are corrupt local kingpin Tonio Selwart, killer for hire Michael Pate, and Peter Lorre as the local chief of police. Here are some Casablanca similarities:
Expats desperate to catch the next day's plane to anywhere.
A climactic airport shootout.
A woman greatly desired by two men.
Lots of gun toting guys in tropical suits.
A comedic police official whose loyalties shift where the wind blows.
A moment when one man tells a rival it looks like the beginning of a friendship.
We mention Casablanca as shorthand to give you an idea of the set-up, and now we'll mention The African Queen—another Humphrey Bogart classic—as shorthand to tell you what the middle of the movie becomes. Mayo, Nader, and a few others embark on a boat trip upriver to a jungle hospital. There Mayo realizes she's the target of a killer, and flees farther along the river with Nader, dealing with an ambush, a sexual predator, a swarm of terrible tse-tse flies, a sneaky croc, and a deadly illness. You've seen The African Queen, right? A couple of strong similarities there. The group faces these problems and, unlike their African helpers, come away more or less intact, then the movie disembarks from the river—and The African Queen—to shift back to Kongoblanca, er, we mean Kongotanga, where everything began.
So does a movie that starts and ends kind of like Casablanca and has something kind of like The African Queen stitched into the middle work? Not with this script and budget it doesn't. And though the cast is game and experienced, the material doesn't give them much of a chance to sparkle. We can't call the movie bad, but we certainly can't describe it as recommendable either. And going back to the jungle segment for a moment, why is it that in such films the people born and raised in Africa always get eaten while white folks like Mayo and Nader can snog in the bush and be just fine? That's a rhetorical question of course. Congo Crossing premiered today in 1956.
Not with my daughter you don't.
They say the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. We wonder if legendary pin-up painter and connoisseur of the nude female form Earl Moran was upset about that. We ask because that's his daughter above, Peggy Moran, posing in the altogether in this shot made by famed photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston around 1936. Did Earl and Al know each other? Well. That must have made for an interesting discussion. But what could Earl say, really? Of course, another intriguing possibility is that he never knew. Generally, models kept their early nudes secret. Marilyn Monroe changed the paradigm when her naked shots came out and she shrugged and said, “And? Pervs. So what?” We're paraphrasing.
Maybe Peggy kept her nude session quiet, but we prefer the idea of Earl and Alfred having a little tête-à-tête about it:
“But Alfred, I thought we agreed she was off-limits.”
“I know, Earl, but look at her. I'm only a flawed fifty-something human male faced with youthful feminine perfection. I mean, she's 100% f'dilf.”
“Wha... what? She's a what?”
“You know. A friend's daughter I'd...” *winks and grins*
“I'm gonna fucking kill you.”
This stuff writes itself. In any case, two years after the above shot was made Moran got her break in films and by 1940 was a regular on the silver screen, appearing in One Night in the Tropics, Drums of the Congo, and about thirty other films. Talentwise, she had the goods, as a glance at the very enjoyable goofball horror movie The Mummy's Hand will confirm. Her career hit overdrive by 1941, but it didn't last long—she got married and gave up show business to raise a family. Her last role was in 1943. Her nudes finally saw daylight sometime after that.
That was interesting. Next time can we just do it the normal way?
There's no festish sex or podophilia in With Naked Foot. This is actually a serious novel about whites coming to ruin in Africa, which is a crowded literary niche, but one in which Emily Hahn carved out an important place for herself. In fact, maybe the adjective “Hahnesque” should be used alongside “Hemingwayesque.” This is a person who wrote fifty-four books and more than two hundred articles and short stories, whose works were significant in romanticizing Africa and Asia for western readers, who lived in Florence and London in the mid-1920s, traveled to the Belgian Congo where she worked for the Red Cross, lived with a pygmy tribe for two years, crossed Central Africa alone on foot, and journeyed to Shanghai where she taught English for three years while becoming acquaintances with political powerhouses the Soong Sisters and the Chinese poet Zau Sinmay. With Naked Foot is, therefore, unusually well informed. It revolves around a beautiful Congolese girl named Mawa whose relationships with various lustful white men bring disaster. The reviews were rapturous, though some critics protested that it was too focused on sex. That's never a complaint you'll hear from us, though some of the usual flaws of mid-century racial fiction are evident. The cover art on this Bantam paperback was painted by an unknown, and the copyright is 1951.
Getting there was a long and difficult journey, but now he's finally going to explore the bush.
You can figure out the story here, right? The title and cover combine to sort of give it away. Bored rich girl Teresa Porter, who's married to linguist Julian Porter, is dragged on a two-year research trip to the Belgian Congo along with her hot young lover Allan, who is her husband's assistant. Literarily speaking, Africa has been the end of tougher people than these three, so you know they're going to have myriad troubles. The interracial aspect suggested by the cover blurb does not apply to lover Allan, but Edmund Schiddel adds subplots along those lines, as you'd expect from any author working in the African milieu. The copyright on this is 1956, and the art is uncredited.
This trip sucks! Next time let’s just pay extra for first class!
The Mercenaries, aka Dark of the Sun isn’t a movie many remember, but we’re going to remember it, because this is a great pre-CGI action film—not perfect, but well above average. Based on Wilbur Smith’s novel Train from Katanga, and starring Rod Taylor, Jim Brown, Peter Carsten, and Yvette Mimieux, it tells the story of two mercenaries in the civil war-torn Congo hired to ride a military train upcountry, rescue a group of stranded people, and retrieve $50 million in uncut diamonds languishing in a time-locked safe. They have to do it within three days, which means making rushed preparations—notably, enlisting the aid of a dodgy ex-Nazi who commands the Congolese mercs needed to round out the mission. This Nazi is a really bad human, so it’s no surprise he gets into a chainsaw fight with the protagonist shortly after they meet. You’d think the hero would expect the unexpected from the guy after that—but no. The Japanese poster above, while not perfectly descriptive of the action, gets the mood of The Mercenaries across effectively, and it opened in Japan today in 1968.
Rampant reptile kills nineteen by triggering plane crash.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier today, nineteen passengers and crew were killed when a Filair Let 410 commuter plane crashed. The craft, which was exactly like the one pictured above, was en route from the capital Kinshasa to the city of Bandundu, about four-hundred kilometers to the northeast, but went down near the end of the flight.
According to the news website Jeune Afrique, the lone survivor of the accident told an incredible tale: as the plane was on its final landing approach and was just miles from Bandundu’s airport, a crocodile escaped from a carry-on bag and began scuttling wildly through the plane’s aisle. Panicked passengers fled toward the forward end of the cabin and their combined weight caused the aircraft to flip over in mid-air and plummet earthward, where it smashed into a house.
The photo above left shows the aftermath of the mishap. Early reports were quickly revised to indicate that the witness was not actually the only survivor—the crocodile lived through the ordeal too, only to be killed with a machete when rescue personnel arrived on the scene and found it crawling around the wreckage. No word yet on which passenger actually boarded with the croc, or whether it was a crazy assassination scheme that succeeded only because Samuel L. Jackson wasn’t there to foil it. In any case, Snakes on a Plane doesn’t seem so farfetched anymore.
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1930—Movie Censorship Enacted
In the U.S., the Motion Pictures Production Code is instituted, imposing strict censorship guidelines on the depiction of sex, crime, religion, violence and racial mixing in film. The censorship holds sway over Hollywood for the next thirty-eight years, and becomes known as the Hays Code, after its creator, Will H. Hays.
1970—Japan Airlines Flight 351 Hijacked
In Japan, nine samurai sword wielding members of the Japanese Communist League-Red Army Faction hijack Japan Airlines flight 351, which had been en route from Tokyo to Fukuoka. After releasing the passengers, the hijackers proceed to Pyongyang, North Koreas's Mirim Airport, where they surrender to North Korean authorities and are given asylum.
1986—Jimmy Cagney Dies
American movie actor James Francis Cagney, Jr., who played a variety of roles in everything from romances to musicals but was best known as a quintessential tough guy, dies of a heart attack at his farm in Stanfordville, New York at the age of eighty-six.
1951—The Rosenbergs Are Convicted of Espionage
Americans Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage as a result of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. While declassified documents seem to confirm Julius Rosenberg's role as a spy, Ethel Rosenberg's involvement is still a matter of dispute. Both Rosenbergs were executed on June 19, 1953.
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