What is so intriguing about being the first, fastest, strongest, tallest, shortest, biggest, smallest, smartest, etc.? Why is that fascinating? As a writer, I think the idea of being a prolific writer is cool; I don’t know why, but it intrigues me. The fact that Stephen King blazes through ten pages of writing a day, creating novels that are massively popular in the process, seems like a super power to me. I remember reading that Philip K. Dick could write a novel in a week and that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road on one giant scroll continuously for several weeks. I’d love to have the power to produce at that clip, not because it would be a quick and easy way to write a novel or make a buck, but because the writing would be an all-absorbing experience, happening so fast that it would like experiencing the story in real time, watching it unfold. It seems to me that it would be a joy to throw oneself into writing and live inside that dream world, writing as if your life depended on it. Of course, I know that the reality is that an author does write for his or her life because it’s the only thing paying the bills and for most authors, writing can’t be the sole source of income because it’s too meager; Philip K. Dick for example, knew the pains of being an impoverished writer all to well. I also know that fast writing does not equal good writing, and titanic works of fiction like Gravity’s Rainbow are the work of years of effort. But as a fan of B-movies and apologist for pulp, I can appreciate writing that falls short of perfection, so long as it entertains; and I am easily entertained.
It’s National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo for those in the know, and many are writing madly to complete a novel, which amounts to 50,000 words if you follow NaNoWriMo rules. I’ve joined my fellow NaNoWriMo participants in writing my own work of fiction by the seat of my pants, what I hope will turn out to be a campy pastiche of B-movie science fiction/space opera with more swearing and blood. And as I alternately slog and rejoice at what I write, I’m reminded of the early days of B-movies and the production companies that churned them out at a phenomenal rate. The companies were part of what’s now called Poverty Row, a term which literally referred to a street where many of the lower tier movie studios were located but figuratively encompasses all companies of that ilk and era. From the 1920s to the early 50s, a studio system dominated, such that major movie studios would produce and distribute films, then they would show those films in their own theaters. The independent theaters existing outside of that system needed movies and they would frequently run the low-budget films made by companies on Poverty Row. Poverty Row was also responsible for creating many of the B-movies on double bills, that is, the shorter, crappier half of a double feature. I recently watched White Pongo, one of 46 (!) films produced by PRC Pictures in 1945. PRC Pictures films were often shot in a week or less for under a $100,000, usually much less. The company only ran for 8 years, but managed to produce 213 films, which averages to 26 movies a year or a little more than two a month. That’s unbelievably fast, cheap, and consequently prolific. White Pongo is a pretty terrible film, clearly a result of quick, formulaic, poorly edited writing and equally subpar directing furnished by a chintzy budget at a rinky-dink studio. So, in effect, PRC and White Pongo are my muse and inspiration this month. As I write the tentatively titled, Adam Savage, White Pongo is what I aspire to…and I couldn’t be happier.
White Pongo begins with a group of African tribesmen dancing around a fire; man, it feels racist just writing that. Anyway, a man is about to be sacrificed by the natives, but he manages to escape with the help of an old man who has been searching for the legendary ape, White Pongo. The man returns to civilization and tells Sir Harry Bragdon about the old man and his search for White Pongo before dying. Sir Bragdon gathers an expedition into the Congo in the hopes of finding the old man and White Pongo, which is supposed to be the missing link; Pongo’s basically just a gorilla with white fur. They go through the jungle, find the old man, and devise a trap for the ape. Meanwhile, Bragdon’s daughter Pamela gets cozy with her bodyguard Bishop, angering her father and also her would-be suitor, Peter van Dorn. Peter conspires with Hans Kroegert to mutiny, take the expedition’s supplies, and head for some treasure that will make them rich; Peter is tired of searching for the mythical white ape and wants to take Pamela with him. Kroegert, Peter, and several members of the expedition, including an African guide with the ludicrous name of Mumbo Jumbo, tie up the rest of the party members and head up the river, taking Pamela with them. Bishop gets free and tells everyone that he’s not really a guide, but a secret agent who’s been hired to track Kroegert, who has a history of killing the men he’s led into the bush. When Kroegert reneges on his promise to leave supplies for Sir Bragdon and the other men he abandoned, Pamela and Peter object. Pamela escapes and Peter runs after her, only for Kroegert to shoot him in the back. Kroegert catches Pamela, but White Pongo shows up and trounces him, then carries Pamela off. Pamela escapes the ape, who chases her, but Pongo ends up saving her in an altercation with another gorilla. Bishop, Bragdon, and the others show up and save Pamela by shooting White Pongo. They cage the ape and plan on taking him back to civilization for further study.
White Pongo seems like a story written with little thought in a short period of time because it’s largely formulaic, the characters are flat as cardboard, and some story elements just seem thrown into the film for no reason. The film is an example of the popular genre of jungle films, which I’ve touched on once before, and features a fairly standard plot about finding some rare animal in the jungle, in this case, White Pongo. It also features a man in a gorilla suit, probably the cheapest and therefore most frequently used animal in these movies outside of stock footage of zoo animals; gorillas also show up a whole bunch in cheapo horror films. The gorilla in question is actually supposed to be the missing link, which makes it topical, but there’s no explanation as to how or why they think it’s the missing link, nor do they examine the implications of such a find; I read at least one review on IMDb where someone pointed out that the white ape was the missing link, as opposed to the black gorillas, which would certainly be the kind of racist explanation I’d expect from a film like this; thankfully nobody in White Pongo puts forth that explanation.
The characters in this are as flat as they come and the story elements associated with them are basically just padding. The only purpose of the old man in the jungle, the one who’s been looking for the legendary white ape, is to tell the group how to catch White Pongo, because he doesn’t even want to go with them on the expedition; he thinks he’s too old to return to civilization or some nonsense. Han Kroegert turns out to be a villain after two thirds of the film have passed, when he decides to mutiny to go find treasure that’s never mentioned before or again. Equally suddenly, we find out that the stoic and dutiful Bishop is actually a secret agent who has been employed to find evidence of Kroegert misdoings and bring him to justice; I wonder when he was planning on telling the group that Kroegert was a murder suspect. It feels like the writer was either working on the story and found out that Kroegert was a villain late in the story but never went back to add foreshadowing, or the writer was withholding that Kroegert was a villain until he had written an ample amount of filler material for the movie; by the way, writers do ‘discover’ things about characters as they write because stories often are not planned out to a T, and there is enough room for improvisation to surprise even the writer. Another element that seemed thrown in was the love triangle between Bishop, Pamela, and Peter. Peter’s character is basically just the jealous unrequited lover; his only reason for mutinying with Kroegert is so that he can take Pamela with him to get back at Bishop. Furthermore, Pamela’s character traits are that she’s Sir Bragdon’s daughter and that she falls in love with Bishop; she basically just puts on a dress and throws herself at him. While Peter’s jealousy helps drive the Kroegert mutiny, it all seems like a diversion from the supposed purpose of the movie, which is to capture White Pongo.
Combined with the low budget, short shooting time, thin plot, flat characters, and seemingly ancillary subplots, White Pongo seems like it was written in a couple days and immediately picked up for filming. Yet, it has its trashy charms, particularly when White Pongo shows up to kill Kroegert and pick a fight with a gorilla. If PRC can put out a film about like White Pongo in a week, which they must have done to produce 46 films in 1945, then I can write a novel just as trashy, hopefully better, and more entertaining in a month. At worst, I’ll produce a story worthy of Poverty Row and my own pulp ambitions.
By the way, I’m going to start posting links to where you can find these movies, if you can watch them online (legally). I’ll also include where you can find them in the tags.
White Pongo: on Youtube, on the Internet Archive.