Forbidden Divas: Many a Rainy Night in Brooklyn

David Melville Wingrove returns!

FORBIDDEN DIVAS

MANY A RAINY NIGHT IN BROOKLYN

“Did you ever see a crocodile yawn?”

– Lynne Overman, Her Jungle Love

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Has there ever been a film so bad that a halfway decent volcanic eruption could not put it right? “That is clearly a metaphysical speculation,” writes Oscar Wilde, “and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference to the actual facts of life, as we know them.” But then neither has anything else in Her Jungle Love (1938). So the question still strikes me as entirely valid. The climax of this movie is not just any old eruption. It brings with it a cataclysmic mudslide of ravenous man-eating crocodiles – who slither their way into a crumbling pagan temple and set about devouring much of the cast. I should add that the cast of this movie is quite a small one. At no point are the hungry reptiles in any danger from overeating.

But where is this temple and what is anybody doing inside it? It all starts when a pilot crash-lands his plane somewhere in the Malay Archipelago. Two other pilots head off in search of him and manage – with remarkable efficiency – to crash their own plane and go missing on the exact same tropic isle. (The islands of the Malay Archipelago number in the thousands, so this really is quite a slick bit of navigation.) These two pilots are Ray Milland and his annoying comic sidekick Lynne Overman. Both actors were popular stars at Paramount Pictures in the 30s. That gives us all the reassurance we need that they will not be allowed to go missing for too long.

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The island seems at first to be deserted. But of course it is not. It is inhabited by a winsome jungle maiden named Tura. She is played by Dorothy Lamour in a gallon of fake tan and a daringly skimpy line of sarongs designed by Edith Head. She does not live entirely alone in this paradise. She frolics through the vibrant green palm trees by the dazzling blue Technicolor lagoon along with Gaga – a lovably mischievous chimpanzee – and Meewa – a cute and frisky lion cub. There is no sign of any adult lions or, indeed, of any other primates on this island. We can only assume that a third plane loaded with circus animals must have crash-landed somewhere in the vicinity.

A former Miss New Orleans of 1931 and future co-star of the Road movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour was one of those Hollywood icons who never even pretended to be an actress. Her assets were her lithe and curvaceous physique (not everyone looks good in a sarong) as well as her voluptuous Technicolor lips and her dark and sultry bedroom eyes. Her dialogue in Her Jungle Love consists almost entirely of ugga-wugga gibberish, which makes it one of her more successful dramatic roles. Even strumming on a ukulele – as she is required to do in one scene – appears to strain her acting skills to breaking point.

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But alas, there is room for only one Queen on this or any other tropic isle. That role is reserved for J Carrol Naish as Kuaka, a villainous Malay prince who rules over a tribe of head-hunters that inhabit a nearby cove. His followers seem to be exclusively male; all of them are muscular and bronzed and clad in the skimpiest of loincloths. Kuaka himself wafts about in an iridescent peacock-green kaftan and with turban to match. He sports on one finger an emerald so splendiferously large and vulgar that Elizabeth Taylor might reject it as just a shade too ostentatious. He demonstrates his ascendancy by wearing even more eye make-up than Tura and speaks invariably in a low and sibilant hiss.

You have been wondering what had happened to that first missing pilot. The answer, to put it plainly, is Kuaka. He keeps the boy for quite a suspiciously long time as his private prisoner. Then he trusses him up like a mummy and sacrifices him to the Crocodile God. The rotter even hypnotises poor Tura and forces her to take part in the ceremony. He does at least dress her up in the film’s most memorable outfit: a long and trailing white cape with a headdress of white egret feathers and seashells. This man may be a savage and proud of it. But he does at least have some idea how to accessorise.

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Need I add that in the course of this blood-soaked ritual, Dorothy Lamour gets hypnotised and shoved into a basket and impaled with giant spears and resurrected and brought back to life as if by magic and none of it alters her facial expression one iota? She looks only mildly perturbed when Kuaka suggests getting married, so the two of them may rule over the island together. Even a girl who has spent most of her life in a coconut tree must surely realise this is what is described in sophisticated circles as a mariage blanc. It seems quite wildly unlikely that sex could ever be a part of the deal.

By this time, Dorothy has fallen in love with Ray because…well, because he’s there and somebody has to. His pal, meanwhile, has formed what appears to be a tender inter-species ménage à trois with her animal friends. (A scene where the chimp kisses Lynne Overman is by some measure the raunchiest bit of the movie.) It goes without saying that Ray has an overpoweringly dreary fiancée (Dorothy Howe) who nags her henpecked father into taking her off in his yacht to search for him. We start to worry that she might actually find him. I mean, where on earth is that Crocodile God when he is really needed?

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In the litany of sublime absurdities that make up the script, my favourite is the way Ray and Lynne manage to crash their plane without in any way damaging their portable gramophone. According to Lynne, this machine kept him company on “many a rainy night in Brooklyn.” Her Jungle Love may not be appreciably better or worse than The Jungle Princess (1936) or Typhoon (1940) or Aloma of the South Seas (1941) or any of Lamour’s umpteen other sarong pictures. Still, it is a well-nigh flawless antidote to rainy nights in Brooklyn.

David Melville

9 Responses to “Forbidden Divas: Many a Rainy Night in Brooklyn”

  1. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Are you familiar with “Joe vs. The Volcano”? It’s my favorite exotic desert island movie. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley this delightful bit of insanity has nothing in common with either “Moonstruck” or “Doubt.” It stars the cinematically unavoidable Tom Hanks as a poor schlub stuck in a dead-end job who decides to travel to a faraway isle and throw himself into a volcano. Dorothy Lamour isn’t in it, nor is she evoked by three separate iterations of Meg Ryan (who is charming as always). Best of all the High Priest of the “Wackonis” (the desert island’s tribe with a partiality for orange soda) is played by the great Nathan Lane. Alas “Moon of Manakoura” is not sung (Bette Midler pointed out to me many years back how slowly and sensuously Dorothy does it) but there’s a dynamite dance sequence in which Hanks in the middle of he ocean mounts his airtight floating luggage and goes into a spirited soft-shoe as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” let fly on he soundtrack.

    And now to conclude Der Bingle!

  2. I really liked Joe, it seemed to have bit parts, eg the steamer trunk salesman, written and played with true 1940s panache, something you very rarely see.

  3. “Cobra Woman” may be milder than this, but it does boast two Maria Montezs (one an innocent island girl, the other a cruel high priestess who chooses volcano fodder while dancing). Sabu plays a prepubescent kid just before he joined the Air Force in real life. One of Universal’s goofy costumers in glorious Technicolor.

    Trying to remember which Road movie had the villain stage a wedding between Hope and Crosby, each thinking he was marrying Lamour. That angered the evidently right-wing volcano god.

    Meanwhile, here’s Disney’s version of “Joe vs. The Volcano”:

  4. Fiona in a David Cairns skin here – That was marvellous David! Had me spluttering over my coffee. Granted, Lamour was no actor, but she knew it and had a marvellous sense of humour about it. This number also features Toni Basil and Teri Garr if I’m not mistaken. Dottie (if I may call her that) is 50 here, still smokin’ hot, and doesn’t appear to have messed about with plastic surgery. Well done her! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2tQ2UnIXyM

  5. The Fiona/David Entity back again – Just re-watched that. She’s great! Really funny. The gal had comedy chops and never really got the credit she was due for being an integral part of the Road movies. She’s like Margaret Dumont to the Marx Brothers. Being the ‘straight woman’ is actually quite hard.

  6. Cobra Woman yields more madness per reel than Her Jungle Love, which saves up most of the crazy for the climax. There’s a lot of lingering on the beach, in a cave etc, and then it goes epically nuts.

  7. The Fiona/David Entity – That was GREAT. I love Teri. Thank you for that.

  8. FDE – Creeping off topic. I believe Toni Basil choreographed at least one of these numbers. I had a HUGE girl crush on Toni in the early 80s. The UK loved her and she had two tv specials over here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0aqLwHP4y6Q

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