Trying to come to terms with Ingagi, a Pre-Code exploitation film, is like peeling the layers of an onion, if the onion had an infinite number of layers, and if the process of peeling those layers was so intriguing that you would persist more or less indefinitely, even if you can’t stand onions. As a film, it’s bad in so many ways—among other things, it’s racist, misogynist, and ethnocentric, as well as promoting bad science and being a real piece of hackwork—yet as an example of brazen cinematic fakery it’s positively fascinating, and as a specimen of what a lot of people would pay to see in 1930, it’s absolutely priceless.
Opening screen cards try hard to establish Ingagi as authentic, as if to fend off charges of being what it actually is, a rather distasteful exploitation picture. What is coming up, we are told, is a portrayal of “the thrilling adventures of Sir Hubert Winstead, F.A.S., during his two years’ expedition into the hitherto unknown regions of Darkest AFRICA.” In 1926, it seems, Sir Hubert and Captain Daniel Swayne were heading to “the Congos,” but changed course after hearing a tale so “unbelievable and fantastic” that they changed their route, resulting in “the following amazing picture.”
That purported tale will be familiar from other, better, films, including King Kong (1933). It seems there is an African tribe that gives some of its women to a gorilla tribe, and also that “barren women” do something or other with the apes to try to cure their infertility. Now you are duly warned about what kind of a film this is, and perhaps someone can tell me why the prospect of human women mating with male gorillas (never the other way around) seems to be so fascinating to some filmmakers and audiences.
“Ingagi” means “gorilla” in the Kinyarwanda language spoken in Rwanda, and choosing an actual word from an actual African language for the title may well be the only authentic thing about this film. Whether anyone thought it was real in 1930 is an open question, but sufficient complaints, including one from the American Society of Mammologists, were made that both the New York Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission conducted investigations, in both cases determining that it was a fraud.
About 75% of Ingagi is made up of clips from other films (the producers were sued at least once for unauthorized use of parts of a film shot by someone else), and the remaining 25% was shot in Los Angeles, using local actors (children performed the “pygmy” roles), with some footage shot at the Los Angeles Zoo. The gorilla was played by Charles Gemora, who specialized in costumed monster roles, and while we don’t know what actors played the roles of Sir Hubert Winstead and Captain Daniel Swayne, we do know that no actual people by that name were known to the British embassy of the time.
We’ll never know how many people believed Ingagi was an authentic documentary, but we know a lot of people wanted to see it (onscreen nudity might have something to do with that). By one estimate, it grossed about $4 million, and that was real money in the early days of the Great Depression. It’s presented here in tinted black and white, and the quality of picture and sound varies widely, with the purpose-shot footage sharp and clear, some of the pirated footage not so much.
The varying quality is due in part to a deliberate choice by the restorers to not do digital dirt removal on the “repurposed” footage, because they wanted the restored film to look more like what audiences would have seen when this film was first shown in 1930 (when some of the pirated footage was already old and in poor condition). However, they did do some color grading and added subtitles (taken from a copy of the script) to parts of the film where the audio track was missing or damaged. | Sarah Boslaugh
Ingagi, Volume 8 in the series Forbidden Fruit: The Golden Age of the Exploitation Picture, is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, and on VOD from Kino Now. Extras include two excellent commentary tracks, by film historian Kelly Robinson and series curator Bret Wood, a short documentary about the film’s restoration, and trailers for four films.