One person who’s figured very consistently on my blog statistics for the past year is the gorgeous Eleanor Parker. Any day, all I need to do is click my blog stats link, and I’ll see that among the top hits for my blog is ‘eleanor parker’ or ‘eleanor parker actress’. So, considering it’s her 88th birthday today, it seemed the perfect time to review a film that starred Ms Parker.
Eleanor Parker was born on June 26th, 1922. The ‘Woman of a Thousand Faces’ (so called because of her amazing versatility), she got three Oscar nominations, but is usually remembered mainly for her role as the beautiful Baroness in The Sound of Music. Ms Parker did, however, act in a host of other films—and in very varying roles, too. This, as the mail order bride of a plantation owner in South America, is just one of them.
For all of you Eleanor Parker fans out there (and here—I’m one, too), The Naked Jungle begins the way a good film should: with Ms Parker herself. Here, she’s Joanna Leiningen, a bride on her way to a plantation somewhere in South America (the Amazon basin, I guess, though it’s not explicitly stated). The captain (Romo Vincent) of the boat on which Joanna’s sailing is surprised when she asks him what sort of man her husband is.
The fog clears a bit when we listen in on Joanna’s conversation with the Commissioner (William Conrad), who’s also travelling on the boat. It emerges that Joanna is a mail order bride. Her husband, Christopher Leiningen, is a wealthy plantation owner who’s been living out here in the wild for the past 15 years. He needs a wife, but hasn’t the time to go looking for one—so his brother, out in New Orleans, advertised for one. Joanna is the woman whom Christopher has married by proxy. The Commissioner tells Joanna that he, the Commissioner, stood in for Joanna here in South America, and even performed the ceremony.
Joanna gets a bit of a jolt when she finally disembarks at the dock near Leiningen’s house, amid his vast plantations. There’s no sign of her husband. Not a whisker to be seen.
An ‘Anglicised native’, Incacha (Abraham Sofaer), however comes to greet her. He introduces himself as Leiningen’s right-hand man, some sort of major domo, and tells her that Leiningen’s been touring the plantation, and is too dirty to come and receive her.
This doesn’t sound too promising, and Joanna is a little taken aback at her new husband’s lack of husbandly feeling. Surely dirt needn’t come in the way of a wedding kiss? Incacha takes her to her new home, introduces her to the servants, and ensures that she is looked after.
That evening, Joanna finally gets to meet her husband, when he comes back home. Christopher (Charlton Heston) is grimy and sweaty (so why the fuss, initially?) and not especially welcoming. He addresses her as ‘madam’, scolds her for having a sense of humour, and then scolds her for interrupting him.
Over the course of the evening, Joanna comes to know Christopher better. Not that it’s a wonderful realisation: he’s a proud, arrogant man, who seems to think of her as just another beautiful thing to add to the grand furniture, the piano, and the 800 lbs of books he’s had shipped from the US. He admits she’s perfect: she’s educated, beautiful, accomplished… so there must be something wrong with her; Christopher can’t believe that Joanna could be flawless.
He soon finds out what the ‘flaw’ is. Joanna is a widow; she was married for a year to a drunkard who died some time back. Joanna knew Christopher’s brother back in New Orleans, and had made it clear to him that she’s a widow. But Christopher’s brother (probably knowing Christopher pretty well), seems to have decided that Christopher needn’t know that.
The problem is, Christopher is too proud to be ‘second in anything’. He refuses to have what he rudely tells Joanna are “another man’s leavings”.
Christopher even admits to Joanna that he doesn’t know women; not at all. He came to South America when he was just 19, with no time for women. In the 15 years he’s lived here, he’s steered clear of women. There is a name, he says, that the natives use for white men who go into the local villages at night… and that name has never been applied to him. Someone like him needs a wife who’s pure as driven snow. Even if it means equating chastity with being never married. This man needs a clonk on the head. Or something.
The problem is that Christopher Leiningen knows zilch about women. He finds Joanna intimidatingly lovely, confusing him and throwing all his ideas of being a powerful, self-sufficient and wealthy he-man out of the window. He’s so insecure, the only way he can think of to retain his ‘manly pride’ (!), is to be nasty to Joanna, perhaps frighten her back to New Orleans by showing her how ruthless he and his country are.
Fortunately for Joanna, even Christopher has very little control over his hormones. Just seeing her in a negligee makes him go a little berserk, until one night he gets drunk and flings himself at her.
But before you think this is what the film’s seemingly risqué title is all about: no. Because Christopher comes to his demented senses before he can consummate his unwanted marriage to Joanna. He decides that he must end this marriage, now. Joanna will leave and go back to New Orleans.
Poor Joanna, though she assures him she wants to be a good wife to Christopher (He doesn’t deserve it! Leave him!!), has to acquiesce.
And here is where the plot starts moving off in another direction.
All this while, other things have been happening. We’ve received a brief insight into the lives of the natives who work on Christopher’s plantations. They are typical ‘Hollywood natives’: primitive, simple souls who solve every argument with their own version of jungle justice. The more civilised of the lot carry shrunken heads around with them, and their way of punishing adultery is to shoot down the culprits with poisoned arrows.
There is also a nasty white man on the scene. This is Gruber (John Dierkes), also a planter, but a bad one who whips his workers. One day, he turns up at Christopher’s plantation with the Commissioner, accusing Christopher of having stolen some of his workers. There’s a somewhat convoluted scene here, in which the crux of the matter seems to be that Christopher is good to his workers while Gruber isn’t; and that the Commissioner and Christopher both treat natives as human beings, while Gruber doesn’t.
Gruber has to eat humble pie and slink back home. That night, in front of the Commissioner, there’s an uncomfortable scene in which Christopher makes it clear that Joanna is going away and that their non-existent marriage will be over. The Commissioner tries to reason with Christopher, saying that Christopher’s loneliness has made him a hard man. When Christopher says a few crushing words, he backs down and switches to shoptalk. It turns out the Commissioner’s heading for the Rio Negro, because something strange is happening. The monkeys are fleeing the jungles, and birds that aren’t usually seen along the river are flying over the Rio Negro.
What’s the problem? Christopher asks, and the Commissioner’s answer is a single word: “Marabunta”.
Unless you already know what marabunta is (or you Google it and find out), this is where the suspense begins. Christopher’s worries change overnight from an unwanted wife to something much scarier. He decides to accompany the Commissioner to the Rio Negro. Joanna will come along too, because along the way, she’ll be able to get a boat to speed her on her way north.
But things aren’t quite so simple. As they move along to the Rio Negro, they find disturbing things. Entire villages have been deserted—food, utensils, clothing left behind as if the inhabitants didn’t have a moment to spare in their panic to leave:
…the jungle goes suddenly quiet one night, not one bird or monkey or insect making a sound:
…and, one day, along comes a boat with all that’s left of Gruber:
What is marabunta? What is this horrifying thing that’s coming, swift and terrifying, towards Christopher’s plantation? Will they survive (of course they will; mainstream Hollywood doesn’t let its heroes not survive; but how?) And what of Christopher’s and Joanna’s relationship?
What I liked about this film:
Charlton Heston and Eleanor Parker as Christopher and Joanna Leiningen. Even given that Christopher is not a very likeable character (at least in the first half of the film)—his insecurity makes him rude, arrogant and downright nasty—I ended up rooting for the two of them, especially as one sees how being in Joanna’s company makes Christopher gradually begin to change for the better.
And their chemistry is fantastic: they literally burn up the screen!
Interestingly, for a disaster film, The Naked Jungle is a little offbeat in that though eventually it’s the hero who saves the day (as usual), he isn’t the flawless character he’d normally be. He’s ambitious and he knows the jungle well, but Christopher Leiningen is otherwise far from perfect: he’s cold, unforgiving, and rude. It is, instead, his courageous, patient and yet feisty bride who is the more important figure in the story. She is the one who holds it together, and she is the one whom the film sympathises with, right from the start.
What I didn’t like:
The standard white-man-saves-himself-and-loyal-natives theme. The Naked Jungle is pretty typical of the early disaster films: a white man in the jungle is surrounded by primitive natives who can’t think for themselves and who spend all their time either grinning vacuously (when drinking/smoking/in the presence of a white woman) or shrieking (when confronted by danger). Irritating.
Also, if you approach this as a disaster film, you may well be disappointed. The Naked Jungle does have a largish element of a disaster looming hideously in the background, but that’s exactly where it is: in the background. This is, despite Charlton Heston’s heroic last-ditch fight against attacking forces, a romance film. Forget marabunta. Forget what chewed up Gruber. Forget what made the monkeys flee. Watch it for the romance that starts off bad and ends up sizzling.
And, watch it for Eleanor Parker. Isn’t she bee-yoo-tee-full? Dictionary definition of pulchritudinous.
Happy birthday, Ms Parker!