So This Is Africa (1933) Review, with Wheeler & Woolsey and Raquel Torres

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Wilber
Bert Wheeler
Tarzana
Raquel Torres
Alexander
Robert Woolsey
Released by Columbia | Directed by Edward F. Cline
Run time: 61 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • “Hey! Come back here, you jackass!”
  • “Oh see those Afri-cans.”
  • “Virgin trees? Huh! They look pretty wild to me.”
  • A swarm of locusts eat the clothes off the duo, leaving them searching for their female companion.
  • “How becoming! It’ll be-coming off any moment!”
  • “You bring out all the Garbo in me!”
    “Is that so? You bring out all the Cagney in me too!”
  • “I’ll set you up in an apartment with a maid. … a butler.”
  • There’s a tribe of Amazons whose traditions include ‘loving’ men to death.
  • “Streetwalkin– sleep walking again!”
  • God, there’s so much here, I probably missed some. And wait until you read about the stuff that didn’t make it in…

So This is Africa: Fever Dreams at Fever Pitch

“I suppose you were born in an elevator.”

“No, but I was brought up in one!”

So This is Africa is a fever dream. Is it in bad taste? Oh god yes. Does it make a lick of sense? Less than you’d think. Is it any good? Well, probably not. But you’re not going to forget it any time soon.

Well, some of it anyway. So This is Africa is made of so many disparate parts, it’s hard to believe I need to try and describe the plot to you; the main thrust of it is completely forgotten after the first 20 minutes any way, and the first ten are entirely Wheeler & Woolsey first attempting to commit suicide, before taking stock and finding it more advisable to stalk through New York with a rifle, hoping to find a horse to murder. As you do.

Here they’re a pair of saps with a group of tame lions. A famous film director, Ms. Johnson-Martini (Esther Muir), needs footage of animals for her travelogue epic. She commissions the duo to travel back to Africa with her and film some fake realistic scenes. They comply, but once on the continent, they find themselves beset by restless Amazons, a sexy Tarzana (whose demands for gratification earn her the nickname ‘Ms. More’), and more blue humor than you can shake a stick at.

It’s important to note, in the interests of fair play, that So This is Africa was a 90-minute film cut down to 60 minutes by censors. While the movie had made it past the Hays Office, the National Board of Review objected heavily to the many, many innuendos that crop up in the film. (Wheeler & Woolsey made this at Columbia in a negotiating ploy to get more money from RKO; it worked, though when the film was chopped down, since their contract with Columbia was expired, there were no retakes possible.) The stuff that still made it in is sometimes surprising.

You can read a few of the choice bits above, but much of it comes from how the second half of the film is almost entirely about sex. Wheeler beds Tarzana (when resisting, his frustrated echo tells him not to be a chump). Woolsey spends most of the film pushing back against the rather insistent advances of Johnson-Martini. Both men are then captured by a tribe of Amazons whose expressed goal is to ‘love’ them to death that very night. I’m going to guess that kind of loving doesn’t offer much in the way of foreplay.

The movie is a goof on the popular travelogues of the period, stuff like Trader Horn and Africa Speaks!. There’s a number of native dances, and, for some reason, the tribe of Amazons is completely white. Africa in this movie looks like Harry Cohn refused to pay a nickel for any location work not done in the closest park; this may or may not also be part of the humor. There’s another musical number as Wheeler, Woolsey, Tarzana, and an amorous gorilla named Josephine swing along on vines, a nod to Tarzan. And, don’t worry, the implications that Woolsey slept with the gorilla were excised from the final print. Most of them, anyway.

So This is Africa full of weird moments like that. There’s an extended goof on Strange Interlude; why not? The two men sing a prequel to the song “Minnie the Moocher”, while a bevy of Amazons let loose behind them. It ends with the Amazons being carried away by Tarzans, and Wheeler and Woolsey becoming cheetah-print clad housewives. I’m not sure what the film’s final stand is on sex, race, movies, love, life, or whether it even sees human existence as worthwhile in the least.

It’s a trip, one of the few Wheeler & Woolsey outings that gets close the Marx Brothers in terms of nihilistic madness. And it’s hornier than all hell. It’s a shame we’ll never see the full version of So This is Africa, but this one is well worth seeing at least once. And, if you ever recover, maybe a second time, too.

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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links

  • So This is Africa is one of the most-heavily censored films of the pre-Code era. The National Board of Review memos include comments like “Nothing as salacious has ever come before the National Board in the eight years of my reviewing”, “Absolutely nothing to recommend it”, and “The Board would harm itself it were to pass such a picture.” For a good bit of fun, you can actually read the memos exchanged between the MPPA, NBR, RKO and more as the film goes from being ‘amusing’ to a quagmire of conventional morality. All 83 pages are over in the Margaret Herrick’s digital collection.
  • If sorting through primary documentation ain’t your thing, the defunct blog “Give Me the Good Old Days!” has a thorough breakdown of the back and forth, including reports from the New York censor board and detail listings of the cuts. Like, seriously, it’s a treasure trove. And, if you’ve seen the movie, it does help it make a bit more sense.

With the clever twisted humor of the Marx brothers, this production would have been much more effective, for although Messrs. Wheeler and Woolsey start well on some of the peregrinations of mirth, they fail to finish satisfactorily. Before they have dallied long with one sequence, they are too eager to take up another, which, of course, is mainly the fault of the producers.

But be that as it may, it is fairly certain that this jungle jaunt of the two comedians will not fail to stir up merriment.

  • Screen Snapshots calls it a “decent little comedy” and expounds on the film’s weird satirical touch:

Luckily however, So This Is Africa does not rely wholly on innuendo for its laughs. There are a number of very imaginative comic scenes in the film, most of which work well, but which are really not taken to their full potential. What struck me about the best scenes, and indeed most of the film itself was the sense of boredom with many of the clichés of cinema. The movie has fun with genre and narrative staples with an almost cynical resignation. One scene sees Wheeler, Woolsey and Mrs Martini (played by Esther Muir) engage in a spot of big game hunting. The three of them stand next to an obvious cheap jungle set as Woolsey shouts “Get that alligator!” We cut to really grainy stock footage of an alligator in the real jungle and back to Bert Wheeler shooting it with nonchalant ease. Next up, “Look! A wild panther!”, as this time we cut to the same grainy stock footage but this time amusingly of a giraffe. Bert shoots it anyway. Finally the cry is “A rhinoceros is charging us!” to which Bert responds, (after the stock footage, of the right animal this time) “I’m sorry, I haven’t got any more bullets”. The footage then runs backwards, letting Woolsey say melodramatically “We’re saved! He’s in reverse” Despite being a well deserved sending up of cheap jungle pictures, the way Wheeler and Woolsey play it is absolutely stunning. They say each line as if they where reading it for the first time with the most wooden delivery imaginable and in essence sending up their own picture for the very same flaws. It’s at once very modern (or post modern, if you like) and very funny, with a free wheeling sense of mischief that is largely absent from comic movies of the era.

Awards, Accolades & Availability

  • This film is actually fairly obscure, one of the few Wheeler & Woolsey vehicles not on DVD. (THANKS, COLUMBIA.) You’ll have to look [eyes dart around] elsewhere on the internet to see it.

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