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Monday, November 20, 2017

Blood Sport Fun For All!

Bring 'Em Back Alive (1932) Is Uncaged Precode Fury

... and Red Meat It Was, As Showmen Knew Their Bloodthirsty Youth Audience

Frank Buck was the Great White Bwana of adventuring through first-half of a century bent on explore of whatever lost corners were left. He was dashing and mustachioed and could wrestle a baby elephant to standstill, as evidenced in Bring 'Em Back Alive, a Malayan travel folder where Buck hunts game for bring-back to zoos and whatever pitch might be interested in jungle exotica. "Frank Buck" was an ideal name to go native with, and lo/behold, it was really his, Frank as Buck evoking a male animal stalking other male animals he'd subdue. Frank was less for killing beasts than photographing them killing each other, from which he'd pick up pieces for brisk buyers back home, latter which included distribs who'd sell him as latter-day Trader Horn, not the bearded old-timer as was Horn of Africa, but hale-and-hearty master of wild who'd belie his age (late 40's and into 50's at a peak) to wade into whatever danger his camera crew came upon. Bring 'Em Back Alive was the book, and then movie, that made Buck boxoffice, in addition to claw-and-fang, legend. RKO socked over a million in worldwide rentals during a Depression year when most of what they sent out did a fraction of that. Success of Bring 'Em Back Alive made prospect of King Kong viable. I'd go further and say that had there been no hit that was Bring 'Em Back Alive, there might not have been a King Kong at all.

Genius Seller Terry Turner Spent $10K of 1932 Dollars For This Display 
Bring 'Em Back Alive traded both on best-selling source book by Frank Buck and roaring hit that was Trader Horn. There too were fleabag jungle pics, purest exploitation like Blonde Captive and Ingagi, that nibbled around edges. All these were precode in a most extreme sense, but scholars shy from them today, possibly because the theme is a hot match to play with. There's little aspect of these that could now be approached, what with attitudes so utterly changed over intervening decades. But what other precodes dealt such brazen nudity as Bring 'Em Back Alive and kin? Fact it was native skin on exhibit made the device OK to censors, a same pass that kept National Geographic a rare print outlet for polite display of flesh. And note the crowd across streets from New York's Mayfair, agog at the theatre's spectacle front mightier than a circus in full swing. What Bring 'Em Back Alive gave that a zoo or circus could not was wildest life in natural habitat, and preying on each other. No way could animal acts on civilized ground pit beasts against their kind, or other enemies of the jungle, and all for our startled amusement (most magic selling words: IN MORTAL COMBAT). Only movies dared deliver this kind of thrill, and that's what separated Bring 'Em Back Alive from staid viewing at fairgrounds. Call it rudest precode, then, and not unlike same-year Freaks, which took human specimen from unchecked nature and dared us to watch them with no bars between.

Memory played trick --- still does --- that Bring 'Em Back Alive was shot in Africa, when it was actually Malaya, where there was ferocity aplenty to go round. Frank was not for bagging beasts, as in lion heads, rugs, or zebra skins. He was more the Hatari! man before there was a Hatari!. I'll guess that Howard Hawks knew Buck and remembered his saga when chase after rhinos commenced in early 60's mash-up of Bring 'Em Back Alive that became Hatari!. Frank was known, in fact seen, and in person, by most who frequented circuses and World Fairs, for he was tireless at spreading legend that was Frank Buck. Anytime he cared to make a movie, someone was there to write a check, for Buck dealt liveliest footage of animals ripping hell out of one another and frequently to the death. Youngsters could fairly smell jungle blood in their Bijou seats. King Kong was well and good, but it was fake after all, while Buck's tiger v. python, lion v. whatever, even where staged or at least sweetened, was the real and savage thing. I looked at Bring 'Em Back Alive, a recent run on TCM, and lost all track of time when that Bengal tiger locked teeth with a strangulating python, a thrill still in 2017, so just imagine pants wet when this thing played new in 1932.

Bring 'Em Back For a Fresh Audience in 1948, Grossing Still Alive and Lively

And Still They Came ... Even Unto Code Era
Bring 'Em Back Alive became stuff of lore, like King Kong as a linger in consciousness. RKO brought it back in 1948 and did $345K in domestic rentals, a wow for a picture this old. By-then venerable Frank, still khaki-ready, did personal apps up/down the Coast with RKO's Eastern field supervisor (Variety, 8-5-48). For kids of a new generation, Buck was still grand emissary of wildest kingdoms. Movies had still not topped him for jungle life in the raw, though King Solomon's Mines would shortly unseat Frank's brand. For meantime at least, Bring 'Em Back Alive's reissue got credit for an uptick in jungle thrillers, as MGM and RKO found to profit of old Tarzans revived, plus library Sabus from the 30's that UA/Korda tendered. They'd even want Frank back to play himself, and with Abbott and Costello, for Africa Screams!, done shortly before Buck headed toward horizon in 1950. I checked for DVD's on the seven films Frank Buck did, at least those built around his travels, and none seem available from mainstream labels (Grapevine Video has Bring 'Em Back Alive, and disc reviews are good). There should be easier access to all of it, but who'd care? With nowaday up-close and digital inspect of wildlife round the globe, Frank Buck's stuff looks punk indeed, but he was among first getting there, and there's no beating primitive energy these travelogues still have.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

BRING 'EM BACK ALIVE was technically not an RKO production; it was produced by Van Beuren, which supplied short subjects for RKO release. Van Beuren had commissioned Frank Buck to make a series of wild-animal shorts, and the footage was originally assembled as separate reels. It wasn't until RKO executives ran several of these in a projection room that they decided the Buck films would be shown to better advantage as a feature-length attraction.

For a nonprofessional in the Hollywood jungle, Frank Buck became quite savvy in the ways of producers. When the 1937 Weiss Bros. serial JUNGLE MENACE (starring Buck) resurfaced in 1946 as the feature film JUNGLE TERROR, Buck took legal action.

5:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott's observation has a second half. When RKO decided to release BRING 'EM BACK ALIVE as a feature, Van Beuren suddenly had an opening to fill in its 1932-33 release season. That led them to acquire six of Charlie Chaplin's 12 Mutual comedies, which were turned over to the cartoon division, headed up by Gene Rodemich, for scoring. Preview reaction was so positive that within weeks Van Beuren snapped up the remaining half-dozen for '33-34.

So along with possibly inspiring KING KONG, we owe BRING 'EM BACK ALIVE for bringing us the Chaplin Mutuals, made "Funnier than ever with music and sound" (as Van Beuren's ads assured us).

All of this, and more, is recounted in CHAPLIN'S VINTAGE YEAR.


9:29 AM  
Blogger lmshah said...

John, you didn't mention that BRING `EM BACK ALIVE spawned two sequels from Van Beuren/RKO: WILD CARGO (1934) and FANG AND CLAW (1935), and we can also probably thank them for Universal then signing lion tamer Clyde Beatty and putting him in THE BIG CAGE (1933). Buck had something over Beatty however, and that was camera presence and an ability to somewhat act, Beatty can supply thrills when handling the big cats, but he's solid mahogany when trying to put a line across.

Buck's previously mentioned Weiss Bros-Columbia serial JUNGLE MENACE(1937) is actually a bit of a hoot, an old-fashioned chapter play with a meanderingly silly plot, lots of good old character actors, rather-rationed wild critter footage, but Buck is actually a fun presence in the whole affair, along with the only film appearance of fellow-adventurer Sasha "The Tiger Man" Siemel and as Buck'a other rough-tough assistant, Snub Pollard in a completely straight role.

It is fun seeing Buck and Beatty together in Abbott and Costello's AFRICA SCREAMS (1949), even if Beatty has not gotten one whit better on his dialogue in the intervening years, they were both part of a profession definitely gone in these pro-PETA years, but one has to realize, in the days before television and the likes of Marlon Perkins and later on, National Geographic specials and Animal Planet cable channels, this was one of the first opportunities people got to see jungle beasties in their natural habitats not behind zoo-bars, and when you hear the sounds of a lion and tiger going at it fang and claw echoing through the Universal soundstages in THE BIG CAGE, it's still pretty darn exciting.

What does crack me up though is watching Beatty go through chairs-getting-cat-chewed when he's doing his act, there's the successful furniture salesman who had Beatty's contract, "We sell a whole living-room and kitchen-dinette set to Clyde Beatty every week!", I hear some successful entrepreneur cry. There's a good gag in there somewhere about a bad animal trainer who keeps going into the cage with larger and larger pieces ("Okay men, it's Simba, send in the couch!").


1:19 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I recorded "Bring 'Em Back Alive" off TNT eons ago, and my mother was thrilled to see it again. Some things you just don't forget, especially when exposed to them at an impressionable age.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

And, of course, CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943)with Milburn Stone filling in for Clyde Beatty in the stock footage from Universal's THE BIG CAGE (1933).

5:36 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

I just watched WILD CARGO again and there was Winston Sharples's Van Beuren orchestra. Although the scoring is mostly dramatic, I heard about a minute of music later used in one of the Chaplin shorts!

Michael's book on the Chaplin Mutuals is great, and John's readers should check it out.

10:47 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

"Although the scoring is mostly dramatic, I heard about a minute of music later used in one of the Chaplin shorts!"

Scott's ears are better than mine and mine are pretty good. This arrived today. I watched it. Too bad about the warbly sound track but as promised, Buck's voice is fine. There are some really galling lines such as "his body was brown but his heart was white" or some such but, overall, the film delivers. When it came down to the finish between the tiger and the python I was rooting all the way for the tiger.

Nice to see it was a draw though both wind up being brought back alive. That tiger had the battle of his life which was clear by how exhausted he was after. A few moments more and he might have wound up in the belly of the python. Was surprised it did not eat the alligator or crocodile whichever it is.

Guys must have really flipped over those bare breasted brown beauties. The Hays Code has much to answer for. It forced the movies to lie about human relationships which is a bigger sin than anything the movies put or could put on the screen as far as I am concerned. Thanks for turning me on to yet another film I otherwise would not have looked at.

3:47 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

And, yes, Michael's book on The Mutuals is first rate reading.

3:48 PM  

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