The Bootleg Files: So This is Africa

BOOTLEG FILES 670: “So This is Africa” (1933 comedy starring Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived commercial value.


It is a common misconception that the Pre-Code Hollywood era was a period when almost anything was possible on the screen. And while the implementation of the 1934 establishment of the Production Code Administration brought a heavy-handed degree of censorship to film production, there was plenty of censorship going on at both a national, state and city level.

One of the most infamous examples of Pre-Code censorship involved an inane 1933 comedy film called “So This is Africa,” starring the team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. The original film clocked in at 90 minutes, but after the censors were done “So This is Africa” reached theaters in a 64-minute state. And considering that the release print included gags involving cross-dressing, homosexuality, bestiality and nymphomania, it is difficult to imagine the presentation within the original uncut offering.

“So This is Africa” came about in a convoluted manner. Wheeler and Woolsey were vaudeville performers who were teamed as the comedy relief in the 1927 Broadway extravaganza “Rio Rita.” When RKO Radio Pictures bought the film rights to the show, Wheeler and Woolsey came to Hollywood to reprise their stage roles. Although they were strictly in supporting roles, they managed to capture the attention of the critics and audiences, and RKO signed them for a series of feature-length comedies. By 1932, the duo and the studio ran into a contract dispute, and the funnymen grabbed an offer for a one-shot comedy film to be made at rival Columbia Pictures. Adventure films based in the African jungles were popular at the time, so Columbia decided to put the team into a spoof of this hoary genre.

Wheeler and Woolsey specialized in humor that trafficked heavily in double-entendres and puns, and the original title of their Columbia film, “Bottoms Up,” carried a risqué double meaning. The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, which enforced Hollywood’s production code, approved the script with requests for only a few minor changes – although the title was later switched by the studio to “That’s Africa” and then to “So This is Africa.”

The film opens with a board meeting of Ultimate Pictures, which is in a panic because the celebrated African explorer Mrs. Johnson-Martini – her name was a riff on the then-famous explorer Martin Johnson – had returned from the Dark Continent without footage. Her explanation: she is afraid of animals. An office clerk who is present for this board meeting suggests hiring a pair of vaudevillians who have a trained lion act and taking them to Africa to shoot a jungle picture.

However, the men with the lion act – the too-trusting Wilbur (Wheeler) and smart-ass Alexander (Woolsey) – have been fired from their stage engagement and are holed up with their feeble lions in a hotel where they have not paid their bills. Wilbur and Alexander practice jumping from a window ledge for a double suicide, but they never quite get around to making the fatal leap. A doctor arrives at their suite, assuming one of the men is ill, but the physician is informed the problem is with the lions. The doctor gives a quick examination and insists the lions be put on a horse meat diet.

Wilbur and Alexander decide to go hunting in the streets for a horse. But their hotel elevator malfunctions and goes crashing down at great speed. When they finally hit bottom and the door opens, they are greeted by quizzical Chinese – the men wonder if they went through the planet and over into China, but it’s actually the staff of the hotel’s basement laundry. Wilbur and Alexander then seek out a horse, but that’s hard to find in a modern motorized city – and their efforts to steal a donkey pulling a cart backfire when Alexander calls the animal a “jackass” and it starts chasing them through the streets.

Back at their hotel, Wilbur and Alexander are greeted by Mrs. Martini-Johnson and a squad of African natives with spears and shields. Despite Wilbur’s initial hesitation, the men agree to go to Africa and then launch into an elaborate song and dance number in the hotel lobby with the African warriors and accompanying squad of female African dancers. (The warriors are played by African-American men, but the female dancers are wearing large wigs and very heavy make-up, and it appears they are actually white women in blackface.)

Once in Africa, the film gets sillier. There is some blue humor – when told the foliage consists of “virgin trees,” Alexander remarks, “They look pretty wild to me.” There is a rhinoceros running backwards, locusts that eat the clothing off Wilbur and Alexander, a giant mosquito with a power drill for a stinger, and a bear (don’t ask) who licks Wilbur’s bare foot.

Apparently, Wilbur and Alexander arrived in a section of Africa populated with a tribe of white Amazons. One of them abducts the sleepwalking Wilbur, and when he wakes up they go into a kissing frenzy. He dubs her “Miss More” because the only word she understands is “More,” which she says after their kissing. Miss More has a pet gorilla named Josephine, who tries to kiss Alexander. Wilbur and Alexander are taken captive by the Amazon tribe, and they use them as an audience for a song-and-dance number that borrows heavily from the popular tune “Minnie the Moocher.” The men try to escape by dressing in drag and passing themselves off as Amazons, but that backfires when a tribe of oversexed Tarzans arrive to grab themselves Amazonian brides – and two brawny Tarzans mistake the cross-dressing Wilbur and Alexander for women and carry them off. What’s their fate? Well, I won’t give that away – it is the most startling gag in the film.

Marx Brothers fans like to point out that two of the leading ladies from that act’s classics are in “So This is Africa”: Esther Muir as Mrs. Johnson-Martine and Raquel Torres as Miss More. Muir and Torres are actually funnier with Wheeler and Woolsey than with the Marx Brothers – Muir holds her own with the team in an unexpected spoof of the inner monologue concept from the drama “Strange Interlude” (which the Marx Brothers also spoofed in “Animal Crackers”) while Torres is sexy and funny as the love-struck Amazon. Whereas Muir and Torres were the decorative butts of the Marx Brothers’ jokes, with Wheeler and Woolsey they were equal partners in the mayhem.

As for Wheeler and Woolsey, “So This is Africa” finds them in a mixed bag. Some of the earlier segments are contrived, particularly with the Three Stooges-style hunting of the donkey – slapstick was never the forte of this duo. The two musical numbers are so wonderfully eccentric that it is a shame there weren’t more song-and-dance interludes. There is one striking scene when Wheeler is in Amazon drag and Woolsey is still in his male clothing – they wind up being married in a pagan ceremony and are instructed to begin a honeymoon. “What constitutes a honeymoon?” asks Woolsey, to which the irritated Wheeler responds, “How should I know? You’re my first husband.”

Production on “So This is Africa” took five weeks, and by the end of 1932 the duo had settled their problem with RKO and returned to their old studio. Columbia received approval from the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association to release the film in early 1933, but the studio faced an unexpected wave of outrage from the National Board of Review, a New York-based film censorship organization, which stated the comedy “outrages every common standard of decency” The Motion Picture Division of the Education Board of New York State, which served as the censorship board for New York, also found the film offensive and demanded dialogue and scenes be edited. Censorship boards in other states and several municipal censorship offices added their two cents, requesting cuts before the film could play in their local theaters.

What raised such ire? Lines such as “He’s not that type of a boy” and “I told you they’re getting ready for their passion dance” were among the dialogue that the censors loathed, and the level of kissing in the jungle was also too much. Since Wheeler and Woolsey were back at RKO, they were not available to shoot new scenes, so Columbia was forced to cut a half-hour to appease the censors. But all of this turned out favorably for the studio – the film had gained a reputation for being dirty, and curious moviegoers flocked to see what the hubbub was about. Columbia profited on “So This is Africa,” but the studio’s creative accounting neglected to share the wealth with Wheeler and Woolsey, who were supposed to receive a percentage of the box office but never got a dime.

“So This is Africa” has never been released on VHS or DVD. While the team’s RKO films have been made available on home entertainment formats, their sole Columbia film remains off the market due to a perceived lack of commercial appeal with today’s movie lovers. Mercifully, a decent print is on YouTube, and this unauthorized posting allows us to enjoy the vintage jungle nonsense that aggravated yesteryear’s censors.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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