O-What? The Mystery of Ouanga and a Recounting of One of the Most Disastrous Film Sets Ever
October 28, 2015
In honor of Halloween this weekend, here's a real horror story: a movie most people probably haven't heard of, Ouanga, aka The Love Wanga, aka one of the craziest and most tragic productions in cinema history. I'm guessing on that last part, but as you'll read, it's a very educated speculation.
The film screened as part of UCLA Film and Television Archive's 2015 Festival of Preservation earlier this year. A few months ago, I shared one of my favorites from the same festival, 1932's Bachelor's Affairs, a luminous, rarely screened pre-Code comedy. Well, Ouanga, an equally rare and incredibly bizarre indie horror flick, falls on the opposite end of the spectrum. All the way at the end. As far over as you can get.
Ouanga was introduced by UCLA archivist Scott MacQueen, who did a wonderful job bringing the film's background to life and setting the stage for the astonishingly ridiculous tale we were about to witness and hear about. MacQueen started by declaring that Ouanga was basically 1932's White Zombie, the film's screening partner that evening, "turned inside out." Though his choice of wording may sound curious, Ouanga was definitely campier, more outrageous, poorer quality, a notch higher on the risqué chart, and to be honest, all around a shoddier picture, which of course made it that much more fun to watch.
My brain has way too many thoughts on this poster...
Ouanga lived up to my expectations after reading the synopsis on the Archive's site - basically, pure absurdity and WTF moments. The picture opens with: “A story of voodooism” printed on one of the first title cards, followed by: “Filmed in the West Indies.” Just so you know this is legit. And probably a bit intense.
The story centers around a light skinned black woman, Klili (Fredi Washington) - also known as Clelie on posters - who shadows as a voodoo master. As such, she possesses a medallion called a “love wanga” that if she loses will result in hardship and even death. No big deal. Klili is in love with Adam Maynard (Philip Brandon), a white man she “kept company” with while they lived on the same plantation a few years back.
Klili follows Adam when he travels to New York, but Klili must have lost him somewhere in the Big Apple, because Adam brings Eve Langley (Marie Paxton), a woman he's intent on marrying, on the trip back to Haiti with him. Well, that won’t fly with Klili; onboard she throws herself at Adam, insisting she’s white and that her skin color won’t impede their happiness, but he still turns her down. When she declares that if she can’t have him no one will, he counters, “Is that a threat?” “No, it’s a warning,” she coolly replies.
Oh, and there’s also the appropriately named LeStrange (Sheldon Leonard), a white actor with very tan makeup playing the plantation overseer who’s in love with Klili. Naturally, she only wants Adam, so with the help of a voodoo leader, Klili visits a graveyard and resurrects two men - her very own personal zombies! - to abduct Eve and offer her up for sacrifice (without Eve's permission, of course). As Klili and her followers prepare Eve for the ceremony, LeStrange comes around, vying for Klili's affections once more. No means no, LeStrange, and Klili shoots him in case he had any doubts about that. But don't worry, she didn't kill him; he just scampers off like a wounded animal.
Meanwhile, Adam and company finally make it to the sacrificial grounds, just as LeStrange hobbles over with the “love wanga” that he swiped from Klili, which he promptly burns. Without her magical emblem, Klili takes off into the woods as Eve is rescued. Now thoroughly pissed, LeStrange follows Klili, and for the first and only time, we see her actually repent and come off her hatred horse. Alas, it’s too late, as LeStrange takes matters into his own hands and leStrangles Klili, ending her reign of terror for good.
A pretty shaby screen grab from a scene on Youtube with Klili (Fredi Washington) and LeStrange (Sheldon Leonard).
The Release...Several Years Later?
According to MacQueen, the picture was filmed in 1933, but the date on the UCLA Film and Television Archive site reads 1935, on IMDb it’s 1936, and the movie wasn’t released in the US until 1941. Oh, and then it went out as adult only entertainment under the title The Love Wanga.
MacQueen claimed that the film's frank themes of miscegenation and the occult were impossible to pass under the Production Code, which I definitely agree with. Both these ideas, particularly miscegenation, were taboo post-summer of 1934.
However, this brings up another question: was this a British film or an American one? Though Paramount released it in Britain, was Paramount involved solely in distribution in that country only? What country was the film developed in? Luckily, I uncovered part of this answer during my research and will discuss that point below.
Also, why did it finally hit theaters in 1941? Could it be, if it is indeed a British film, that they didn't submit it to the PCA for review for American distribution until 1941? That history remains a little mysterious to me, but given the film's tragic production, those clouded facts are nothing!
You May Not Believe Everything That Went Down on This Set...
...However, according to MacQueen, it's true. To supplement MacQueen's testimony, I turned to a firsthand account (which I'm guessing MacQueen may have consulted too) from actor Sheldon Leonard. Curiously, the only circulating copy of Leonard's biography in the LA Public Library system was missing the first few pages that recount his experiences on set, but luckily, I located a copy online.
Actor Sheldon Leonard recounted the film's rocky production history quite hilariously in his autobiography.
Leonard recalled that he took on a role in Drums in the Night (a working title for Ouanga), because it "promised the most immediate money" after the Broadway show he was acting in closed. As a "British Quota Picture," Ouanga fell into a unique category. Leonard explained that the British film industry would accept five American films for every one British picture that American distributors bought. However, since the Brits simply did not produce anywhere near the amount of movies the US did, oftentimes American producers signed on to make films on British land with British citizens to sell back to American distributors. Genius, right? So there's my answer as to the originating country.
Leonard's autobiography sorted another fuzzy detail of mine as well: as mentioned above, he signed on to the film after the play in which he was performing on Broadway closed. Well, according to Leonard, that play was Hotel Alimony, and it closed in December 1934. Thus, the filming must have taken place in 1935, contrary to MacQueen's 1933 date.
If the confusion over Ouanga's release date doesn't sound a little wacky and/or shady to you yet, then the production history, which is arguably less murky, surely will make up for that in terms of insanity and tragedy.
Today, a 56 minute post-WWII print is the only version of Ouanga that survives, short by 15 minutes, according to MacQueen. For a feature that abbreviated, the production certainly had an incredibly long, troubled history. MacQueen gave a very animated run down of the basics for us, which sounded more like a live read of an action/adventure/suspense/horror film gone terribly wrong. Here's how the story goes, step by horrible step. (Note: I've also supplemented MacQueen's tale with Leonard's account when needed).
1. Director George Terwilliger, who had been working in the film industry since the 1910s, ferried the cast and crew to Haiti from New York. At the time, Leonard remembered the Caribbean was so untouched that their method of transportation was a banana boat, which was basically the only way to get to the islands. Red flag #1?
2. When the crew set foot in Port-au-Prince, the prop men were directed to find props for the picture. However, since most items they were instructed to secure were sacred objects in Haiti, they weren't allowed to buy or borrow them, so they swindled real voodoo relics. That's not ominous at all. Leonard recalled that Terwilliger was apparently an expert on voodoo and had penned several books on the subject. When the writer/director caught wind of the theft, he echoed, "Bad luck will follow." Boy, how right he was!
This is a photo of the man mainly responsible for Ouanga's existence, writer/director George Terwilliger.
3. Terwilliger further angered locals by proclaiming his wish to film real voodoo ceremonies. By day three (yes, we are only three days in right now), death threats to those involved with the production sent the team packing to Kingston, Jamaica.
This is where the story turns quite bizarre and truly tragic.
4. At the hotel the cast and crew were housed in, a number of "remittance men," those unwanted in their home countries and given money to stay away, congregated daily near the swimming pool. British born actor Richard Haydn was among them.
According to MacQueen, Haydn had been working on a banana plantation that failed and could not find a way back to England. Note: All of the words in the previous line sound extremely peculiar, but considering the outlandish way this entire tale unfolds, I wouldn't be too surprised if some of Haydn's banana plantation tale turned out to be true. Indeed, Leonard also deemed Haydn's "inclusion" there as "obscure." Anyway, Haydn took some cast members to a party on a beautiful plantation filled with gorgeous furniture, plentiful food...and a dead host. Apparently, the host passed away the night before, but an executive decision was made to keep his body there until putrefied in the tropical heat so the corpse couldn't be used to make a zombie.
5. Somehow, filming eventually commenced, but rolling the cameras only brought more troubles. For instance, during the first night of shooting, a horde of hornets was accidently disturbed, sending many on set to the hospital. It took three days for everyone to recover before nary a scene was in the can.
6. At the end of the first week of production - yes, we are only still on week one - key grip Dandy Andy, as Leonard referred to him, ventured into the water with a reflector board and came across what they think was a barracuda...that removed part of his thigh. He bled to death on the sand. Barracuda: 1, Ouanga: 0.
7. Production the third week fared no better. By that time, makeup man Jack Cameron died of yellow fever. Yellow fever: 1, Ouanga: 0.
8. Richard Haydn (remember him?) took over for Cameron, but soon another disaster struck: a cyclone and tropical rain storm wiped out the set, creating sinkholes and the like that made it impossible to get vehicles to location.
9. The film's stars weren't immune to the bad luck either. When one scene required Leonard to fall on several catcii, numerous spines got stuck in his leg. In a time before antibiotics, the spines had to be cut out, which eventually led to infection. The hold up cost the company four days of shooting.
10. During the final week of shooting, one of the sound men fell, broke his neck, and died. Broken neck: 1, Ouanga: Still 0.
By the time filming finally wrapped, the five week shooting schedule had ballooned into 11, the production soared way over budget, and three crew members tragically lost their lives. I'd say that has to be one of the most grim and disaster prone film sets of all time.
In case you were wondering, yes, Terwilliger retired after Ouanga wrapped. Very smart - and probably safe - move on his part.
I'll get into this in a bit. For now, note the name below the title.
Some Answers...or Just More Mystery?
Thanks to the Special Collections staff at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library, who granted me access to the Production Code Administration (PCA) files housed in the Special Collections, I can shed a little more light - dim as it may be - on Ouanga's (or The Love Wanga, as it was known in the files in 1941) road to distribution through memos and letters from the PCA and MPPDA.
The first document in the file set the tone for my entire research quest: providing a few answers...and a handful more questions. A memo taken by one Hazel Plate dated August 28, 1941 recounted the scenario: Willis Kent, described on IMDb as a "veteran low-budget producer" known for Westerns and exploitation films, bought the picture "years before" with the intent to release it under a different title. As Plate recalled, "Mr. Kent says he is not going to use any credits, and does not know the name of the producer...He may remove the title card before showing." The note revealed that Kent was also planning on sending a typewritten foreword to be used for the release. Hmmm, sound weird at all? Why not include the credits? And wouldn't the person who sold him the film know who the producer was? Also, who did he buy the movie from?
One day later, on August 29, a letter from Willis Kent Productions (the footer on the bottom read 'Real Life Dramas') was sent to the Motion Pictures Producers, Inc. with a copy of the new title, The Love Wanga, and the foreword. In the message, Kent claimed that the film was produced many years ago in Haiti and was set to be released "through one of the Major companies but was not up to their standards and was rejected." Could this be Paramount? Or even a Poverty Row studio for that matter?
Though once again bringing up more inquiries, this note actually answered one of my above questions too: Kent wrote that the picture was purchased from Alan Friedman of De Luxe (Fox) Laboratories in New York. How it got there presents another query, naturally. Oh, and the copyright under the title reads "Montreal, Canada." Now we've crossed the northern border?
Another Willis Kent Production. As The Love Wanga and The Pace That Kills were also advertised, this is an "Adults Only" movie.
That being said, the MPPDA issued Certificate of Approval #7703 on September 10, 1941. The standard approval letter addressed to Willis Kent contained the usual language, including reminders that the prints released will be the exact same as the approved version and the certificate can be made void if violated. Apparently, whatever editing was done did not quite make the cut in New York, where deletions in reel four were requested for all the "indecent action" in dance numbers.
The most surprising part of this research? The relatively tame correspondence exchanged with the MPPDA and PCA. In his introduction, MacQueen claimed the film's main censorship offense laid in its central subject of the supernatural and, of course, that little miscegenation bit. Amazingly, no charges of miscegenation were brought up in the files and the voodoo slid by relatively unchecked; as noted previously, the largest offenders seemed to be the suggestive dancing and certain evocative shots within those scenes. The relationships between the main characters - men and women who are black, white, and sporting an excessive amount of tan makeup to look black, respectively - SOMEHOW escaped scrutiny. Somehow.
To my great surprise, the PCA took no apparent issue with this bizarre (on so many levels) relationship.
Though the PCA files certainly answered a few questions, several gaps in the film's history still exist, chiefly regarding the large amount of time that lapsed between wrap in 1935 and Kent's acquisition of the film, assumingly sometime in 1941. Alas, perhaps this will always remain a mystery.
With a gap in the production and release dates (I have no idea when the film was released in Britain, either), finding reviews of the movie online proved a rather difficult task. Searching both names, Ouanga and The Love Wanga, came up negative for me; when I typed in Ouanga, Google desperately wanted to change the search query to 'orange,' and then 'orange is the new black.' Sadly, I was unable to locate any 1940s reviews of the film, which - had it even been reviewed - would certainly have been telling.
Today, besides the extremely low production values, mediocre acting, and rather unruly direction, the film's major shock value boils down to its blatant racism, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen as forcefully portrayed visually and as harshly enunciated in a film from this era. Whether it's Fredi Washington's Klili avowing that she's white, the racially charged battle Klili wages with Eve, the zombies, or Sheldon Leonard's blatant "tan," Ouanga's characterizations are bound to floor a modern audience. I can only wonder what viewers in 1941 - however many saw this picture - thought, as this film is definitely a product of its time.
Sadly, or maybe just for the best, Ouanga is not available on DVD or any streaming services, and I really don't anticipate the film being made available anytime....just anytime, ever. So, if your curiosity has gotten the best of you, look out for rare theatrical screenings of the movie. In the meantime, you'll have to settle for this YouTube clip. It's less than 3 minutes, but fair warning: it's pretty difficult to watch on so many levels.
Leonard, Sheldon. And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Hollywood Adventures. New York: Limelight Editions, 1995.
Motion Picture Association of America. Production Code Administration records, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
...and of course Scott MacQueen's fantastically informative introduction before the film's screening at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, March 21, 2015.
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