Lost films excite me. I don’t know what it is but they have the allure of the hunt, trying to find the missing celluloid that would allow us to see a particular film for the first time or restore a damaged flick to its former glory. Who wouldn’t want to witness the eight plus hour cut of Von Strohiem’s “Greed”, or gaze upon the visual splendor of Murnau’s “4 Devils”, or even see if Lon Chaney’s “London After Midnight” is worth all the salivating we’ve done throughout the years?
Such is the case with Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey’s 1933 picture “So This Is Africa”. This was the comedic duo’s only picture for Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures and may go down in history as the most edited of all “pre-code” features. Watching the movie as it survives today, one cannot help but notice the multiple edits and sections of the film where what is being heard through the speakers does not match the lips of the person who is talking on the screen.
In this article, I will try to trace a short history of this troubled production and just what needed to be edited out. Those very bits that forced the censors to get out their scissors and chop out scenes and dialog that may seem tame today but in the early 30’s were wild enough to label the movie “IDECENT”, “OBSCENE” and “IMMORAL”.
How the comedy duo came to make a film for Columbia (when up to that point in time they had been exclusively at RKO) is best left to the author Edward Watz in his tome “Wheeler & Woolsey : The Vaudeville Comic Duo and Their Films, 1929-1937” published by McFarland Books (an indispensible volume if you are AT ALL interested in W&W pictures. I cannot recommend it highly enough!), but to make it short and sweet, they left RKO Pictures over money. RKO didn’t want to pay them what the comedians thought they were worth and Columbia would.
On October 12, 1932, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association (the group that enforced the industry’s production code) returned the script for the then titled “Bottoms Up” with their recommendations for changes to be made. These changes mostly had to do with risqué dancers and comic sex scenes and by October 17th, the re-titled “That’s Africa” went into production. Five weeks later, when the film wrapped on November 23rd, the final title was changed to “So This Is Africa” and the next Wheeler and Woolsey film was in the can.
The synopsis provided by the American Film Institute (which is based on the final release version of the film) is as follows:
Alexander Woolsey (Robert Woolsey) and Wilbur Wheeler (Bert Wheeler), an incompetent vaudeville team, perform their act for an indifferent audience at the Savoy Theatre in New York City. When their performing lions fail to execute their tricks properly, the team calls for a doctor, who prescribes a rest cure for the lions.
Meanwhile, the president of Ultimate Pictures tells the Board of Directors that Mrs. Johnson Martini (Esther Muir), a specialist on the jungles of Africa, has been to that country to film an animal picture, but has returned empty-handed. As she explains to the board that she is afraid of animals, a young office boy named Johnny enters and suggests using Wheeler and Woolsey's trained lions in the picture. Later that afternoon, the president of Ultimate visits Wheeler and Woolsey and offers them the job with Mrs. Martini, which they accept.
In Africa, Woolsey takes a walk with Mrs. Martini and they kiss, whereupon she becomes a passionate maniac. While Woolsey is out of the tent, Wheeler begins to sleep walk. When Tarzana (Raquel Torres), an Amazon woman, sees that he is being followed by some vicious lions, she rescues him and takes him to her tree house, where she kisses him.
The next morning, Wheeler arrives at the tree house, where Tarzana's pet gorilla Josephine takes a liking to him and kisses him. Mrs. Martini finds Wheeler at the tree house and becomes jealous of the gorilla. Tarzana grabs a vine and carries Wheeler to another tree. Then Josephine grabs Woolsey and follows. As Mrs. Martini tries to follow them by climbing from branch to branch, the group is spotted by an Amazon, who signals to others on her drum. The couples return to Mrs. Martini's tree, around which the Amazons gather. They chop the tree down, and take Wheeler, Woolsey and Mrs. Martini to their camp.
Mrs. Martini explains that at night, the fierce side of an Amazon comes out and she becomes amorous to the point of killing her mate. The three dance with the Amazons, while Mrs. Martini begs Wheeler and Woolsey to attempt an escape. Suddenly, an eclipse blots out the sun and the Amazons become amorous. Woolsey escapes but is captured and brought back to the camp, while Wheeler and Mrs. Martini try to dress themselves like Amazons. The Amazons form a circle around Woolsey, and take turns kissing him. Tarzana brings each Amazon up to Woolsey, who must choose his bride from among them. Seeing through Wheeler's disguise, Woolsey picks him and they are taken to the bridal hut for their honeymoon.
Inside, Mrs. Martini helps Wheeler to dress like an Amazon as well, just as the eclipse ends, and the Amazons return to normal. They recognize Wheeler and Woolsey and advance with their spears. Just then, a pack of Tarzans approaches and Mrs. Martini explains that every year the Tarzans come and kidnap the Amazons, making them their wives. Two Tarzans pick up Wheeler and Woolsey and carry them off to a hut. One year later, Wheeler and Woolsey discuss clothes washing detergents as the dutiful wives of two Tarzans.
The film was sent to MPPDA officer James Wingate, formally the head of the New York State censor board, for viewing and on December 29, 1932 he gave the picture a “thumbs up” for release. But, according to author Edward Watz, “on February 16th, 1933, the National Board of Review screened and thoroughly rejected “So This Is Africa” and in one of their statements for the reason as “It outrages every common standard of decency”.”
I have in my possession the files from the Motion Picture Division of the Education Board of New York State (basically the states censor office) regarding "So This Is Africa" and here we see the parts that were chopped out and some interesting correspondence between the censor board and officials at Columbia Pictures, along with the final approval seals. I have set these up by date and with a brief description to try to map out what occurred and at what time. It is by no means a complete history of what happened, but the best I could do with the materials available.
February 16th, 1933: letter to Mr. Jack Cohn of Columbia Pictures in New York City from Irwin Esmond from the New York Censor Board, informing Mr. Cohn that the “license to exhibit this picture is hereby denied and its exhibition forbidden in New York State. REASONS: “OBSCENE”, “INDECENT”, “IMMORAL” & “WILL TEND TO CORRUPT MORALS”.
February 16, 1933: interoffice memo stating cuts made in Boston:
February 17, 1933: interoffice memo from Columbia listing the Chicago Censor Board cuts with and undated (but most likely from the same time) selection from Detroit concerning the deletions ordered there:
February 17, 1933: Columbia Pictures and MPPDA has a scheduled conference with the New York Censor board to argue for the license to show “So This Is Africa”. A Mr. Vincent Hart (for the MPPDA) requests that the hearing be adjourned until February 23, 1933. Mr. Esmond (for the NY Censor Board) grants request.
February 23, 1933: Hearing scheduled for this day adjourned until February 24th.
February 24, 1933: Scheduled hearing takes place with a viewing of the revised “So This Is Africa” is screened:
After the screening, a four page memorandum dated February 25th from Columbia Pictures, states the reasons the film company believes that the film should be approved for release:
The meeting concluded with the parties agreeing that a memorandum or brief would be submitted no later than February 27th stating Columbia Pictures.
An undated and unsigned letter memo stating that even its revised state the picture could not be saved. There is no indication as to who wrote it, but a good guess would be Mr. Esmond or an associate working in conjunction with him:
February 25, 1933: A telegram from an A. Vanni of the Poli Palace Theater in New Haven, Connecticut as to the audience reaction of a preview and stated that, “ABSOLUTELY NO UNFAVORABLE REACTION AS TO ANY SITUATION IN PICTURE”:
March 1, 1933: letter from Attorney Nathan Burkin informing Columbia Pictures that the character of Mrs. Johnson Martini and in no way could be mistaken for the real Mrs. Martin Johnson.
March 4, 1933: Harrison’s Reports article “WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO WITH “SO THIS IS AFRICA!”?”:
March 6, 1933: Another message from Massachusetts:
March 6, 1933: Another message from Massachusetts:
March 7,1933 : reels 2,3,5 & 7 screened twice; reel 6 screened 3 times to determine eliminations.
March 7, 1933 : letter to Jack Cohn from the New York State censor board about the eliminations that body feels need to be made before the picture can be approved:
March 8, 1933: seven reels of the picture returned to Columbia
March 13, 1933: Letter to Mr . Esmond from Rose Slaten stating the cuts that Columbia had made from the print:
March 23, 1933: reels 2 & 6 (retakes) rescreened and approved.
March 24, 1933: letter from Rose Slaten stating that the original, uncensored film was 6,162 feet whereas the cut film measures 5,818ft, 4 frames:
March 30, 1933: the film, with eliminations, was finally granted a license to be shown in the State of New York:
So where is the excised footage today? Well, since there has never been any formal announcement from Columbia that they found the missing footage or have it in their vaults, we can assume that it has vanished with time, so we will have to do with the truncated film as it exists today. It has been shown on Turner Classic movies in the past and hopefully they will show it again as it IS worth seeing. Wheeler and Woolsey still had some great films ahead of them (I’m thinking “Hips, Hips, Hooray” and “Cockeyed Cavaliers”) but this is the one that could have been their greatest and not just their most notorious.