The Odd Case of Acquanetta: The Exotic Beauty, The Jungle Seductress, Captive Wild Woman

22 Sep

There are differing accounts of the women know as Acquanetta’s heritage. She was billed aaquanetta_images a Venezuelan bombshell, but she was born in Pennsylvania in 1921. Although she famously claimed to be a part of the Arapaho tribe, an orphan from the age of two and living with an adopted family until she reached the age of fifteen (the name she went by, Burnu Acquanetta, according to her meant “burning fire, deep water”), some reports claim that she was a light-skinned African American women born Mildred Davenport—a more plausible origin, and one like that of Anatole Broyard, one of what Kinji Yoshino called passing and covering. Mildred or Burnu, Acquanetta’s heritage is plausibly linked to male desire; the desire for the “exotic” beauty of Acquanetta may have allowed the model-turned-actress to spin a web of ridiculous fiction—male desire thus overwhelming the sense that the object of their lust is racially other, and the evidence of that racial otherness cannot be completely ignored, giving rise to the typecasting Acquanetta suffered and benefited from.

Acquanetta’s brother, Horace Davenport, is recorded to have become the first African American judge within the Pennsylvanian county in which he lived. And more evidence that Acquanetta’s racial roots were suspect to some: her career was closely followed by the African American press at the time, including a publication recently still in existence, Jet magazine. However, the greatest confirmation/denial of Acquanetta’s racial otherness, be it African American or other non-white, might be the roles into which she was typecast: she became the quintessential jungle seductress. According to the billing for her first film, Captive Wild Woman, her jungle genetics gave her “strange power over man and beast.”

As a film, Captive Wild Woman wasn’t meant to be stellar, exactly. The film was classic B-movie horror fare. However, a few new, creative moves were made in the 1944 film. First, a large portion of the film’s footage was recycled from an early film, 1933’s The Big Cage. The film also draws upon a Universal heritage of the monster trope: the “wild woman” in question, played by Acquanetta, is a female gorilla—played by a man—named Cheela. The monstrous twist of the movie occurs when a mad scientist, Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine), transplants the brain of a human into the body of the gorilla Cheela. To his surprise, this transforms Cheela into a beautiful young woman he names, for some unknown reason, Paula Dupree.

Dr. Walters is thoroughly pleased with his new creation, despite the horror of his assistant, Miss Strand (Fey Helm), and even takes the young woman out among the “natural” humans—mostly to see if she can pass. The passing here is ironic in that this might be a wink at the audience as to Acquanetta’s own story, possibly passing for something that she is not: both exotic and of another, more acceptable (to lust after) race. Seeing her former animal trainer, Fred Mason (Milburn Stone) in danger in the lion’s cage, Paula rushes to his side. The felines are almost immediately repulsed by Paula, sensing her “unnaturalness.” Both grateful and struck by Paula’s familiarity, and no doubt her seductive beauty[1],  is immediately attracted to Dupree. However, Mason has a fiancé waiting for him to be introduced to the story.

The unnaturalness of the possible pairing of Paula and Mason is highlighted in terms of the obviously preferred pairing of Mason and Beth. Mason’s fiancé, Beth, is a pretty blonde innocent played by Evelyn Ankers. Ankers is not only a classically attractive blonde, she’s obviously of Anglo-Saxon heritage as a British-American actress. But Dupree’s sexual jealousy causes a regressive transformation back to her savage roots—in a rage, Paula transforms back into a gorilla. Dupree, as the murderous gorilla, seeks to kill her rival for Mason’s affection. In short, she seeks to terrorize the “natural” pairing of Mason and Beth. This was a common trope for horror and monster movies, according to Harry Benshoff, who claims the monster—or in Benshoff’s terms, the “monster queer”—seeks to break-up a natural, right pairing of a man and a woman. However, as Benshoff focuses on the taboo of homosexual desire reinforced by the monster film, Captive Wild Woman, while also regarding sexual taboos, revolves around latent fears of both uncontrolled female sexuality and miscegenation.

The film’s messages are, however, paradoxical and contradictory. Wild Woman (as most of the films in Acquanetta’s B-movie catalog) gives free license to the male gaze to lust after Acquanetta, but it simultaneously warns against this pairing. The film suggests the burden of sexual desire’s invocation be placed on the racially othered character, Paula. Thus the man, Mason, as stand-in for the everyman, is resolved of his guilt as his lust, but is warned from acting upon it. This odd mixture of freedom and restraint might be explained by monster theory, as elucidated by Jeffrey Cohen. For Cohen, the monster polices the boundaries of the possible—the monstrous doesn’t bar the door, but serves as a warning to those that might cross. Clearly, there is a boundary identified against the pairing of Acquanetta’s Dupree and Mason. But there is also a seductive side to the monster, as Cohen claims—where would the danger reside if it were not in some way desirable to explore monstrosity? It is also apparent that Acquanetta as Paula is seductive. However, as any good viewer of the classic monster movie must realize, we already know how this possible pairing will playout. The dominant culture—the real monster—must have its way; it must be reified and reaffirmed in its right and rightness. Although Cheela, returned to gorilla form, might have carried away an injured Fred Mason, a police officer mistakes her intentions in carrying Mason away and shoots the gorilla. But as Cohen also observes, the monster always returns—dead is not dead, for the fear lives on—and the “Ape Woman” is featured in two sequels: The Jungle Woman and The Jungle Captive.

The themes of Captive Wild Woman, in some ways, run parallel to the occurrences and struggles in Acquanetta’s life. Her probable passing/covering of her own racial heritage is not unlike that of Paula Dupree in the film. The film seems to be nodding to something that she and the dominant culture of the time kept unspoken, point to the arbitrary nature of race, sexuality, and gender. Acquanetta would go on to star in a handful of other B-movies including Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, Dead Man’s Eyes, and Lost Continent. No one knows the true story of Burnu Acquanetta, but that’s probably because no one wanted to know, not really. She was to remain as she wished to be: an “exotic” but otherwise blank slate whom men could write on as they pleased. Acquanetta was alluring, but she was also monstrous. Her otherness was constantly alluded to through the roles which she acquired. Her beauty was unnatural.

[1] The trailer for the film depicts this seen with the voiceover claiming Paula Dupree’s power of animals and men, suggesting some sort of erotic powers she might possess—suggesting that it is she who seeks out the male, violating the customary norms taken for granted during the mid-forties.

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