On the Lost Opportunity of “The Wild Man of Borneo”

Oh, what a painful, heartbreaking experience is The Wild Man of Borneo (1941). I’d long aspired to see it, as I’d read that it was originally crafted as a vehicle for W.C. Fields, and I’m currently working on a project about medicine shows. And TCM ran it a couple of days ago, so I watched it. And, O, the frustration! Because it comes so close…and yet remains so far. 

The film is not without its rewards, at least for someone with my predilections. The plot concerns a medicine show spieler who takes on the guardianship of his estranged daughter to whom he had always presented himself as a globe-trotting millionaire. He tells grandiose tales about his exploits, but in the end is forced to take a job as the titular wild man in a dime museum, while pretending to understudy for Richard Mansfield in King Lear (the tale is laid in the 1890s). While this transpires, he and his daughter reside in a theatrical boarding house amongst all manner of showfolk, including a number of vaudevillians, past, present, and future. It’s based on a 1927 play by Marc Connelly and Herman J. Mankiewicz, adapted by Waldo Salt and John McClain. Mank (whose brother Joseph produced this) had earlier produced Fields’ Million Dollar Legs as well as three Marx Brothers pictures, and had also written Girl Crazy for Wheeler and Woolsey. Bob Woolsey, btw, might have been an excellent lead in The Wild Man of Borneo, too. He’d starred in the very similar Everything’s Rosie a decade earlier and carried it nicely. But Woolsey had died in 1938, so that option was moot.

So, as happened with The Wizard of Oz two years earlier, when Fields was unavailable, MGM used their own in-house alcoholic bluster-puss Frank Morgan. Given his performance as the Wizard, I had high hopes for Morgan in the part. But here, as directed by Robert B. Sinclair, he is oddly subdued, not up to Wizard levels of charming blarney, by any means, although it’s all there for him in the script. And so with Morgan phoning it in, you can’t help but hear what FIELDS would have done, and you spend the entire picture pining for Fields in the role, picturing his line readings and the physical business he would have brought to it. This is not the only ball Sinclair drops (how’s that for a juggling metaphor?) He misses SEVERAL opportunities for memorable business. For example, dancer and musical comedy star Dan Dailey is in the film as an acrobat who is dabbling in silent movies. Not only is Dailey not given any dancing or slapstick to do, but also one of his silent pictures is shown and it (like most of the movie) is perfunctory at best. What a lost opportunity for a show-stopping section of this film. Sinclair also doesn’t show us a medicine show performance, or scenes at the Broadway theatre, and though we are extremely glad for a glimpse of the dime museum (and at Morgan’s wildly politically incorrect turn as the wild man), the performance of Miss Cairo, the cooch dancer (Mayta Palmera), is not what it could be either (yes, I know, the Code forbade, but it could still have been better. Lady of Burlesque, for example, was just two years later).

Also, a brief trigger warning here — the wild man act, which was a staple of side shows, amusement parks, circuses, and dime museums for decades, is about as racist a thing as there is. If you don’t want to see a white man in a curly wig and fangs, with black make-up all over his body, going “ooga booga”, this movie won’t be for you. However, if you’d like to see FRANK MORGAN do that, it’s definitely for you. As for seeing Fields do it? One imagines it would have been a lot like his ventriloquist turn in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. He’d have stressed the hokum for comic purposes, whereas Morgan just kind of does it. Unaccountably, Sinclair directs the script for the melodrama and not for the knock-down, drag-out comedy orgy it wants to be. The poster above, stressing the romance of the couple over the entire point of the movie, tells the whole story of where it went wrong.

So what IS good about it? Well, the rest of the cast! Morgan’s old Wizard of Oz colleague Billie Burke plays the ex-actress who runs the rooming house. In addition to Dailey, the other roomers include Donald Meek as Professor Birdo, a suspicious little jerk in a toupee who does bird impressions. Marjorie Main is the acerbic cook and maid. Stage and screen vet Connie Gilchrist plays the stage mother of an aging child performer played by the hilarious Bonita Granville (daughter of Bunny). Mary Howard, a former Albertina Rasch dancer who’d been in The Great Ziegfeld, is Morgan’s daughter. The great Walter Catlett plays Morgan’s old cohort and boss at the dime museum. Vaudeville, stage and screen vet Andrew Tombes is a medicine show doctor. And maybe best of all, a young Phil Silvers is the dime museum emcee. Given that Silvers appeared with Fields in that cut segment from Tales of Manhattan the following year, we know this counts as another lost opportunity.

There are cool people in bit parts. Tom Conway (George Sanders’ brother) is one of the people in the silent film. Matt McHugh is a hansom cab driver. Cyril Ring (Harvey Yates in the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts) has a walk on as a guy Morgan tricks into searching the sky for a hot air balloon. And Joe Yule filmed a scene that was cut.

Overall then, much fodder here for show biz buffs, between the excellent dialogue by Connelly and Mankiewicz, the terrific peek into old time show biz, and the delightful supporting cast. But just try and watch it without longing for Fields in the starring role! It’s impossible. By the way, if you’re interested in OTHER W.C. Fields might-have-beens, check out my earlier blogpost here. 

To learn more about vaudeville and old school show biz, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.