Film Title: Bring ‘Em Back Alive
Year of Release: 1932
Directed by Clyde D. Elliott
Story by Frank Buck
Produced by Van Beuren Studios
Released by RKO Studios
A jungle adventure documentary filmed in Malaya. Frank Buck, American hunter/collector/trader of wild animals, travels with Dahlam Ali, “his number one boy”, on an expedition into the Malayan jungle. From their jungle headquarters just north of Singapore, Frank, Ali and a team of native helpers roam the area from Northern Johore to Perak in search of interesting wild animals, reptiles and birds.
Film Title: Wild Cargo
Year of Release: 1934
Directed by Armand Denis
Produced by Van Beuren Studios
This is another jungle adventure documentary starring Frank Buck. Buck depicts the ingenious methods by which he traps wild birds, mammals and reptiles. Many scenes were photographed on the vast Malayan estates of Buck’s friend, Sultan Ibrahim of Johor.
Film Title: Fang and Claw
Year of Release: 1935
Directed by Frank Buck
Produced by Van Beuren Studios
The third installment of Frank Buck’s exploits in the Malayan jungle. Buck continues his demonstration of the ingenious methods by which he traps wild birds, mammals and reptiles in Johore.
Film Title: Jungle Cavalcade
Year of Release: 1941
Produced by RKO Radio Pictures
Attempting to ride the tail end of the wave of exotic cinema that gripped America and Europe since the 1930s, this is a compilation film that consists of footage from three previous Frank Buck expedition films – “Bring ’em Back Alive,” “Wild Cargo,” and “Fang and Claw.”
(Note: The film-stills presented in this post are all extracted from “Jungle Cavalcade”.)
The Film Locations:
The three Frank Buck expedition films were predominantly shot in the Malayan jungles in Johore, some of which were part of the estates belonging to Sultan Ibrahim. Though he would claim otherwise to advance the film’s authenticity, I would like to think that Frank Buck might have shot some of the footage in local zoos or animal enclosures (in Johore and Singapore), where conditions are more conducive for filming the (staged?) clashes between the supposedly wild animals that appeared frequently in the films. In other words, Frank Buck and the film directors could have been “making things up” to heighten the entertainment value of the (mock) documentary. A Straits Times review (18 May 1933) would agree with me as it opined that “even when apparently actual jungle fights are shown, though, there is an artificiality about the scenes, a suggestion that they have been deliberately staged.”
Besides footage shot in the Malayan jungle, and what-I-believe-to-be footage shot in zoos/animal enclosures, Frank Buck also presented footage of the Singapore harbour where he loaded up his prize catches onto shipping vessels destined for zoos and circuses all over the world.
Singapore was where Frank Buck was based in. Jan Uhde and Yvonne Ng wrote, in “Latent Images: Film in Singapore”(2010), that he “lived in a house in Katong from where he commuted to the city by automobile. His business headquarters was the Raffles Hotel bar, from where he conducted his animal-collecting operations spanning the jungles of Malaya, Sumatra, Borneo, and India, and where he congregated with his friends.”
The Singapore Free Press (10 Feb 1923) also reported that “gradually (Buck’s animal) collection grows as one by one the animals arrive and are taken up to the compound off the Orchard Road, to await the arrival of many specimens, (…) when all are placed on board ship at Singapore and taken to America.” The Singapore Free Press would also publish some of Frank Buck’s writings, from where we can know that he had maintained an animal compound “on the outskirts of Singapore in the small town of Katong” (10 February 1931).
Buck eventually admitted to a Straits Times reporter that the close-up scenes in “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” “were made in Jurong Road; other shots were made up-country”(Straits Times, 5 April 1933). This was in response to charges of “fake” scenes in “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” and director Clyde Elliot coming clean with the film-makers’ ploy to fool the audience — that 90% of the film was shot in Singapore, a scene with elephants was shot in Reformatory Road [now Clementi Road] and the animal fight scenes were not real fights at all (Singapore Free Press, 14 December 1932).
1. Harbour in Singapore, probably Keppel Harbour.
(Update on 3rd July 2013: Another possible location could be the South Pier, Telok Ayer, Singapore Harbour Board.)
2. The Malayan Jungle. Estate of Sultan Ibrahim (of Johore)? Animal enclosures? Reformatory Road?
3. Animal enclosures in Johor? Frank Buck’s compound in Katong or Jurong Road? Zoos or Menageries in Singapore?
Above: A male proboscis monkey. A reddish brown long-nosed monkey endemic to Borneo. I am guessing that this is not shot in Borneo, but in one of Frank Buck’s compounds where he assembled his captured and purchased wild animals before “exporting” them to America.
I have mentioned earlier that Frank Buck and the film directors might have shot some of the footage in local zoos or animal enclosures (in Singapore), where conditions are more conducive for filming — the recording of staged animal fights, close-ups of the animals in well-lit environments, etc. So, were there any zoos in Singapore during the 1930s where Frank Buck can approach for filming his blockbusters?
Ilsa Sharp, in “The First 21 Years: The Singapore Zoological Garden Story”(published 1994), wrote that “attempts to set up a Singapore Zoo would be made before the foundation of today’s Singapore Zoological Gardens in 1973. Rising interest in collecting wild animals during the 1920s and 1930s was closely connected both with hunting and with the lucrative export of animals to foreign zoos. This was the era of “Great White Hunters” like the flamboyant Texan of movieland fame (“Bring ‘Em Back Alive”), Frank Buck, who based his zoo-supply operations in Singapore. In 1939, Buck gave a “partial list” of the animals he had exported safely over the preceding 25 years, chiefly from Southeast Asia, to zoos in the USA. They included 5,000 monkeys, 500 small mammals, 60 tigers, 60 bears, 63 leopards or panthers, 52 orang utans, 49 elephants, and an astounding 100,000 birds, among many others.”
She continued, “Smaller dealers than Buck, mostly Chinese, were centred at shops around Rochore Road about this time, while others ran their collections both as zoos and as wholesale centres. One such was Herbert de Souza who held his animals at an East Coast Road menagerie, a family business that persisted into the late 1960s.” In fact, Herbert de Souza had helped Frank Buck in his film “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” (probably in the supply of wild animals), according to a Straits Times report on 23 October 1962, the day after Herbert de Souza’s death.
Ilsa Sharp also wrote about a zoo run by animal-lover William Lawrence Soma Basapa, established in about 1925, and located at Punggol Road at the end of Track 22 on a 27-acre plot of land by the sea. The collection included non-Asian animals, chimpanzees, orang utans and tigers. It was a major attraction among locals and tourists then. Even Albert Einstein once visited it.
[Update, 29 December 2012: The following is a photograph of Punggol Zoo that I found in a book of pictures and photos of Singapore published by the Japanese before the war…
A blog post at remembersingapore.wordpress.com also mentioned that “an American film company even visited the zoo in 1933 to shoot a fighting scene between a man and a python.” (I wonder where the blog writer acquired this piece of information from.) Could the fighting scene that they were shooting in the Punggol zoo be for one of Frank Buck’s films?
[Update: The blog writer of “remembersingapore.wordpress.com” has replied with a newspaper link that proves that the production of a film by an American film company did happen at the Punggol Zoo. Please see comments below.
I was to find out that the producer and director of that film was one J.C. Cook. The working title for the film then was “Dyak” and it told the story of “a white goddess who runs a tribe of wild Dayaks” (Straits Times, 3 September 1933). The official title of the film when it was released in 1934 was “Inyaah the Jungle Goddess”. The film was later re-released under more sensationalistic titles such as “Forbidden Adventure, “Jungle Virgin” and “The Virgin of Sarawak”.
J.C. Cook was also the cinematographer for the film “Samarang” (also known as “Shark Woman”), directed by Ward Wing and shot predominantly in Singapore with many local acting talents. I will write about this film, and the filming locations in a later post.]
The Basapa zoo at the end of Punggol Track 22 no longer exist. (Track 22 does not exist now either. The only indication left is the name of a bus stop along Punggol Road — “After Track 22”.)
The zoo was probably sited along the riverfront of Sungei Dekar (now called Coney Channel), with Pulau Serangoon (a.k.a. Coney Island) just across the channel. From the riverfront zoo, one could probably even see Pasir Gudang, east of Johore Bahru, across the Johore Straits. Punggol, as a whole, has undergone much changes since the 1940s. Gone are the zoos, film crews, pig farms, old-school adventure camps and dense forests. In recent times, Punggol New Town is being built, two dams closed off Sungei Dekar from the Straits, and the riverfront is being redeveloped into Punggol Promenade (with plans for a Nature Walk and recreational facilities).
I took a walk along the uncompleted Punggol Promenade in December 2011:
By the way, if you are in any doubt that the fight scenes between the animals are “fake” and not at all shot in the wild jungles, a periodical called “Modern Mechanix and Inventions” had kindly published an article “How Frank Buck Filmed His Tiger-Python Battle”, written by Alfred Albelli, to dispel all suspicions over the scenes’ authenticity. I found a copy of the article online:
After producing the trilogy of films of his jungle adventures in Malaya and riding on his mounting fame, Frank Buck had intentions to “supervise a production of a ‘tremendous adventure story’ based on the lives of famous historical characters of the East — such as Sir Stamford Raffles, the first white Rajah of Sarawak, or the rulers of Johore”, according to a Straits Times report (4 August 1935). He had said, “There is plenty of material around here. Why, Malaya alone would provide the film world with a dozen epics!” Singapore was even dubbed the “Equatorial Hollywood” then.
However, after all the brouhaha, films depicting Malayan epics contrived for a Hollywood audience seeking an “exotic other” never materialised; plans for the films were abandoned.
Then it took Frank Buck more than a decade to conjure up a fresh idea for a film in Malaya and Singapore. After the end of World War Two, he returned to Singapore in 1949 to scout for locations in Malaya for his next film, the first in technicolor to be made in Malaya. The “bandit theme” film, featuring a boy and girl romance in Johore’s jungles, was to be called “They Kill To Live”, and would feature American film actors and actresses, with “room for Malayan talent” (The Straits Times, 26 June 1949; The Singapore Free Press, 2 July 1949.) Frank Buck was probably inspired by the so-called “bandits” of the Malayan Emergency — the Malayan Communist Party-led Malayan National Liberation Army. Plans for this film came to nothing as well.
We have to be content with Frank Buck’s three Malayan film outputs in the 1930s. That is enough of a legacy.