Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Lion (Felis Leo) (1948)

The Lion (Felis Leo) (David Hand's Animaland/Gaumont)
Dir.: Bert Felstead
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9 (pending lion approval, of course)

"I'm the king of the jungle! They call me Tigerman!" - Lux Interior

I never really cared much for lions. Despite their legendary ferocity and reputation as man-eaters, lions always looked a bit scrawny and unworthy of the whole "King of the Jungle" title. First off, lions don't even normally live in the jungle; they live on the savannah. Hyenas gang up on them and kick their ass. Male lions don't even do most of the hunting; that is left to the lionesses, who do all the work and then have to sit back while the big boys get the spoils. It is when the males go rogue that they become dangerous to humans, but even then they usually pick off the weak and helpless most of the time.

The Lion King was a chore for me to watch, mainly because I was rooting for Scar and the hyenas, but also because its the elephants who are the real creatures you don't want to mess with in Africa, and they could have taken care of that whole "Nazi hyena" situation in about a quarter hour. Warner Bros. was always pretty good about making lions the butts of the joke in several cartoons ("Suuuuckahhhh...!"), though they did come in handy against Yosemite Sam and Nero, once. Born Free, even as a child, though beautiful, was somewhat boring. Aslan moved me about as much as his religious counterpart, which is zero. Endless Tarzan books and movies left the image in my mind that most lions only existed -- except for Jad-bal-ja -- to provide a momentary distraction from the plot at hand (and easily dispatched with sinewy effort, cries of "Kreegah!" and a sharp knife). The only lion that I have ever considered worthwhile was that Cowardly one in Oz, but he had charms that overwhelmed any extant lion behavior. In all, as large predatory cats go, lions were always on the bottom of my list.

No, for me, it was tigers all the way. "Three cheers and a tiger for me!", as the genie in A-Lad-in His Lamp would say. Tigers actually live in the jungle, and are definitely the kings of that realm. They also eat more people than lions could ever dare dream of devouring. Shere Khan was and still remains a smooth kickass villain. I have twice had the wonderful opportunity of holding a baby tiger at petting zoos. We have Siberian tigers at the zoo in Alaska (but not lions, because tigers are all-weather felines). And for many years, I had the side-nickname (as opposed to my normal one, namely Boog) of Tigger, doubly due to my obsession with A.A. Milne's Pooh stories and especially his springy bon vivant character, whose behavior I often could replicate because of my naturally hyperactive and AAD-laden energy. (I would often "bounce" people back in the day). Plus, tigers have that whole stripey thing going for them, making the tiger far more appealing visually than the dusty, dirty, often scraggly lion. Yup, it has always been tigers for me.

Two things, though, over the last few years have changed my opinion of lions. The first occurred when I, or rather, my cat discovered Big Cat Diary, a show which Animal Planet ran a few years back. Spare, nearly silent except for the roars of the lions, leopards and cheetahs who were the solitary stars of each episode, Big Cat Diary was basically raw nature footage of the big cats of Africa doing what they do best, which is being the big cats of Africa. My cat, Buster Keaton Ghidorah, brought the show into our lives (accidentally? I think not...) when he stepped on the remote one night, changing the channel from a Marx Brothers film to Big Cat Diary, and the show became a mainstay on Saturday nights for the next couple of years.

But not because I was watching it. No, it was Buster, who often sat down and watched TV throughout his long 22 years, who was the audience for the show in our house. He would sit and bob his head anytime one of the cats would stalk something, meow occasionally at the goings on, and would sometimes dart at the tube when there was a chase or even a mating ritual occurring. I would often watch his favorite TV show with him, and it was there that I began to really appreciate the lion, though I have to be honest and tell you that it was the lionesses, as always, who really rocked the screen. But I began to see past most of my prejudices involving the creature, and they made the jump above cougars on my list.

Finally, earlier this year, we attended the San Diego Wild Animal Park, where I had been a couple times before (and am an annual pass holder of both it and the San Diego Zoo). They had added the Lion Camp exhibit since our previous visit, and it was an eye-opener. I had seen lions in zoos numerous times, but the lions were almost always lazing about and completely unconcerned with the people milling around outside of the glass of their enclosure. Lion Camp was different. The viewing areas to see the lions are far superior to anything that I have seen before, but the part that truly sold me on the worth of the lion was our encounter with the sole lion that had the nerve to be outside that day. He was sitting about twenty feet away from the glass, but inattentive he was not. He stared intently in our direction, sniffing the air and growling in a menacing fashion. His muscles were quite clearly twitching on his shoulders as he wrestled with darting towards the glass at our party, and I became entranced by him. We left the area, and about a hundred yards down the path, we heard a tremendous roar that completely shattered my nerves. And now, I can't wait to see the lions again. Apparently, I am a convert. Nothing like a little fear to set you straight.

The hunter who narrates as he writes about his adventures in the David Hand production of The Lion (Felis Leo), from 1948, has no seeming concern about the deadliness of his subject. He instructs us about the development of a young lion cub who learns the lessons of life inside a lush and beautifully detailed jungle. Typing earnestly, we see only his pith-helmeted shadow cast upon the walls of his tent as he begins his tale.

The lion cub at the core of this narrative is seen learning how to stalk his prey through the "heart of Darkest Africa". His prey just happens to be a massive elephant fifty times his size, and the narrator points out how the young prince "stalks his prey with true regal dignity", just before falling into a deep mud puddle that he mistakes for one of the elephant tracks he has been following. A log then blocks his progress, but after a couple of failed attempts to scale it, he charges and somehow dives hard enough to burrow underneath it in one burst. 

All thought of his prey is forgotten, however, when he is distracted by a leaf. He chases it playfully, but the leaf gets sucked into the trunk of the elephant. The lion crawls through the elephant's legs as if they were mere tree trunks, and tries to regain possession of the leaf. Thus begins the lion's tormenting at the hands, er, trunk of the larger beast, which teases him mercilessly in a number of ways. The lion freaks out and bolts for safety, running straight through the log, leaving a cub-shaped door in the side of the log, which the cub runs back and shuts to keep the elephant from following him. (There is an especially nice bit where the nostrils of the trunk appear to be like a pair of eyes to the younger creature.)

The narrative skips three years, and the cub has grown up into the leonine version of an awkward teenager, flirting with the first stirrings of young love. As the lion tries to cultivate his "cool" new mane, he is teased with bad puns and mockery by an annoying parrot named Boko on a nearby branch. As Boko cracks wise about the "mane idea", the lion accidentally loses all but one of the hairs atop his nervous head. He roars at the parrot, whose feathers roll up his body so that he is essentially bottomless. A lovely young lioness begins to flirt and tease our hero, and the parrot hoarsely and flatly starts in on a song called Bet'cher Life It's Love as she paws, slaps, and generally tortures him.

Partway through the tune, the parrot says "Let's be frank... Sinatra" and twists a flower into a bowtie, the stem of the now denuded plant becomes his microphone, and he turns totally pale and wan (in the manner attributed to Sinatra at a certain early point in his career) before launching back into the number, this time with a much better though not-quite-Frankie singing voice. He next impersonates Jimmy Durante (poorly) for a bit, until he is interrupted by his female and better singing half, who throws him into their home in the tree before finishing the song on her own, as the lioness drags her intended love by his tail into her heart-shaped cave.

Six years later, the now fully grown male is following the trail of a water buffalo, but he passes up his prey due to his own earnestness, and he ends being followed by the buffalo calf instead. When he sits his rear down on the calf's head, he jumps back in fear. He is almost playful with his reaction to the calf at first, but then remembers who he is and what he is out to do. The recoiling calf looks as if it were a steak to the lion's eyes, and the lion begins to chase the smaller and weaker animal. The calf finally leaps onto a small island in a pond to hide, and the lion prepares his assault.

However, the mother buffalo has awoken from her slumber and has begun breathing threateningly on the lion's tail. The lion uses his tail like a hand, flicking the point on the buffalo's horn to test its sharpness. The lion's jaw drops and he ends up with a mouthful of the pond water, and a fish jumps out of his gaping maw. The buffalo bumps the lion into the air, and then again until he gets caught with his hind end sticking out of a hole in a tree. Another hole above him gives the lion a chance to check on his opponent's progress as he tries to unstick himself (this makes for a cute visual). A third hole gives the lion a chance to push his bottom inside the tree, but it does not work. The buffalo hits him, and the lion is shot high above the jungle canopy, and then down he falls towards a prickly pear plant, but the lion stops his progress long enough to move the plant over so that he may hit the ground without being speared.

He finds himself near the tent where the narrator continues his writing. "In summing up," he says, "the lion, so far from being the king of beasts, appears to be a cowardly, half-starved creature. But, king or no king, of one thing I am convinced..." The lion takes umbrage at this statement, and marches full on into the tent. We see the lion's shadow as it melds with that of the writer, and then the lion emerges from the tent, but there is no longer the shadow of the hunter on the walls. The lion opens his mouth, and we hear the narrator conclude his statement: "...That the lion will not eat man!" The lion smiles at the camera, very satisfied with his improvised meal, and walks off into the distance, the typewriter causing his side to jut out over and over again as the writer continues to type towards his eventual digestion.

Um, I guess that I should consider myself warned. Uh... Lions rock! Yep, they sure do!

(But I still like tigers much better...)


[This article was updated with new photos on 12/20/15.]

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