Hugh Hefner Presents a Failure to Evolve.
DIRECTED BY DONALD DRIVER/1973
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JANUARY 4, 2022/CODE RED (VIA KINO LORBER)
“The naked ape is only human!” So they say…
In the waning years of the Vietnam War, Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire teamed with Universal Pictures to address the disastrous ordeal the only way they knew how: with a glorified video essay on the relational evolution of the human race.
Feel free to reiterate: Huh?? The reaction is to be expected. Or at least, it should’ve been. Reportedly, the studio had been kicking around the intension to adapt Desmond Morris’s 1967 non-fiction novel, The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal, for several years. When things were looking altogether bleak for the project, Playboy publisher and figurehead Hugh Hefner, of all people, opted to get involved. The film would be written and directed by someone called Donald Driver, who, following this, would never be heard from in the industry again. Morris ended up bolting away with no uncertain intentionality when he saw the mess that these men were making of his trendy source material.
With the names of both Hefner and his men’s magazine prominent, not to mention that the title has “Naked” in it, there are probably plenty of assumptions about this movie. Cast those assumptions aside. The Naked Ape does not, in fact, objectify women. It only objectifies boring people. (Which is, everyone on screen). And even in that, it fumbles. The film, being a PG-rated anthropological study of sex made up of cheapo vignettes, plays like the movie version of one of those articles in Playboy that partakers would awkwardly claim to buy the magazine for. The only actual nakedness in The Naked Ape is on behalf of the unnamed Neanderthals in the many animated sequences.
That’s right- animation. If The Naked Ape was on the cutting edge of anything, it was the trend to pump documentaries full of such moving illustrations. (How weird is it that in the ostensibly most “real” type of filmmaking, one of the first questions contemporary documentarians must ask themselves is, “Who will do my animation?”) But, does The Naked Ape qualify as a documentary?? Kind of? Some of it, maybe? In any case, Charles Swenson (who’d go on to direct the TV specials of Puff the Magic Dragon, and much more) oversees the animated sequences, which, vary in technique across the film, standing as the most visually engaging aspect of an otherwise limp film.
Now might be a good time to note that the central core of The Naked Ape revolves around actual scenes with actual actors. The main character is an entirely average young college fella named Lee (Johnny Crawford). Lee hits it off with Cathy, an attractive campus co-ed played by a very pre-Dallas Victoria Principal. They meet, flirt, and bond over a copy of Morris’ paperback. Later, The Naked Ape parades into the topic of homosexuality as Lee and his buddy Arnie (Dennis Olivieri) resort to lying about being gay to avoid the draft. (This is a protest movie, too. Not a very original one, but for the record, it objects to the war). When that fails, Lee drafts a letter of resignation from the armed services right there on the battlefield. But then again, these “battlefield” sequences look like they were filmed down in the bushes in a corner of someone’s backyard.
Throughout, we keep going back to classroom segments of fellow students in an Erotic Poetry course standing up and reciting Morris and various other writings, including Cathy’s contribution from The Bible’s Song of Songs (the sexy-time book of the Bible). That latter inclusion goes a minor distance in reconciling the film’s stance against religion after taking a sledgehammer to it in the opening moments, all in the interest of propping up a Darwinian thesis of self-gratification. For Hefner’s gross and antiquated “Playboy philosophy” to fly (itself feeling a bit long in the tooth, even here), such modernist, even Ayn Rand-ian outlooks must be staged to win out. Song of Songs makes the cut purely for its lyrical fixations on bodies mooshing, and whatnot.
These days, it’s increasingly likely that any audience for The Naked Ape would arrive to it far less interested in it for its subject matter (much of which is outdated science, anyhow), but rather for its odd niche as a cultural relic. In such, Code Red takes a barebones approach to its Blu-ray release of the film. In an earlier world, a treatise like this might’ve warranted academic bonuses regarding the evolutionary and sexual theories that are batted around herein. But, nope. We get a decent transfer and some Code Red trailers (including The Naked Ape’s).
The formal failings of The Naked Ape are, in the end, not because of its aspirations as an “essay film”, which was by no means an invalid or unproven form, even in 1973. Rather, they seem to be because the project wielded greater aspirations and didn’t know how to harness them.
The film instead finds itself padding out significant stretches with very obvious, narrative-free filler. (Long sequences of gymnastics routines in a poorly lit gym; some ballet, etc.). If The Naked Ape does manage to land any of its points in this day and age, it’s in ironic validation of its own “survival of the fittest” ideals: Simply step back and note that The Naked Ape signals the extinction of Playboy-branded feature films.