Playboy Magazine really got involved in the film industry back
in the late sixties and seventies. In some situations, a film would feature a
Playmate, and the magazine would reciprocate with a lengthy pictorial (e.g. Can Hieronymus Merkin ...). In other
cases, the magazine would take additional photos on the
set, perhaps persuading the principals to do a more graphic version of their
onscreen sex scene (e.g. The Sailor Who Fell ...).
At some point Hef and the
gang decided that it might be worthwhile to get involved in producing their own
films, and their first effort was excellent - the acclaimed, innovative Roman
Polanski version of MacBeth (1971). Buoyed by the success of that project, Hef
kept at it, but the second effort was a sophomore slump - The Naked Ape (1973). It
fell more than a bit in quality from the Polanski film. Macbeth is rated 7.5 at
IMDb while The Naked Ape is rated 3.5.
The problem is that this movie is fundamentally an ambitious attempt to film an
unfilmable book: The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris. Dr. Morris stunned the
1967 universe by writing a pop anthropology book, first serialized in London's
Daily Mirror tabloid, in which he described humans in the same objective,
analytical way that zoologists describe animals. Dr. Morris was the curator of
mammals at the London Zoo. He specialized in primates, and his particular slant on
the nature of man was that our species is best viewed as a very complicated primate.
The title of the book is derived from the fact that there are 193 species of
monkeys and apes on the planet, of which man is the only one not entirely covered in fur and
is, therefore, the only naked ape.
Scientific critics of the book pointed out that Dr. Morris was a
zoologist, not an anthropologist, and as such was making partially formed and
unscientific speculations by defining man in purely zoological terms, because
while man is an animal, he also stands apart from the animals in many ways.
Religious groups had, as you can imagine, much harsher criticisms.
The book made for a livelier-than-expected read because it
focused on sex and mating rituals. Morris pointed out that man is "the sexiest
primate" and noted that Homo Sapiens not
only has the biggest brain of all primates, but also the largest penis. Sex
usually provides lively cinematic fodder as well, but it is very difficult to make something like this into a
movie. The film version of The Naked Ape is somewhere between a documentary and
a series of anecdotes, which is to say that it's an odd film and very hard to
watch. The scientific arguments are presented in a heavy-handed way. At times,
people walk around with Dr. Morris's book in hand, quoting from it liberally. At
other times, university professors recite passages from the book while
addressing their classes. The director sometimes uses stock footage to show
connections between human rituals and animal behavior. Some of the book's points
are illustrated with anecdotes about a mating couple in various stages of their
relationship, while other points are illustrated with animations, Terry Gilliam
style. The film wanders haphazardly back and forth between the live and
animated segments. There are also scenes which seem to drag on and on for no
reason at all, like a section in which male gymnasts do a long routine. The
individual anecdotes and illustrations don't connect very well, and the film
doesn't make much of an attempt to let the recurring human characters have any
dimension. The oddest thing about it is that it's all presented in a remarkably tame PG format, which is
surprising when one considers that it's a movie by Hugh Hefner from a book about
primitive sexual urges!
Woody Allen had a very similar film project derived from a
similar book (Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex ...), but Allen
managed to get his points across through humor and parody, while this film gets
sucked into the trap of self-importance and does altogether too much
pontificating. It's all harmless enough, and the film's points are not unsound, but mostly
it's just plain boring, like your college professor who really knew his material
but had no idea how to make it as interesting to you as it was to him.