Animal historians routinely describe animals as “actors”. This is to emphasize the way that nonhuman creatures can effect change through their own actions and behaviours. They’re not bystanders in history, but active participants. But what about when animals are literally actors. Like, in films. What can animals acting tell us about animals as “actors”?
This advert for a 1939 film called Myaing Yan Bwa:-–which might be roughly translated as “Jungle-Born” (thanks to my friend Aung Ko Ko Latt for his help with this!)—is covered with animals. There’s a illustration of a monkey in the top-right-hand corner. A mongoose (I think) fighting a snake in the bottom-right-hand corner. And in the middle there is a photograph of an elephant with the film’s human stars on its shoulders. In another advert for the same film published the previous day, there are even more photographs of creatures, including a bear and a snake.
I don’t know much about the film beyond what is contained in the adverts. The director is U Lun Phay. The human stars are: Maung Nyunt Maung, the leopard-print-wearing, snake-handling, bear-hugging male lead; and May Myint, the female co-star, who from the photographs appears to be playing the role of damsel in distress, although she also seems to be able to drive the elephant. In both adverts, the film claims to be the “Burmese Tarzan”.
The film was set in the middle of the jungle and was about a beloved princess and a wild man, at least in appearance, and how they “made history” (rā ja waṅ’ twaṅ’). But there is a third character mentioned, a “very tame” (yañ’ pā) and “well-behaved” (limmā) elephant. Mentioned, but not named, the elephant was clearly thought to be a big draw. They appear on all the adverts for the film that appeared in Thūriya that I have seen.
So what might it mean that the elephant was playing the character of a tame, well-behaved elephant? I expect that these were capacities that were essential in casting the elephant anyway, since this was what anyone sensible working with elephants would want—they are powerful, dangerous creatures after all. They would have needed a well-trained elephant to play the role of an elephant who was inherently tame. In other words, the tameness of the elephant had to seem innate, and not the result of discipline and learning. Without watching the film, it’s hard to know whether the unknown animal actor pulled the role off. It would be interesting to know, for instance, whether they ever had to act angry in the film, and how the director would have got such a performance out of them.
Training an elephant to play the role of a tame elephant reveals the performative nature of the human conscription of animal “actors” in general, and not only those on film. Their performance of their roles changed them and then made those changes appear innate. Camera or no camera, it couldn’t have been clear when the elephant was acting and when it wasn’t. They were always in character.