RIVER GODDESSES (1952)


DAVE SUTTON
Irish had been modelling for less than a year when one of the regular photographers that she worked with, Dave Sutton ( below right), developed the idea of making a "theatrical travelogue" in early 1951.  It would be the first venture outside modelling for the 22-year-old Irish.  Sutton's idea involved filming a journey down the Colorado River in three wooden rowboats.

The attractive crew of these three boats would be Irish and four other girls - Irene Hettinga, Martha Moody, Lee Moi Chu (on right in photo left) & Becky Barnes. They were accompanied by a female guide named Georgia White (see below).  Sutton also took the opportunity to collect material for the glamour publications by photographing the girls in the stunning scenery of Glen Canyon.  His photographs of this journey appeared in glamour magazines for many years after, but were especially abundant in Night and Day magazine in 1951, a publication that featured Irish regularly.  See the examples in the Glamour Magazines section.

GEORGIE WHITE
Sutton obviously knew what he was doing because the woman he hired to guide the party, Georgia "Georgie" White, was among the best in the business.  Her presence also added a further touch of glamour to the expedition.  Nicknamed, "the woman of the rivers", Georgie was a truly amazing lady.
 
She was born Bessie DeRoss in Guymon, Oklahoma in November 1910, and was a fit and athletic 40-year-old when the River Goddesses expedition took place.  An adventurous tomboy, she had adopted her father's given name at an early age.  She dropped out of high school in 1928, to marry Harold Clark, her first husband, and gave birth to a daughter, Sommona Rose, in March 1929.  Georgie's restlessness kept the couple on the move and they ended up in New York City during the Great Depression, looking for work.  The long-distance cyclists practicing in Central Park taught her to ride and in August 1936 she and Harold left for Los Angeles on two racing bikes given to them by their new friends.

After many cross-country adventures, including sleeping in haystacks and under bridges, the couple settled in LA, where they were joined by their daughter.  Georgie joined the Sierra Club and did a lot of hiking, rock climbing and skiing.  Harold could not keep pace with Georgie's restless nature and they were divorced in March 1941.  Her next husband was a 46-year-old oil tanker driver named James Ray White, or "Whitey", who was also a heavy drinker.  Georgie and Sommona began to spend a lot more time together, hiking and camping in the mountains, and cycling.  Georgie hauled Sommona off to Quartzsite, Arizona, because she wanted to learn to fly and that's where the cheapest flying lessons were.  Both mother and daughter managed to learn to fly before eventually returned to LA to live with Whitey.

Sommona, an attractive 15-year-old who showed signs of being a talented artist, was killed by a drunk driver on 23 June 1944 during a bike ride with her mother to Santa Barbara, a hundred miles north of LA.  Georgie was devastated and Whitey was afraid she would lose her mind.  While battling depression she attended a lecture by fellow Sierra Club member, Harry Aleson, who introduced her to boating on the Colorado River.  The many hiking and boating trips they did together over the next few years earned her a lot of publicity and by 1950 she was considered an experienced boatman.  She was the logical choice to act as guide and chaperon for the young starlets Dave Sutton had chosen for his film.

Georgie White - adventurer, raconteur, eccentric - was a life-long vegetarian from a very early age.  She was the first woman to swim the Grand Canyon and was also the first woman to lead a boating party through it.  She was also the first woman outfitter to operate in the area.  She introduced several innovations to boating on the Colorado River, including the use of large army surplus rafts, which she sometimes lashed together for greater stability on the large rapids.  She ran white water expeditions on the Colorado for 47 years and made her final trip on the river in 1991, aged 81.  She died of cancer the following year, on 12 May 1992. (Westwood & Wikipedia)
 
THE CREW
The starlets and models chosen for the River Goddesses trip needed to be a special breed of gal.  Firstly, they needed to be good swimmers, as they would be on the Colorado River in Glen Canyon for about a month.  They also needed to be rugged enough to be able to cope with camping outdoors, hiking in the hills and doing without the niceties of day-to-day life for an extended period of time.  None of these requirements were a problem for Irish McCalla, who had grown up on a farm in Nebraska and was a strong swimmer as a result of regular skin diving and board riding at Malibu Beach.  Two of the other starlets, Lee Moi Chu and Martha Moody, had been sorority sisters and were on the swim team at a California college.

Lee Moi Chu is the only other starlet from this trip, besides Irish McCalla, to appear in other films besides this one.  River Goddesses was her first film and the following year she appeared in Forbidden (1953) with Tony Curtis.  In 1954 she had a small part in the television series, Biff Baker U.S.A, which starred Alan Hale Jr, who later acquired fame playing the Skipper in Gilligan's Island (1962-67).  The same year she appeared in her last feature, Dragon's Gold.  That film was produced, directed, and written by Jack Pollexfen, who was also one of the writers on Five Bold Women (1960), which provided Irish McCalla with her best role (click on the link to see my page about that film).

Georgie White chose to use three cataract boats and a San Juan boat for the trip.  The cataract boats were long and narrow, and built for maneuverability in the rapids.  The San Juan boat, which was wider and more stable, had a six-foot-by-six-foot (183 cm by 183 cm) platform built over the stern deck to accommodate Dave Sutton and his camera equipment.  This allowed him to shoot the beautiful scenery along Glen Canyon as a backdrop for the film.

The outfitting company hired for the trip was Mexican Hat Expeditions, who also provided two of their boatmen, Jim and Bob Rigg.  The other two members of the boat crew were Georgie White and Georgie's friend from the Sierra Club, Elgin Pierce.  Georgie and the two Rigg brothers rowed the three cataract boats and Elgin Pierce rowed the San Juan boat.

Roy Webb, an Audiovisual Archivist at the University of Utah, has identified the production company for the film as Capital Enterprises.  Webb wrote the forward to Richard Westwood's book about Georgie White and is also an historian on boating on the Colorado River.  Webb also quotes from a "delightful oral account" by one of the boatmen on the River Goddesses trip, probably Bob Rigg, as he and Irish McCalla were interviewed for Westwood's book .  He said that the director that Dave Sutton chose for the project was an "ex-Wehrmarcht German", who everyone called "The Colonel".  Westwood identifies him as a Hollywood producer named Carl Junghaunatz, and says he was a German officer in World War II.  The boatman also said that the trip was "good clean fun". (Westwood & Webb)

The photo above left shows Georgie White, Irish McCalla and Irene Hettinga attending to some laundry on the trip.  The photo below right is, to the best of my knowledge, Elgin Pierce (left) and Jim Rigg (right).
   
There is one other individual associated with River Goddesses that deserves mention - William Kerwin (right).  He is mentioned in the entry for this film on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), the only place I have ever seen his name mentioned in connection with it. IMDb tells us that Kerwin is significantly associated with the horror films of exploitation maestro, Herschell Gordon Lewis.  Lewis is credited with creating the "splatter film", a subgenre of the horror film that concentrates on graphic portrayals of gore and graphic violence.  Lewis is responsible for such masterpieces as Blood Feast (1963), The Gruesome Twosome (1967), and The Wizard of Gore (1970).  William Kerwin, our topic of interest, appears at the beginning of all of the trailers for Herschell Gordon Lewis' films to warn the audience about the intense violence that is coming.  He also appears as an actor in a number of Lewis' films.  If the IMDb record is not an error, then I think it is highly likely that William Kerwin narrated the voice over for River Goddesses.
 
THE TRIP
The party left Hite, on the upper reaches of Lake Powell in Utah, on 5 September 1950.  They stopped at almost every canyon or other place of interest in the Glen Canyon Recreation Area to hike and take photos, visiting all of the historic places on route: Moki Canyon, Hole-in-the-Rock, Music Temple, and Rainbow Bridge.  The water level of the river was very low and they frequently encountered cows bogged down in the mud.  The animals sank into the soft mud as they came down to the river to drink and became trapped.  One of these incidents was featured in the March 1951 issue of Night and Day magazine, so it is highly likely the River Goddesses film also contains a scene of the boat crew and starlets digging a cow, or cows, out of the mud (see that issue on the 1951 Glamour Magazines page).  Westwood's book describes it as "a messy job" and "filthy, dirty, stinky work" and says that the models "pitched in to dig the critters out".  The Night and Day article confirms this, although to me it appears that some of the photographs suggest that Irish is in there up to her elbows, and above, digging along with the boat crew and the other models are hanging back a bit (left).  However, this could have been staged a bit for the magazine's article, as Irish was one of the magazines most popular models.  Irish is quoted in Westwood's book as saying, "We'd draw straws to see who had to dig at the rear end.  I lost twice, but we did that."
 
Dave Sutton filmed the girls wearing fetching outfits like short-shorts, halter tops and swim suits as they partook of all of the usual outdoor camping activities - fetching water from the river in cooking pots, building fires to cook on, and stringing up a clothes line to dry out the wet clothes from the river trip.  Irish was also filmed washing her hair on the banks of the mighty Colorado River (see the link below to the page of other River Goddesses photographs).

Once a week a plane would fly over to check on them and they could hear the roar of the plan down the canyon long before it passed overhead.  If they needed any vital supplies a prearranged signal was left in the sand and on the following trip a parcel would be dropped to them.

In the interviews that Irish McCalla and Bob Rigg did for Richard Westwood's book, they both commented on the difficulties that everyone on the crew had working with Carl Junghaunatz, the director of the film.  They said he "fit the Prussian officer stereotype: stern, demanding, and superior".  Irish said she remembered he "openly said that women should be kept in concentration camps for breeding purposes only: that's all they were good for."  He expected unquestioning obedience from everyone and "he expected the models to climb everything in sight".  At times he could be unbearable and as time went on the whole party became united in their hatred of him.  However, he didn't scare George White, who stood up to him and showed the girls how to climb slopes they were afraid of, or flat out refused to allow them to do it if she thought it was too dangerous.  The photo at right shows Irish McCalla and Irene Hettinga climbing a steep slope.
 
Another amusing story involved Martha Moody, one of the models.  Martha walked down to the river to fetch some water in her pyjamas but got bogged in the mud up to her knees.  Dave Sutton told her to stay put and reached for his camera to get some pictures for the magazines.  They staged a photo of Irish pulling on one end of a big stick with Martha holding on to the other end being rescued.  Afterwards, Georgie came along and really rescued Martha.  "She had the muscle to pull her out of that mud."  The photo at left is of Becky Barnes (left) and Martha Moody (right).  According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) River Goddesses was the only film that either of them ever worked on.

Bob Rigg also commented on Georgie's strength.  Because of the low water level the crew were required to row quite a lot.  Rigg said, "Georgie White was one strong, tough lady!  She never missed a stroke.  Georgie could pull a boat with the best of us, I'm sure.  She knew how to handle a boat and she could row it as long and as many hours as anybody else.  She was just a great gal and a very motivated one."  Rigg also pointed out that Georgie's knowledge of the water and the Glen Canyon region were invaluable to the whole trip. (Westwood)

One of the captions in the early-1950s glamour magazines claimed, "the resourceful starlets all agreed on two things - working on location was pretty rugged and roughing it the way they had was also a lot of fun." (Black & Feret)
 
CONCLUSION
This film has long been a mystery and it has taken me several years to piece together this much information about it.  Roy Webb has also been hunting for a copy of this film unsuccessfully for years, as part of his Audiovisual Archivist responsibilities, and stimulated by his interest of the history of white-water rafting on the Colorado river.  We all live in hope that somewhere there is a copy of it in an old tin sitting on a shelf in the back of someone's aged relative's closet.  It would be a delight to see.  The next best thing to seeing the film is looking at all of the wonderful still photographs that Dave Sutton took on that trip.  There are a number of them scattered through the magazines featuring Irish McCalla on the Glamour Magazines pages.

It is interesting that the River Goddesses trip occurred so early in the history of rafting on the Colorado River.  Black and Feret, Irish's biographers, provide the following interesting comment: "Curiously, what started out as an innocent little idyll in cinematic flora-and-fauna, proved to be the beginning of what would eventually become the lucrative, multi-million dollar industry of river-rafting on the Colorado River." (Black & Feret)  In the interview she did for Richard Westwood's book on Georgie, Irish suggests that the trip may have stimulated Georgie into thinking about going commercial:
"I don't know if she ever had the idea before, but I know during the trip, when one of us would fall down something, or go off in the wrong direction, she'd rescue us and say, 'I'm going to take people down the river because I can take anybody down, if I can get you dingalings through.' "

 Please contact Frank Bonilla at comic2read@aol.com if you can provide any information about copies of this film

 

MORE PHOTOS
Click on the image below to see more photos from the River Goddesses expedition:
 

SOURCES
Woman of the River - Georgie White Clark, White-Water Pioneer by Richard E Westwood, Utah State University Press, 1997
Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Glamour Girls: Then and Now, Premiere Issue Mar-Apr 94
TV's Original Sheena - Irish McCalla by Bill Black & Bill Feret, Paragon Publications 1992
IMAGES
• The photo of Irish and Lee Moi Chu is from Peril magazine, Feb 61 - personal collection
• The photo of Dave Sutton is a detail from a photo in Brief magazine, Nov 54 - personal collection
• The colourised photo of Georgie White is from the cover of Woman of the Rivers - White Water Adventures in the Canyons of the West by Rose Marie DeRoss, Gardner Printing & Mailing Co, 1958
• The photo of Georgie White, Irish McCalla and Irene Hettinga doing laundry and the photo of Irish McCalla hanging out her laundry are both from Night and Day magazine, Dec 53.  Many thanks to Irish McCalla's biographer, Bill Black, for donating this issue to my collection
• The photo of Irish helping to rescue the cow, and the Martha Moodey and Becky Barnes is from Night and Day magazine, Mar 51 - personal collection
• The photo of Elgin Pierce and Jim Rigg is a detail from a photo in Night and Day magazine, Mar 51.  See the full photo on the 1951 Glamour Magazines page
• The photo of Irish McCalla and Irene Hettinga climbing a steep rocky slope is from Look magazine, 8 May 51 - personal collection
• The photo of Irish in a bikini posing on one of the boats is from Night and Day magazine, Nov 51
LYNX
• Read the Internet Movie Database entry for River Goddesses


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This independent, fan-based analysis of the Sheena material is copyright © 2005-2008 Paul Wickham
This page was updated May 2008