“How did I get started in film?” she asks wistfully. “I have to go back a long way, my life has so many jungles already. I was born and raised in Zurich, Switzerland. When I was about nine years old, my parents died. I came from quite a well-to-do family but the people are more after my money than helping me, this helpless child. Lawyers want to get the most out of me. The only thing in my life that is good are my animals. I had a horse and I trained dogs, which later came in handy in the film. I left a lot of things behind as a child because they all had to be sold. I’d think, ‘How can I get out of this mess, this horrible situation?’ Getting an elderly person to take care of me and my money until I was 20—it was a lot of very nasty, ugly men.
“I had to run away and get out of there,” she softly continues. “I thought about being an airline hostess, but I was too young. Maybe a singer? Don’t have the voice. So I think, “Ya, an actress.’ I was the youngest girl ever accepted at the Stage Acting School in Zurich. It was my chance to get away from this horrible mess.
“But I couldn’t get money until I was 20 and, because of my name, I get no scholarship. They think I have money. So I must work at nights doing stupid jobs like cleaning. Because of the name, people are surprised that I do these stupid jobs but I wouldn’t give up. I would get through the school without the money.”
By the time Kraft turned 20, her contretemps didn’t fade-away. Drama school doesn’t prepare one for the snakes and ladders of the entertainment industry. Aspiring to develop some credibility as a film producer, she prepared to play a plum behind-the-scenes role: “I didn’t want to be this blonde, stupid, little actress. I wanted to actually become a producer. So I decided to use my money, [accumulated from my father’s insurance policies], and invest in a film-titled The French Sex Murders (1972) that starred Anita Ekberg. I had always admired her, she was a beautiful blonde; but, unfortunately at that time, she was already drunk and weighed 100 kilos (220 pounds). So here I come with money from Switzerland and, of course, that was a big mess. They took all my money. But it was still a learning experience. It was such a stupid movie. But I had an entrance into the film industry as a producer and not as a stupid blonde actress. So maybe that is better.”
Kraft pursued a career as an actress. Cast in a string of television shows, she landed recurrent roles in Superbug (1973) and The Craziest Car in the World (1975). Both German films were pale imitations of Disney’s The Love Bug (1968) fantasy about Herbie-a Volkswagen with a mind of its own—which spawned a surfeit of sequels and even a 1982 television series! “Ah, these films are still popular in Germany, now,” says Kraft. “Each year, they are still seen on TV for children. They are similar to those ‘Herbie’ movies—you know, that crazy German car. I had major parts in them but it was not great acting. And then I did this German film, with a director named Franz-Joseph Gottlieb, called Lady Dracula (1977). That is also a stupid movie. I acted as a vampire, I was thinking, ‘Why? I go and attend a well-known actors studio, and go to drama school, and now I’m doing this? No more vampire movies. It’s not good and I don’t like it anyhow.”
Judging from the tone of her voice, Kraft was drifting into melancholy. But flashbacks to The Mighty Peking Man (1977) evoke a nostalgic euphoria. Hoping to reprise the success of LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES-a collaborative production with Hammer films that matched Peter Cushing with Hong Kong superstar David Chiang—the Shaw Brothers sought to exploit Western horror icon, KING KONG. Curiously, PEKING MAN was being shot during the same time that producer Dino DeLaurentiis was launching his remake of 1933’s KING KONG. In lieu of Fay Wray or Jessica Lange, Ms. Kraft was hired by the Hong Kong producers to play the object of their smitten ape’s affection. As a “jungle girl,” Kraft is a literal swinger: optionally jiggling or swimming, the top of her tiny, makeshift bikini always seems at risk of sinking below her papilla.
So how did an actress, fed-up with vampires and a grandstanding VW, ever get involved with a “man-in-a monkey-suit” cheeseball? “I think the Shaw Brothers received pictures from my agent,” recalls Kraft. “I did n’t even know the pictures were submitted. I learned that all they were looking for was a blonde lady from Europe, and they just hired me from my pictures. They then flew me to Hong Kong, and I met the producer Run Run Shaw and his brother and that was that. But to me, I wanted to do it because I had always dreamed of working or going to the jungle, and also because I love animals and I thought this would be great because I knew I’d work with animals. Plus, there was the fascination of the Far East and India. What was tough, though, is that the director didn’t speak a word of English so I had to learn some Cantonese and, eventually, Mandarin-because I ended up travelling back and forth to Hong Kong for the next five years, after I finished shooting Mighty Peking Man.”
The film opens as a big, ape (formally known as Mighty Peking Man) emerges in the Himalayas in the wake of a violent earthquake and makes its way to the jungles of India (the title notwithstanding, the oversize chimp completely circumvents Peking). A Hong Kong entrepreneur intends to lead an expedition to India. It seems the ape’s captivity would insure a profitable exhibition. Johnny Feng (Danny Lee), a young, stiff-upper-lipped explorer, joins a safari that cruises into an uncivilized wilderness. They’re promptly fanged, attacked and maimed by some rather hostile tigers, elephants and snakes. One night, everyone does the “feet, do your duty” routine back to China. But a slumbering Johnny doesn’t realize that the entourage has made an impromptu exodus. He awakens and is literally picked-up by a huge gorilla who transforms him into surrogate gym equipment. Samantha, an alluring “nature girl,” restrains the ape, who’s her compatriot, and nurses Johnny back to health in her cave. She also makes love to the Indiana Jones wannabe. Johnny reciprocates by sucking snake poison out of Samantha’s inner thigh and indulging in more sex. The pet ape is transported to Hong Kong where it promptly wreaks a bit of havoc and plummets a few hundred feet, in flames, from the roof of a very tall building. The End.
“I really enjoyed working on the film,” enthuses Kraft. “And I never worried about working in the jungle amidst all the diseases and malaria and real wild animals. We listened to them, they were all around us in the brush. I made some nice friends there. The idea of the movie is nice, a bit of Jungle Book, Tarzan and KING KONG. To me, the best actors were the animals. The Chinese actors are always exaggerating their stuff, almost as if they are like on stage. As first I thought, ‘I can’t do this!’ But I eventually decided that I would try to have fun with it. Besides, I knew I wouldn’t be a great actor. So what the heck!– just have fun. What’s funny are all the scenes with the fake gorilla: when I crawl onto its hand, it’s s just a fur covered platform. We had no problems. The shots with the animals were also okay. Ironically, it was the scenes with the people that were the most difficult. I understood the animals more than the actors. But the director was alright.”
The film’s environment proved compatible with Kraft’s fondness for animals. “Whoa, yes,” she quips. “They had a bunch of tigers and they were really dangerous. They tried to have everything in a controlled environment on set. They had animal trainers standing by with tranquilizers and what not. It was really fascinating but it was dangerous. One of the tigers clawed me pretty badly. You see, they are drugged, it is even worse: they wake up and they are in pain. The one that got me, they cut off his claws and sewed up his lips. That made me very upset, because it would whimper a lot and I couldn’t take it anymore, and I really wanted to kill those people for doing that. I said to them, ‘I’d rather take the risk of having the animals chomp on me than to hurt it.’ But it was done anyway. They all think that I was crazy. “It is funny, they were all more afraid than I was. We also had this elephant scene that was a bit dangerous because the herd went nuts and they lost control of it. I told them that I was used to working with animals so it wasn’t that bad for me. The director was really afraid, he was running left to right and right to left, protecting himself and other people. I think he was more scared than me. I think I wasn’t afraid because I believe that animals are more honest than people.”
Watching the film closely, you can really tell that it’s Kraft playing and roughing it up with the tigers and leopards. There’s even a cool shot where she has to climb up a palm tree, knock down some fruit for Johnny, then slide back down. There is no question that Kraft is performing without a body double. Getting a grip on phony jungle vines, she even swung from tree to tree. “Ya, I did all my own stunts in the film,” says Kraft. “No stunt double for me. When I did the palm tree climbing, the bark is actually rough and my whole leg is in pain from the climbing and sliding on the tree. My whole legs were covered in black and blue bruises. You know, when you watch those Tarzan films when they swing from tree to tree on those vines-it looks so easy. Everything is well prepared for doing that, but in this film you just do it. So once when I was swinging on the vine, I swing right into a tree. So with all the three things the elephants and tiger things-this film was not easy to do.”
And how the brevity of her “wardrobe”? Production stills validate that the bikini’s cups had a proclivity for slipping below Kraft’s nipples. Was it all a p.r. stunt or was the actress literally losing it through the production? A long winded “Ohhhh” later, Kraft evasively dances around the subject. “The scenes in India were terrible. The director always tried to explain to the Indian crowds, for the crowd scenes, that this big ape is coming from a certain direction over a building. Now think, I had this skimpy thing on in 1976 in India. Well, all the men just kept staring at me and the Indian ladies kept slapping them but they just kept on staring. They had to do the scene over and over. I mean there is no way that a lady in India would ever dress like that in public. It was certainly very funny. “And ya, ya, sometimes as I’m running around, the costume would indeed fall off. Things just came out at the seams. I was not so embarrassed, but I’d rather have not done that. But I thought that, to me when I do this movie, I want to do my best so I tried to do my best, even if I didn’t like the way they had me doing my acting. But you know this film cost $500,000 dollars to make and you can’t compare it to that $40 million film (the aforementioned KING KONG remake) they were doing in New York.”
Kraft interjected that she was still bewildered by our interview, not to mention MIGHTY PEKING MAN’s enduring appeal and notoriety. When she heard that a New York-based FF reporter would be querying her about the movie, the actress assumed some of her friends had conspired to pull an April Fool’s Day prank. “Ya, I thought it was a big joke. I mean you are telling me the country that produces the best films in the world wants to talk to me about a gorilla film I did 24 years ago?…
“Apparently the film has two endings. The reason is that they needed a film for India and it is bad luck to fake death in India, so, in that version, I don’t die. However, in the European version, I do die. I’m still fascinated by the movie, even though I haven’t seen it for a long time. I used to have a cassette of it, somewhere. But you know, I have retired from film when I was 25 or 26, and now I have been married for 18 years and have three children—and that is also a big career for me.”
But seven years ago just as Kraft thought her life was on the mend, with deflecting memories of a depressing childhood and an inconsequential film career-her husband experienced a major financial crisis: his entire communications empire crumbled. He supervised Germany’s European Business Channel. Time-Warner decided to pull the plug and that was the beginning of the end. “I had to step in and rescue it,” says Kraft, “and I have done it successfully, and I am now a business woman by force. I have my own real estate business, vineyard, a company in Nigeria and I’m doing educational programs for children there and working on a book. “I want to help the people in Nigeria, help educate the children but leave the culture be. If they could cut 50% of their rules and regulations, it would make life a better place. I love it there and have a big company there. I think it’s about going back to that jungle thing in my life and the film. My son is building a soccer stadium there for the children.”
It suddenly occurs to me that Samantha and Evelyne are one in the same. Both lost their parents when they were kids and both befriended animals surrogate as their best friends. Paralleling Tarzan, Samantha and her parents-all passengers in an airplane crashed landed in a jungle. Her family expires and Samantha, the sole survivor, is raised by a giant ape. Four-legged critters become her companions. “Samantha is a lot like me,” Kraft concurs. “I was lost in the jungle as a child…a more sophisticated jungle but it wasn’t unlike Samantha’s situation and survival. Samantha had the [‘King Kong’] ape with her, and that relationship was more honest, where the relationships that I had were not. The ape was peaceful, protective and a tender human being. To me, people are worse than the animals. If you don’t have appropriate channels for expression, it leads to violence. The ape was misunderstood, so he had to use his physical power. In reality, no animals are as mean as human beings. My dog is my best friend, he never lets me down.”
On January 13, 2009, she died unexpectedly from heart failure with her family.
The Mighty Peking Man (1977)
Lady Dracula (1977)
the Craziest Car in the World (1975)
Die Fabrikanten (1973)
The French Sex Murders (1972)
FEMME FATALES MAGAZINE VOL. 8-1