Actress known as 'The Venezuelan Volcano'

Thursday 19 August 2004 00:00

Known as "The Venezuelan Volcano", the actress Acquanetta had a series of exotic roles in jungle dramas during the 1940s, including high priestess of a leopard cult in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946).

Burnu Acquanetta (Acquanetta), actress: born Cheyenne, Wyoming 17 July 1921; married 1953 Jack Ross (four sons, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved 1985); died Ahwatukee, Arizona 16 August 2004.

Known as "The Venezuelan Volcano", the actress Acquanetta had a series of exotic roles in jungle dramas during the 1940s, including high priestess of a leopard cult in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946).

A former fashion model, who claimed to be "part-Arapaho Indian and part-English aristocrat", she was born Burnu Acquanetta, meaning "burning fire, deep water", on an Indian reservation in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1921. She was later adopted, and moved to Pennsylvania with her new family, who renamed her Mildred Davenport.

After graduation, she headed East, where she was hired by the Harry Conover modelling agency in Manhattan as "Acquanetta". "I became an actress by accident," she recalled.

I was visiting Los Angeles, which I loved, staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and a chap came up - a talent scout, I guess you'd call him - and said I should be in the movies. They said "sign here", so I signed and, bang, I was an actress.

Tall, with olive skin and piercing green eyes, she was promoted by the studio as "The Venezuelan Volcano" and in 1942 put her looks to good use with a small role as Ishya in Arabian Nights, opposite Sabu and Maria Montez.

On the Universal back lot, she caught the attention of the studio mogul Carl Laemmle Jnr, who happened to be walking back to his office after lunch. A notorious womaniser, Laemmle made his move, but Acquanetta, careful not to damage his ego, playfully brushed off his advances. "There is nothing worse than a man spurned," she said.

Smitten, Laemmle signed the unknown bit player to a seven-year contract and instructed his producers to cast her in a series of jungle melodramas, including the splashy musical comedy Rhythm of the Islands (1943) opposite Allan Jones and Jane Frazee. In her next film, Captive Wild Woman (1943), Acquanetta's character, Paula Dupree, begins life as a gorilla before a mad scientist (played by John Carradine) transplants human glands into the ape, thus turning it into a beautiful young woman. Later the experiment backfires.

An unexpected hit, Captive Wild Woman was swiftly followed by Jungle Woman (1944), in which she reprised her role as Dupree. Dead Man's Eyes (1944) brought her out of the tropics and into the city, this time as Tanya Czoraki who in a jealous rage substitutes eye wash for acid when her lover (Lon Chaney Jnr) flirts with another woman (Jean Parker).

In 1946, Acquanetta made her most memorable film. Johnny Weissmuller had defected from MGM when the studio lost interest in the Tarzan series after Maureen O'Sullivan decided to stop playing Jane. The producer Sol Lesser picked up MGM's option on Tarzan and released Tarzan and the Leopard Woman through his own company, Sol Lesser Productions.

The film, which has been cited as the most camp and therefore cultish of the Tarzan adventure series, won Acquanetta good reviews. As Lea, the high priestess of a bizarre leopard cult, she is responsible for her tribe attacking caravans travelling across the African plains. It is Tarzan's job to stop them, particularly after a young member of the cult kidnaps Jane (Brenda Joyce) and takes her back to camp to prepare her for a stew.

Acquanetta, typecast and unimpressed with the roles being offered to her, headed to Mexico. "I just fell in love with Mexico when I visited there, so I decided not to go back to Hollywood," she recalled in 1998.

She waited five years until her next film, The Sword of Monte Cristo (1951) for PRC Pictures, before returning to the tropics twice more, for The Lost Continent (1951) with Cesar Romero and Hilary Brooke, and as an uncredited extra in Callaway Went Thataway (1951).

In 1953 she married a car dealer, Jack Ross, and settled in Phoenix, Arizona. Devoted to philanthropic causes, the Rosses helped finance the construction of Banner Mesa Medical Center, one of the largest hospitals in Arizona. Acquanetta was a founder of the local Stagebush Theatre, in Scottsdale, and raised money for the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra.

During the 1960s she began hosting a local radio programme before moving into television as a regional reporter. In 1974 she wrote a book, The Audible Silence (1974). After Acquanetta and Ross divorced in 1985, for a while she tried to resurrect her film career, appearing in the unsuccessful Grizzly Adams: the legend never dies in 1989.

In recent years, when most of her films for Universal were released on DVD, she was credited in the trailers as "the legendary" Acquanetta, a desciption she accepted with a chuckle, "The one and only. I don't know if the world could stand two of me."

Howard Mutti-Mewse

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