Acquanetta was born Mildred Davenport on July 17, 1921, and, depending on your source, was of either black or American Indian origin. A few writers have claimed she was Cheyenne Indian; possibly they're confusing this with reports of her being from Cheyenne, Wyoming, or having been born in Ozone, near Cheyenne. However, by most accounts she was born on an Indian reservation and raised in Norristown, Pennsylvania. These conflicting reports may be due to the possibility that she had both black and Indian blood in her. (Adding to the confusion regarding her ethnic origins, some still report that she was born in Venezuela!)
Acquanetta herself said, “My mother was Arapaho, and I was born on the Arapaho Reservation in Wyoming, near the Wind River. Of course I have no recollection of that, because I was given away to my father when I was approximately three years old. My father took me to Pennsylvania and gave me to his then-wife, and I grew up in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where I went to school." She also claimed that her father's grandfather "was the illegitimate son of the King of England.” (For the sake of brevity -- if not credibility -- we'll disregard her frequent claims of royal heritage.)
According to the Milwaukee Journal in an article for the July 20, 1942 edition, Acquanetta had a variation on that story: "My parents died when I was 2 years old and I was taken in by another Arapaho family to raise."
In the February 14, 1952 issue of Jet, "The Weekly Negro News Magazine", Acquanetta was featured on the cover (as "Hollywood's Jungle Girl") and in a three-page article which reported that she was a graduate of the West Virginia State College for Negroes. Here they give her age as 30, though subsequent articles give an age that suggests she was born in 1923, which is often -- and erroneously -- given as her year of birth.
The Arizona Republic for August 22, 2004, reported that Acquanetta's brother, 85-year old Horace A. Davenport, was present at her funeral. A retired judge, Horace Davenport was, according to the Pennsylvania Bar Association, "the first African-American judge in Montgomery County." Horace said that he'd never seen any of Acquanetta's movies.
Bill Feret, in his 1984 book, LURE OF THE TROPIX, said of Acquanetta, "She has never clarified her ambiguous origins, which over the years have varied between being an Arapaho Indian from Wyoming, a Latin from Venezuela, or a black girl from Pennsylvania..." Certainly, her exotic and sultry beauty and the ambiguity of her past added to the mystique.
Perhaps the 1940 United States Census can clear up matters: Mildred Davenport was born in 1921 in Newberry, South Carolina and was residing in Norristown, Norristown Borough, Montgomery, Pennsylvania with her parents, William and Julia, and five siblings, including Horace and Catherine (spelled "Kathryn" in a Jet article). Each member of the family is identified as "Negro" (race) and "African American" (ethnicity).
|from LIFE magazine, October 26, 1942 (photo by Erwin Blumenfeld)|
According to a Life magazine article from the August 24, 1942 issue, "Burnu's origins are veiled in mystery. A year ago in New York she read some newspaper stories about Pan-American relations. So she decided to pose as a Venezuelan..." She even affected an accent. Said Acquanetta, "I looked the part -- I was dark and exotic..."
|Nothing sarong here: a still from RHYTHM OF THE ISLANDS (1943).|
Acquanetta met a press agent for Universal Studios producer Walter Wanger, who got her a job with the producer and dubbed her the 'Venezuelan Volcano'. According to Life, "The volcano blew up, however, when Burnu was unable to produce any identification for the Screen Actors Guild, finally insisted her parents were Arapaho Indians from Ozone, Wyo. where she says she was born in 1921...After seeing her dance and swim, Hollywood has decided, in any case, Burnu's future is more important than her past."
Acquanetta, as usual, remembered things differently: "I met some people from Rio de Janeiro, and they wanted me to come to South America and perform at the Copacabana in Rio. I was a natural performer and a dancer, and that's what they wanted me to do at the Copa. So I packed my things and got on a train. We stopped in Hollywood and went out to the Mocambo."
|Burnu, as LIFE magazine called her, lounging about on the set of ARABIAN NIGHTS.|
The heads of casting for MGM, Warner Brothers and Universal were present and Walter Wanger "went wild" over her. She did a screen test for Universal and, when they found out she had done a test for MGM the day before, they signed her without even seeing the rushes.
"Universal found there was so much reaction to my appearance, my presence, whatever, that they threw me into the so-called bread-and-butter pictures. Those were the films that they spent less money on, but made the most money off of."
Next, she was cast in her most famous role as the silent ape-woman Paula Dupree in CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN (1943), directed by Edward Dmytryk. Acquanetta had done a screen test and was pronounced "perfect for the role." She didn't mind playing an ape-woman: "Whatever I was given, I did my best. I became a character actress. I am a natural actress. They tell me that when I was a little girl, I used to gather the neighborhood children and put on shows! I did write a play when I was in junior high school, and I was in a play when I was in grammar school."
|Cheela the ape, before and after. Ray "Crash" Corrigan spent much of his career in a gorilla costume.|
In CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, Beth Colman brings her ailing sister to the Crestview Sanatorium, run by Dr. Walters (John Carradine) who has been conducting secret experiments in his basement laboratory, hoping to create a race of superhumans. Stealing Cheela the ape from the circus, Dr. Walters then murders his nurse and transplants her cerebrum into Cheela, and with glandular injections from Dorothy the ape turns into the lovely Acquanetta, whom he renames 'Paula Dupree'. Dr. Walters brings Paula to the circus, and discovers her mysterious power over wild animals when she enters the lions' cage and rescues the unconscious trainer from one of the beasts by terrifying it with her deadpan expression. Impressed, Fred hires the silent and mysterious woman as his assistant, but when it becomes apparent to her that Fred is in love with Beth Colman, Paula becomes jealous and in her fury begins reverting back to her simian form. That night, the ape-woman attempts to kill Beth, but instead kills another woman who stumbles upon the scene. Paula is scolded by Dr. Walters for jeopardizing his work. After receiving a desperate phone call from Dorothy at the sanatorium, Beth demands to see her, and Dr. Walters decides that she too may be of use to him in his experiments. By now, Paula is once again Cheela the ape, and is freed from her cage by Dorothy. Cheela kills Dr. Walters and returns to the circus where she once again saves Fred from rampaging lions, and is shot dead for her efforts by a confused police officer.
|The mysterious Paula Dupree, with her creator, Dr. Sigmund Walters (John Carradine)|
Acquanetta sat for two and a half hours at a time while a makeup artist applied rubber and clay to her face. She found the experience exhausting: "You could hardly breathe. It was kind of scary."
"It was interesting to work without speaking in CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN. It was more difficult, a challenge. But you know, I read an article once that said I was not an actress at all, and that in fact I couldn't even talk. They didn't understand that this was deliberate, and that I had to project more because I had to do it with my body language, my eyes, my face. Every movement had to mean something!"
|Above: an original CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN Universal poster; below, Realart re-released the movie in 1948|
Acquanetta says she and Edward Dmytryk "had great rapport. In fact, we dated briefly. What a career he should have had -- what a talent. He was my favourite director." She also says that they "used to sit and talk for hours."
Next on Acquanetta's schedule was THE MUMMY'S GHOST (1944), directed by Reginald LeBorg. Lon Chaney Jr. was returning to his role as the 3000 year old mummy, Kharis, and Acquanetta was to be his long lost love, Princess Ananka, now reincarnated. She had begun working on the movie when an accident occurred: "We were shooting a scene where I walk along a path and then fall, and these scabs [non-union workers] had put real rocks down on the path. They were supposed to put down papier-mache rocks, but they didn't -- these scabs painted real rocks white! I fell and struck my head, and that's all I remember. I woke up in Cedars Of Lebanon Hospital."
|Posing in front of an "Aztec" temple; doubling as an Egyptian temple, this studio lot creation was used in Universal's THE MUMMY'S HAND (1940), and in subsequent Mummy films|
Henry Sucher and Griffin Jay, the team who wrote the screenplay for CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN, also wrote THE MUMMY'S GHOST, with Brenda Weisberg.
Acquanetta eventually got to work with Lon Chaney, in DEAD MAN'S EYES (1944). This was the third in the Inner Sanctum series of movies and was based on a mystery from the radio program of the same name. Chaney starred as Dave Stuarts, an artist, with Acquanetta as his model, Tanya Czoraki. Jealous over his affection for Heather, she blinds him by putting acid in his eye-drops. Heather's father bequeaths his eyes to Dave and when the old man is murdered the artist becomes the prime suspect.
|DEAD MAN'S EYES lobby card (1944).|
|Acquanetta has a funny way of showing her affection for Lon Chaney Jr. in DEAD MAN'S EYES.|
LeBorg may have been one of her favourite directors, but she certainly wasn't one of his favourite actresses. "She was a nice-looking girl, but she had a squeaky, high-pitched voice. A lower-class Maria Montez. Again, as with Ramsay Ames, she developed a little later, after a few pictures, but unfortunately..."
|Paul Dupree gets the cold shoulder from Bob (still from JUNGLE WOMAN)|
Acquanetta was fascinated with Mexico and wanted a release from her contract. Universal wouldn't allow it. They wanted to keep the Captive Wild Woman series going, and offered her an extended contract and more money. Somehow, she managed to get out of her contract. "Universal never forgave me for that."
|Acquanetta, the pinup girl: this bit of cheesecake was used in the September 29, 1944 issue of YANK, an American military magazine published weekly.|
One more movie in the series was released, JUNGLE CAPTIVE (1944), with Vicki Lane taking Acquanetta's place. "It bombed, and that was the end of that series." Nevertheless, CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN and JUNGLE WOMAN gave Acquanetta the unique distinction of being the only female to play the monster more than once in a movie series!
She didn't go to Mexico, after all. Instead, she signed with Monogram: "At Monogram, I had the approval of my scripts because I had been so unhappy about my pictures at Universal. And I disapproved of every one! The scripts they submitted were mostly cowboy things. Had I done them, I probably would have become a western star!" Concluding that she was difficult, Monogram simply let Acquanetta's contract expire.
During the brief period Acquanetta was signed to Monogram, the low-budget movie company had a stable of 28 stars, including the Bowery Boys. They had a number of movies in mind for their new acquisition, all to be produced by Sam Katzman and Jack Dietz. Titles mentioned over the months were BELLE OF NEW ORLEANS, SPELL OF THE TROPICS, JUNGLE FEAR, JUNGLE QUEEN, VOODOO QUEEN, QUEEN OF THE HONKY TONKS, and a "song-and-dance picture". It's probably for the better that this last one didn't materialise.
|Lea keeps her leopard cult in shape with calisthenics|
|Acquanetta and Luciano Baschuk, Mexico City, 1948|
In April, 1951, Acquanetta married illustrator/painter Henry Clive, in Juarez, Mexico, when he was 71 and she was 29. She was his sixth wife. She occasionally modelled for him. They divorced in 1952. Henry Clive said, "I still think she is the finest girl I have ever known. I'll love her always..." One of his paintings shows Acquanetta in Cheyenne Indian garb with long braids, a look she would keep for the rest of her life.
|Posing with Cesar Romero for THE LOST CONTINENT (1951)|
In 1953 she became a disc jockey, working four hours a day for radio station KPOL in Los Angeles. According to Jet, she presented "the tops in popular music, plus baseball scores, race results and latest news flashes."
Acquanetta met her third husband, Jack Ross, "who was working at a Lincoln-Mercury store in Culver City. Jack and I were married; I bore a son, Lance, in California; we moved to Arizona and we bought the Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Mesa, Arizona." Soon, she was appearing in commercials for her husband's business, and began hosting a show called Acqua's Corner at a local television station, a job she held throughout the 1960s: "I was on live for almost ten years, five days a week for an hour and a half, and what I did was introduce movies...every 15 minutes I had five minutes to come on and talk! So instead of doing commercials, I started to talk about community events and to interview people. My commercials became totally different than anything anyone had ever done. I would also say, 'By the way, we also sell automobiles!'" She and her husband were prominent philanthropists in the area. They had four sons and divorced in the 1980s.
In 1974 she had a book of her poetry published, "The Audible Silence," illustrated by Emilie Touraine. In 1990 she was featured in a TV movie, GRIZZLY ADAMS: THE LEGEND CONTINUES, after an absence of 39 years. She continued to live in the Phoenix area and became known locally as the 'Leopard Woman'. She didn't smoke, or drink alcohol, tea or coffee.
If she had one pet peeve, it was that her name was often misspelled. Acquanetta died August 16, 2004 at the age of 83 from Alzheimer's disease.