Thursday, April 23, 2009

Jungle Goddess (Lippert, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of another one of the non-epics Lippert Pictures made immediately after World War II: Jungle Goddess. I had some hope for this one partly because the last Lippert production we’d seen from the MST3K archives, King Dinosaur, wasn’t half-bad (except for the risible attempt to pass off footage of living lizards as ancient dinosaurs) and partly because the leading lady was Wanda McKay, who’d been at least a cut above most of the ingénues who inhabited the Bela Lugosi Monograms in the early 1940’s. Alas, this 1948 production was boring even by post-war indie or MST3K standards.

McKay plays the title role, Greta Vanderhorn, a South African heiress who was attempting to fly home from the U.S. in September 1939 to rejoin her father for the duration (apparently she was under the delusion that relocating so far from the actual battlefronts was somehow going to help the Allied war effort), only her plane crash-landed in the middle of the African jungle and, when she helped nurse one of the native chieftains’ wives back to health after a lingering illness, the natives (shown in usual booga-booga style with face paint that would embarrass a trick-or-treater of any race) immediately hailed her as a goddess and gave her total control of their tribe. Once the war is over, her dad in South Africa announces to the world media that he’s offering a reward for the return of his daughter, dead or alive, and two bush pilots, Mike Patton (George Reeves, best remembered for his TV exploits as Superman — who of course could fly without a plane) and Bob Simpson (an almost unrecognizable Ralph Byrd — the “roo” moustache makes him look almost completely different from his appearance as Dick Tracy in four Republic serials and two RKO “B”’s), decide to abandon the two passengers they’re supposed to be flying and chase after Greta and the reward.

Once they arrive, Bob almost immediately shoots one of the natives and is sentenced to death — but Greta assures Mike (whom she’s already falling for) that she’ll make sure they all get out of there before the sentence can actually be carried out. That’s about all the plot this movie has — aside from a lot of stock footage from previous jungle documentaries (both the MST3K crew and the commentators on had a lot of fun with the fact that we get a lot of this footage, supposedly viewed from the plane via binoculars, but actually shot on the ground), most of which is actually more interesting to watch than the scenes featuring the human actors — it’s basically a long chase scene and Bob manages to kill yet another native before he gets speared at the end while Mike and Greta escape in Mike’s plane and return to so-called “civilization.” The MST3K crew had a lot of fun with Bob’s trigger-happy character — they did a lot of jokes along the lines of, “Bob! There’s something alive in the corner of the screen! Kill it!” — and after the film they did an I Love Lucy-style lampoon of the movie that was a good deal funnier than anything they managed to do with the film itself.

Before the main feature they showed the opening episode of the 1939 serial The Phantom Creeps, originally made at Universal and featuring Bela Lugosi as mad scientist Dr. Alex Zurka, who’s devised a wide panoply of inventions including a belt that makes its wearer invisible, a remote-control murder device that involves planting a metal disc on the victim and sending a spider (actually one of the least convincing toy models ever shown in a movie!) to the disc, where it combusts and put the living being into suspended animation (so The Devil Bat wasn’t the first time Lugosi experimented with a living monster that needed a co-factor to become active!), and a giant robot that resembles an animate Easter Island statue — the print they were showing came from a reissue outfit called “Commonwealth Films, Inc.” and the MST3K crew actually apologized for the print quality, but Jungle Goddess was even worse — much of it was so badly faded it was no longer black-and-white but off-white-on-white and the difficulty of telling exactly what was supposed to be going on just made a bad movie even worse!