Sunday, June 7, 2009

Call of the Jungle (Monogram, 1944)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 1944 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Call of the Jungle was an oddity from Monogram in 1944, the last of five “B” features star stripper Ann Corio made for PRC and Monogram in the early 1940’s. Don Miller’s book “B” Movies had nothing but vicious attacks on Corio’s first feature, Swamp Woman, made for PRC in 1941 — he said he acting was abysmally amateurish and the whole film was badly acted, stupidly scripted, ineptly directed and staged on cheap sets that never even came close to convincing. Reading that about her — and not knowing she’d been an enormous star in the world of burlesque, probably next to Gypsy Rose Lee the most successful stripper of all time (when she played Minsky’s she got $1,000 per week and 25 percent of the gross) — I’d been pleasantly surprised when we watched her third film, the 1943 Monogram musical Sarong Girl, which despite a silly and deceptive title (this one wasn’t set in the South Seas, but was a modern-dress movie about a stripper who’s caught in a raid and has to produce a mother to stay out of jail, so she hires someone from an old ladies’ home to pose as her mom — it was an uncredited remake of a 1934 Columbia movie called Lady by Choice, starring Carole Lombard, but still entertaining) offered a perfectly competent professional performance by Corio that made me think watching one of her other films wouldn’t be the excruciating experience Miller had described in critiquing Swamp Woman.

Call of the Jungle
was Corio’s last starring vehicle — her only subsequent acting appearances were a guest shot on a 1965 episode of the TV series The Trials of O’Brien and a 1979 TV-movie called Here It Is, Burlesque! — and it turned out to be a deadly dull movie whose pluses, fine atmospheric photography of Monogram’s “South Seas” (probably Catalina Island) locations by Arthur Martinelli and a surprisingly effective music score credited to David Chudnow (usually the music man at rival PRC; while Chudnow probably compiled most of this score from existing tracks rather than composing it himself, he managed to deploy whatever resources he had to create a well-wrought “South Seas” mood reinforcing the excellence of Martinelli’s cinematography) can’t redeem a thoroughly boring plot line by George Callahan and unimaginative direction by Phil Rosen.

The personnel on this film — director Rosen, writer Callahan and producers Philip N. Krasne and James S. Burkett — were also behind Monogram’s 1944 revival of the Charlie Chan series after 20th Century-Fox had declared it exhausted two years earlier, and though the trans-racial impersonation in this one is a white girl pretending to be Polynesian (though it’s revealed at the end, à la Golden Dawn, that she’s actually an abandoned white baby who was only raised by a Polynesian family) rather than a white man pretending to be Asian, the show, despite its surprisingly good (for Monogram) physical production, fails due to a script that offers virtually no action or dramatic interest.

Corio plays Princess Tana (named after the leaves that kept the mummy alive at Universal? One wonders) of the South Pacific island of Ta’pu, whose (foster) father Kahuna (is this where that familiar surfer’s slang word came from?) is concerned because sinister white people have just stolen the priceless black pearls that the Ta’puians use as the eyes of the idol statue they worship. (This being a Monogram film, we never actually see the statue, either with or without black-pearl eyes; apparently the Monogram “suits” decided actually building the objet d’art was a needless expense.) The sinister white people include Harley (John Davidson), a gaunt, white-haired (actually he’s mostly bald but what little hair he does still have is white) trader whom Tana is sympathetic towards and convinced is innocent; and the thieves who are trying to frame him for it: Boggs (Edward Chandler), Louie (Muni Seroff) and Carlton (I. Stanford Jolley). There’s also a bad white girl, Gracie (a nicely honed performance by Claudia Dell, who’d played opposite Tom Mix in the first version of Destry Rides Again at Universal in 1932), and a nice white guy, Jim (James Bush, a typically colorless Monogram leading man), for Tana to fall in love with and leave her island for at the end.

Call of the Jungle is one of those numbing movies with which there’s nothing wrong except that it’s dull, dull, dull; the plot never goes anywhere (eventually it gets resolved, but only because the film was reaching the end of its allotted 60-minute running time; had they not had to worry about a time limit the writer could have kept this movie spinning around in circles forever!) and all that prettily photographed (albeit in black-and-white) “Polynesian” scenery and nice music can’t keep our attention forever (or even very long) against a mind-numbingly boring and incident-free plot. It’s hard to judge Corio as an actress by this, since it’s not much of a part, she doesn’t get to wear anything particularly revealing (let alone take any of it off!) and she isn’t an interesting enough personality to be watchable despite how little help she’s getting from the writer and director.