Sunday, September 9, 2012

Jungle Jim (Columbia, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually ran a movie, and with me in the mood for something light but not necessarily funny (at least by intention) I put on the 1948 Jungle Jim, the first in a series of 13 films of that title made by Columbia (or rather by producer Sam Katzman releasing through Columbia) starring Johnny Weissmuller, who was still a nice-looking hunk of man-meat but had got too hefty to be swinging on jungle vines in a loincloth. (One reviewer speculated that this was the first movie Weissmuller ever made in which he actually wore a shirt and trousers!) MGM had pulled the plug on the Tarzan series he’d made there after 12 installments (though I think some of those were done at other studios — Edgar Rice Burroughs licensed the Tarzan character to any studio that would pay him enough and at one point there were at least three parallel Tarzan series going, including the one Burroughs himself produced in which Herman Brix, later Bruce Bennett, played Tarzan) and Columbia signed him to play Jungle Jim, a big-game hunter in Africa who’d originally been the hero of a comic strip written and drawn by Flash Gordon creator Alex Raymond. The opening sequence shows a native boy — for some reason almost none of the actors playing “natives” were Black even though this was supposed to be taking place in Africa (it reminded me after a while of the Mad magazine parody of the 1960’s Tarzan TV show, in which the big thing Mad decided to lampoon was the fact that the series was shot in Mexico — so the Mad article started with a map of Mexico with “Mexico” erased and “Africa” written in, and throughout the strip the “native” characters looked Latino and spoke Spanish) — running for his life to escape a man-eating leopard which, unfortunately, gets him because Jungle Jim doesn’t notice what’s going on in time — and the whole sequence is narrated by jungle photographer Bruce Edwards (George “Superman” Reeves), though we don’t know who he is until after the opening sequence is over and the scene cuts to the jungle office of Commissioner Geoffrey Marsden (Holmes Herbert).

It seems that when he died the jungle boy’s fingers were clutched around a small vial of pure gold decorated with hieroglyphics (I was tempted to joke that they spelled out the opening words of The Book of Mormon) and containing a foul-smelling black paste-like substance that in large quantities is poisonous but if diluted enough becomes an effective treatment for polio. (I wondered if the screenwriter, Carroll Young, had heard of homeopathy.) Marsden announces that he wants Jungle Jim to go on an expedition into the jungle to find the lost temple of Zimbalu (a name which provoked me to do a Desi Arnaz impression: “Zimbalu — ZIM-BAAH-LU!”) and see if they had any more of this ointment available. Also scheduled to accompany Jungle Jim on this expedition are photographer Bruce Edwards and scientist Dr. Hillary Parker, whom Our Hero assumes will be a man but in fact is a woman (she’s played by actress Virginia Grey), albeit a severely butch-looking woman with bad glasses. The gag of someone named “Hillary” turning out to be female probably wasn’t that funny in 1948 and, after Hillary Clinton, certainly isn’t today! Anyway, the expedition sets out — and the film periodically cuts away from it to a veritable mountain of stock footage featuring non-human characters who, quite frankly, out-act the humans. Jungle Jim has two pets of his own, his dog Skipper (a white poodle, of all unlikely breeds in the jungle) and his crow Caw-Caw, who at various times lifts Hillary’s glasses and the front panel of Edwards’ camera.

During the trip Edwards makes a series of idiotically transparent attempts on Jim’s life — when Jim falls off a mountain and is desperately hanging on to a branch on its side, Edwards pretends to hold the native who’s there to pull him to safety but actually lets go, then tries to get everyone to believe that his hands merely slipped — that alert us, the audience, to the fact that he’s a villain well before the other characters catch on (and the fact that the actor who today is most famous as Superman is playing the bad guy is itself the most jarring aspect of this film; later on the producers of this series cast Buster Crabbe as a villain, which would probably be worth watching if only for the “doubles” aspect of seeing a film with two former Tarzans in it); of course, Edwards is only in it for the money — specifically the golden treasure the Zimbaluans are supposed to have laying around their city (though their big temple turns out to be a pretty ordinary jungle shack — I had hoped that a film laden with this much stock footage would have represented it with a clip of Angkor Wat or something, and it’s all the more odd that the temple is so unimpressive from outside when it’s quite impressive inside — Columbia must have had a quite elaborate set left over from something else) — and he wins the natives to his side by taking their pictures, only when the crow steals the lens off the front of his camera he can’t do that anymore, the native chief gets pissed at him, Edwards fires his gun at them and the natives overpower him and take him out. The movie also has a romantic-triangle subplot between Jim, Hillary and Jim’s native-girl squeeze Zia (Lita Baron), who at one point does a dance accompanied by a pounding drum and nothing else (which disturbs Hillary since she’s trying to write) and at another point, alone with Hillary, seems to be putting the make on her, since she tells Hillary she’s “like man” — though the Production Code was there to make sure this movie never went anywhere near there!

Hillary is presented as an outwardly composed woman but one who freaks out whenever a jungle animal gets too close — twice during the film she screams in panic for Jim to save her from a crocodile (the first one is real, though obviously from stock footage, while the second one is an obvious fake that attempts to grab her with its prehensile tail — real crocodiles barely move their tails; their weapon is their mouth and the sharp teeth inside it) whereas I was hoping she’d be more indomitable, more like the Columbia and Republic serial heroines (or maybe Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen). Jungle Jim is one of those frustrating movies that settles into a comfortable groove of mediocrity, neither good enough to be genuinely entertaining nor bad enough to be camp (though I could imagine the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew doing a pretty good job on it), and Weissmuller is personable and still credible as an action hero but his delivery of dialogue shows there’s a reason why the writers on the MGM Tarzan movies never let him say much more than “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Jungle Jim was directed by William Berke, who had a weird career moving from independent productions to studio “B”’s and back again (of his last three films, two were adaptations of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels and the one I’ve seen is a quite good, atmospheric thriller), and I’ll say two good things for him here: he’s excellent at getting the right mood for the jungle scenes and he’s quite inventive in cutting the stock footage into the main action so it almost looks seamless — but aside from that Jungle Jim simply isn’t that good a movie and it wears out its welcome even though it’s only 72 minutes long!