Thursday, May 28, 2009

Movies that I’ve stared at recently on TCM #30 (Jungle Jim edition)

In 1948, just after completing Tarzan and the Mermaids (his final contribution to the long-running series based on the character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs), Johnny Weissmuller quickly found another paycheck awaiting him when he signed up with super-cheap film producer Sam Katzman to do a series of programmers based on the popular comic strip Jungle Jim, created by the legendary Alex Raymond in 1934. The “funny papers” feature was no stranger to the big screen, having been adapted by Universal into a twelve-part chapter play in 1937 that starred Grant Withers as the titular hero. But eleven years later, Weissmuller—while still in great physical condition but getting a bit long-in-the-tooth to continue playing the Lord of the Apes—would take the role and run with it, ultimately appearing in sixteen B-features produced between 1948 and 1955.

It was probably a refreshing change of pace for the former Olympic swimming champion, who had been typecast as Tarzan but as Jungle Jim was at least allowed to speak complete sentences. Other than that, however, the Jungle Jim series really didn’t deviate much from the Tarzan formula; as Matt Winans observes on his “Jungle Jim” website: “The plots are farfetched and often have too many overlapping and confusing story threads. What they lack in storytelling, they more than make up for with all-out action and over-the-top heroics. There are enough spills and thrills in a typical Jungle Jim movie to fill three regular jungle epics! Another wag summed it up more succinctly with the comment: “Tarzan with clothes on.”

The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ rolled out a mini-marathon of Weissmuller’s Jungle Jim oeuvre yesterday afternoon, beginning with the inaugural film, Jungle Jim (1948), at 3:45pm. I thought this one was going to be a real inducement for a power nap but surprisingly, it’s not that bad—I think the film’s major debit is that there’s just a tad too much stock footage and had Katzman (apparently channeling his inner Carl Denham) had trimmed some of it back it would be a much more enjoyable little programmer. The plot features our hero being hired by Dr. Hilary Parker (Virginia Grey, the actress kvetching about all the retakes she had to do with Joan Crawford in that The Women segment they run constantly on TCM) to track down a native poison that, used in the correct and proper manner, is a cure for polio. Accompanied by his pal Kolu (professional serial baddie Rick Vallin)—who is apparently the chief of a native tribe but is treated by J.J. as his personal valet—and Kolu’s smokin’ hot sister Zia (Lita Baron, who fills out a sarong rather nicely if you know what I mean…and I think you do), our merry band of wanderers locate the stronghold of “the Devil Doctors” but find themselves at the mercy of a man who’s using the tribe for his own nefarious purposes: an irresponsible treasure-seeking photographer named Bruce Edwards…played by The Man Who Would Be Superman, George Reeves.

Reeves’ performance—laced with a casual “What? Me worry?” attitude—is the main reason why Jungle succeeds as the entertaining time-killer it is; in fact, when we’re first introduced to Reeves’ character he’s sprawled out nonchalantly on a couch in the office of Commissioner Geoffrey Marsden (Holmes Herbert), pith helmet over his eyes and not a care in the world. He doesn’t turn up again until about the thirty-nine minute mark, and from that point on he fluctuates from comedy relief to genuine menace (in a particularly exciting cliffhanging sequence, he “bumps” into Weissmuller, causing our hero to lose his footing and fall, winding up clinging to a branch growing out of the side of a cliff) and what’s even funnier is that the Jim character has no response to his outrageous antics; he just continues to fume and swallow his anger throughout the entire safari. Grey’s character is the sort of pedantic female who is rankled when any man thinks less of her due to her profession (on her arrival in the jungle and greeted by an astonished Commissioner Herbert, she interrupts him to say “You expected a man…people usually do. I find it extremely annoying”) but is reduced to Kate Capshaw-like spastics when a crocodile comes up to her and wants to make fast lunch friends. (I also giggled at the fact that Grey’s doctor wears scholarly-thick spectacles but unfortunately the film robs us of the moment when she takes them off and her male love interest remarks: “Why, Doctor…without your glasses, you’re…you’re beautiful!”) Jim runs a total of seventy-one minutes and if the only thing you’re really looking for in a movie is mindless entertainment—believe me, you could do worse.

Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land (1952) – J.J. is approached by yet another female of science, an anthropologist (Angela Greene) who begs him to lead her to the Land of Giant People—a mysterious race of beings who might provide a piece of the puzzle to the development of man (a.k.a. the famed “missing link”) but Weissmuller—who apparently took Tarzan’s constant moralizing about not screwing around with the jungle with him in developing his new character—refuses to do so. There’s another party looking for this Irwin Allen territory; a pair of ivory traders (Jean Willes, William Tannen) who’ve learned that Giantland contains a secret pass extensively used by the jungle’s elephant population…and if they were there to pick off the pachyderms at the time of their exit they’d soon be rich as hollandaise sauce.

Again, stock footage is pretty much the order of the day here but boosting the entertainment value are the appearances of TDOY fave Willes (who plays one of the most cold-blooded villainesses in cinematic memory) and Tannen (whose character, “Doc” Edwards, explains his nickname with “I went to medical school one time, and the name just stuck”). Willes is introduced as the ward of ivory hunter George Eldredge, and because there are no real familial ties between the two it’s only a matter of time before Willes arranges for George to be croaked (by some native lackey named Zulu [Frederic Berest]) and Jim framed for his murder! As for the “giant people,” two of them are captured during Forbidden Land’s running time; they’re not even really “giants,” however, and the male appears to be a distant werewolf cousin of Lon Chaney, Jr. (every time I saw him on screen I couldn’t get that “His hair was perfect” lyric from Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London out my head) while the female looks as if she’s in dire need of electrolysis. Towards the ends of the film, Willes gets hold of a pistol and begins to fire at the male giant dude—who does not forget that Willes tried to pump some lead into him when he rushes her and the two of them go careening off a cliff to be smashed on the rocks below.

Jungle Manhunt (1951) – The last in the trio shown by TCM yesterday is a notch below the other two; Jim rescues a saucy photographer (Sheila Ryan) from near-drowning and she asks for his help in locating Bob Miller (Bob Waterfield), a former gridiron star whose plane took a header whilst flying over the jungle and neither hide nor hair has been seen of him since. (Actor Waterfield, former quarterback and later coach of the Los Angeles Rams, apparently took a flutter with acting but is probably better known as the hubby of screen siren Jane Russell from 1943 to 1967 [Russell was his high school sweetheart; the two of them also formed a production company that oversaw such Russell epics as Gentlemen Marry Brunettes [1955] and The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown [1957]].) When asked by his native friend Bono (Rick Vallin again—and it’s pronounced like Sonny’s last name, not the lead singer of U2) to investigate some “mysterious skeleton men” who are fomenting fear and loathing among the other tribes, Jim and Sheila set out to investigate (coincidentally running into Waterfield in the process) and come face to face with famed movie villain and Ozzie & Harriet neighbor Lyle Talbot…who’s using the natives he’s captured to dig for igneous rock (he’s processing synthetic diamonds) and exposing them to radiation in the process (the cad!).

Talbot is always worth his weight in villainy and Ryan manages to inject some humor in her role (check out her first encounter with Weissmuller; she tells him to turn his head to the right and he turns it to the left)—plus she shows up in a later scene sporting a very appealing bathing suit. Waterfield manages not to come off too awful (though I hope he was a better husband than actor) and I find myself endlessly fascinated with Tamba, Jungle Jim’s pet chimpanzee—who’s like Cheetah on meds (honest to my grandma, this is one seriously psychotic chimp). The scene that made me laugh out loud is when Weissmuller, Ryan and Vallin arrive at their point of arrival and “Jim” tells “Bono” to get the suitcases—here’s a chieftain, leader of the “Matusa” tribe, and he’s schlepping luggage.

In 1955, producer Katzman cut a deal with the fledgling television arm of Columbia Pictures, Screen Gems, to do a television version of Jungle Jim (which also starred Weissmuller) that produced a single season of twenty-six half-hour adventures (this show had one of the most memorable openings of any series, with Weissmuller diving off an incredibly high cliff). But Weissmuller owed the studio three additional pictures, and because the rights to the character had reverted to the TV series, he was forced to finish his contract playing…Johnny Weissmuller! That’s right—even though he continued to wear the Jungle Jim togs, the actor used his real name…but his mad chimp wasn’t so lucky, having to change his name to Kimba (since again, “Tamba” was now on the boob tube).

I really expected to be disappointed with the Jungle Jim films I watched yesterday because I’ve heard from a good many individuals that the films aren’t all they’re cracked up to be (and are mostly just nostalgic pieces for adults who grew up watching them at Saturday matinees); previously, I’d only seen one film in the series, Captive Girl (1950)—which is entertaining as heck because you get two Tarzans/Olympic champions for the price of one (Buster Crabbe plays the bad guy). But except for the excessive stock footage, the Jim movies are undemanding entertainment—certainly better than Monogram’s competing Bomba, the Jungle Boy series…which featured the Weissmuller-Tarzan’s “son,” Johnny Sheffield. I hope to see more Jim on TCM soon—a DVD box set release of the films had been in the works sometime back (to cash in on the success of the Warner Bros. Tarzan sets) but apparently that project has fallen by the wayside.

6 comments:

Bill Crider said...

Speaking of Zia, she and her brother look suspiciously unAfrican to me. As does their entire tribe. Zia, in fact, looks as if she wandered over to the set from a South Seas picture. And that dance. Oh, that dance.

John said...

I was unable to watch the original "Jungle Jim" feature on TCM, but I got a kick out of your comments on Weissmuller's reactions to George Reeves. I seem to remember an earlier scene where George tries to "bump" Jungle Jim into a occupied lion or tiger pit and Johnny responds with a high-pitched and unconvincing "Watch it!". That's always cracked me up.
George Reeves just walks away with this picture...I know it's petty theft...but I've always liked his performance in this.

My two favorite JJ films are "Mark of the Gorilla" and "Killer Ape" and I hope they turn up on TCM as well.

lashel said...

I forgot about the JJ TV Shows! I used to watch those on reruns as a kid. With 26 episodes, its just enough for one nice box set!

Bill Crider said...

I think Reeves was having fun. He seemed to be kidding around most of the time and practically winking at the audience.

Bill Dan Courtney said...

hey Ivan, this is Bill from The uranium CAfe and this is great stuff. Better than my post really, or I always judge myself hard. Glad to see you enjoyed them as i did. I give the series a hard time in the posts sometimes but I really like them.

Why do you have a theater called the Alamo up there? I lived in San Antonio for many years. Any connection?

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Why do you have a theater called the Alamo up there? I lived in San Antonio for many years. Any connection?

According to resident Canadian Brent McKee, Bill, that's a photo of the Alamo Theater in Washington, DC...so it's quite a ways from San Antone. I found the photo on a classic movies bulletin board (Brent says it's from the Shorpy blog) and just fell in love with it, I guess. (At one time I rotated the pictures and although I told myself I'd stick with the Alamo pic I'm thinking I might start doing rotation again.)