Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Adventures in Blu-ray: Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955)

Wildlife photographer Jean Evans (Phyllis Coates) is reverently referred to by the natives of Utanga as “Panther Girl”—in honor of an act of bravery performed when she saved the life of one Utangian as he was being attacked by a panther.  Though she’s achieved a position of trust with the people of the Utango village—they assist her in her work, filming the local flora and fauna—the superstitious natives become petrified of the latest creature to parade before her camera lens…a giant crawfish.  Even the rational Jean wants to know what’s going on, and so she sends word for her friend Larry Sanders (Myron Healey)—yes, that is his actual name—to join her so that the two of them can clear up this baffling crustacean mystery.

Arriving in the village, Larry gets a not-particularly-warm-welcome from a pair of goons in Cass (John Daheim, billed as John Day) and Rand (Mike Ragan), who want very much for Lar to beat a hasty retreat from Utanga.  Why?  Well, the two henchmen are in the employ of a slightly mad scientist named Morgan (Arthur Space)—whose unorthodox chemistry experiments are responsible for the ginormous lobster tooling around Utanga.  Morgan’s eevill scheme is to plunder a nearby diamond mine (unknown to the local authorities) and to continue doing this, he needs to scare off the natives.  To assist him in his work, he not only relies on Cass and Rand but a rival tribe, the Returi, who in true firewater-to-the-Indians fashion are kept pliable via a strong narcotic supplied by the diabolical Morgan.

Quicksand traps! A killer gorilla! Rampaging lions! Lobsters as big as houses! These are just a few of the perils that Panther Girl and Larry must deal with in their heroic quest to stop Morgan and put an end to his misdeeds within the span of twelve chapters.  (I’d suggest a vat of clarified butter and plenty of bibs to subdue the big seafood creature…the rest of the hazards will require some serious skulling.)

Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955) was the penultimate serial to be released by the MGM of B-picture studios, Republic; after King of the Carnival (1955), the low-budget film factory revered for its western programmers and chapter plays decided to ring down the curtain as far as enticing young kidlets into Saturday afternoon matinees each week.  (Republic’s classic serials would later resurface on the small screen in feature film form.)  Clearly inspired by such giant creature films as Them! (1954), Panther Girl is not—despite what it says on the poster art—“the most exciting serial ever filled!”  But if you’re like me and you enjoy a generous sample of cinematic fromage every now and then…Panther Girl will satisfy any true aficionado of movie camp.

If motion pictures were subject to “truth-in-advertising” laws…this serial would be more accurately titled Panther Girl of the Stock Footage.  Despite being unsurpassed in the production of cliffhangers since the studio’s first release of Darkest Africa in 1936, Republic’s post-war serial output had started to take on assembly line proportions—they were a bit mechanical and formulaic, and a far cry from their previous chapter plays like Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) and The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), considered by many serial scholars to be among the finest examples of what the French once called "cine-romans" or "films a episodes.”  By the time Panther Girl went before the cameras, Republic’s serials were mostly relying on one writer (Ronald Davidson) and one director (Franklin Adreon), who also doubled as associate producer.

And then there was the stock footage.  Panther Girl of the Kongo relies heavily on material previously seen in the studio’s popular Jungle Girl (1941)—those scenes of Phyllis Coates’ character swinging through the trees are those of Jungle Girl’s ace stuntman David Sharpe, not to mention the scenes of Panther Girl diving into a river and tangling with a lion.  Coates’ Panther Girl costume is an exact match of the get-up sported by Frances Gifford in Jungle Girl…which seems kind of fitting, since both the studio’s first and last female heroines are wearing the same outfit.  If you’re unfamiliar with Jungle Girl, the deception will probably go undetected; the problem is that they also used liberal dollops of footage from the previously mentioned Darkest Africa for Panther Girl’s “killer gorilla” chapter—and the outfit worn by Ray “Crash” Corrigan in Darkest doesn’t quite match the costume used in the newer footage of Panther Girl.

Howard and Theodore Lydecker were Republic’s ace special effects artists…but I suspect the brothers might have been phoning it in on Panther Girl of the Kongo.  The giant lobster creature is really just your run-of-the-mill crawfish placed on a set with miniature props (you might recognize this technique from the later The Giant Gila Monster, released in 1959).  It works as well as you might imagine…but it’s hard not to notice that the “lobster” rarely interacts with the other actors—and when it does, it’s in the form of a large plastic claw that unconvincingly reaches out to grab people every now and then.  When you know that this serial actually went over budget (by close to $7,000) you might ponder where the extra seven large is up on the screen.

I don’t want people to get the impression that I don’t like Panther Girl of the Kongo.  Even while you’re rummaging around in that drawer for your suspension of disbelief, it’s one of the better-acted chapter plays in that era.  Phyllis “Gypsy” Coates, best remembered for playing Lois Lane in the first season of TV’s The Adventures of Superman (and as Mrs. Joe McDoakes in any number of those wonderful one-reel Warner Brothers comedies starring George Hanlon), makes for a most engaging heroine…and veteran B-western bad guy Myron Healey (on the right side of the law for a change) has a nice chemistry with Coates (a lot of the male-female pairings in Republic serials come off as forced).  John Daheim follows in the footsteps of such studio stuntmen as Tom Steele (he’s Healey’s double) and Dale Van Sickel, who were often called upon for acting roles to save a little money (and Daheim isn’t too shabby).

I’ve mentioned that I’m a fan of character great Arthur Space (he’s one of four suspects in a production I covered previously on the blog’s Serial Saturdays, Government Agents vs. Phantom Legion [1951]) but I’m not going to mince words: he’s kind of weak in the villainy department.  (Space comes off as peevish, as if he were the Rexall family druggist and he’s not too wild about coming out from behind the counter.)  The only other thespian of note in Panther Girl is Roy Glenn, a distinguished actor with a long radio resume (you can hear him in recordings of Amos ‘n’ Andy and The Jack Benny Program…but he also worked shows like Suspense and Tales of the Texas Rangers) who later appeared in prestige films like Carmen Jones (1954).  (Sadly, actors gotta eat…and Roy had to tackle demeaning roles like that in the 1953 serial Jungle Drums of Africa; he got to be one of the bad guys in that one.)

Panther Girl of the Kongo made its Blu-ray debut on February 21st courtesy of Olive Films (as always, many thanks to Bradley Powell for the screener), which is happily starting to unearth these wonderful Republic chapter plays (previous Olive releases include The Invisible Monster and Flying Disc Man from Mars)—many of which have not received an official home video release.  “Panther Girl of the Kongo might not be as well remembered as other serials,” observes Olive Films’ Alex Kopecky, “but we feel it’s deserving of a place alongside our favorites, because it epitomizes a lot of the elements that we love about classic serials.”  To that I’ll just add: pass the popcorn.


Chris Riesbeck said...

Nothing against Noel Neill, but I preferred Coates as Lois Lane. I could believe her as a newspaper reporter.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Chris looked up from his paper:

Nothing against Noel Neill, but I preferred Coates as Lois Lane. I could believe her as a newspaper reporter.

I second that emotion. Coates had spunk. (Cue the Lou Grant actuality...)

b piper said...

Yeah, I've got to come down on the Coates side as well. There was something --- "matronly" about Neill, like watching your English teacher play Lois Lane, or your mom.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

b piper sent a telegram:

Yeah, I've got to come down on the Coates side as well. There was something --- "matronly" about Neill, like watching your English teacher play Lois Lane, or your mom.

I do like Noel's Lane in both of the Superman serials...but by the time Phyllis took on Lois in Superman and the Mole Men "Gypsy" clearly had made the role her own.

Mike Hobart said...

That's one I would like to see.