I have almost all of the Jungle Jim series, or sixteen movies, with Johnny Weissmuller expect for one episode which right now I forget the title of. The films are basically God awful on the most basic level and yet charming and lots of fun on another. You cannot really deny the cheesiness of the productions or Weissmuller’s sour expression in most scenes. Nor can you ignore Weissmuller’s obvious lack of acting skills as he misses dialog cues and tends to stand around and stare blankly at what is going on around him. That is not to say that what is happening around our bemused hero requires all that much concentration on our part and the stories are often the same plot done over from episode to episode. People who hate bad movies will want to steer clear of the entire series but if you’re like me and love to lay back and watch a film full of stock footage and Neanderthal level dialog then you will want to try to check some of these out. The films do plod along more than Weissmuller’s Tarzan films, even the latter Tarzan films like Tarzan and the Mermaids. As far as I know Tarzan and Jungle Jim were the only roles Weissmuller ever played.
This series of posts will introduce three of the films at a time with a bit of a review, screen captures and poster art and any trivia I can dig up online, but that is not much really. There is a little information but it is sorely wanting. Maybe my humble effort here can generate a little interest in the series amongst B-movie mavens. If you have never seen a Jungle Jim feature the best way to describe one is that Weissmuller’s Tarzan got a little older and fatter and was offered a job as a tour guide or game warden or something. Jim still has animal buddies that include a couple chimps, a little mutt and a crow named Caw Caw. More info on the other animals later since there are some changes that occur over the series. In fact Caw Caw does not even last that long and by the 4th or 5th Jungle Jim movie (can’t remember exactly) Caw Caw only appears a stuffed bird mounted and wobbling on Jim’s shoulder. The dog –whose name escapes me at the moment but I will be watching the films over before I do the review and provide you with all that priceless information- just vanishes from the stories without explanation and soon there is only Tamba the chimp whose behavior makes Cheetah look down right saintly. Seems as if the chimp’s name changes too in the series but I forget the second chimp’s name. Kimba maybe. If that is not confusing enough Jungle Jim actually changes his name in the last few episodes from Jungle Jim to -are you ready for this- Johnny Weissmuller! Man was I confused. This change was due to some legal issues and ownership of the name after the films became a television series starring Weissmuller. The Jungle Jim series was also produced, as the latter Tarzan films, by Sam Katzamn and we will explore Katzman at a later date.
Before taking at look at our first three Jungle Jim films there are a few recurring themes or situations in each film and I will expound on some of these in later posts:
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- As in the Tarzan films the threat almost always come from evil, white men out to exploit either the natural resources or the secret treasures of a local or lost tribe. The men, often called Bwanas, seem to always have Pith helmets and slim little, Clark Gable style mustaches.
- At the end of most Jungle Jim films Tamba alone or with another animal does some stupid action that has Jim and the rest of the cast bursting out in riotous laughter. Typically the gags are so hokey the more reasonable response would be to hurl a rock up along side the monkey’s head.
- There is never any romantic interests for poor, lonely Jim. Maybe he does not make that much as a tour guide. Or maybe it is his gruff, standoffish personality. Typically when he first meets a woman in the series he exudes nothing but a chauvinistic attitude as if a woman has no business in the jungle doing manly things like him.
- Animals from everywhere in the world outside Africa appear on the continent. This includes orangutans, water buffalo from southeast Asia, tigers, North American raccoons, toucans from South America and on and on.
- The series is totally inaccurate and all but flat racist -by today’s standards- in the way ‘natives’ are represented, and in particular the way black Africans are represented. Most of the natives appear to be more Polynesian than anything else. They are all basically white. Any tribe that is advanced is white in any case. All lost civilizations with an advanced almost Roman or Grecian cultures are white. Any tribes that are cannibals or head hunters and who can speak no English are black. Even a tribe of pygmies are shown to be white and speaking broken English. Yes, a tribe of white pygmies.
- Even if the people in the film wear uniforms and Fez hates from Morocco and have guns they are referred to as ‘natives’. It would seen then that unless you’re from North America or Northern Europe you are a “native”.
- All strange tribes where the people look white can speak English but they exclude all articles and prepositions in their sentences.
- The real threat to wild life is Jim himself and he kills at least four or five endangered species in each episode, always with a knife except for one time where he uses a gun.
- Jim will swim in almost every episode. Of course Weissmuller was an Olympic swimming champ and this was his ticket to stardom. To see Weissmuller sans shirt and swimming reminds us of a time when flaunting man boobs was not something that guaranteed revulsion on the part of the opposite sex. The good ol’days
1948/Director: William Berke/Writer: Caroll Young
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller, Virginia Grey, George Reeves, Lita Baron
The first Jungle Jim feature has out hero Jim Bradley helping the studious Dr. Hilary Parker (Virginia Grey) with a trek into the remote jungles of darkest Africa to the hidden temple of Zimbalu on a quest for a cure for polio, which still ravaged the world in 1948. We know Dr. Parker is the studious type because she wears big, think librarian type glasses and is always typing away at something. Jim kills his first animal of the film series, a leopard, at about four minutes into the movie and the carnage never lets up for the next fifteen episodes. He kills his next animal, a crocodile, at about 20 minutes in the movie, rescuing the bookwormish Dr. Parker of course. In a turn he actually uses a pistol here. Jim takes a break and does not kill another animal until about fifty minutes into the show and what the hell kind of an animal it is I have no clue. Some crypto-zoological nightmare! I think it is supposed to be a crocodile but when it surfaces it looks like some sort of alien mutant that uses it tail like it is an octopus tentacle. It is one thing to relocate animals from other continents to Africa but another to create entirely new species. I tried to get a screen capture of it below. Maybe the filmmakers just did not want Jim to kill off two crocs in one show.
There is as usual no sparks between Jim and Hilary but he does give her a nod when he is impressed with her swan dive. Along the way we meet the jungle girl Zia (Lita Baron) who does a dance that is so awkward and embarrassing to witness that it makes Tarantella’s missteps in Mesa of Lost Women look like some high form of Russian ballet. Who needs a choreographer when you have Tamba the chimp to teach the dance routines I guess. The evil photographer Bruce Edwards is played by none other than a pre-Superman Georges Reeves. He plays a pretty decent bad guy and is the stereo-typed greedy white guy that appears in almost all jungle movies where there is a good white guy like Tarzan, Jungle Jim or Bomba the Jungle Boy. The people running the temple Zimbalu temple are grunting savages who all but have bones running through their noses and so are of a darker skin tone than our more sophisticated heroes and villains. Of course they have no idea what a camera is and think it is magic allowing our villain to manipulate them by capturing their souls or something.
It does not seem that Weissmuller –who was Hungarian and not a native English speaker- is able to do much more speaking than he did as Tarzan and he tends to be monosyllabic –with some improvement in the areas of articles, prepositions and verb tenses from the Tarzan days- and he appears dazed most of the time. I get a big kick out of the opening credits of the early Jungle Jim films where Weissmuller glances back over his shoulder in what is supposed to be alertness but comes off more like the look of someone who just got caught shoplifting. The opening credits for this film are a little different but still show a confused Jungle Jim staggering out of the jungle which was actually the Ray Corrigan Ranch in Simi California. Of course at the end Jim winds up killing most of the natives with his bare hands and throws a few into the sacrificial fire. He is set loose my Caw Caw and in most episodes he is freed from the captivity of the bad guys by one of his animal buddies. In later shows we have to witness some sort of gag pulled by Tamba or Kimba and some other animal but the first couple episodes lacked this sort of trademark ending that most of the films have.
1949/Director: William Berke/Writer: Arthur Hoerl
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller, Myrna Dell, Elena Verdugo, Joseph Vitale, Ralph Dunn, George J. Lewis, Nelson Leigh
The second Jungle Jim feature shows a bit more promise than did the first one as film number one was a test film actually. Sam Katzman had made clear in his contract with Weissmuller that the former Tarzan star’s first Jungle Jim film would have to turn a profit or the deal was off. Luckily for Weissmuller and posterities bad film lovers the first film was enough of a success with the Saturday matinee kiddie crowd that a follow up was made. The Lost Tribe takes off in a direction that most subsequent Jungle Jim’s would follow and that was Jim saving a secret or lost tribe of white people from greedy white guys out to loot it of some treasure or exploitable commodity. The people of the lost city of Dzamm look more like the survivors of Atlantis than any tribe that has ever existed in Africa or any other continent. Jim also wastes little time in killing off wildlife in this film. At about five minutes he rescues Skipper the mutt from a crocodile using nothing more than a knife he keeps strapped to his side. After killing a croc with a pistol in the first film Jim relinquishes guns for the rest of the series and relies on a knife the way Tarzan did only Jim kills a lot more animals. In fact this croc looks like the same rubber one Weissmuller killed off in many a Tarzan film. At about twenty five minutes into the feature Jim rescues a man in a gorilla suit with a real baby chimp hanging from his back from a lion. The action is viewed by a couple orangutans that seem to have gotten lost from the island of Borneo. At about thirty three minutes Jim attacks and kills a shark! At fifty five minutes he whoops another shark’s tail fin but does not kill it. In fact it looks like the same footage used over from the first shark scene. As well as lost orangutans there is a North American raccoon at the beginning of the film playing with Skipper and a huge Southeast Asian water buffalo at another point and a toucan flew all the way from Panama to be a scene.
Jim gets himself tied on a cargo ship up and beaten by the evil white guys not once but twice! Caw Caw the crow must have felt it was a real waste of time to free him the first time. A bad guy plays one of those games where he throws knives at the native girl –dressed in a Hawaiian style skirt that many African tribal girls wear in the Jim films- and gets closer and closer each time and so Jim feels compelled to break his promise not to show outsiders the lost city. Not to worry since at the end a big hand to hand combat sequence breaks out and the gorilla that Jim rescued earlier in the film shows up with some of her friends and helps to beat the tar out of the bad bwanas.
The film is shot a little better than the first feature and is still packed with loads of grainy, mismatched stock footage, like a scene of stampeding monkeys that shows up in a few Jim films I think. Weissmuller seems to be settling in to his new role now but the poor guy simply can’t act. In one scene he misses his dialog cue and almost begins talking too soon but stops and waits for the other actor –Nelson Leigh as the king of Dzamm, Zoron – to finish his line first then continues in what must have been an awkward moment. B-movie director William Berke –who would do many of the Jungle Jim films- seems a little more relaxed this time around as well and some shots are not really that bad. Some of the fight scenes on the ship have an obvious double for Weissmuller is slow and sluggish most of the time but in those days usually a fight ended after one good solid blow to the jaw. The tone for all the following Jungle Jim movies seems to have been set in these first two films with some minor variations. From film to film the plot will always be about the same though the next film does feature a another special ingredient of the old jungle adventures: the white Jungle girl, and that film is called Captive Girl. Lets have a peek at that one now.
1950/Director: William Berke/Writer: Caroll Young
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Anita Lhoest, Rick Vallin, John Dehner
The third Jungle Jim film kicks the camp into high gear from the get go with a shot of The Wild Girl of lake Bokonji standing over what is obviously a man made pond at the well maintained Ray Corrigan Ranch where much of the Jungle Jim wild Africa scenes were shot. Joan Martindale, aka the Wild Girl or the White witch by the tribe of bad guys, is played by swimming champion Anita Lhoest in what would be her only film role. Also in the film is another swimming champ and star of many b-films as well as the Flash Gordon serial Buster Crabbe as the bad guy. Of course Crabbe is after is after yet more hidden treasure of a yet another lost tribe. All of these lost tribes seem to be within walking distance of where ever Jungle Jim Bradley calls home. Hakim is the evil witch doctor and is a white actor (John Dehner) with something like shoe polish all over his face. The treasure is at the bottom of the Lagoon of the Dead next to the witch doctor’s village and Hakim is also responsible for the death’s of Joan’s parents after they were lost in the jungles years before. Skipper the mutt and Caw Caw the crow are back as is Tamba the annoying chimp. Weissmuller tried his hand at some longer stretches of dialog here and there and does a bit better than in the first two films.
Some of the natives again look Polynesian and communicate by conga drums. Caw Caw in most scenes is now a stuffed bird on Jim’s shoulder. The Wild Girl is accompanied by her companion a rare African Tiger! We witness stock footage of a tiger fighting a Southeast Asian water buffalo. We also are treated at the end of the film to that monkey stampede stock footage I talked about last movie. We also treated, if you want to call it that, to repeated shots of the Wild Girl peering out over the pond, the same scene from the beginning. Jim kills a croc at about twenty one minutes into the movie and that is the only animal killed in this film though he does fight a tiger. This film is also the first of the series where the ending has something to with Tamba the chimp –and later Kimba- doing something really stupid and everybody busts out laughing. Most of the future films would end like this. The jungle girls has lived since childhood in the wilds of untamed Africa but manages to get her hair bleached regularly and keep herself in mascara and lipstick.
Buster Crabbe is pretty decent as the bad guy but by this third episode you have basically seen every Jungle Jim movie that will ever be made in terms of basic story line. Some parts are pretty fun, like watching the Wild Girl trying to speak English with Jim and not being able to tell whose English is worse. Lots of scenes of Tamba hugging Skipper and watching some stock footage of animal fights, like one between a tiger and a black panther. Jim’s buddy in this film wear a turban and looks like a fortune teller in a sideshow. If you are watching the films from first to last you may want to give up now but I encourage you to hang in there and finish them all as they do actually get more unbelievable as they go along.