Jungle Jim rescues a mysterious princess from some hungry lions and two white men with guns. The hunters are part of a criminal group who are trying to pinpoint the location of the lost city where she lives. Having heard of Jim’s reputation, she has come to ask for his help… .
When MGM finally brought down the curtain on Johnny Weismuller’s almost 20 year run as the ‘King of the Jungle’, a step out of the Hollywood spotlight must have seemed likely. After all, an extraordinary athlete doesn’t necessarily make for an extraordinary actor. However, the big man had just divorced Wife no.3 and immediately married no.4, so, in all probability, there were bills to be paid. What was a poor boy to do? Simply nip behind a bush in the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, swap the loincloth for a safari suit and — ta-da! —Tarzan became Jungle Jim.
It shouldn’t have been that easy, of course. Jungle Jim began life as a comic strip created by Don Moore and Alex Raymond (the illustrator behind ‘Flash Gordon’). Jim was a hunter based in Southeast Asia, rather than Africa, had a native sidekick named Kolu and often tangled with femme fatale Lille DeVrille. Not surprisingly all that was binned for the Columbia series. Instead, Jim was simply a middle-aged Tarzan, saddled with pet crow Caw-Caw and adorable pooch Skipper, whose continual survival in the jungle was a greater mystery than anything the movies had to offer.
This time around, Weismuller is recruited by pretty Elena Verdugo to protect Dzamm, yet another of the seemingly endless number of ‘lost cities’ hidden in the depths of the African jungle. As per usual, this forgotten civilisation is simply dripping with fabulous diamonds and some dodgy types who rarely shave are after the baubles. The gang is led by Calhoun (Joseph Vitale) who runs the local trading post and Captain Rawlins (Ralph Dunn) whose ship lies offshore. What doesn’t help is that the son of the city’s Head Man, Chot (Paul Marion), has been breaking tribal law to visit the post because he has a thing for Calhoun’s niece, hard-bitten femme fatale Norina (Myrna Dell). What follows are the usual shenanigans for this type of picture, including exotic beasts appearing courtesy of reams of grainy stock footage, and a cast who speak almost entirely in that awkward language called plot exposition.
This was only the second film in the series produced by the legendary Sam Katzman, and that perhaps accounts for the fact that it’s a little better than most of the later entries. For a start, there’s a fair amount of action. Weismuller takes to the water quite often; fighting both an unconvincing crocodile to save Skipper the indestructible dog and a shark that appears courtesy of a no doubt reasonably priced film library. He also wrestles with a less than energetic lion, who seems rather more enthusiastic when our hero is replaced by his stunt double. Actually, that was a risky job; reportedly one of Weismuller’s stand-ins died when performing a clifftop dive on ‘Tarzan and the Mermaids‘ (1948).
The big man also gets to flex his acting muscles when he resists Dell’s womanly wiles, but it’s fair to say they do appear to be a little out of condition. Dell falls for him anyway, tries to help him escape and ends up on the wrong end of her uncle’s knife instead. All this is rushed through in about five minutes flat and, given that the under-used Dell is second-billed, it seems likely that some scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.
We also meet Simba the Gorilla (inevitably played by Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan in his own monkey suit), who brings some hairy buddies along for the surprisingly energetic, if rather ridiculous, climax. It was probably unconscious but these closing action scenes do provide a faint echo of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who introduced some very silly elements into his later ‘Tarzan’ books, and believe me, some of those were very silly indeed.
Verdugo was of Spanish extraction and spent most of her career playing dancers and various exotic types in b-pictures, mostly for Universal, the highlight being when she shot Lon Chaney Jr with a silver bullet in ‘House of Frankenstein’ (1944). But the studio wouldn’t sign her to a permanent contact because of her refusal to diet, and she appeared almost exclusively in black wigs as she was a natural blonde. Stardom finally arrived for her a couple of decades later courtesy of the small screen, as nurse to Robert Young on long-running hit ‘Marcus Welby, M.D.’ The role saw her nominated for two Emmys and a golden globe. The show also provided actor James Brolin with his first big break.
Of course, this is little more than a cheap, formulaic b-picture, but for once the lost city actually looks a decent size (well, bigger than the usual couple of huts anyway) and there a decent number of folks in the marketplace too. Sure, a lot of the usual clichés are present, in particular the 5 minute opening narration over stock footage by actor Holmes Herbert, who explains what a jungle is for those who don’t know. ‘The mischievous monkey avoids the cunning crocodile’ he intones solemnly, probably trying hard to stifle a yawn.
The series carried on until 1958, with another 14 films. Or 11 if you want to be pedantic. Katzmann actually lost the rights to use the character’s name at the end, which was probably something to do with his notorious reluctance to open his wallet. As a consequence, in the last 3 films, Weismuller simply played a character called Johnny Weismuller instead. It’s unlikely that anyone really noticed.
Caw-Caw and Skipper were supplemented in later entries by chimpanzee Tamba (then Kimba) and eventually vanished from the films completely. Perhaps something finally ate Skipper! He was always living on borrowed time…