Devil Goddess (1955)

Devil Goddess (1955)‘This land taboo! You go!’

Screen legend Johnny Weismuller is recruited by a scientist and his daughter to help find an old colleague who has been lost in the African jungle for seven years. Rumour has it that he is being worshipped as a god by one of the tribes deep in the interior, and that he is conducting experiments of a supernatural nature…

After turning in his loincloth at the MGM gates in 1948, it would have been no surprise if Johnny Weismuller had backed away from the movie business and gracefully retired. He’d enjoyed 17 years as the undisputed ‘King of the Jungle’ and he certainly was no actor. He proved as much when mixing it up with Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe in Cajun confrontation potboiler ‘Swamp Fire’ (1946), his one attempt at a different kind of role. Unfortunately, Weismuller had considerable financial commitments (four ex-wives may have been involved!) and so it was off to Columbia to star in a series of 16 pictures as ‘Jungle Jim’ with legendary skinflint Sam Katzman producing. By the time this final entry rolled around, Katzman had even lost the rights to the character’s name so Weismuller played exactly the same part…only as Johnny Weismuller!

Typically, this picture strays very little from the previous ones in the series; they had a formula and they were sticking to it. Weismuller is roped in to a mission by a beautiful woman (in this case Angela Stevens) which involves travelling to somewhere forbidden where the locals are aggressive but misguided, usually by superstition or the villain of the piece. There is always something valuable hidden nearby (it’s usually jewels but, almost as often it’s Nazi treasure) and there’s some faceless and unscrupulous white men out to get it. There’s some fisticuffs and a gunfight or two as Jim (sorry, Johnny!) tangles with them and everything is tied up just as the local Commissioner and his native troopers arrive.

On this occasion the natives are in thrall to Ed Hinton and his collection of smoke bombs as he lives it up as the local volcano god. He’s no longer playing with a full test tube, but does at least look after the string of nubiles that the local witchdoctor insists on providing, rather than using them as his personal harem. At least, we assume he doesn’t do anything untoward. Perhaps best not to go there. The film certainly doesn’t. Anyway, he has a few beakers on a bench in a cave so he must be doing experiments. Or something. Although there’s no evidence of anything supernatural, of course.

Devil Goddess (1955)

‘Wipe that stupid smirk of your face, you big ape!’

Production values aren’t high, which is no surprise on a Katzman picture, and the sacrificial ceremony bears an uncanny resemblance to the one carried out in ‘Voodoo Tiger’ (1952), the 9th film in the series (although it could have been lifted from something even earlier, I guess!) Johnny is assisted by chimpanzee Kimba (replacing Tamba in a crucial casting change), although it is fair to say that neither is fit to pick the fleas off Cheetah.

Hinton inevitably reminds the audience of ‘Tim the Enchanter’ from ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (1975), even if he doesn’t possess such impressive headwear, and none of the library of wildlife stock shots are as deadly as the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog.

Columbia had already moved into television by the mid-1950s and so the decision was made to relocate the character to the small screen. Katzman was not involved, so the rights to use the character’s true name were successfully renegotiated with King Features, and ‘Jungle Jim’ debuted a few months later, running for 26 episodes. When it was over, Wiesmuller finally called it a day and worked his celebrity into a long career of making personal appearances.

Oh, and the title of this film? Completely meaningless. Par for the course for a Katzman production!

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Voodoo Tiger (1952)

Voodoo Tiger (1952)‘Breaking Voodoo’s Savage Spell!’

Jungle Jim teams up with the local authorities in pursuit of a suspected Nazi war criminal who has been running a trading post deep in the jungle. Other parties are also interested, as he is the only person who knows the location of priceless art treasures hidden by the Nazis at the end of World War II. Meanwhile, local natives have become obsessed by a voodoo cult, centred on the totem of a tiger…

Johnny Weismuller dons the safari suit once again to battle bad medicine, angry natives and conniving crooks in the depths of darkest California, sorry, I mean Africa. This 9th entry in the film series produced by Sam Katzman is burdened with a story that’s little more than a series of awkward plot contrivances, but is surprisingly more entertaining than most of the series. This was probably due, in part, to the no-nonsense direction of Spencer Gordon Bennet, the so-called ‘King of Movie Serials’ who gets in, gets the shot and exits via the final credits with some haste.

Here the story setup is brilliantly random, the script by Samuel Newman (a veteran of the series) presenting us with a native tribe who make human sacrifices to a voodoo tiger god (or a tatty imitation from the prop department, to be precise). The voodoo religion did flourish in West Africa as well as the Caribbean, so we can give Newman a pass on that one, but a tiger god in Africa? Not all that likely. But Newman isn’t finished there; introducing a real tiger as one of the group of survivors of a convenient plane crash, which also includes our fleeing Nazi (Michael Fox)! Yes, he’s one of those pesky SS men, who spent their time hiding treasure in the jungle when on the retreat from the Allied Forces. What they were doing having treasure with them in the first place is one of history’s greatest mysteries. l would have thought ammunition and weapons to be a tad more useful in the circumstances.

Voodoo Tiger (1952)

‘I’l get this flea collar on you if it’s the last thing I do…’

Jim is accompanied on this adventure by the usual group of faceless lawmen in pith-helmets, Tamba the chimp and Jean Byron on assignment from the British Museum. Although you might think the jungle is rather large, they quickly catch up with Fox, James Seay’s crooked gang, and the other survivors of the plane crash. Unfortunately, they are all captured by the natives, led by headman Mombulu (Charles Horvath), and sentenced to die in praise of the now very real tiger god.

Luckily, the big cat defers to nightclub dancer Shalimar (Jean Dean) as he was part of her act (see, it all makes sense really!) and execution is stayed, provided Jim can defeat a sleepy lion in unarmed combat.

This is all hopelessly cheap and cheerful, of course, as everyone expects from a Sam Katzman production, but having said that, it’s certainly not a dull watch. Sure, the head-hunters look more Hispanic than African (and Horvath was born in Hungary), but it is fun to see them discover that worshipping a real tiger instead of one of the stuffed variety is actually a rather challenging proposition. Byron ends up making goo-goo eyes with square-jawed Major Robert Bray, rather than our jungle hero, but that was always the way. Jim never got the girl. Perhaps it was Weismuller’s numerous marriages and subsequent alimony bills that put him off!

This was Byron’s film debut, and she joined Weissmuller again in rather silly later entry ‘Jungle Moon Men’ (1955), having already faced ‘The Magnetic Monster’ (1953) and the ‘Serpent of the Nile’ (1953). She was also the female lead of cult classic alien horror ‘Invisible Invaders’ (1959). But she was to find her greatest recognition on television in the 1960s, starring in over 100 episodes of ‘The Patty Duke Show’ as the heroine’s mother. She also played Major Linseed’s wife on the Adam West ‘Batman’ TV show.

Another production line jungle adventure, but the left-field plot developments help to make a slightly less painful experience than most of the series.

Captive Girl (1950)

Captive Girl (1950)‘Speak or you die! Where is she-devil?’

Jungle Jim is recruited by the local authorities to find a mysterious white girl who has been seen in a remote part of the jungle. Allegedly, she is accompanied by a tiger and has been terrorising the witchdoctor of a local tribe, whose young chief is returning home after being educated in America.

It’s Tarzan vs. Flash Gordon as Johnny Weismuller faces off against Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe in a ferocious fight to the death in a sweltering Jungle Hell where life is cheap and production values are even cheaper. Yes, it’s another trip to the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanical Gardens for the fourth in the ‘Jungle Jim’ series from legendary skinflint producer Sam Katzman, and, for anyone who has seen one of these pictures, this one holds no surprises whatsoever.

As usual, we begin with the story; a five minute exposition scene that tells us all that we need to know, and allows us to turn off our brains for the next 73 minutes. Our villain is evil witchdoctor Hakim (John Dehner from Staten Island) who is hunting jungle girl Anita Lhoest (from California) because she may have witnessed him murdering a couple of explorers many years earlier who may have been her parents. No prizes for guessing if that’s all true or not. Returning tribal chief Mahala (Rick Vallin from modern day Ukraine) is travelling into the jungle so he can turn his people from superstition to enlightenment. Weismuller is recruited to escort him back and to find the girl. Dastardly treasure hunter Crabbe is also in the area looking for the Lagoon of the Dead where Dehner has been sacrificing his victims.

So it’s business as usual with Weismuller accompanied on his journey by black bird Caw Caw and cute little dog Skipper, whose continued survival in the jungle is seriously impressive. We also get what seems to be an unofficial introduction to chimpanzee Tamba, who turns up from somewhere after a while and Weismuller calls by name. Although Lhoest has been evading everyone for years apparently, in the best Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition Weismuller finds her in less than ten minutes. Along the way, he gets to wrestle a crocodile again, although he keeps his shirt on this time around. But it is a nice echo of his Tarzan heyday.

Director William Berke had nine other pictures released the same year, including two more in this series; ‘Mark of the Gorilla’ (1950) and ‘Pygmy lsland’ (1950). ln fact, he ended up directing almost half of the 16 of Jungle Jim’s adventures. In a way, Crabbe’s presence in the picture is a pleasing one; as he’d already battled Weismuller in the big man’s only non-Jungle role, the bayou melodrama ‘Swamp Fire’ (1946). ‘Flash Gordon’ and ‘Jungle Jim’ were the most famous creations of artist Alex Raymond, who also co-created the comicstrip ‘Secret Agent X-9’ with legendary author and activist Dashiell Hammett.

Captive Girl (1950)

‘What have I told you before about bringing back dead explorers?’

Rather strangely, we get the same repeated shot of Lhoest on a clifftop several times (no complaints from me, mind you) but she gets little screen time otherwise, most of which she spends skipping through the jungle. She doesn’t get all that much dialogue either, although what she has she handles well enough. I did wonder where she was getting her makeup done, though! These jungle girls always seem to be able to find a beauty parlour somewhere. On the debit side, both Dehner and Vallin play in blackface, something that would be rightly unacceptable now and must have looked pretty silly to audiences, even back in the more naive days of 1950.

Like Weismuller and Crabbe, Lhoest was a swimming champion who had beaten out a young Marilyn Monroe for the part of Daisy Mae in a big budget movie of ‘Lil Abner’. But that film was never made and this remains her only appearance on the silver screen. She certainly had the looks, with a dazzling smile and lively eyes, and filled out a two-piece tiger skin number in a very fetching way. But she preferred to devote her life to animal welfare, rather than acting.

At 73 minutes, this is actually one of the longest films of the series and boy, do those extra minutes drag. One of the dullest of Jim’s exploits and a seriously boring experience.

Jungle Jim (1948)

Jungle Jim (1948)‘You expected a man. People always do. l find it extremely annoying.’

Jungle Jim arranges a safari for a female scientist who is searching for a lost temple deep in the jungle and a tribe that may possess a cure for infant polio. Matters are complicated by a wandering photographer and the younger sister of Jim’s Head Man.

At the age of 44, Johnny Weismuller’s reign as the ‘King of the Jungle’ seemed to be over when he was let go by MGM after ‘Tarzan and the Mermaids’ (1948). But it was back to Africa (or the LA Botanical Gardens) almost immediately as his option was picked up by Columbia Studios, who starred him in a series of 16 pictures as ‘Jungle Jim’. This was essentially a less energetic version of the same character, he simply swapped his loincloth for a safari suit and traded in Cheetah for cute puppy Skipper and pet crow Caw Caw. Unfortunately, there was one major change; a tremendous dip in budget and production values, courtesy of notorious tightwad Sam Katzman.

Given the reduced circumstances, there is a lot less ambition on show than even the later MGM films possessed, and it’s evident right from this first film. Weismuller finds a dying native in the interior who is in possession of a golden vial covered in unknown hieroglyphics. Analysis of the contents brings lady scientist Virginia Grey, who is convinced of its miraculous medicinal properties. Weismuller takes her on safari to search for the legendary ‘lost temple’ that seems its likely source.

The plot is explained within the first five minutes, never develops any further, but was good enough to be used for most of the later entries in the series as well! Just how many ‘lost tribes’, ‘lost temples’ and ‘lost cities’ were there in the jungle just waiting for Weismuller to find? Lots, obviously. Strangely enough, there were always some diamonds/emeralds/gold or hidden art treasures lying about as well. And a gang of villainous white men intent on getting their hands on them.

Jungle Jim (1948)

‘Are we there yet?’

But there a couple of slight differences from the later films. For a start, there’s a lot more wildlife stock footage. We get an elephant stampede, lots of monkeys, prowling lions, the whole bit. This is a tell-tale sign of a cheap movie, of course, but its absence in the later films is curious. Was it actually cost-effective not to use library film as inserts? Hard to believe, but then it’s equally difficult to imagine Katzman passing up the chance of saving a few bucks here and there.

The other wrinkle is a half-baked romantic interest for Weismuller in the person of Head Man’s daughter, Zia (Lita Baron). Sure, it never develops beyond some mild flirtation on her part, but it’s something completely absent from subsequent productions.  The overall gender politics are just as tiresome as you’d expect with regard to Grey’s hard-ass scientist.  She starts off all business, of course, intent on proving herself as good as a man, but it’s not long before she’s screaming at a crocodile, falling down a slope, getting trapped by a tree root and being saved by Weismuller. It’s also good to see that a serious scientist always packs her bathing costume when going on safari, even if it leads to an encounter with a strange, tentacled beastie and another inevitable intervention by our muscle bound hero. Luckily, handsome George Reeves is lounging about taking a few holiday snaps, so there’s no obligation on Weismuller to get all gooey and romantic over her.

Grey was an actress who played second lead and supporting roles in some far bigger productions, notably ‘Another Thin Man’ (1939), ‘All That Heaven Allows’ (1955) and Samuel Fuller’s ‘The Naked Kiss’ (1964). Reeves became world famous as TV ‘Superman’ before his mysterious death in 1959. Baron’s exotic looks and dance moves got her roles of different ethnicities in pictures like ‘Bomba On Panther lsland’ (1949), ‘Savage Drums’ (1951) and ‘The Treasure of Pancho Villa’ (1955). She was actually Spanish.

The closing scene strongly suggests that our surviving heroes would return for future adventures, but in the end it was only Weismuller who came back. Along with Skipper and Caw Caw of course. But perhaps the others were well out of it. After all, it takes our heroes almost an hour of wandering about before they find the ‘lost temple’ and, by then, there’s very little of the picture left!

Rather a dull trip into the jungle of b-movies.

Mark of the Gorilla (1950)

Mark of the Gorilla (1950)‘There’s nothing cuter than a baby panther…before they get teeth.’

On his way to a game preserve, Jungle Jim receives a message from the warden. Only he finds it on a dead man. A few moments later, he rescues a mysterious woman from a rock-throwing gorilla. The warden is desperately ill with a strange fever and the combination of these unusual circumstances arouses Jim’s suspicions.

The third entry in Columbia’s ‘Jungle Jim’ series might be expected to possess greater quality than later entries in the series, but, for the most part, the standard was even throughout. After all, the 16 films were made over a fairly short period (eight years) and star Johnny Weismuller and producer Sam Katzman were ever present. It was true ‘production line’ formula entertainment with screenwriter Caroll Young a veteran of MGM’s ‘Tarzan’ series and director William Berke, who delivered the first in the series and the ever-so slightly similar ‘Zamba the Gorilla’ (1949).

The film opens with a five-minute montage of wildlife library footage, apparently solely to give actor Holmes Herbert the opportunity to explain how hunting works. In case the audience needed some clarification. Then we hit the trail with Jim and his first encounter with shady lady Suzanne Dalbert and that remarkably bad-tempered gorilla. Johnny persuades it to cease and desist by throwing a knife into its arm, quite a shot considering the distance involved! Johnny’s quite puzzled by the whole thing as ‘this is not gorilla country.’ Arriving at the warden’s HQ, he finds his old friend (Selmer Jackson) bedridden and delirious, his daughter (Trudy Marshall) anxious and worried, and a dodgy medico (Onslow Stevens, slumming it) in charge of the case. Natives are being constantly harassed by a couple of gorillas, which is strange, as ‘this is not gorilla country.’

The mystery isn’t allowed to perplex the audience for too long. Almost straightaway, we find that these pesky apes are actually Nazis in gorilla costumes! They are trying to keep the locals away as they recover gold hidden in the hills by the retreating German army at the end of World War ll. It’s a truly brilliant piece of camouflage actually, because, as may have already been mentioned, ‘this is not gorilla country.’ Johnny is assisted by cute dog Skipper (who doesn’t do very much) and tropical bird, Caw-Caw who doesn’t do very much either but makes a lot of noise doing it. Johnny wrestles with a leopard and a lion, exhibiting a good deal more animation than the animals involved and has everything wrapped up neatly in 70 minutes or so.

Mark of the Gorilla (1950)

Johnny was about to lose another game of hide and seek…

This is an entirely forgettable entry in the series; beyond the central conceit of the villain’s ridiculous plan, there’s nothing vaguely memorable about the script, performances or execution. Sadly, it’s not nearly as atrocious as 11th entry ‘Killer Ape’ (1951) or as halfway entertaining as supremely silly ‘Jungle Moon Men’ (1955), the penultimate film in the franchise.

 

And ‘franchise’ is an entirely appropriate word, because this is ‘bottom line’ filmmaking at its most basic. Get the product off the conveyor belt as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as possible, ensuring it ticks all the boxes for its target audience. Two other ‘Jungle Jim’ features made it into theatres before the end of the year: ‘Captive Girl’ (1950), again directed by Berke and co-starring another ex-Tarzan, Larry ‘Buster’ Crabbe, and ‘Pygmy Island’ (1950), also directed by Berke! Given these were Sam Katzman productions, it’s probable they were all shot at the same time ‘back to back.’ After all, why spend a dollar when you can avoid it?

As the credits rolled, l couldn’t help being worried about Skipper though. He doesn’t appear in the later films in the series. lt’s hard to believe that a cute little dog has a very long life expectancy in the depths of the African jungle.

Jungle Moon Men (1955)

Jungle_Moon_Men_(1955)‘Yes, Marro ran away. Up where the sun god rules. Always it is Ra who defeats me!’

Johnny Weismuller agrees to take a pretty academic deep into the jungle to prove her unconventional theories on ancient civilisations. Along the way they encounter native tribesmen, villainous diamond hunters and a tribe of Moon Men, who are slaves to an Egyptian goddess.

The phenomenally successful M.G.M. ‘Tarzan’ series with Johnny Weismuller had moved into the ‘B’ arena by the early 1940s and finally gave up the ghost with the surprisingly decent ‘Tarzan and the Mermaids’ (1948). Not one to mess with a winning formula, Weismuller became ‘Jungle Jim’ in a series of 16 low budget pictures for the Columbia Studio. Essentially, the character was a middle-aged Tarzan dressed in a safari suit. Weismuller still had an impressive physique in his early 50s, but obviously was no longer up to wrestling crocodiles or swinging through the trees.

‘Jungle Jim’ had first appeared in a comic strip created by Alex Raymond, the man behind Flash Gordon. For the last 3 films in the Columbia series, the studio lost the rights to use the character; perhaps because the producer was Sam Katzman, who was never known to spend a dollar when he could avoid it. Litigation was avoided by simply having Weissmuller play the same part as Johnny Weissmuller; a fictionalised version of himself! All very post-modern for the 1950s!

This entry kicks off with a 5-minute stock footage travelogue about the jungle, accompanied by helpful Voiceover Man, who tells us all about it, in case we weren’t sure what a jungle actually was. Then we’re off to Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan’s Californian ranch, where it’s still kill or be killed, or it would be if there were any jungle animals about apart from comic relief chimpanzee Kimba (filling in for Cheetah). Soon Johnny’s off to Baku country, accompanied by pretty Jean Byron, Myron Healy (‘Panther Girl of the Congo’ (1946)) and more bad white hunters, whose participation is assured by the inevitable presence of fabulous diamonds. Native tribesmen (actual black actors!) are looking for their chief’s son and then to avenge his death when he turns up croaked, apparently by a lost tribe of ‘Moon Men’.

These ‘Moon Men’ are played by a group of dwarves (all white!) with furry ear-muffs and long togas. Unfortunately, a couple of them seem to have suffered a wardrobe malfunction, and instead wear what look suspiciously like beach towels below their belts. They keep intruders at bay with blowpipes and poison darts, but look about as threatening as Willy Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas. Chief Moon Man Damu (the only one who gets any lines) is played by Billy Curtis, who grits his teeth around the stupid dialogue and looks completely pissed off by the whole thing. Understandably so, really. He’s more familiar now as the hero of ‘midget western’ ‘The Terror of Tiny Town’ (1938) (absolutely dreadful) and for his appearance as Moredcai in Clint Eastwood’s ‘High Plains Drifter’ (1973).

Jungle_Moon_Men_(1955)

After 20 years in Hollywood, Johnny had finally perfected the art of staring at things that weren’t there…

The Moon men are in thrall to the goddess Oma, played by fetching blonde Helene Stanton. Apparently, she legged it from Egypt centuries earlier when their civilisation went tits up, and ended up living in a cave in deepest Africa. Perfectly feasible and all in line with Byron’s crackpot theories. Stanton’s got the whole ’Ayesha’ act down fine, but ‘She who must be obeyed’ needs a high priest to serve at her side. It’s all very familiar territory to anyone who’s read ‘Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar’ or any other of the other jungle adventure penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs (and there were quite a few!)

Anyway, Oma is happy to take one of the younger captives as her new man, until Weismuller offers to take on the role himself! Of course, he’s not really interested (she’s beautiful, but doesn’t look like a lot of laughs) and the story then plays out completely as expected, involving some tepid action with lions and a severe case of sunburn.

This is obviously rather a feeble effort; a collection of third-hand ideas wedded to a tired and obvious formula. Having said that, it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as some of the earlier entries in the series, such as the tragic ‘Killer Ape’ (1953) where Weismuller wrestled with a stuntmen dressed in the top half of an ape costume and a pair of furry wellington boots.

‘Jungle Jim’ (legal issues sorted) became a TV show the same year that this movie came out and ran for 26 episodes. Weismuller returned but Kimba was replaced by Tamba in a crucial casting change. One more movie followed; ‘Devil Goddess’ (1956) and then Weismuller quit the jungle for good, sailing off into the sunset of a long and well-earned retirement. Umgawa!