Johnny Weismuller finds a dead white man on the banks of a river in the jungle. He turns out to be a government man in charge of a missing shipment of cobalt and, although his death is attributed to a crocodile attack, Johnny has his own ideas…
In some strange 1950s alternate universe, Johnny Weismuller was not an ageing star relegated to B- Movie hell, but a heroic trail guide and all-purpose government fix-it man, pitting his jungle wits against tribes of Moon Men, displaced voodoo cults and men crawling about under rubber crocodile skins. Unfortunately, in the real world, he was working with a ‘cash-conscious’ film producer who lost the rights to make films using the name ‘Jungle Jim’ and decided to re-christen the character as ‘Johnny Weismuller’ to get around the problem. Yes, that producer was the legendary Sam Katzman and this was Weismuller’s penultimate turn running around the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanical Garden in a safari suit.
lt’s obvious from the get-go that this outing is going in a vastly different direction from the rest of the series. Instead of a talky, five-minute opening scene that explains the entire plot, we get a talky, five-minute scene that just explains most of it. This exposition dump comes courtesy of sensible, upright mining engineerJohn King (Steve Darrell) and the visiting Commissioner (Charles Evans). Originally contracted to dig iron ore, King and his unreliable brother (David Bruce) have discovered cobalt! This magic substance is ‘more valuable than uranium’ due to its multiple uses in medicine, electronics, jet aircraft engines, machine tools, delicate magnets and dental bridgework. It’s a bonanza to be sure, but the mine is located deep in the jungle and the only way to get the ore out is down a river infested with crocodiles.
But let’s back up for a minute here. Who are these guys working for exactly? I guess it’s the U.S. Government? Or is it some private corporation? Perhaps the two were interchangeable in the minds of a 1950s audience? There’s not a trace of any native authorities or officials anywhere and, in fact, the local population is almost solely represented by Darrell’s ward, Luora (Judy Walsh), who is apparently of mixed race.
When Weismuller starts investigating the missing shipment, Walsh tags along and actually makes an obvious play for the big man! Certainly not something a ‘nice girl’ would do, is it? All that soppy romantic stuff was firmly relegated to the supporting cast in the Jungle Jim universe, of course, so there’s no chance of her getting anywhere, but she’s foiled by the antics of chimpanzee Kimba anyway. She doesn’t take this kindly: ‘I’m sorry, I have no sense of humour. It must be my jungle blood.’ Ouch.
Leaving aside the dodgy racial and colonial politics, what we have here is Weismuller as a detective. For once, it’s not blindingly obvious who the heroes and villains are, although when it’s revealed it’s hardly a big surprise. Anyway, it’s up to Weismuller to piece everything together. Could King’s foreman Rovak (Bruce Cowling) be involved? After all, his name sounds a bit foreign, doesn’t it? And how do this mysterious tribe of missing cannibals with their ridiculous crocodile fetish fit in? We do know they gave up cannibalism years ago, though, which renders the movie’s title pointless for anything other than box-office purposes. The climax features a mass brawl on boats and a raft in the middle of the river. After a couple of minutes, the bad guys even remember to use their guns!
Amongst all the crocodile stock footage, our cast do their best to remain professional. Walsh was as American as apple pie but her dark looks saw her cast as various ethnicities in a very brief film career; Arabian in ‘Aladdin and the Magic Lamp’ (1952), native American in ‘The Half-Breed’ (1952) and lunar-feline in ‘Cat-Women of the Moon’ (1954). Bruce appeared as ‘The Mad Ghoul’ (1943) in one of the weakest entries from Universal Pictures during their horror heyday. But the most crucial casting here finds Tamba, the Talented Chimp, replaced by up-and-comer Kimba. Sadly, the new addition obviously lacks experience or the necessary comedy chops displayed by his predecessor. Also it completely changes the central character dynamic of the entire series. And I could be wrong but is that a ‘stunt chimp’ doing those backflips at the end of the picture?
One more film in the series followed; ‘Devil Goddess'(1955), but it wasn’t quite Weismuller’s last hurrah. When producer Katzman lost the character rights, they ended up with Screen Gems who immediately developed a TV series and hired the big man to star! 27 episodes later, he finally quit the jungle and retired. Somewhat ironically, the TV show was brought to the small screen through Columbia, who had also released the movies. But Katzman obviously wasn’t bothered. He retained his links with the studio, unleashed ‘Rock Around The Clock’ (1956) and made a mint.
More predictable jungle shenanigans from the deadly partnership of Weismuller and Katzman. This one comes with a little more plot than usual, but also with some very outdated and unfortunate attitudes.