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.
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.