Call of the Savage deals with the adventures of a young man named Jan (Noah Beery Jr.) who has grown up in the jungle with only a trusty chimpanzee for company. Jan’s wild life is interrupted by the machinations of Dr. Bracken (Walter Miller), a venal scientist bent on obtaining a cure for infantile paralysis (aka polio) developed fifteen years ago by Jan’s father Dr. Trevor (Bryant Washburn) in an African research camp. Half of the formula for the cure was inscribed by Trevor on a flexible metal wristband worn by his son, just before a disastrous lion attack that took the life of Trevor’s wife and colleague, sent Jan and his chimp friend Chicma fleeing into the jungle, and left Trevor an amnesiac. Bracken obtains half of the formula from the befogged Trevor, and sets out with his colleague Phillips (Frederic McKaye) to capture Jan and obtain the other half. However, Jan is helped by a kindly sailor named Borno (Harry Woods), actually the exiled Captain of the Guards from the lost city of Mu. Borno is also attempting to return ostensible trader’s daughter Mona Andrews (Dorothy Short), really the unwitting lost princess of Mu, to her city and thwart the usurper that banished him. Eventually, circumstances force Jan, Mona, and Borno to embark on a lengthy and dangerous jungle journey to Mu, pursued by the relentless Bracken and Phillips; Mona’s foster father Andrews (Russ Powell), unaware of the two doctors’ crookedness, accompanies the Bracken expedition, as does the still-amnesiac Dr. Trevor. After encountering many jungle perils, all parties concerned reach Mu, where even greater danger lurks in the person of the usurping Prince Samu (John Davidson), who is determined to keep the Emperor of Mu from learning that his daughter still lives and who takes a dim view of outsiders in general.
Call of the Savage is a very enjoyable and rather overlooked serial, somewhat deliberately paced but full of interesting characters and exciting incidents. Directed by Lew Landers (Louis Friedlander), the cliffhanger is ostensibly based on a magazine story by Otis Adelbert Kline but owes a great deal more to the Tarzan movies and books. The script, by Basil Dickey, Nate Gatzert, and George H. Plympton, enhances the standard safari storyline by drawing on a gimmick frequently used in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan novels–the lost white city in the heart of the African wilderness. However, the citizenry of Mu (supposedly the descendants of an ancient English expedition, despite bizarre names like Borno, Samu, and Tichak) display far more advanced science-fiction technology than the time-frozen Romans, Greeks, and Crusaders in Burroughs’ books. As Alan Barbour, Raymond Stedman, and other serial scholars have pointed out, in this regard Mu looks forward to the outer-space civilizations in Universal’s later Flash Gordon serials. Universal’s castle sets from the Frankenstein films serve admirably as the corridors, chambers, and dungeons of Mu.
Mu is not reached until the serial’s tenth chapter, allowing plenty of time for fights with natives, big cat attacks, and other more typical jungle-movie action sequences. Reviewers of the serial frequently state that the action should have moved to Mu much sooner, and that the story merely treads water in the middle segments. While more Mu action would have been fun, and while the numerous stock-footage sequences of animal fights definitely make the jungle scenes feel padded at times, the plot never really seems to bog down, maintaining a persistent forward momentum thanks to the characters’ continuous trek towards Mu. The serial further avoids stagnation by changing some of the characters’ relationships at the two-thirds mark; Andrews discovers Bracken’s treachery and joins with Borno and Jan, while Trevor finally regains his memory.
The many animal-on-animal fights are at least varied, if not always well-integrated with the action–among them are a fight between a hyena and a bear and a battle between a binturong (bearcat) and a monitor lizard. There are also some exciting newly-shot human-on-animal battles, among them Noah Beery Jr.’s intense tussles with a tiger and two different lions–performed by trainer Melvin Koontz, who doubles Beery and provides the lion (Jackie) and tiger (Satan) used in the combat scenes. The most memorable man vs. beast sequence, however, is a lengthy battle of wits between Beery and a large gorilla that takes the combatants up and down a canyon wall and in and out of a cave; unfortunately, the actor playing the pesky ape is uncredited. There’s also an excellent fight on a large river raft between our heroes and some hostile natives, culminating in a cliffhanger in which the raft goes over a waterfall. Another striking cliffhanger features Beery swinging out a tree to rescue Short and Woods from cannibals, only to fall at the feet of the natives and face their upraised spears in an intimidating point-of-view shot. Other standout chapter endings feature Short falling into a pit with one lion while Beery battles another, Beery apparently being trampled by stampeding elephants, Beery tumbling off a Mu staircase with a guard while a ceiling of spikes descends on his friends, and the good guys threatened with skewering by Prince Samu’s lancer corps.
Call of the Savage’s cast is excellent, although some of its members–especially Noah Beery Jr. and Harry Woods–are decidedly offbeat choices for their roles. Beery, the perennial movie and serial sidekick, fits into the pseudo-Tarzan mold much better than someone familiar with his character-acting work might think. He uses the same cheerful naivety he displayed in his hayseed sidekick parts to make Jan’s good-natured noble savagery believable, and is powerfully-built enough to be quite convincing in action sequences. Some reviewers have criticized his exuberant and simple characterization as comical (his Jan is a very limited conversationalist and spends a lot of time grinning and laughing in lieu of talking) but considering that he’s playing a wild jungle boy, his unsophisticated performance seems quite appropriate; the character has more in common with Johnny Weismuller’s feature-film Tarzan than with any other serial hero.
Harry Woods serves as the serial’s co-hero, directing and planning the good guys’ moves and taking over the aspects of the usual serial hero’s role unsuited to Beery’s character. Woods is terrific in the part, managing to convey dignity, kindness, and selfless dedication. Dorothy Short is charming, sympathetic, and exceedingly cute as heroine Mona; her patient attempts to communicate with Noah Beery Jr. are particularly fun to watch. In one of these scenes, the writers manage an amusing riff on the oft- quoted “Me Tarzan–You Jane” interchange.
Walter Miller is in his usual fine villainous form as the aggressive, impulsive, and domineering Dr. Bracken. Fredric McKaye is good as his slicker and more circumspect partner, and usually-stalwart William Desmond is surprisingly cast as the shifty jungle guide who eventually goes wholeheartedly over to the villains’ side.
Russ Powell is very likable as the heroine’s foster father, particularly in his comically mild-mannered interchanges (“Yes, my love?”) with his shrewish wife (Gwendolyn Logan, who is quite amusing but drops out of sight early in the serial). Bryant Washburn does little in the first two-thirds of the serial but stagger around in an amnesiac fog, continually calling “Jan–my boy, Jan;” however, he extracts some actual pathos from the part. In the serial’s opening sequence, and in later scenes following the restoration of Trevor’s memory, Washburn gets to display a wider range of emotions, making his character seem suave, thoughtful, and heroic.
John Davidson, though only appearing in the last two chapters, makes a strong impression as the sneaky Prince Samu, stealing scenes with the help of his rolling voice and some quirky facial expressions. Stanley Andrews is Davidson’s dignified dupe, the Emperor of Mu, and Eddie Kane is his chief general. Hal Taliaferro, Al Ferguson, and Buddy Roosevelt also pop up in Mu, as, respectively, the captain of the lancers, a guardsman, and Davidson’s chief accomplice. Eddie Parker, who also contributed to the serial’s stuntwork, can be seen as another Mu guardsman. Grace Cunard, a major leading lady in silent serials, plays a chatty matron who befriends the heroine on shipboard, while Viva Tattersall, the heroine of Mascot’s 1933 cliffhanger The Whispering Shadow, is Jan’s ill-fated mother, and Don Brodie is Trevor’s equally unlucky colleague. Charles Murphy is the nasty sailor who captures Jan in the opening episode, and J. P. McGowan is a ship’s captain. J. Frank Glendon appears as a research foundation head, H. Burroughs plays the imposing head bearer of Bracken and Andrews’ safari, and young Dickie Jones is appealing as young Jan in the first chapter. Chicma, Jan’s companion in childhood and adulthood, is played by one of the largest movie chimps I’ve ever seen (he comes up to Beery’s waist) and is also one of the most helpful and least comically annoying monkeys ever seen in a jungle picture.
Call of the Savage is often neglected by fans, who duly note it as a historically significant Tarzan imitation and Flash Gordon precursor, and then dismiss it without further comment. However, it’s a solidly entertaining serial in its own right, not as memorable as the Gordon serials and not as cohesive as Universal’s later jungle serial Tim Tyler’s Luck, but still a respectable and colorful jungle adventure.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to my sister Mary, whose interest in animals and in film history provided me with the name of Call of the Savage’s animal trainer (and of his trained cats).