The Lost Jungle is located on an island somewhere between Africa and Asia; the isle was once part of a land bridge between the continents and thus is home to lions, tigers, bears, and other animals not usually found in the same habitat. World-famous animal trainer Clyde Beatty (played by himself), his friend and press agent Larry Henderson (Syd Saylor), and Beatty’s murderously surly assistant Sharky (Warner Richmond), en route to Asia via dirigible to capture animals for Beatty’s circus shows, are the only survivors when their airship crashes on the island. They encounter not only the fauna of the “lost jungle,” but also a ship’s crew who came to the island with an expedition headed by a Professor Livingston (Crauford Kent). Livingston has found the Buried City of Kamor, the object of his expedition, but is shortly afterwards murdered for a Kamorian treasure chest by sailors Kirby and Flynn (Wheeler Oakman and Lew Meehan). Beatty and Henderson, along with ship’s captain Robinson (Edward LeSaint) and his daughter Ruth (Cecilia Parker), soon find themselves caught in the middle of a fierce struggle for the treasure between Kirby and Flynn, other members of the greedy and mutinous crew, and Sharky–who’s maniacally determined to use the treasure to start his own circus. The protagonists will have to dodge these human menaces, the island’s big cats, and a dangerous gorilla lurking in the ruins of Kamor, if they want to get out of the lost jungle in one piece.
The Lost Jungle’s thin narrative–a standard feature of Mascot serials–is more noticeable than those of most of the studio’s other cliffhanger outings, thanks to the chapterplay’s choice of setting. By confining the scramble for the treasure to a single island, instead of letting the hero-villain conflict range all over a big city or the Western frontier, the writers (Al Martin, John Rathmell, Colbert Clark, and Sherman Lowe) make the script’s excessive repetition far too noticeable. Forced to fill out twelve chapters despite a limiting storyline, both writers and directors (David Howard and Armand Schaefer) frequently seem to be padding the proceedings; the first chapter features a long lion-taming rehearsal that serves to establish Sharky’s hatred of his boss, and a lengthy big-top performance by Beatty; both sequences are entertaining and well-done, but also more elaborate than they need to be. Similarly, in Chapter Nine it takes a bit too long for the heroine and her father to dig out of a pile of debris in Kamor, while strategically-placed stock shots of wild animals are used to consume running time at other points (however, Lost Jungle doesn’t feature animal stock to anywhere near the extent that some of Universal’s jungle serials–particularly Call of the Savage–did).
Despite its monotonous plotting and its lack of scenic variety, Lost Jungle is on the whole an enjoyable serial. While there are only three key locations featured from Chapter Two onwards (the jungle, the sailors’ stockade, and the city of Kamor) all three settings are visually interesting. The jungle is represented partly by the soundstages typical of low-budget jungle films, but there’s also plenty of shooting in a genuine outdoor forest full of gnarled trees, tangled undergrowth, and a fair share of palms. The stockade, an imposing structure full of straw huts, is completely an outdoors set, while Kamor–with its tunnels, secret passages, and especially its massive main temple area–is very impressive.
The serial’s action scenes are energetic and as varied as possible under the circumstances; the directors avoid over-reliance on Beatty’s animal-taming skills, and alternate his many encounters with big cats with more traditional serial action. The Chapter Four fight in Kamor, with Beatty in danger of pitching into a crocodile pit, is very good–as is the climactic Chapter Twelve fight, staged in the same area. Other highlights include the chase around the stockade in Chapter Seven (during which Syd Saylor’s character, doubled by Yakima Canutt, performs a nifty pole-vault), the gorilla’s pursuit of the good guys through the tunnels of Kamor in Chapter Five (which is wittily titled “Gorilla Warfare”), and the lengthy battle at the stockade that bridges Chapters Ten and Eleven.
Some of the best animal action scenes are the tiger-in-the-stockade sequence in Chapter Two, Beatty and Saylor’s attempts to escape an angry lion in Chapter Three, and Beatty’s confrontation with a tiger outside the entrance to Kamor in Chapter Nine. The first-chapter animal act, while not pertinent to the main plot, is quite spectacular, utilizing not only lions and tigers, but also leopards, cougars, black bears, and grizzly bears. Beatty handles his own stuntwork in these and other sequences, although his occasional use of the “hypnotic eye” to quell big cats–while believable in the context of a rehearsed act–defies credibility when used as a defense against supposedly wild felines.
The cliffhanger sequences, like the action scenes, are more varied than one would expect. There are plenty of cat-attack cliffhangers–the lion encounter that closes Chapter One, the tiger attack on Syd Saylor at the end of Chapter Seven (very cleverly resolved in Chapter Eight)–but they’re balanced by sequences like Beatty’s tumble from a log bridge at the end of Chapter Three, Sharky’s sledgehammer destruction of Kamor’s pillars at the end of Chapter Eight (which sends the roof crashing in on Cecilia Parker and Ed LeSaint), and Saylor and Wheeler Oakman’s dangle from a chandelier above a crocodile pit in Chapter Eleven.
Lost Jungle’s cast members tackle their roles with an enthusiasm that goes a long way towards making up for the weak script. Star Clyde Beatty, though a non-professional actor, acquits himself very well, conveying a cheerfully boyish love of adventure and a quietly self-assured toughness that compensates for his sometimes flat or awkward line delivery and for his slightly comical appearance.
Syd Saylor tosses off wisecracks aplenty and indulges in some mugging (including his trademark Adam’s-apple waggling), but makes his fast-talking character seem more savvy than bumbling. His energy in dialogue scenes helps to cover Beatty’s inexperience, and he’s also able to quite credibly function as a co-hero, carrying several action sequences–including most of Chapter Ten–all by himself.
Blonde beauty Cecilia Parker makes a wonderful heroine, skillfully balancing wide-eyed concern and cheerful spunkiness in a performance more modulated than those delivered by many other Mascot leading ladies. The portly and elderly Ed LeSaint is somewhat physically miscast as Parker’s tough sea-captain father (someone like Pat O’Malley or Kenneth Harlan would have suited the part better), but delivers a lively performance that’s much more interesting than his stolid turns in other serials like The Oregon Trail.
Wheeler Oakman is a delight as the villainous Kirby; his crafty facial expressions (as when he’s contemplating tossing Beatty in the alligator pit) and aggressively swaggering manner (well-displayed in the scene where he threatens LeSaint with mutiny) make him an enjoyably larger-than-life heavy. Lew Meehan is also very entertaining as his tough but dull-witted cohort; some of their dialogue interchanges (particularly in the scene where Meehan suspects Oakman of planning to double-cross him) are hilarious.
The other members of the mutinous crew are similarly colorful, particularly Jack Carlyle’s ill-tempered ship’s cook and Max Wagner’s Slade–a self-assured but shifty sailor with a phonily stalwart manner who tries to deceive almost all the principals at one time or another. Slim Whittaker, Maston Williams, Hal Taliaferro, and Jim Corey are all vividly seedy and nasty as additional sailors.
The most memorable villain in the serial, however, is Warner Richmond’s Sharky, who begins as a snarling and vindictive jerk and slowly becomes a demented but cunning monomaniac. Richmond’s intense raving when he finds the treasure (“I’ll show Beatty who’s the greatest animal trainer in the world!”), the leering cunning with which he negotiates with Slade, and the insane glee with which he wreaks undetected havoc in the buried city all go to make him a truly memorable loose-cannon heavy.
Ernie Adams appears very briefly as a circus roustabout in the first chapter, while Harry Holman is amusing as the corpulent and excitable circus manager. Young Mickey Rooney (yes, the Mickey Rooney) has a prominent role in Chapter One as a feisty young fan of Beatty’s. Another future celebrity, George “Gabby” Hayes, appears as a talkative dirigible passenger in the first chapter, while Lloyd Ingraham is the dirigible’s captain and Lloyd Whitlock a panic-stricken crewman. Mickey Rentschler is another of Beatty’s youthful fans in Chapter One, and Crauford Kent plays the ill-fated Professor Robinson. Frank Lanning pops up briefly as the (apparently) only surviving inhabitant of Kamor. Only surviving human inhabitant, that is; I’m unsure of who plays the gorilla that haunts the city, but his performance is very lively. The serial’s genuine animals are supplied by the Hagenbeck-Wallace Menagerie.
Despite its lack of Mascot’s customary spaciousness of setting–which in turn accentuates Mascot’s customarily flimsy plotting–The Lost Jungle is ultimately salvaged by other Mascot hallmarks: spirited and colorful performances, an exciting assortment of action scenes, and the distinctive tinge of wildly imaginative adventurousness that permeates almost all of the studio’s cliffhangers.