Joan Redmond (Betty Jane Rhodes), supposedly drowned as a child with her wealthy parents when their ship sank off the African coast, has actually grown up in the depths of the jungle, worshipped as a “Lion Goddess” by the isolated Basumbo tribe. The Redmond family lawyer, hoping to locate the long-lost heiress, hires guide Red Hallihan to take him to the Basumbo country–but both lawyer and guide are murdered at the instigation of the villainous Bruce Redmond (Bryant Washburn), who stands to inherit the Redmond family fortune if his relation Joan is never found and hopes to eliminate the girl before she learns of her identity. Unluckily for Redmond, Hallihan’s friends and fellow-guides–Jungle Jim Bradley (Grant Withers) and Malay Mike (Raymond Hatton)–decide to avenge their buddy’s death and complete his mission; they trek into the jungle in hot pursuit of Redmond and his henchmen Slade and Labat (Al Bridge and Paul Sutton). Upon arrival in the land of the Basumbos, both parties encounter the sinister “White Cobra” (Henry Brandon), a fugitive criminal who, by posing as the Lion Goddess’s father, enjoys a position of power among the natives second only to that of the Goddess herself–and is determined to keep the Goddess from leaving the jungle. Jim and Mike must first win Joan’s trust and convince her of her real parentage, then battle Redmond’s safari and the Cobra’s warriors in order to return the girl to civilization.
Jungle Jim, based on a comic strip drawn by Alex Raymond, belongs to the excellent 1936-1937 group of Universal chapterplays turned out by ex-Mascot Pictures staffers; like most of the other outings in that group, it moves far faster than a typical Universal serial, but still finds time to vividly characterize both its heroes and villains. Jim was a “lost” serial for almost seventy years, remaining unseen after its inital run until released on DVD in 2003; as a result, it failed to gain the multi-generational following that several of its contemporaries–Ace Drummond, Tim Tyler’s Luck, Radio Patrol–won through television re-airings in the 1950s. However, it’s definitely fast-paced, colorful, involving, and “adventurous” enough to rank right alongside said contemporaries.
The excellent writing team of Wyndham Gittens, Norman Hall, and Ray Trampe (which scripted almost all the Mascot-cum-Univeral serials) plays a big part in Jim’s success. Despite the simplicity of the basic plot, the trio keeps the action from ever seeming repetitious; the initially hostile Joan’s softening towards Jim and Mike, the brittle and ever-shifting alliances between the various villains, the Cobra’s tenuous relationship with his increasingly suspicious “daughter,” the Basumbo tribe’s changes of allegiance, and the late entry of an enigmatic new character (whose goals remain unknown until the penultimate chapter) all help to keep the narrative interesting for the entire length of the serial.
Gittens, Hall, and Trampe lend further interest to the narrative by placing almost all the action in an isolated and savage jungle region that contains nothing in the way of a safe base for the heroes; this wonderful setup keeps the protagonists almost perpetually on the move, gives a continual sense of danger to the proceedings, and makes the heroes’ quest to return the Lion Goddess to civilization seem satisfyingly arduous. The jungle atmosphere is enhanced by lots of outdoor shooting on the Universal backlot and in the Lake Sherwood forest; although the rock formations, thickets, and stretches of grassland employed don’t look exactly tropical, they do look suitably wild. Universal’s impressive castle set–seen in the studio’s Frankenstein movies and in the first Flash Gordon serial–is also featured prominently throughout as the Cobra’s citadel; although it’s never explained just how the structure wound up in Africa, it brings welcome variety to the serial’s visuals.
Like most jungle-themed serials and B-movies, Jim makes periodic use of stock-footage animal sequences–but these scenes are uniformly brief and are typically used to serve the plot, not just fill up screen time as in Universal’s earlier serial Call of the Savage or in Sam Katzman’s later Jungle Jim features. Even the longest of the stock scenes, the natives’ lion hunt in Chapter Eight, is relatively short and serves a plot purpose beyond padding (delaying Slade and Redmond).
There are also many original (and first-rate) animal sequences, two of the best being the lion attack on Jim’s safari in Chapter One and Jim and Mike’s nighttime encounter with a fierce and frighteningly persistent tiger* in Chapter Seven. The heroine’s more peaceful scenes with her pet lion are impressive too; actress Betty Jane Rhodes shares shots with the big cat in more than one sequence, obviously without the assistance of any process-screen trickery. Rhodes’ leonine buddy was played by Jackie, an unusually docile and intelligent lion owned and trained by celebrated Hollywood animal handler Melvin Koontz; Koontz’s trained tiger Satan also appears in the serial, while Koontz himself doubles both Grant Withers and Raymond Hatton, staging impressive wrestling matches with the aid of Jackie and Satan whenever Jim or Mike get into fights with lions or tigers. The leopards that appear in the serial were handled by Olga Celeste and Albert Allcorn (who was bitten in the leg by a leopard and hospitalized while doubling Withers in another scene).
Jim’s combination of animal attack scenes with jungle chases, castle escapes, shootouts, and occasional fistfights gives the serial’s action scenes a pleasing variety; directors Ford Beebe and Cliff Smith handle each type of sequence with skill. Eddie Parker doubles Grant Withers in the fight scenes, while Tom Steele does similar duty for villains Paul Sutton, Al Bridge, and Henry Brandon in different sequences. The climactic Chapter Twelve fight, the Chapter Four brawl in the Cobra’s ammunition-storage chamber, and the fight above the waterfall in Chapter Two are all energetic albeit unpolished; the latter sequence is accompanied by an excellent shootout between Jim’s group and Redmond’s safari. Jim’s arena fight with a tiger in Chapter Two, the bullwhip-assisted castle getaway in Chapter Five, the risky hand-over-hand climb across a chasm later in the same episode, Jim and Mike’s invasion of the castle in Chapter Nine, and an unarmed Mike’s resourceful defense of a cave in Chapter Eleven are among the serial’s other action highlights.
The serial’s chapter endings are good, although–as always at Universal–too many of them are resolved by having the hero simply shrug off what should be serious injuries (Jim’s recovery from his shooting at the end of Chapter Nine is a particularly egregious example). The landslide in Chapter Seven, the burning hut scene in Chapter Three, and the fall from the rope bridge in Chapter Five all make excellent cliffhanger sequences, but the best of the chapter endings is the Chapter Six one that has Jim and Mike apparently executed by a firing squad of spearmen, which is not only well-staged but resolved in simple but logical fashion.
As in most Universal serials–both from the “Mascot Invasion” era and from other periods of the studio’s chapterplay-producing history–the leading characters are all individualized to a degree and given many small but interesting character moments. Grant Withers does an excellent job in the title role; though gruff and grim when facing wild beasts or vowing to get the murderers of Red Hallihan, he’s also likably gentle and soft-spoken in his scenes with leading lady Betty Jane Rhodes and wryly good-humored in his interchanges with sidekick Raymond Hatton.
Hatton, perfectly cast as the cagy and cheerfully disreputable Malay Mike, repeatedly steals scenes with his roguish facial expressions, impudently-delivered quips (like the “Little Annie Oakley” comments in Chapter Ten), and amusing bits of physical business (grabbing a banana on his way to the dungeon, silently counting a native “out” in referee style). His Mike is more than just a funnyman, however; Hatton is convincingly tough and shrewd in the action scenes, coming off as a full equal to the hero in marksmanship or jungle savvy.
The youthful Betty Jane Rhodes is very good as Joan Redmond, seeming both self-reliant and ingenuous enough to be believable as a jungle-raised girl. She manages to make her initial anger at the intruding heroes seem more the result of ignorance than malevolence, and easily switches to sympathetic mode in subsequent episodes; her affectionate interactions with her lion friends, her fiery confrontations with the treacherous Cobra, and her heartbroken reaction to Jim’s apparent death are particularly appealing.
Henry Brandon is haughty, crafty, and menacing as the Cobra; though he lays his incessant schemes with coolness and suavely tries to stay on the good side of the Lion Goddess, he also gives all his scenes a touch of ominously feverish tenseness that occasionally erupts into full-fledged anger. He’s especially intimidating in the volcano-eruption scene in Chapter Seven, terrorizing the rebellious Basumbos into doing his bidding with all the ferocious arrogance of a Miltonic devil. Evelyn Brent, as the Cobra’s sister and fellow-fugitive Shanghai Lil, does little more than serve as a sounding board for her sibling’s plans and deliver sarcastic comments on their perceived weak points. She does it well, however; her harshly down-to-earth manner gives her wisecracks plenty of bite, and also contrasts nicely with Brandon’s more aristocratic bearing.
Bryant Washburn’s Redmond begins the serial as a smug and self-assured villain, but quickly becomes a cringing coward in the face of jungle dangers, a man trapped between his own fear and his own greed. Washburn does full justice to the part with his furtive facial expressions and nervous line delivery, especially during Redmond’s berserk, self-pitying breakdown in Chapter Eleven. Al Bridge, as the tough and cunning Slade, makes a perfect counterweight to Washburn’s Redmond; his character soon emerges as the real leader of the secondary villain group, craftily trying to outmaneuver both the good guys and the Cobra’s forces and treating his nominal boss with sneering contempt. Paul Sutton is also terrific as the swaggering, boastful, and rather piratical-looking Labat, a murderous Frenchman equally adept with a gun or a knife. Sutton uses his deep, booming voice to very good advantage and creates so memorably colorful a heavy that it’s somewhat disappointing when he exits the proceedings at the halfway mark.
Al Duvall plays Joan’s trusty and helpful servant Kolu; his line delivery, although generally energetic, is often a bit flat and careless; the longer the dialogue scene, the more likely he seems to place emphasis on the wrong word or break up his sentence in strange places. William Royle is good as the coolly capable but mysterious Hawks, a pilot and apparent gun-runner who enters the serial in Chapter Nine; his performance combines aspects of his businesslike outlaw from Flaming Frontiers and his upright hero from Drums of Fu Manchu.
Selmer Jackson is genial and fatherly in his brief turn as the Redmond family lawyer in the first chapter; Frank McGlynn Jr. is also sympathetic as the rough but jovial Red Hallihan. Frank Mayo plays the heroine’s father in the shipwreck sequence that serves as the serial’s prologue, while Betty Jane Rhodes takes a brief second role as her primary character’s mother, Marianne Edwards plays the young Joan, and J.P. McGowan is the captain of the doomed ship. Claude King has a bit as a British colonial official, Jack Clifford as a belligerent roughneck, and Monte Montague as a bartender; Everett Brown appears throughout the serial as various native warriors.
Jungle Jim’s score, for the most part, consists of a serviceable mixture of classical and studio stock pieces like those that dotted the soundtracks of other Universal serials; however, it’s distinguished (if that’s the right word) by an original song by Kay Kellogg, called “I’m Takin’ the Jungle Trail.” This ballad is (fortunately) only trotted out twice (in Chapters One and Three); a dubbed Grant Withers is forced to perform some unconvincing lip-synching each time. However, while “Trail’s” lyrics are pretty silly (it might be the only non-comic song to refer to hippos), the march-like tune itself is actually rather good; it provides rousing accompaniment for the comic-strip recap sequences at the beginning of each chapter, giving the viewer a pleasant sense of anticipation.
Acting, writing, pacing, direction, and action scenes are all very strong in Jungle Jim, but its greatest quality is the “adventurousness” that I mentioned at the beginning of this review. Like The Lost Jungle, Tim Tyler’s Luck, Hawk of the Wilderness, Jungle Girl, and Perils of Nyoka, Jim seems to take place in a world at once familiar and fantastic, the undiscovered hinterlands where only the brave dare venture, terrain in which anything can happen and is bound to happen very fast when it does. This hard-to-define but irresistible quality, when combined with Jungle Jim’s other strengths, is more than enough to make it one of Universal’s best and most entertaining serials.
*This serial does provide an explanation for the existence of tigers in the African wilds, unlike most jungle cliffhangers from the 1930s; the striped cats are supposed to be the descendants of the cargo of animals Joan’s father was transporting when he was wrecked.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to my sister Mary, an animal lover and movie buff who’s spent many hours researching the history of trained horses, dogs, and big cats in Hollywood–on Internet sites, in the papers of the period, and in numerous books. She identified Melvin Koontz and his trained lion and tiger for me, and also provided me with the information on Olga Celeste, Albert Allcorn, and Allcorn’s leopard mishap.