While visiting the Indian realm of Rampur, American salesman Robert Grant (Walter Miller) learns that he bears an extraordinary resemblance to the country’s Rajah–a resemblance which soon disrupts Grant’s whole life. He agrees to temporarily impersonate the Rajah (mortally wounded during a tiger hunt) in order to protect Rampur’s throne from the Rajah’s villainous cousin Prince Dakka–but is betrayed by an animal trader named Harris (Tom Santschi) and framed for the Rajah’s murder; Harris expects a hefty reward for this treachery from Dakka, but is betrayed himself when the compromising “contract” that he’s co-signed with the wily prince proves to have been written in vanishing ink. A year elapses, during which time Harris has moved on to Africa to continue his animal-trading activities, while also searching for a way to bring out the writing on the contract; Grant, meanwhile, has escaped from prison and picked up Harris’s trail–seeking to recover a note from the dead Rajah that can clear him, and that happens to be written on the other side of the sheet of paper that holds the vanished contract. The two men’s struggle for this doubly valuable document soon intersects with another struggle–Harris’ attempt to force the secret location of a diamond deposit from the planter who discovered it, young Tom Armitage (Carroll Nye). To pry the secret from Armitage, Harris forms a shaky alliance with the sly and duplicitous Arab bandit Mustapha (Boris Karloff); however, Grant comes to the aid of Tom and his sister Muriel, repeatedly protecting them from the two conspirators–while also trying desperately to acquire the all-important letter. A hostile native tribe, a couple of additional false murder charges against Muriel and Grant, and a mysterious and deadly treasure-hunter in dark glasses all complicate the situation further, as do attacks made by various jungle cats and by Harris’ monstrous pet ape-man Bimi (Arthur McLaglen), the King of the Wild.
King of the Wild, as you can see from the above summary, is a serial filled with plotting convolutions (some of which I didn’t even manage to enumerate in the preceding paragraph). Thus far, it’s a fairly standard Mascot chapterplay, but it differs from the Mascot template in several other ways. Most noticeably, the serial is conspicuously lacking in the lively and lengthy action setpieces that one expects from a Mascot chapterplay; the characters spend a lot more time trailing each other, spying on each other, and accusing each other than they do actively fighting or chasing each other. One suspects that either Yakima Canutt was too busy working on other Mascot efforts to contribute much stuntwork to this outing, or that Mascot boss Nat Levine spent so much money on assembling the serial’s wild animals and renting its exotic sets that he decided to make up his expenditures by cutting back on the action scenes.
Whatever the reason for King of the Wild’s comparative scarcity of action, it’s not as crippling a flaw as it would have been in many other Mascot serials–due in large part to the fact that Wild’s storyline, convoluted as it is, stays comprehensible throughout its twelve chapters and is wrapped up in satisfyingly logical style in the final episode–another and more beneficial deviation from the Mascot template. Had the plot of Wild been as blithely illogical or as contradictorily concluded as those of many of Mascot’s more action-packed serials, the chapterplay would have ultimately felt like a complete waste of the viewer’s time. Instead, Wild plays more like one of Universal’s early-1930s serials, featuring a talky but involving story that plays out at a deliberate but steady pace–although Wild has a far stronger atmosphere of adventure and genuine danger than said Universal efforts; the relentless way in which the odds against the beleaguered protagonists keep lengthening, and the violent unexpectedness with which several good and bad characters are killed during the course of the serial, make Wild infinitely more tense and suspenseful than upbeat and relatively sedate Universals like The Perils of Pauline.
The gripping way in which writers Ford Beebe and Wyndham Gittens handle Wild’s plotting does much to keep the serial’s two main conflicts–the battle for the diamond mine and the struggle over the Rajah’s letter–from seeming pointlessly repetitious; Beebe and Gittens’ careful balancing and interweaving of the two plotlines also helps to prevent either one from wearing out its welcome, as do an interesting series of plot twists–the several murders of which the hero and heroine are accused, the unexpected reappearance of the vengeful native tribe introduced much earlier in the serial, the surprising revelation of the character Peterson’s hidden agenda, and the series of clashes between Harris and his untrustworthy colleague Mustapha. The serial’s strong characterizations do much to keep the story interesting as well; the writers must share credit with a fine cast here, of whom more will be said later.
Action sequences are not completely absent in King of the Wild; the serial contains plenty of moments of physical confrontation and physical peril, although such scenes are almost invariably brief ones. Many of them involve the aforementioned wild animals, although the level of actual animal involvement varies greatly in the various scenes (the level of thrills fluctuating correspondingly). The hero’s deadly game of tag with a lion in the ship’s hold in Chapter Two is quite exciting, as is the ensuing sequence in which the lion runs wild on the ship, chasing the crew and causing a wreck; the lion attack on the French policeman in Chapter One is much shorter, but is vivid as well, featuring obviously genuine shots of man and cat grappling with each other; the heroine’s encounter with a leopard in Chapter Ten is less convincing, combining as it does a dummy and a real cat; the leopard attack on Mustapha in the next chapter and the tiger attack in Chapter One are almost entirely reliant on dummies, only using footage of actual animals in the pre-attack scenes. Melvin Koontz (who staged many wrestling matches in other 1930s films with his trained lion Jackie) and Olga Celeste (a leopard specialist) might be the trainers/stunt-doubles in the lion-versus-policeman and leopard-versus-heroine sequences, but that’s merely a guess on my part.
Perhaps the most memorable animal attack in Wild is the novel sequence in Chapters Six and Seven, which has the villainous Harris first using a full-sized elephant to threaten the heroine and then having the pachyderm lift the hero off the ground when he interferes; the animal must have been well-trained, since we can clearly see that both Walter Miller and Nora Lane are actually being held by its trunk (the elephant, and a second one, also pop up during the first-chapter tiger hunt, during which several actors ride on their backs). In a more traditional action vein, Walter Miller’s tree-climbing and vine-swinging flight from a pair of lions and a pair of policemen in Chapters Eight and Nine is quite good, as the final horseback chase; the earlier horseback chase in Chapter Ten (which has the hero standing on his galloping steed before leaping to pull his adversary from his horse) is also noteworthy, as is the fierce and rather violent grapple between Walter Miller and Tom Santschi in Chapter Seven. Miller, in most of these scenes and in several other good climbing and running sequences, seems to be doing his own stuntwork, as do his co-stars–although Miller is almost certainly doubled (probably by Canutt) for the leap from the horse and the vine-swinging.
Miller’s frightening fight with the ferocious monster Bimi is another memorable piece of action, dramatically staged and shot by director Richard Thorpe and cameramen Ben Kline and Ed Kull; this sequence serves as an (excellent) cliffhanger for Chapter One. Most of the serial’s other chapter endings are similarly good–the bulk of them skillfully managing to simultaneously but separately imperil hero and heroine. Chapter Four features two of the best of these twinned perils, with the heroine rolling down a slope (at Bronson Canyon) towards a lava bed while the hero is dropped into a tiger pit; other good examples of double cliffhanging include the end of Chapter Six (the hero is arrested for murder while the heroine is grabbed by the elephant), the end of Chapter Eight (the hero dangles above some crocodiles while Bimi seizes the heroine), and the end of Chapter Nine (the hero plunges through a trapdoor while the heroine is attacked by a leopard). The conclusion of Chapter Five (the heroine is shot while the hero is about to be choked by Bimi) is good too, but is marred by a cheat in the resolution of one of its perils. One of the serial’s best cliffhangers, however, doesn’t physically imperil anyone: the apparent burning of the coveted letter at the end of Chapter Eleven, a scene that–after all the protagonists have suffered in pursuit of said letter–really packs an emotional wallop; the drama is heightened by the horror-stricken facial reactions of both the hero and his opponent Harris, who are powerless to stop the incineration of the paper.
Above, top right and left: Arthur McLaglen tosses Carroll Nye before starting to throttle Walter Miller at the end of Chapter One. Bottom left and right: Walter Miller plunges into a covered-over tiger pit, while at the same time Nora Lane tumbles down a volcanic slope (after being tripped by the mystery man in the black glasses, who’s hiding behind a rock at the top of the shot).
The serial’s sets–the sprawling native village, Mustapha’s seedy café, the streets and buildings of an Arab-dominated African town, Harris’ animal compound–are quite good and help to enhance the serial’s faraway atmosphere; Bronson Canyon and Bronson Cave are used to excellent effect in other scenes, convincingly impersonating a volcanic crater and the tunnel leading to it. The serial’s “jungle” landscapes–an assortment of lightly wooded slopes, open flats, and dense thickets of low-lying foliage–are effective as well, and even geographically appropriate, if one assumes–as one must, from the combined presence of Arabs, black tribesmen, and British colonial officials–that the action is taking place in the non-tropical East African area (perhaps somewhere near Zanzibar). As for the actual locality of these landscapes, the Internet Movie Database lists Wild as being partly filmed in Yuma, Arizona; there’s no reliable evidence to back this assertion, but it could very well be true, since the aforementioned slopes, flats, and thickets don’t look like any of the standard 1930s serial locations.
As mentioned earlier, distinctive characterizations by the serial’s actors lend Wild’s storyline additional interest. Silent chapterplay star Walter Miller, in one of his last starring roles before launching his new career as the top villain of the early sound-serial era, turns in a commanding and compelling lead performance. The intensity that suited him well in his later villainous turns also serves him well here, helping him to give a proper air of hard-bitten desperation to his fugitive hero; for example, when he threatens to shoot Harris unless the latter helps to clear him, he makes the threat sound like much more than a mere bluff. He’s equally convincing when he’s being selflessly heroic, leaping into action with steely-eyed determination while conveying urgent concern for the heroine and her brother–as well as growing affection for the former. His silent reaction when he realizes that the heroine was willing to surrender the secret of the diamonds in order to get the Rajah’s letter for him is particularly good; he registers surprise, dawning understanding, and grateful happiness all without saying a word. Miller gets to be broad as well as subtle in the several scenes in which his character impersonates an Arab or a Hindu, assuming a thick accent and an exaggerated gravity that’s striking if not entirely realistic; he appropriately affects a somewhat more restrained accent when playing his second part as the Rajah in the opening chapter.
Miller’s leading lady Nora Lane, a former model and swimmer, is a real charmer, gifted as she is with a very pretty face and a slender, athletically graceful figure. She also turns in an excellent performance, coming off as more comfortable with talking films than other early-1930s Mascot leading ladies like Georgia Hale, Edwina Booth, or Dorothy Gulliver; she delivers her dialogue with both energy and assurance–displaying feistily righteous indignation over the harrying of her brother and the false charges heaped on her and the hero, but always coming off as sympathetic instead of strident. Like Miller, she also manages to subtly but noticeably suggest a developing romantic attachment to her co-star; her shy smile when Miller learns of her attempted self-sacrifice in the before-mentioned sequence, and the quietly sympathetic way in which she takes his arm in the final scene, speak volumes.
The hulking Tom Santschi turns in a strong and unusually individualized villainous performance as the scoundrel Harris; his character is tough, ruthless, and selfish, but, unlike many serial heavies, never seems to relish nastiness for its own sake. Instead, he performs his dirty deeds in a gruffly matter-of-fact manner, single-mindedly doing whatever it takes to get the diamonds or the letter, but never indulging in exultant sneering; he comes off as more amoral than consciously evil, much like the animals he often uses to do his dirty work. His treatment of Bimi highlights the unusualness of his character; while the typical movie villain regularly mistreats his pet monster and winds up being killed by it in the final reel, Santschi’s Harris is sternly authoritative but never cruel or overbearing when giving orders to his creature, and even looks out for his welfare on occasion; the final scene between the two is quite unexpected and even moving.
As the ape-man Bimi (a character apparently inspired by the intelligent orangutan of the same name in a story by Rudyard Kipling), Victor McLaglen’s brother Arthur is imposingly scary–snarling loudly and grimacing fiercely through a frightful-looking makeup; though a bit rangier than his barrel-chested brother, he’s also considerably taller and is still very powerfully built, dwarfing the serial’s good guys and even towering above the outsize Santschi. He’s not used in the action as much as one would expect from his status as the serial’s title character; he spends much of his time acting as a tracker for Santschi, but intimidatingly displays his strength and ferocity on several occasions. His first appearance at the end of Chapter One is perhaps his best scene, but his bar-bending raid on the jail and his two encounters with the hostile natives are memorable as well–particularly the second native sequence, in which he deflects spears with a club as he battles towards his jittery attackers. In the best movie-monster tradition, McLaglen also gives Bimi a slight but definite sympathetic side, through his befuddled and frustrated reactions to events beyond his comprehension.
Speaking of monsters, Boris Karloff–who was just on the cusp of Frankenstein stardom at the time of Wild’s production–has his only prominent sound-serial part as Mustapha, the serial’s most cunning villain. He handles the role in slightly hammy but very entertaining fashion, and is great fun to watch as he calmly plays the other characters off against each other, all the while affecting a thick, indeterminately exotic accent and deepening his voice to a smoothly ominous growl. He’s grimly harsh when giving orders to his own followers, but suave, oily, and elaborately polite when spinning lies for the benefit of the good guys or rival villains–exchanging his poker face for a crafty smirk after he’s succeeded in duping someone.
Husky, dough-faced Victor Potel is amusing as the animal dealer Peterson, a tough, heavily-accented, and seemingly thick-witted Swede who proves to be more than the low-key comic relief character he seems at first. Mrs. Colby, a dowdy, rusty-voiced old lady who most improbably insists she’s a secret service agent, is more annoying than funny when she loudly complains about the hazards of the wild–but, like Peterson, turns out to have a serious role to play in the plot as well. Most viewers will realize early on that, while the portrayer of Mrs. Colby is billed in the serial’s pressbooks as “Martha Lalande,” the character is actually played by a heavily disguised male actor (who also takes another role in the serial); there’s a reason for this strange masquerade, but I won’t reveal it here. Though it stretches credibility that the other characters don’t tumble to “Mrs. Colby’s” disguise, the audience’s awareness that “she” is not all she seems makes “her” scenes seem enjoyably mystifying instead of tepidly unfunny.
Carroll Nye is enthusiastically jaunty as the heroine’s harassed brother–but also makes his affable young gentleman seem more mature and intelligent than most other serial characters of this type, despite occasional bursts of impetuosity; he spends a good deal of his screen time as a comatose prisoner of the villains, but is allowed to be surprisingly astute and quick-thinking at several points in the serial, and is even assigned a good chunk of the last-chapter expositional dialogue. Thin and rat-faced Otto Hoffman skirts around the periphery of the action as the mysterious Man in the Dark Glasses; Dorothy Christie is given high billing but only a couple of scenes as the attractive but shady adventuress who’s hired to seduce the secret of the diamonds from Nye in the first chapter; her performance is a lot more natural and down-to-earth than her over-theatrical turn as the Queen of Murania in Mascot’s later Phantom Empire.
Mischa Auer is wonderfully sly and slimy as Prince Dakkar, but unfortunately disappears from the serial after the long first-chapter introductory sequence. Fletcher Norton is Karloff’s obsequious chief henchman and Albert De Winton a genial but businesslike colonial official; Walter Ferdna has a good bit as the French policeman who cheerily abandons his pursuit of Walter Miller after the latter rescues him from a lion. Miller’s real-life wife Eileen Schofield appears as an Arab servant girl, Merrill McCormick as a sea captain, Earl Douglas as the Rajah’s brother, Larry Steers as a colonial officer, and Lafe McKee as a colonial commissioner who helps to sort things out in the later chapters; McKee also narrates the serial’s recaps. Deep-voiced Floyd Shackleford is the native chief, while an unidentified actor is indescribably awful as the native tribe’s medicine man, delivering his lines in a loudly declamatory but strangely listless drawl (it sounds almost as if he’s looped at times, which might be the case).
If King of the Wild had only featured a bigger and better array of action sequences, it’d rank as one of Mascot’s masterpieces; its characters are interesting, its cast strong, its settings colorful, and its plot involving and entertainingly complex, yet never mysterious to the point of incoherence. Fortunately, these several qualities go a long way towards compensating for Wild’s action deficiency, and make the serial a thoroughly entertaining chapterplay adventure, even though it’s somewhat less exhilarating than the typical Mascot release.