Columbia, 15 Chapters, 1937. Starring Frank Buck, LeRoy Mason, Charlotte Henry, Richard Tucker, William Bakewell, Matthew Betz, George Rosener, Sasha Siemel, Clarence Muse, Duncan Renaldo, Roger Williams, Robert Warwick, Gertrude Sutton, Willie Fung, Esther Ralston.
Robert Banning (Richard Tucker), a wealthy and respected broker in the Eastern city of Seemang (located on the Bay of Bengal), is the secret head of a gang that has been hijacking the local planters’ valuable rubber shipments. One of these planters, Chandler Elliott, is murdered by Banning’s men when he learns too much about their activities–which spurs Elliott’s best friend, animal trader Frank Hardy (Frank Buck) to assist the Seemang police in their investigation of the rubber piracy. However, the biggest threat to the pirate gang proves to be Murphy (LeRoy Mason), one of its own members; his ruthless and reckless ferocity endangers–and eventually destroys–both himself and his partners in crime.
Jungle Menace was Columbia Pictures’ first chapterplay, but that studio had minimal involvement in its production; like Columbia’s two subsequent serial releases, it was actually produced by the father-and-son team of Louis and Adrian Weiss–who had earlier turned out the serials Custer’s Last Stand, The Black Coin, and The Clutching Hand via their own studio, “Stage and Screen.” Many other former Stage and Screen personnel were involved in Menace’s production, most notably writers George Merrick and Dallas Fitzgerald (who receive story and screenplay credits, respectively); another Menace screenwriter, Gordon Griffith, had also previously worked for the Weiss outfit as an actor.
Though Menace does credit several other writers with no prior Weiss connection (Sherman Lowe, Harry Hoyt, and co-director George Melford for story, Arthur Hoerl and actor George Rosener for screenplay), the serial is very reminiscent overall of the Stage and Screen chapterplays. This is not, in the main, a good thing; Menace’s script, like those of the aforementioned Weiss outings, is somewhat disjointed and very talky. The various members of the serial’s extremely overcrowded cast of characters spend far too much screen time in discussing or preparing plans that ultimately have little or no bearing on the plot (examples include the elaborate but hazy trap that’s set by the heroes in Chapter Four, and the verbal forging of an alliance between Murphy and the sinister Professor in Chapter Ten), while several subplots (such as the ones surrounding the forged deed and the escaped tigers) are abruptly introduced into the serial and are just as abruptly dropped.
Above left: Frank Buck and his crew net a leopard, as part of a trap for the villains that is never sprung. Above right: Dirk Thane presents Charlotte Henry with an out-of-left-field deed that gives him an option on her plantation.
Menace suffers from an additional–and far more serious–writing flaw peculiar to itself: it has no real central hero. The writers place their ostensible protagonist Hardy on the periphery of the action, keeping him offstage for long stretches of the narrative and rarely putting him in physical danger. Also, he almost never directly confronts the villains, and the only real contribution he makes to their ultimate defeat is his accidental discovery of some fingerprint evidence (a discovery he shares with several other characters). For most of the serial, he’s content to sit in on the police’s discussions of the case and occasionally rescue people from animal attacks; the island sequence in Chapters Twelve and Thirteen, in which a tribe of natives threaten to sacrifice the heroine unless Hardy tracks down the tigers raiding their village, at first seems as if it will finally give our hero some genuinely arduous work to do–but he captures one of the beasts without breaking a sweat, and the subplot is quickly abandoned. The narrative void left by the minimizing of Hardy is not filled by other characters; the heroine (Elliott’s daughter Dorothy) and her love interest (Banning’s nephew Tom) have about the same amount of screen time that he does, and take a similarly insignificant share in the unraveling of the plot.
Above: William Bakewell and Charlotte Henry (as Tom and Dorothy) laughingly announce to Reginald Denny that they’re going to travel on a rubber-carrying riverboat; their actions during the ensuing hijacking of the boat will set the pattern for their characters’ disconnection from the action–instead of trying to fight the pirates that are taking over the boat and killing the crew, they merely jump overboard and swim away.
The tireless police inspector Starrett is a more focused and driven character than Hardy (who seems more interested in animal-catching than crime-fighting) or Tom and Dorothy (who seem more interested in each other and in the Elliott plantation), but he gets to do little but interrogate suspects. The police detective Charles (Fred Kohler Jr.), who riskily goes undercover to dig up some vital information, is one of the few sympathetic characters who’s allowed to act with the enterprise and daring one expects of a serial hero–and basically functions as one in Chapters Five and Six, but (unfortunately) only appears in those two episodes. Ultimately, the character who emerges as Menace’s central figure is LeRoy Mason’s villainous Murphy–who appears more often than any of the protagonists, and drives the plot in most of the serial’s chapters–first through his efforts to cover his guilt, then through his elaborate attempt to double-cross his bosses after being betrayed by them; he’s also the one who dramatically confronts and unmasks Banning at the end of the serial. His character is definitely a strong and interesting one, but needed an equally strong and interesting (or at least reasonably active) hero to oppose him; with such a figure nowhere to be found, the serial’s storyline is not exactly compelling.
Menace‘s action scenes are extremely scarce; the serial only contains about six or seven fistfights in all, most of them either very brief (like the Chapter Eight fight between a pair of henchmen and a detective on a set of steps) or haphazardly staged (like the barroom brawl in Chapter Five or the shipboard scuffle in Chapter Eleven, both of which are filmed mostly in long shots, and partially obscured from the viewer as well). The fight between LeRoy Mason and Reginald Denny in Chapter Two is slow and unspectacular but unusually violent for a 1930s serial; the short combat between Mason and George Rosener in Chapter Fourteen is similarly violent but a bit more lively, while the Chapter Five fight between Mason and Fred Kohler Jr. is the serial’s closest approach to a typically energetic serial brawl. The actors seem to be handling what little stuntwork is required in these scenes, although the Internet Movie Database (for what it’s worth) lists George Magrill, Eddie Parker, and Carl Mathews as performing stuntman duties on Menace; Mathews did appear in other Weiss efforts, which lends some credence to his crediting, anyway.
Gun battles and chases are even more infrequent than fistfights in Menace; the riverboat-hijacking sequence in Chapter One and the running motorboat gunfight between Murphy’s group and Banning’s agents in Chapter Ten are about the only noteworthy examples of either variety of action scene. There are a few good animal attacks in the serial, particularly the nighttime tiger attack on Frank Buck in Chapter Two and Charlotte Henry’s imperilment by a python in Chapter Eight; however, both of these sequences end almost before they’ve begun (the Chapter Two scene also suffers from some poor process-screen work). The Chapter Three fire sequence at Buck’s animal compound is lengthier, and is one of the serial’s few genuinely thrilling pieces of action–with Buck alternately fleeing and facing tigers as he tries to rescue a young boy from the burning building. The tiger attack on one of Buck’s assistants in Chapter Seven and another tiger’s invasion of the native village in Chapter Twelve are far less exciting, while the tiger attack on Fred Kohler Jr. in Chapter Five is another example of a potentially good action scene that’s marred by being shot at too great a distance–probably to obscure the fact that the tiger appears to be tossing around a dummy instead of a live performer. Somebody does physically tussle with tigers in the Chapter Two and Twelve scenes, though; Melvin Koontz, who, together with his trained tiger Satan, appeared in several other serials at this time, seems the likely candidate.
Short but good bits of action like the animal attacks pictured above would have worked better as cliffhangers than as in-chapter action; concluding episodes with these scenes would have spotlighted said scenes more effectively–and would also have given the serial’s chapters stronger endings. As it is, far too many of Menace’s chapters conclude on mildly dramatic notes instead of exciting ones–among them the finding of the wounded plantation superintendent Marshall, Tom Banning’s public accusation of one of the rubber pirates, the elder Banning’s punching of a rebellious henchman, the heroes’ discovery of important evidence, the villains’ embarkation on a ship, and a rescue party’s launching of a search. Even the few chapter endings that involve standard cliffhanger-like situations–the shooting of Elliott, the fire at the compound, the shipwreck–are not treated like cliffhangers; the ensuing episode, instead of resolving these situations, merely skips forward a day or so in the narrative and tells us offhandedly that the imperiled characters have (or haven’t) survived. Only the aforementioned tiger attack on Hardy’s assistant at the end of Chapter Seven is handled in traditional style.
Menace’s off-lot outdoor locations–a few hilly stretches of light forest, Buck’s compound, and a stretch of Santa Barbara beach–are pleasant enough, but don’t figure in very many scenes; more screen time is spent on four studio sets: the Seemang dockyard, the Southern Cross nightclub, a seedy waterfront bar, and the shop of the shady “Professor.” All four sets are impressively large, and all (save the shop) very well-populated with extras; one suspects that a high percentage of the serial’s budget went into putting these sets together–and into renting the full-size working riverboat featured in the first chapter. Director George Melford, a distinguished veteran filmmaker perhaps best-remembered today for his helming of the Spanish-language version of Universal’s Dracula, stages a visually impressive murder scene in the dockyard in Chapter One, and turns in some atmospherically shadowy shots of the bar and the Professor’s shop as well; his tracking shot that follows a henchman into the villains’ cave hideout is striking too.
Above left: A man is plugged from a balcony and plunges from a harbor gangplank, in a shot from the killer’s point of view. Above right: “Shuffle” and “the Professor” greet each other in the latter’s shadowy shop.
Melford also adds some memorable visual flourishes to the tense Chapter Three scene (which has the good guys awaiting the results of a life-and-death operation), and in the quickly-cut Chapter Ten series of phone conversations (during which the villains angrily and hurriedly exchange bad news); this latter sequence is so crisply and effectively handled that it looks as if it belongs in another film. The bulk of the serial, however, is shot and staged in more pedestrian style; one suspects that Melford either (understandably) found most of his material pretty uninteresting, or that his co-director Harry Fraser–a far more workmanlike and uncreative veteran filmmaker–oversaw the majority of Menace’s scenes.
A good portion of Menace’s budget was also probably allotted to the hiring of its star marquee name, famed animal-catcher Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck–an ill-advised allocation of funds. Though Buck brings a pleasantly avuncular demeanor to his role, he simply can’t act; he almost always displays the same good-naturedly bemused facial expression no matter what the situation, and rattles off his lines in confident but amateurish style–randomly pausing in the midst of dialogue, and invariably sounding cheerful and relaxed even when he’s examining the bodies of murdered friends. His genial but unemotional performance, coupled with his character’s frequent absence from the action, make him seem the most casually disinterested “hero” in serial history.
Pretty and perky Charlotte Henry was, like Buck, probably hired for name value; she’d starred in Paramount’s famous big-budget flop Alice in Wonderland in 1933, and played major roles in feature films for several smaller studios (most film buffs will immediately recognize her as Little Bo-Peep from Hal Roach’s classic Laurel and Hardy feature Babes in Toyland). Her performance (not surprisingly, given her previous acting experience) is a good deal better than Buck’s; she handles her limited scenes with charm and energy, displaying sparkling cheerfulness during romantic interludes and registering convincing terror when in danger.
Henry’s leading man, William Bakewell is a good deal less appealing; no matter how hard he tries to convey love, anger, or worry, he invariably comes off as stuffy and affected–sounding far too mannered and looking far too prissy for an “earnest young hero” role. Bakewell was also a slightly faded but still well-known “name” when Menace was made, and, like Buck and Henry, probably commanded a decent salary; in fact, it’s quite possible that the script’s strange marginalization of the characters played by these three “stars” might have been due to the cost-conscious Weisses’ desire to shoot all the more expensive actors’ scenes first, allowing them to be quickly struck from the payroll.
Richard Tucker does a fine job as Bakewell’s scheming uncle (in a characteristic example of scripting botchery, we never get to see the serious family clash that one naturally expects to result from his and his nephew’s diametrically opposed goals). He assumes a completely convincing man-of-the-world joviality when interacting with the good guys, is curt and forceful when admonishing his henchmen, and even makes Banning slightly sympathetic in the character’s scenes with his apparent love interest, female planter Valerie Shields (particularly when he takes gentlemanly pains to clear her name at the end).
LeRoy Mason all but steals the serial as the evil but near-indomitable Murphy, only encountering serious competition from George Rosener and John Davidson (see below). The Murphy character is the sort of ruthless, courageous, and incorrigibly rebellious heavy that would have been played by someone like Charles Bickford or Robert Ryan in an A-film; this unusual role gives Mason the best individual acting showcase of his serial career, and he makes the most of it–continually taking command of scenes through his sneering self-assurance, cynically swaggering bearing, and imposing physical presence.
Duncan Renaldo has the thankless role of the nightclub proprietor Roget, a middleman villain who relays Tucker’s orders to Mason and the other supporting heavies; he’s occasionally allowed to be slick and sinister, but is more usually harried and furtive–being continually browbeaten by either Tucker’s or Mason’s characters. The swarthy, broodingly surly-looking Roger Williams is effectively thuggish and irritable as Williams, a beleaguered henchman who becomes more prominent as the serial progresses and who eventually joins forces with Mason’s Murphy.
Second-billed Sasha Siemel plays “Tiger” Van Dorn, a quiet-spoken member of the rubber-pirate gang who rather unaccountably reforms late in the serial; even a good actor would have had a hard time making sense of this character, but the wooden Siemel is barely adequate in the role. He has an excuse for his poor acting, however; like Buck, he was not a thespian by trade. Born in Russia, he worked for years in Brazil as a hunter of cattle-killing jaguars; he stalked the big cats in native fashion, using a spear and a bow and arrow instead of a gun, and won world-wide fame when “discovered” by an American journalist; he subsequently became a lecturer and author, and finally a Pennsylvania farmer. The Weisses take care to give Siemel several opportunities for “killing” leopards with a spear in Menace; these recurring scenes (obviously faked–luckily for the leopards) and Siemel’s prominent billing will seem a little inexplicable to anyone not aware of his remarkable real-life exploits (which sound a good deal more interesting than anything in the serial).
Matthew Betz, usually a heavy, is quietly and intimidatingly stern as Inspector Starrett of the Seemang C.I.D.–glowering intently at suspects and soberly plodding to and from crime scenes with a bulldog-like air of deliberation and determination. Robert Warwick, as his immediate superior, is more genteel but comes off as equally astute; his polished voice also makes him much easier to accept as a Britisher than the very American-sounding Betz. Fred Kohler Jr. is convincingly tough and likably breezy in his all-too-brief turn as the heroic Detective Charles.
The bald and suavely bombastic George Rosener–who, as in Secret of Treasure Island, seems to have written most of his own material–is a lot of fun as the “Professor,” a curio dealer and criminal-for-hire who works with most of the serial’s villains at one time or another, and who grandiloquently spouts quotations from Shakespeare, Burns, and Omar Khayyam, when he’s not engaged in his own philosophical ruminations (like his discourse on the properties of water in Chapter Ten). Rosener’s colorfully verbose scenes really aren’t necessary to the serial’s plot, but they’re far more enjoyable than some of the serial’s other padded dialogue sequences. Milburn Morante is also entertaining as Rosener’s disreputable but lovable satellite Singapore, continually expressing befuddlement over his patron’s quotations.
Black actor Clarence Muse plays the itinerant ship’s cook Shuffle, who wanders in and out of the story and eventually functions as a sidekick to Buck in the later episodes. Muse usually played straight character parts, but is here assigned a comedy-relief role–although he never becomes a complete buffoon, except in his encounter with a “talking” chimpanzee aboard ship; he spends most of his screen time singing solemn songs (“Weary Feet, Weary Hands,” “No More Sleepy Time,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”) in the waterfront bar, making good use of his powerful, operatically-trained voice. Former silent comedian Snub Pollard plays Buck’s brisk and good-natured aide in the earlier episodes, but is given no opportunities to be comic.
Gertrude Sutton, as the Elliott housekeeper Mrs. Maitland, belongs with Lee Ford (SOS Coast Guard), Sonny Ray (Perils of Pauline), and Tim Ryan (Who’s Guilty) on the unhallowed list of insufferably obnoxious serial comic-relievers; she (thankfully) has less screen time than the three aforementioned pests, but still manages to be horrendously unfunny every time she appears–alternately whining shrilly or mincing affectedly, and always mugging mercilessly. Willie Fung, as the voluble Elliott cook, serves as her foil throughout the serial; his noisy non-stop babbling and his deranged grin would be a little irritating in most contexts, but here he comes off as amusing and positively endearing in contrast to Sutton.
Valerie Shields is portrayed by Esther Ralston, a major star of the silent era; she handles the role with attractive grace and good-humor, but has little to do beyond making token appearances every few chapters; the subplot surrounding her attraction to the villainous Banning is resultantly undeveloped. British-born actor Reginald Denny, another former star who was still an A-list supporting player during the 1930s, plays the role of plantation superintendent Marshall and is even more underused than Ralston; he’s tersely authoritative and likably jaunty in his handful of scenes, but is fatally wounded in Chapter Two and departs the serial in Chapter Three, despite receiving third billing.
Sherwood Bailey plays Denny’s young son, and gets a chance to react very movingly to his father’s demise; he and his German Shepherd dog Lightning pop up to assist the good guys in a later chapter, but wind up being forgotten before the serial’s end. John St. Polis (yet another once-prominent player from the days of silents) does a good job of acting dignified but careworn as the ill-fated Elliott. Dirk Thane is unbelievably pompous, oily, and unlikable as Nolan, the member of the pirate ring who tries to buy Elliott’s plantation; John Davidson chews the scenery delightfully as the crooked Dr. Coleman, adopting an owlish and perennially inebriated manner and stealing every scene he appears in.
Merrill McCormick appears as Peters, an agent of Elliott’s who’s murdered in the first chapter; Paul Ellis (Garcia in the second Tailspin Tommy serial) is the slimy Greenway, a planter who’s in league with the pirates, and Henry Hale is another noticeable member of the gang. Harry Harvey also appears as a gang member, while Reed Howes pops up as a mutinous sailor, Tom London and Jack Ingram as police detectives, and Jim Corey as an animal handler; Frank Buck’s real-life Malaysian assistant Dahlam Ali appears as “Hardy’s” assistant and uses his own name. Other minor but noteworthy players–like the actors who play the henchman Allen, the British-accented police detective, the chief of the island natives, and the white expatriate who resides with the islanders–are unfortunately unidentified (and unidentifiable by me, unlike the similarly uncredited Ellis and Howes). Incidentally, the serial’s “native” players–portraying supposed Malays–do look ethnically right for their roles, while the serial’s animal life is restricted to creatures that really inhabit Asia (leopards and tigers, but no lions); African chimpanzees are indeed present, but are (improbably) passed off as young orangutans, a more geographically correct ape. Buck, who had actually lived and traveled in the regions depicted in the serial, presumably assisted the producers in their efforts to get such details right.
With action scenes heavily outnumbered by dialogue ones and cliffhangers almost entirely removed, Jungle Menace plays more like a lengthy feature divided into installments than a typical movie serial. This departure from formula wouldn’t have been damaging to Menace–if the serial hadn’t reduced its supposed heroes and heroine to supporting-player status, and effectually turned the storyline into the uninvolving saga of a falling-out among thieves. Together, the lack of action and the mishandled story (abetted by a slow pace) make Jungle Menace a remarkably boring and disappointing chapterplay; Melford, the production values, and the better actors among the cast (especially Mason) keep it from being a complete bomb–but it remains such a colossal misfire that it’s not likely to hold the interest of anyone but a serial historian.