John Lawrence (William Welsh), an explorer who’s seeking a priceless radium deposit in the African jungle, loses his little daughter Joan when she’s accidentally carried away in the basket of an observation balloon; the balloon lands in an unexplored region known as the Garden of Rad, where the natives hail Joan as a goddess. Years later, her childhood friend David Worth (Reed Howes) locates the now-grown Joan (Mary Kornman), and manages to convince her to return to civilization with him; he also discovers that Lawrence’s long-sought radium mine is located within the Garden of Rad. However, the radium is jealously guarded by Kali (Lafe McKee), high priest of the nearby lost city of Mu; he and his henchman Garu, a native medicine man, conspire to stop David and Joan from reaching the outside world with the knowledge of the radium’s location–while the young couple’s trek to civilization is made additionally dangerous by innumerable wild animals and other jungle hazards.
Queen of the Jungle was produced by Herman A. Wohl–although “assembled” might be a better word; Wohl, an independent producer who later allied himself with Monogram Pictures, built his sole serial around massive amounts of stock footage from Colonel William Selig’s big-budgeted 1922 chapterplay, The Jungle Goddess. The new sound sequences shot for Queen were as shoddy as the silent Goddess sequences were impressive; this shoddiness, along with the contrivances used to fit the Goddess footage into Wohl’s serial, effectively ruined what could have been an involving adventure serial.
Queen’s basic story is sound; in outline, the serial’s screenplay (by Griffin Jay) is a colorfully exotic “road” story, with hero and heroine encountering a variety of characters both malevolent and benevolent, and getting to know each other, as they try to escape from the jungle and the scheming Kali. Unfortunately, the need to insert as much Goddess footage as possible frequently sends the serial’s plot down highly confusing paths. Characters appear in the stock footage who are inadequately accounted for in the new footage, chief among them the little native who shadows David and Joan from the village (and is later killed by Garu) and a couple of strange water-dwelling natives who produce a curative potion out of nowhere. Similarly, the gigantic statue of the god Rad is suddenly shown to be capable of movement in the stock footage, a fantastic development not explained anywhere in the new footage. Kali’s scheme to pass his son off as the child of Rad also comes out of nowhere–and leads nowhere, being tailored solely to lead into a stock-footage scene of Kali’s fellow-priests slavishly mimicking the motions of a monkey that accidentally takes the place of Kali’s kid; at least this sequence is amusing, if bizarre and pointless.
Above left: A mysterious little native, left over from Jungle Goddess, trails the protagonists through the jungle. Above right: In another shot derived from Jungle Goddess, the priests of “Mu” spin around in imitation of what they believe to be a junior god.
Even when the Goddess stock footage causes no puzzling left turns in Queen’s narrative, it still jars in other ways. The leads of Queen were obviously both cast and costumed with an eye towards duplicating those of Goddess (Elinor Field and Truman Van Dyke)–but the resemblance between old and new actors isn’t so strong that one can’t spot the old ones at times; medium-close shots of Field are even carelessly allowed to slip in to Queen at times. The actor-matching is seamless, however, compared with the film-speed matching; the continual switching between the undercranked silent footage and the normally cranked sound footage is very distracting, as is the unconvincing dubbing used to turn several reused silent sequences into “talking” ones.
Above left: Stock-footage natives rush around in an undercranked frenzy during a sacrificial dance in honor of their god Rad. Above right: The same dance is supposedly carried out by a much slower-moving group of natives in the new footage.
The contrast between the spacious outdoor locations of Goddess and the cramped indoor sets of Queen is even more distracting than the above-mentioned dubbing and disparate film speeds; while Goddess was filmed on Colonel Selig’s sprawling zoological backlot (see below), director Robert Hill shot Queen entirely on soundstages. Its action takes place on sub-par indoor sets such as an oft-seen stretch of faux jungle, some sparsely-furnished hut and temple interiors, and a cramped and fake-looking shipboard set (not even process-screen water is visible beyond its deck-rail). Resultantly, the serial’s visual horizons expand and contract at a dizzying rate, as borrowed footage continually alternates with original scenes; the difference in backgrounds is so noticeable that we can never really believe that the Goddess shots are part of Queen’s action.
Above: Reed Howes and George Chesebro hurry through the “jungle” soundstage at left, while Howes and Mary Kornman clash with villains Eddie Foster and Robert Borman on the same soundstage (representing a different stretch of jungle) at right.
However, the Goddess footage, jarring as its invasions of Queen frequently are, constitutes one of Queen’s few good points. Goddess’ aforementioned producer, Colonel William Selig, was not only a prominent early filmmaker (the first West Coast motion-picture magnate, in fact) but the owner of a California zoo that doubled as a backlot; Goddess’ animal scenes naturally made spectacular use of this zoo’s inhabitants and landscapes (a steep waterfall/cliff structure is particularly striking). Wohl took care to purloin as many of these scenes as possible, and as a result Queen features many memorable recycled snippets of animal action: we get to see an elephant routing a group of lions, tigers leaping at the hero as he climbs a rope, leopards sparring in a grotto and frolicking with a “leopard woman,” various wild beasts running amuck on a ship, tigers chasing a chimpanzee on a beach, the heroine’s father placed on a sort of teeter-totter over a lion pit, and a friendly elephant halting some lions’ pursuit of the hero by pushing a boulder onto a bridge as the lions are crossing it.
The scanty action scenes original to Queen can’t begin to compare with the Goddess footage; that said, director Hill does manage to stage a couple of fine fight sequences. The one in the hut in Chapter Three, with Reed Howes and various native extras (all undoubled) energetically tossing each other around is particularly good; the cliff-top fight in Chapter Six isn’t bad either. Howes’ fight with an alligator in Chapter Twelve is less dynamic, but impressive because the reptile is clearly a genuine one, and can be seen actually interacting with the actor (this gator, incidentally, is the only live animal that actually appears in the serial’s new footage).
Most of Queen’s episodes end with stock-footage lions, tigers, or leopards from Goddess jumping on either the hero or heroine; one of the most memorable of these cat-attack cliffhangers, the shipboard one in Chapter Nine, is resolved in unbelievably confusing fashion, the screen fading out on a scene of a lion breaking into a cabin with the hero and heroine, and then fading in on a shot of the protagonists–suddenly safely landed ashore! (apparently, there was no Goddess footage available showing an escape from the ship). Queen’s few non-feline perils include the canoe-over-the-falls cliffhanger of Chapter Five (pulled entirely from Goddess), the radium-eyed idol’s seeming disintegration of the hero in Chapter Two, a chimpanzee’s apparent knifing of the heroine in Chapter Four (both Goddess-derived, with new close-ups added), and the rather static but memorably weird Chapter Six cliffhanger that has the heroine seized and apparently choked by killer vines (the only all-new chapter ending in the serial).
Mary Kornman, who co-starred in Hal Roach’s “Little Rascals” comedy shorts as a child and in Roach’s “Boy Friends” comedy shorts during her teenage years, is given Queen of the Jungle’s title role, and actually does quite well with the rather strange and limited part. She’s forced to act so bratty and bloodthirsty during her early scenes as the jungle queen that her quick switch to sweet kindliness for the remainder of the serial is a little hard to believe; however, her air of childlike enthusiasm and her innocently wide-eyed expressions soon make her rather endearing. Unlike most serial jungle girls, her character can’t speak English at all when she first appears, and only learns a few English phrases as the serial progresses; she spends much of her screen time either rattling off pseudo-Swahili or uttering the name “David” with affection, perplexity, or alarm (depending on the situation).
As hero David Worth, silent-era leading man (and familiar sound-era heavy) Reed Howes is also quite appealing. Due to the limited English skills of Kornman’s character, he has to carry many dialogue scenes all by himself–and does so handily, bringing a likable combination of bemusement and patient affability to his largely one-sided conversations with his leading lady. He also combines jaunty cheerfulness and determined toughness to good effect; in fact, he’s so much better than the production surrounding him that one wishes he’d had the chance to star in a better sound serial.
Chief villain Lafe McKee, who’d portrayed a tribal leader of some kind in Jungle Goddess, was obviously retained by Wohl to provide a convenient link to that serial’s stock footage. In a sound film, McKee’s very Mid-American voice makes him seem more than a little incongruous as Kali–a representative of what appears to be a quasi-Egyptian lost civilization. However, it’s very interesting to watch the veteran character actor drop his usually benevolent manner; in its place, he adopts an entertainingly sly self-confidence that makes him seem a perfectly credible villain, in spite of his miscasting.
Several of the serial’s more prominent supporting players are frustratingly uncredited. I’d particularly like to be able to name the stocky, stern-voiced actor who plays McKee’s henchman Garu, since he does a fine job of acting tough and crafty, and receives as much screen time as McKee himself does. The “Leopard Woman,” the largely unexplained gatekeeper of the Garden of Rad (and Kali’s apparent consort), is played by an unbilled and exceedingly plump actress whose amateurish, toneless, and unbelievably dreadful delivery of dialogue makes it pretty clear she was not a thespian by trade. The unbilled actor who plays the voodoo priest Lebo is not much better, droning out his lines in a listless drawl; the similarly unbilled portrayer of the grim but friendly native Thom, on the other hand, is quite solid.
William Welsh plays the heroine’s father, beginning the serial as suave and distinguished but descending into highly histrionic madness while waiting for the return of hero Howes’ expedition (his sudden appearance in the Garden of Rad in the final chapter is yet another confusing aspect of the plot). Mary Kornman is cast as her character’s mother in the serial’s first chapter, getting to converse in complete sentences before taking on the larger but less articulate role of Joan; Howes also does double duty as his character’s father in the same sequences. Familiar serial child actor Dickie Jones is his usual cute and uninhibitedly energetic self as the young David Worth, while a tot named Marilyn Spinner is more subdued but equally cute as young Joan Lawrence.
Eddie Foster, later a frequent minor heavy in Sam Katzman’s serials, plays the restless and irritable crook Rocco, who’s belatedly revealed to have been buying radium from McKee’s Kali, and who figures prominently in a couple of later chapters. Robert Borman is Foster’s calmly gruff ship’s-captain accomplice, and Richard Botiller pops up as one of McKee’s priestly cohorts. The actor playing the blinded native who’s cured by the hero, and subsequently assists both hero and heroine, is uncredited, as is the portrayer of his wife. Barney Furey is the helpful Arab ivory trader Abdullah, and George Chesebro is wasted in a small and pointless supporting role as a friend of the senior Worth’s in the first episode.
If Queen of the Jungle’s been a little less reliant on plundered Jungle Goddess scenes, and if its new footage had possessed the production values of a Universal or Mascot chapterplay (or even those of a Louis and Adrian Weiss or a Harry Webb serial), the “marriage” of old and new footage could have produced an entertaining cliffhanging adventure. Instead, Queen is at once so dependent on and so inferior to Goddess that it emerges as a disjointed jumble of a serial; the stock footage and the efforts of its more professional cast members make it interesting on occasion, but it remains a monumental mess overall.