While in Africa, trapping big cats for circuses, famed animal trainer Clyde Beatty meets a jungle boy named Baru (Manuel King) and his gorilla protector Bonga (Ray Corrigan); the son of a deceased missionary, Baru is looking for someone to help him rescue his sister Valerie (Elaine Shepard), and Clyde quickly agrees to aid him. Valerie, it seems, has been unwillingly installed as the “Goddess of the Golden Bat” in the lost city of Joba by the high priest Dagna (Lucien Prival); by using Valerie as a figurehead, Dagna hopes to establish himself as absolute ruler of Joba–leading him to make every attempt to kill Clyde and Baru when their rescue mission threatens this ambition. To save Valerie, Baru, and himself, Clyde must not only battle Dagna’s trained hunter lions and his soldiers (flying spearmen known as Batmen), but must also deal with Durkin (Wheeler Oakman) and Craddock (Edmund Cobb)–a pair of unscrupulous traders who have followed Beatty to Joba and allied themselves with Dagna, hoping to get their hands on the priceless diamonds that are being mined beneath the lost city.
Darkest Africa was originally planned as a twelve-chapter Mascot serial, but wound up being produced and released as Republic Pictures’ first chapterplay instead, following the creation of Republic from a merger between Mascot, several other small studios, and Herbert Yates’ film-processing corporation Consolidated Film Industries. The budget of Africa was enlarged substantially by this merger, and the serial’s script mushroomed along with it–resulting in a sprawling narrative hodge-podge.
The basic plot of Darkest Africa is sound enough, but is poorly developed by the serial’s writers–Barney Sarecky, John Rathmell, Ted Parsons (all screenplay), John Rathmell, and Tracy Knight (story); their almost comically down-to-earth treatment of the whole lost-city angle of the plot constitutes one of these developmental flaws. Hero Beatty and villains Durkin and Craddock scarcely bat an eye when they first hear of Joba (“You mean the hidden city beyond the Mountains of Despair?” says Durkin, as if he’s referring to a well-known tourist destination); Beatty is equally unsurprised when he encounters the flying Batmen, while neither he or the two heavies engage in even momentary speculation on Joba’s origins when they behold the city itself (instead, they allow the serial’s recap cards to belatedly explain that Joba was founded by King Solomon). All in all, the “outlander” characters react in such blasé fashion to Joba and its wonders that the serial conveys little of the fantastic-voyaging atmosphere that one expects from a story about a journey to a lost and ancient realm.
Joba itself, though visually impressive (see below), is so under-stocked with inhabitants that it never seems to come alive in the way that the alien civilizations in other serials like Flash Gordon, Call of the Savage, or Phantom Empire did; even the rather bland Atlantis featured in Undersea Kingdom had more local atmosphere than Joba does. Aside from Dagna, Valerie, and mild-mannered old Gorn (Keeper of the Book of Laws), the only denizens of Joba that we meet are Dagna’s interchangeable Batmen and a bunch of diamond-mining slaves; we never see even a single citizen of the city–despite the frequent mentions of Dagna’s plan to use Valerie to make himself absolute ruler over said citizens. Giving some screen time to a few credulous, suspicious, or victimized city-dwellers would not only have made Joba seem more like a real place, but would also have made Dagna’s master plan seem like something more than a perfunctory pretext for his conflict with the heroes.
Placing more emphasis on Dagna’s power-grab scheme would have also given rise to a few much-needed subplots; as it is, Africa’s central plot (the quest to rescue Valerie) is emphasized so firmly that it soon wears thin, devolving into a very repetitive series of captures and escapes. The revolt of the diamond-mining slaves–backed by Durkin and Craddock–briefly puts a new wrinkle in the story, but is put down far too quickly. Disappointingly, this rebellion represents the two traders’ only attempt to double-cross Dagna; while the outsider heavies in exotic-adventure serials like Jungle Jim and Jungle Girl kept those serials’ plots unpredictable by alternately allying with and opposing the local heavies, Durkin and Craddock are only too happy to work as freelance henchmen for Dagna throughout most of the serial.
Africa’s lack of subplots and its fifteen-chapter length force the writers to illogically prolong the central conflict more than once. Valerie’s Chapter Twelve refusal to flee into the jungle with Clyde and Baru through a secret passage makes absolutely no sense, while Clyde’s insistence on temporarily suspending the rescue to skirmish with Craddock and Durkin over a case of ammunition for several chapters is not adequately explained either. The serial’s narrative is not only overstretched but also noticeably padded in several places; the encounters with the hostile “Tiger Men” natives in Chapters Two and Nine are dragged out to tedious lengths by means of overlong native dances. The second of these encounters involves Beatty’s black assistant “Hambone,” who’s also involved in several protracted and unfunny comic scenes that serve to consume further running time.
Poorly handled as Africa’s plotline is, it does give rise to some solid action scenes that–along with some fine visual effects–keep the serial from becoming a complete dud. Since not only leading man Beatty but his kid sidekick Manuel King were real-life animal trainers, much of this action predictably centers around conflicts with lions and tigers. The best of these scenes is Beatty and King’s long battle with the “hunter lions” that spans Chapters Six and Seven, although the Chapter Five and Chapter Twelve clashes with the same lions are good too; one can clearly see that both performers are really in there dodging and poking the big cats during these sequences, with process-screen work and other trickery being used very sparingly. Beatty’s Chapter Two wrestling match with a tiger in a pit is also exciting, although it’s partially dependent on stock footage from Beatty’s earlier serial The Lost Jungle–including the “hypnotic eye” scene, which was silly in Jungle and comes off as equally absurd here; Jungle animal action is also inserted (not always seamlessly) at several other points in the serial.
The several fistfights (all of them between Beatty and the Durkin-Craddock team, since the Batmen’s huge artificial wings prevent them from scuffling) featured in Africa are quite good, with stuntmen Yakima Canutt, Cliff Lyons, and Eddie Parker chucking each other around energetically; the actors (particularly Beatty) also seem to be doing some of their own fighting. However, most of these brawls are fairly brief. Africa features none of the lengthy chase scenes that enlivened most of its Mascot predecessors; the closest the serial comes to duplicating one of those wild and speedy sequences is during the entertaining first half of Chapter Eight–during which we see, in quick succession, Beatty fighting Durkin and Craddock, fleeing through the palace from the Batmen, Baru grappling with the two traders, the “great ape” Bonga subduing both heavies, Beatty fighting off the Batmen’s spears with a rifle-butt, and Bonga rushing up to take out the Batmen as well. This action, along with the rest of the serial, is overseen by Mascot veteran B. Reeves Eason and his co-director Joseph Kane (who’d eventually go on to direct innumerable Republic A-pictures).
Most of the cliffhangers in the first half of Africa involve big-cat attacks, but the chapter endings of the later episodes are more varied; some of the more memorable ones include Beatty’s apparent impalement by the Batmen’s spears in Chapter Nine, his fall from a balcony at the end of Chapter Ten, the inventively set up poison-gas cliffhanger of Chapter Eleven (which involves Batmen dropping stone vases full of volcanic fumes), and the Chapter Thirteen tunnel explosion. To the serial’s credit, only one of the resolutions to these cliffhangers (the balcony fall) makes use of the next-week cheating too common in a lot of early Republics, although some of the other resolutions (like the tunnel explosion) do rely on the unconvincing “live-through-it” gimmick. The best of the serial’s chapter endings by far is the dramatic, well-shot, and highly unusual Chapter Fourteen one–which has Valerie apparently performing a suicidal leap from a cliff in order to save Baru and Clyde from execution; the resolution to this cliffhanger is equally unusual, and even rather moving.
Most of Africa’s animal scenes were shot in an arena-like grotto at the “Jungleland” compound in Brownsville, Texas–which was owned and operated by Manuel King’s animal-dealer father. Some of the serial’s jungle sequences were filmed on soundstages, while others were shot under the tall and shady trees of the Lake Sherwood area–which, as in the later Jungle Girl, looks sufficiently wild and wooded enough to be reasonably believable as an African forest. Joba’s palace interiors are quite impressive-looking–particularly the pillared hall, which seems to have been partly created through good matte work. The city’s “exteriors”–excellent miniature buildings built by Howard and Theodore Lydecker–are even more striking; cinematographers William Nobles and Edgar Lyons show them off to good advantage at a variety of angles. The Lydeckers were also responsible for the ferocious climactic volcanic explosion–and for the Batmen’s frequent aerial flights, the single most memorable element of the serial; to allow these soldiers take wing, the ingenious brothers made their first use of the life-size-dummy-on-wires technique that later helped Republic’s Captain Marvel and various Rocketmen to fly so convincingly through outdoor surroundings. These flying scenes, like the shots of the city, are very nicely photographed by Nobles and Lyons.
Above, top left: Ray Corrigan, unhampered by his ape suit, swings through the trees at Lake Sherwood. Top right: A Batman dummy glides through the air. Bottom left: The hall leading to Dagna’s chambers. Bottom right: Batmen (miniatures this time) soar en masse over the city of Joba.
Africa’s cast is a decidedly uneven one. Leading man Clyde Beatty, as in Lost Jungle, delivers a lead performance that’s likably good-natured, but which is often flat and awkward as well; in Jungle, however, he was almost always sharing the screen with either his more professional and personable leading lady (Cecilia Parker) or with his energetic and fast-talking sidekick (Syd Saylor), both of whom helped to distract from his acting inadequacies. In Africa, on the other hand, he shares most of his screen time with equally inexperienced child actor Manuel King, and as a result his shortcomings as a thespian become rather more noticeable; he’s still likable, but just not dynamic enough to carry scenes unaided.
King himself is a good deal more energetic than Beatty, and delivers his lines quite capably and unselfconsciously for an amateur; however, his appearance is so ludicrous that it tends to distract from his acting. An extremely chubby youngster, he’s most unwisely stuck inside a small fur diaper that makes him look like a jungle Cupid instead of the fledgling Tarzan he’s supposed to be (at least in most of the serial’s chapters; the first episode presents him as a recent escapee from Joba, while the later episodes inconsistently refer to him as having been self-raised in the jungle).
The strikingly lovely Elaine Shepard (a stage actress who made her screen debut with this serial) is a highly attractive heroine, but is unfortunately forced to spend most of the serial sitting in her throne room and worrying about the fate of Beatty and King’s characters–which she does with appealing warmth; she also gets to be gracefully but determinedly regal in the occasional scenes in which she “pulls rank” on Dagna by reminding him of her status as the city goddess.
Lucien Prival, who turned in a fine performance as a sinister high priest in the earlier episodes of Return of Chandu, makes almost nothing of a similar and larger role here; he snarls out his lines in a rapid, casual, and frequently listless drone, and fails to make Dagna the commanding menace he should have been. Prival is more to be pitied than censured, however; he was suffering from a serious sinus infection when the serial was made (a fact made evident by the frequently hoarse and tired tone of his voice), and probably wasn’t up to doing anything more than walking through his part.
Wheeler Oakman and Edmund Cobb make a nicely contrasting and very entertaining team of secondary villains. Oakman is unflappably crafty and eternally self-confident, hatching scheme after scheme with a roguish smile and stepping into action with a self-assured swagger–while Cobb is irritably blunt and pessimistic, continually questioning his partner’s plans and agreeing to help execute them only after some reluctant grumbling. The two serial veterans play so well off each other that they come off almost like a villainous version of a classic comedy team at times–and effectively steal innumerable scenes from both Beatty and Prival
Gangly Ray Turner is allowed to be genuinely brave and useful at times in the role of Hambone, but is too often relegated to performing pratfalls or registering exaggerated panic; these scenes, like most early Republic attempts at comic relief, fail to amuse. An uncredited Ray Corrigan is a lot of fun as the noble ape Bonga–stomping and shuffling around vigorously, ferociously attacking villains, smoothly swinging through the trees, and making such a colorfully offbeat “animal” sidekick that one wishes that the writers didn’t sideline him as often as they do (the character twice receives apparently fatal wounds, drops out of the serial for several episodes, and then returns hale and hearty later on; the first of these recuperations is explained, but the second is not). Corrigan plays a second role as the commander of the Batmen–his face completely concealed by a helmet, but his voice very recognizable whenever he issues orders to the other Batmen or reports to Dagna.
As Valerie’s confidant and counselor Gorn, character actor Edward McWade is properly grave and kindly, but is also so meekly sententious–continually admonishing everyone to abide by the law–that he seems rather annoying at times; however, he does take heroic action towards the end. Donald Reed is briefly prominent as the sly slave who starts the diamond-mine rebellion; Prince Modupe is the leader of the “Tiger Men” (the zoologically inaccurate presence of this tribe’s sacred tigers is noted, but not really explained). Harrison Greene and Henry Sylvester pop up as animal buyers in the first chapter, and Eddie Parker has a bit as a Batman.
Unlike its producer Nat Levine’s Mascot outings, Darkest Africa has a full musical score–as would all subsequent Republic serials; this score, assembled by Harry Grey, is a serviceable combination of original pieces and classical ones (the latter include Gluck’s oft-heard “Dance of the Furies”). Of the original music, the most distinctive piece is the insistent jungle-drum-based theme that plays under each episode’s recap cards and at various points within the episodes themselves.
Less atmospheric and energetic than the Mascot chapterplays that preceded it, and more haphazardly plotted than the slick and streamlined Republic chapterplays that followed it, Darkest Africa is a historically important but ultimately rather flat and unsatisfying serial. However, it’s still entertaining at times, mostly when Oakman, Cobb, “Bonga,” the lions, the city of Joba, or the Batmen–those aerial harbingers of greater things to come–are on the screen.
Acknowledgements: The information about Darkest Africa’s initial conception as a Mascot release was derived from Raymond William Stedman’s The Movie Serial Companion, Book 2. Jack Mathis’ Valley of the Cliffhangers provided further information, and an interview with Manuel King in “Chapter Eleven (Volume 2, Issue 1) of Bob Malcolmson’s Those Enduring Matinee Idols clued me in on the Texas location shooting of the lion scenes.