In 1939, just before the outbreak of the second World War, Nazi agent Elise Bork (Tala Birell) and her henchman Lang (Douglas Dumbrille) are up to no good in the jungles of British Middle Africa; they’re plotting to sway the region’s natives to their cause, in order to help Nazi Germany seize control of the entire African continent and thus secure the military approaches to Southern Europe. Control of the powerful Tongghili tribal federation, ruled by a venerated “judge” whose word is law, is the key to this ambitious scheme; to gain this control, Bork and Lang maneuver to place their Tongghili cohort Maati (Napoleon Simpson) in the judge’s seat–but must first obtain the ancient Sword of Tongu, which serves as the judge’s symbol of office. Their efforts to do so are interfered with by big-game hunter Bob Elliott (Edward Norris) and his Brooklynite mechanic pal Chuck Kelly (Eddie Quillan), two unofficial American secret agents, and by Pamela Courtney (Lois Collier), who’s not only a British intelligence operative but also the niece of an archeologist who holds important information about the sword. Most threatening to the Nazis’ master plan, however, is Lothel (Ruth Roman), the supernatural “mystery queen of the jungle,” who watches over the Tongghilli people and assists the English and American investigators at every turn.
Since that devotee of storytelling through dialogue, Morgan Cox, receives both a producing and writing credit on Jungle Queen, it’s no surprise that the serial unfolds in numbingly talky style. Its main plotlines–the heroes’ search for Pam’s uncle, their later search for the kidnapped tribal judge Godac, and the villains’ efforts to get the secret of the sword out of Godac and have Maati declared his official successor–advance at a remarkably slow pace, delayed by repeated scenes in which superfluous supporting characters located in London, Berlin, and the jungle city of Tambosa verbally recap the plot for the benefit of the audience, often accompanying the recaps with sledgehammer-strength doses of anti-German and pro-UN verbal propaganda. The main characters likewise spend more of their time discussing their next moves than they do in actually making said moves; these extensive discussions so dominate each chapter that important or potentially exciting scenes–like Maati’s acquisition of the secret of the sword from Godac, or the hero and heroine’s kidnapping in Chapter Eight–are forced to take place offscreen. While much of this overabundant dialogue (penned by Cox, George Plympton, and Ande Lamb) is merely repetitive and pointless, some of it (as in other Universals of the era) is a bit sharper, funnier, or more dramatic than the serial norm; examples include some of the bantering exchanges between Bob and Chuck, the grim wisecracking by the pilots of the doomed plane in the first chapter, some of the lines delivered by the shady barkeeper Tambosa Tim, and Lothel’s ringing proclamations to the Tongghilli tribesmen.
Above: “You’re very interesting–uh, I mean, that’s very interesting.” Eddie Quillan (far right) makes a subtle and amusing verbal slip while trying to make conversation with Lois Collier, to the embarrassment of Edward Norris.
However, Queen’s screenplay is weaker overall than those of other Cox-written or Cox-produced outings like Adventures of Smilin’ Jack or Secret Agent X-9, since it largely lacks the sense of tension and unpredictability that kept those outings interesting despite their talkiness. For example, though the evil Elise Bork maintains a respectable pose (as a Swedish botanist) when mixing with the good guys, just as the evil Fraulein Von Teufel did in Smilin’ Jack, she interacts only occasionally with the heroes and is rarely admitted to their secret counsels, making her seem like much less of a lurking threat than that earlier and more thoroughly trusted villainess did. Similarly, Queen features no wild-card secondary villain like X-9’s Lucky Kamber; the chief villains here (Bork, Lang, and Maati) present a pretty united front throughout–although this doesn’t stop the writers from inserting a few bizarrely out-of-left-field double-crosses into the script; Bork’s betrayal of the crooked Captain Drake is very weakly motivated, while her henchman Weber’s sudden rebellion against her in the last episode is scarcely motivated at all.
The main reason for Jungle Queen’s unsuspenseful atmosphere, however, is the presence of Lothel, the title character–who’s impervious to flames, bullets, or spears, can appear and disappear whenever and wherever she pleases, and who repeatedly rescues the heroes from certain doom. With a dea ex machina like this on hand, it’s difficult to feel that the protagonists are really in much danger–or that they’re really accomplishing much; in fact, Lothel eventually takes out the villains all by herself in the final chapter, making the heroes’ previous counter-espionage activities look rather pointless. The screenplay also makes Lothel so omniscient that her behavior often seems inexplicable; by establishing her as being able to save anyone at any time, the writers leave us wondering why she didn’t rescue the few sympathetic characters who do get murdered by the Nazis; her failure to tell the heroes that Bork is the leader of the villains induces further head-scratching, since we’re shown that she has apparently comprehensive knowledge of the Nazis’ secret plans. She tries to explain her inconsistent helpfulness only once, in Chapter Eleven–refusing to aid the heroes in a rescue with the cryptic line “mine is another destiny;” she might as well have said “because the writers won’t let me; we still have two chapters to go.” Supernaturally-gifted characters can work in serials, if given carefully defined and limited powers (like Chandu or Captain Marvel), but Lothel’s powers are so far-ranging and her use of them so arbitrary that she comes off as a sheer scripting contrivance; the writers don’t even bother to give her a mythic backstory of some kind, failing to make it clear whether she’s an ancient tutelary spirit of the region or merely a temporary ethereal guardian.
Action scenes are pretty scarce in Jungle Queen; as aforementioned, the script leaves directors Ray Taylor and Lewis Collins little room for staging much in the way of elaborate combats. The only fistfight of any length is the energetic but fairly short one inside the mine storeroom in Chapter Eight (Carey Loftin, Eddie Parker, and Gil Perkins are the participating stuntmen); about the only other fights or pursuits in the serial are the short and tepid spear/gun battle between the heroes and Maati’s natives in Chapter Two, brief grapples over knives in Chapters Three and Six, and a couple of foot chases across jungle soundstages or Universal’s jungle backlot. These stretches of “jungle” and various cave and office interiors provide the settings for much of the serial, although Universal’s large backlot dockyard, Western hacienda (seen here as the villains’ “Experimental Farm” headquarters), cliffside area, and lagoon figure in several scenes; the studio’s imposingly massive temple-chamber set is also seen as the Tongghilis’ hall of judgment.
Above left: Eddie Parker makes a flying leap onto Carey Loftin in the Chapter Six fight scene; Lois Collier is in the foreground. Above right: Edward Norris (probably doubled by either Parker, Loftin, or Gil Perkins) starts to climb down Universal’s backlot cliff as he flees marauding lions in Chapter Nine.
Though Queen’s in-chapter action is unimpressive, its chapter endings are frequently impressive–particularly the ones that make use of striking stock footage from several past Universal feature films. The erupting-volcano/collapsing-temple cliffhanger of Chapter Three (borrowed from the movie East of Borneo, and intercut with good new shots of Queen’s actors dodging falling rubble) is one of the most spectacular of these, but the mine-shelling sequence that concludes Chapter Eight (derived from The Sun Never Sets, but also seen in the serial Adventures of the Flying Cadets) is excellent as well; equally memorable are the impressively-shot Chapter Two cliffhanger in which the heroine is apparently sacrificed to man-eating crocodiles (most of the footage here comes from the feature Nagana), and the Chapter Nine lion attack (partly lifted from the movie East of Java). Several of the serial’s non-stock cliffhangers are quite good too, particularly the one with the trip-wired machine-gun and the one that has the hero trapped in a fumigation chamber.
Above left: Natives dance around the helpless heroine before leaving her for crocodiles that will advance when the fire in the foreground burns down, in a shot borrowed from Nagana and used as part of the fine Chapter Two cliffhanger sequence. Above right: In a shot that originated in East of Borneo and serves as part of the Chapter Three cliffhanger here, an ornate temple shakes apart while a volcano rages in the background.
Jungle Queen boasts a typically strong Universal cast, filled with capable players who appeared in many B-features and who occasionally (or, in one case, permanently) made it into A-films. Leading man Edward Norris, who played major roles in some major features for Fox, MGM, and Warners during the 1930s, is one of these peripheral A-movie players, but his performance is decidedly lackluster; he achieves adequate levels of cheerfulness, grim determination, and anger when necessary, but never entirely shakes off an air of tired, almost sleepy disinterest that hangs about his acting throughout. Norris’s sidekick Eddie Quillan shows much more personality than Norris does–delivering comical grumbles and breezy quips with vaudeville-style energy, but also handling serious moments (like his grim questioning of Cy Kendall in Chapter Eight) with credibility.
Carolina-accented Universal starlet Lois Collier doesn’t sound much like a British agent (despite occasional utterances of “I say”), but her presence is still a very welcome one–thanks to her outstanding good looks and to a charming performance; she displays a worried thoughtfulness suitable to the wartime urgency of the plot, but leavens this with subdued but sprightly good-humor. As Lothel, future A-list actress Ruth Roman is also highly attractive, and plays her poorly-defined role with conviction–conveying warm concern for the fate of the “middle jungle,” but also conveying a dignity and a slight aloofness befitting a veritable goddess, even though her diaphanous and rather skimpy costume was obviously designed with allurement, not majesty, in mind.
German actress Tala Birell, who was very briefly touted as a Greta Garbo type by Universal in the early 1930s (and co-starred in Queen’s stock-footage provider Nagana) before slipping into supporting roles, makes very little of her Elise Bork role; unlike Virginia Christine and Rose Hobart in their Universal serial-villainess turns, she never seems sneeringly cruel or viciously harsh, instead coming off as–at worst–sharply irritable or coolly disdainful when she snaps at her henchmen or gloats to the good guys. As her right-hand man Lang, top-notch screen villain Douglas Dumbrille is not as thoroughly wasted as he was in his other serial King of the Mounties, but is still not used to full advantage; he has very few opportunities to genteelly lie to the heroes or coldly threaten them (duties he performed exceptionally well in his many feature films), but his character’s plotting sessions with Birell and with Napoleon Simpson’s Maati do give him several good chances to display his characteristic self-confidence and suave arrogance.
As the ambitious Maati, Napoleon Simpson delivers a solidly villainous performance in the face of several handicaps, using a sinister smile and a grimly deliberate manner to compensate for a mild-sounding voice, a noticeably pudgy frame, and an innocuous-looking face. Good though Simpson is, however, it’s hard not to notice that Emmett Smith–who plays Maati’s henchman Noma and delivers his handful of lines with truly menacing sneers and smirks–would have made a much better choice for the Maati part, since he not only sounds more intimidatingly nasty but also looks both meaner and leaner.
Clarence Muse plays Maati’s honorable and much-abused rival Kyba with dignity, his short stature and upright bearing giving him an air of overmatched but determined honesty. Clinton Rosemond is a lot less dignified as Godac, the beleaguered native judge; his exceedingly laid-back manner and easygoing, almost somnolent drawl keep him from conveying any of the gravitas one expects from a revered tribal elder. Veteran black character actor George Reed, whose career stretched all the way back to the silent era, plays Godac’s predecessor Tonga, but appears just long enough to deliver a single judgment and get assassinated in the first chapter; one wishes that the Tonga and Godac characters had simply been combined into one, allowing the role of the judge to be played by the graver and more distinguished Reed throughout.
As the Tambosa commissioner and his clerk, excellent British character actors Lester Matthews and Cyril Delevanti are relegated to sitting in their office and repeatedly worrying over the local situation (Matthews with grim intentness, Delevanti with quiet solemnity). Another fine English character player, the elderly and composedly genial Lumsden Hare, performs a similar function as British Intelligence official “Mr. X.”–the scene regularly shifting to London to allow him to discuss developments with urbane aide-de-camp George Leigh. Budd Buster is enjoyably colorful as grizzled trapper “Jungle Jack,” who assists the heroes at several junctures, while Cy Kendall is delightful in the similarly colorful but less lovable role of the greasy, flippant, and thoroughly untrustworthy waterfront-bar-proprietor “Tambosa Tim;” it’s quite disappointing when his turn proves to be a short-lived one.
The startlingly gaunt-looking Oliver Blake is good as a shady, gun-smuggling skipper, while Harry Cording makes an unfortunately brief appearance as one of his sailors. Harsh-faced and stereotypically German-looking Louis Adlon plays the villains’ code clerk, and as in Adventures of the Flying Cadets, makes a convincing and threatening Nazi heavy. Other recurring Nazi henchmen are played by Robert Stephenson, Peter Helmers, and old reliable George Eldredge; John Merton, Lee Phelps, and Crane Whitley have blink-and-you-miss-it henchmen bits, while Edmund Cobb and familiar B-movie and television actor Wilton Graff play only slightly larger heavy roles. Ray Turner (the comedy relief in Darkest Africa) pops up as a killer condemned by the Tongghili judge, Fred “Snowflake” Toones has a non-speaking role as another native, Al Woods (a dignified senator in The Scarlet Horseman) plays Tambosa Tim’s scruffy lackey, and British actor Boyd Irwin puts in a very brief appearance as the heroine’s uncle. Finally, James Baskett–who’d go on to memorably portray Uncle Remus in Walt Disney’s Song of the South–has a small but pivotal role as the stern Tongghili chieftain Orbon, getting to somberly decide between the competing claims of Maati and Tyba in the final chapter.
Usually, the stock musical pieces used to underscore Universal’s serials were pretty well-matched to the action; this is largely true of Jungle Queen’s score, but one piece of music is so jarring that it warrants a special mention–the incongruously light-sounding sitcom-style music that accompanies recurring stock-footage shots of Nazi soldiers and armored cars rolling down the streets of Berlin; something far more martial and ominous was called for here. These shots are invariably featured as preludes to regularly-scheduled scenes in which an unnamed Nazi bigwig (the character might even be intended to represent der Fuehrer himself) sketches a skull-and-crossbones on a notepad while receiving progress reports from his agents; your guess is good as mine when it comes to identifying the player of this part, since his face is never shown (strengthening the idea that he’s supposed to be some real-life Reich official).
Excessive talk and sparse action aren’t significantly more damaging to Jungle Queen than they are to other mediocre late Universal serials like The Royal Mounted Rides Again or The Scarlet Horseman. However, the combination of these common-to-Universal flaws with the more unique and very poorly conceived supernatural-protectress gimmick makes Jungle Queen overall the weakest and least interesting of Universal’s latter-day chapterplays. The best one can say for it is that it never actually becomes an unwatchable bore–largely because of the pulchritude of the Misses Collier and Roman, the professionalism of most of the other cast members (particularly Dumbrille and Quillan), Universal’s usual fine production values, and some good stock-footage cliffhangers.