Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
VCI hits fantasy pay dirt with this pair of underachieving but interesting Lippert releases. Bert I. Gordon's King Dinosaur is a famous maladroit space-monster movie made with a bare minimum of resources. William Berke's The Jungle is a lavish USA-India co-production that has everything but a workable script. Both titles will be welcomed by obscure movie buffs, as they played constantly on television in the late 1950s. The copies presented here are in near-perfect condition.
1955 / B&W / 1:78 enhanced anamorphic / 63 min.
Starring William Bryant, Wanda Curtis, Douglas Henderson, Patti Gallagher, Marvin Miller
Cinematography Gordon Avil
Film Editor Jack Cornall
Original Music Louis Palange
Written by Bert I. Gordon, Tom Gries, Al Zimbalist
Produced by Bert I. Gordon, Al Zimbalist
Directed by Bert I. Gordon
Ah, yes, here's one that really did belong on Mystery Science Theater 3000, even though it's nice to have it as it was originally shown in 1955. King Dinosaur is the very first Bert I. Gordon movie. 'BIG' Gordon was one of a couple dozen filmmakers who realized in the early 1950s that if you could make any kind of movie at least an hour long with a beginning, middle and end, and if it vaguely resembled the attention-grabbing title and poster you cooked up for it, you could get it booked into theaters. Al Zimbalist was a penny-pinching producer from way back, and Lippert films was one of the first independent exploitation producers to jump on the science fiction bandwagon. Gordon could pull off some simple special effects and had big ideas about emulating monster movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them!
A new planet called Nova appears in the solar system, and four scientists (two men, two women) are chosen
to fly there in a specially-designed rocket. They make camp after determining that the air is fit to breathe. During exploratory hikes, they note that the vegetation and animal life are very 'Earth-like'. One of the men wanders away from his post to be alone with his sweetheart, and is injured when he tangles with an alligator. While he recovers, two of the scientists investigate an interesting island. There they are attacked and trapped in a cave by gigantic reptiles.
Responding to a distress call, their friends come to the rescue and use their 'nuclear power source' as an A-Bomb against the dinosaur menace.
Primitive is too sophisticated a word to describe King Dinosaur. For a movie that is supposed to be about space travel, there's almost no technology or hardware in sight: The four principal actors are introduced playing with test tubes and microscopes during a ten minute opening montage. The professional voice of Marvin Miller explains away 90% of the plot against a backdrop of stock footage; the rocket to Nova is simply recycled V-2
footage, presumably double-exposed over starfields and landscapes to indicate the space journey and the landing on Nova.
Nova turns out to look just like Big Bear, California, or some similar Sierra lake area, with generous side trips to Bronson Caverns in Hollywood. Except for one angle with a spaceship's fin hiding an ordinary ladder, the movie consists of what looks like a simple camping trip with lots of dull hiking shots and even duller dialogue scenes in between.
The acting isn't at all bad considering what the talent was up against -- trying to animate these non-characters, who don't follow even the dimmest idea of dramatic logic, is a vain struggle at best. One couple is always necking at the slightest opportunity. Action scenes mean that the women scream and at least one of the men tears his shirt and has to be bare-chested. The explorers aren't impressed much by anything, especially the fact that Nova seems to be a duplicate of Earth, right down to the stock shots of birds, sloths, and snakes that further pad out the monotony. Forced to fight with an alligator (on a dry, grassy hill!) and other fauna, the astronauts treat the wildlife of Nova as a big inconvenience. The script's string of unrelated small talk that connects the dots between animal attacks, were written by a young Tom Gries, who later became a noted director (Will Penny).
The cinematography is basic but dull. With little or no visual clue, dialogue is needed just to tell us whether it's night or day. The camera pans once in a while but is usually static. The only production value is in the animals on view -- the gator, an owl and a 'honey bear' that gets featured billing.
Gordon's first split-screen monster effects combine an iguana, a small alligator, a monitor lizard and an Indonesian Tegu lizard in fake but unpleasant battles. The reptiles are mostly manipulated from offscreen, but even the vegetarian iguana is encouraged to bite for real. It's clear that the hefty lizards are being harmed, which takes all the fun out of their phony fighting. The best effects angle shows the head of the iguana trying to poke its way into a cave to try and get at the struggling Earthmen. The male lead snaps a Polaroid, and stares at it to make an I.D. on the beast -- even though the identical real view is right in front of him. Yep, it's obviously a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the 'King Dinosaur' of the title!
Elsewhere, we can see the first example of Gordon's poor man's traveling matte technique, when he combines a greatly-enlarged insect we called a potato bug with a campsite background. The matte is created from a soft-edged hi-con, and the composite is a fuzzy mess. Shadows under the bug are also matted away, and see-through holes are created wherever the shiny insect reflects a highlight. Nowadays, the simplest video editor can do a better job ... just two years later Gordon based an entire film, Beginning of the End, on a refinement of this process, thus cementing his reputation as the unchallenged master of the unconvincing special effect.
Everything in King Dinosaur is engineered backwards from the idea of getting the bare minimum of exploitable content on screen to sucker the first weekend's business. A rocket ship ... animal fights ... giant monsters ... and the Atom bomb! The escaping spacemen blast the dinosaurs on the island for no reason at all, except to provide an ending that would allow school kids to mumble a plot description that included a nuclear explosion. Looking on at their handiwork, the heroes proudly tell us they've 'brought civilization' to Nova. Under the circumstances, there's nothing to comment on -- the movie is too thin to be mined for topical controversy.
Savant hasn't seen the MST3K version of King Dinosaur, but it must be a hoot. There's plenty of dialogue-free idiocy to comment on, like the first Astronette using a microscope while wearing a bulbous space helmet, or the alligator fighter going to bed with bleeding wounds, and waking up the next morning cured and scar-free. The leading man is too into his tough-guy acting is too rough to suit the leading lady; he's continually jerking her by the arm or half-yanking her off her feet, to land face-first in the dirt. She looks suitably furious.
VCI's presentation of King Dinosaur easily bests the earlier Retromedia disc; which was sourced from an old videotape with analog wrinkle glitches. This clean transfer is said to come from the original 35mm negative and looks it. The enhanced transfer crowds the main titles and makes a few compositions look too cropped on a normal over-scanning monitor, but most of the film looks better at the wider aspect ratio. Curiously, the end of the show cuts to 'stop' right before the final "The End" title should appear, indicating some screwed-up format encoding. One has to launch the disc again to continue watch the other feature.
1953 / Sepia Tone / 1:37 flat full frame / 73 min. / Kaadu
Starring Rod Cameron, Cesar Romero, Marie Windsor,
Cinematography Clyde De Vinna
Production design A.J. Dominic, P.B. Krisman
Film Editor L. Balu
Original Music Dakshinamoorthy, G. Ramanathan
Written by Carroll Young
Produced by William A. Berke, Robert L. Lippert
Directed by William Berke
The Jungle is a relatively lavish show filmed on location in rural India with three reasonably notable American star names. An early attempt at an international co-production between Indian money and American talent, it succeeds up to a point in presenting an exotic adventure in an authentic locale. But Carroll Young's story relies too much on Frank Buck-type jungle clichés, and the oddball science fiction ending just doesn't seem to fit.
Princess Mari (Marie Windsor of The Narrow Margin) returns to her palace to find her people ready to revolt. Her advisor, childhood friend and rumored lover Rama Singh (Cesar Romero) reports that massive elephant stampedes are destroying villages, and his attempts to shoot the beasts have come to nothing. Rama Singh hired Steve Bentley, a famous big-game hunter (Rod Cameron), but Bentley decided that the elephants weren't the problem, that giant prehistoric mammoths deep in the forests were driving them crazy. Bentley was the only survivor of his entire hunting party, which included Rama Singh's brother. A new expedition sets out to quell the disturbances. Bentley comes along but nobody believes his story, and Rama Singh has sworn to kill him as soon as he verifies how his brother died.
The Jungle is a fairly unique movie, produced when a safari to film in India really was a major adventure. The idea made good economic sense in that by encouraging American talent the Indian producers could hope to get their film shown in the lucrative U.S. market. The American talent most likely saw filming in India as an opportunity to produce something special and different.
But these filmmakers weren't really up to the task of making a top-notch film, unlike Jean Renoir who the year before had indulged a director's dream with his remarkable The River, an acknowledged classic. The Jungle's director was an old hand at making cheap series westerns and micro-budgeted crime stories, and producer Robert L. Lippert was practically persona non grata around Hollywood for evading industry rules about paying his actors. Writer Carroll Young worked almost exclusively in the jungle genre, having penned most of the RKO Tarzan movies before writing Lippert's hit Sci-Fi thriller The Lost Continent.
It's very possible that Young's original script was much more exciting than the final film. Indian tastes dictated no kissing and may be responsible for the film's near-fatal lack of a love angle: Rod Cameron's hunter and Marie Windsor's princess don't see eye-to-eye and Windsor and Cesar Romero aren't an item either. After an expository opening and an assassination attempt the movie settles into familiar trek mode, interrupted by episodic minor adventures and dramatically inert sidebar attractions like visits with traveling native entertainers.
With the absence of major action, the movie falls back on a staple from 1930s "Bring 'em Back Alive" type films, staged and sometimes cruel animal encounters and fights. These also come under the heading of low-wattage detours from the main story, making The Jungle seem longer than it should. The travelers hike for a while and observe some animals; then they hike some more before another musical bit.
Apparently the Indian version of the picture (Kaadu) was far longer, with the requisite longer musical numbers instead of the brief asides seen here, and elaborate comedy sub-plots. We see what might be a vestige of these when an expedition member makes funny faces charming a cobra. Small characters such as a boy who comes along and a furtive assassin are not fleshed out either; there may have been an entire parallel Indian cast in the other version.
Rod Cameron is reasonable as he's slowly revealed to be a brave take-charge guy and not a coward as accused. Marie Windsor and Cesar Romero are very good at pretending that the entire enterprise is a serious drama. Nothing essential happens until the very end, when the Wooly Bully Mammoths appear. They're three rather unexciting elephants wearing hairy carpets and extra-long fake tusks, and they just don't live up to their menacing buildup. No effort is made to make them look larger than normal elephants, either. A flurry of fast action cutting substitutes for a likely grand action scene in Carroll Young's script ... William Berke was a 'get it in the can' type of director, not an action stylist. Some of the bad guys are knocked off a cliff while Steve Bentley starts chucking war surplus grenades (not the Carl Denham type) at the charging beasts. It turns out that Rama Singh's brother was indeed killed, but not by Bentley. The noble finish doesn't even hang around long enough to find out if Princess Mari and Rama Singh are going to get together.
Just from a photo-travelogue point of view, The Jungle is a worthwhile viewing experience; it's as if Nanook of the North was made by Fred F. Sears instead of Robert J. Flaherty. With all this opportunity, the film has little or no Indian flavor or insights beyond the jungle trek formula.
VCI and Kit Parker's DVD of The Jungle is perfectly preserved and looks great. It's a flat B&W film but is printed in Sepia tone. The Indian technicians do well with the lighting and the soundtrack has an interesting regional flavor. The end of the show switches back to "stop" just like King Dinosaur but does not cut off the end title.
The extras range from excellent to perplexing. The best item is Tom Weaver's lengthy text interview with Marie Windsor, in which she tells the exciting tale of being given 'round the world tickets to reach India and the odd accommodations. She also witnessed a lot of animal cruelty and tried to record some on home movies, but thinks that those camera rolls were purposely stolen from her. She remembers attending a film festival with Frank Capra and noticing that Russian trade emissaries overran the affair trying to spread Soviet propaganda.
Ad and stills galleries are included. King Dinosaur is represented by a trailer and original script pages ... that are completely unreadable. You can't have everything. I can imagine Kit Parker films being miffed by the packaging design. The crowded images on the front are bad enough, but the black "Kit Parker" lettering is positioned at the bottom over a black background, and is thus invisible.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
King Dinosaur rates:
Movie: Fair but campy fun
Supplements: Trailer, script pages
The Jungle rates:
Movie: Good --
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Tom Weaver interview with Marie Windsor, stills and ad art.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 15, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2006 Glenn Erickson
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