Shrewdly cashing in on renewed interest in the life and death of George Reeves, the tragic actor who played the Man of Steel on Adventures of Superman and the subject of last year's Hollywoodland, Kit Parker Films and VCI have paired two low-budget features starring Reeves, Thunder in the Pines and Jungle Goddess (both 1948) with a heaping helping of featurettes about the actor. Though there's a minor issue with the audio on one of the features, both otherwise look terrific and Reeves' likeable, breezy manner - soon to be carried over into the Superman show - is on display in both films, which are well-paced with running times scarcely more than an hour.
Jungle Goddess is a very routine, cliche-ridden jungle melodrama made palatable by a fitfully humorous, cynical script (by Jo Pagano) that hints that its writer (as well as Reeves, as seen in his performance) were well aware that they were navigating a well-trodden path through the soundstage jungle and decided to at least acknowledge the script's many absurdities.
Jungle movies being what they were, the genre was limited to about three basic plots and Jungle Goddess uses two of them: the search for a lost heiress deep in Darkest Africa, and a quasi-lost civilization lorded over by a white woman, the goddess of the title.
George Reeves and Ralph Byrd (who earlier had played Dick Tracy in several films) star as Mike Patton and Bob Simpson, respectively, commercial flyers working in Africa. Bob learns about the big reward (about $20,000) offered for news on the whereabouts of a missing heiress, whose plane went missing at the start of World War II. With Mike doubtful about their chances of finding any trace of the lost plane, he nonetheless tags along deep "into Zambizee Territory" and in no time they locate the missing aircraft.
They also stumble upon a race of natives led by Greta Vanderhorn (Wanda McKay), the lost heiress herself. She later explains that the natives believed her to be a deity and decided to go along with the deception, biding her time waiting for a chance to escape back to civilization. Trigger-happy Bob, however, fouls things up when he shoots one of the natives dead and is condemned to die by Greta the Goddess, but she's only foolin', or something; anyway it's somehow part of her escape plan. She and Mike fall in love while on Death Row Bob, who for some reason has been allowed to hold onto his pistol, grows understandably nervous as his execution day draws near.
Jungle Goddess is silly fun that's actually a pretty good vehicle for George Reeves, even though it was the genre rather than Reeves' name that sold tickets. His laconic reactions at the absurdities around him are amusing, while Byrd's character's descent into Fred C. Dobbs territory (especially after Mike finds valuable "carnitite" in the area, a mineral likened to uranium) is fun. Wanda McKay is totally unbelievable even as a faux goddess, but she's Sarah Bernhardt compared to "Armida," a kind of low-rent Carmen Miranda, playing a native who is Greta's constant if dim-witted companion. How the thickly-Spanish accented Armida ended up in a singularly African tribe populated by black actors is never explained. Then again, no explanation was ever expected in a picture such as this.
Thunder in the Pines is a rowdy modern Western set in logging country with a spirit reminiscent of the later John Wayne comedy North to Alaska (1960). Reeves is again teamed with Byrd, this time as best pals Jeff Collins and "Boomer" (also called "Baby-Face") Benson, lumberjacks who nevertheless constantly fight over money and women. Crooked cafe owner and dishonest gambler Nick Roulade (Lyle Talbot) takes advantage of the boys' rivalry by putting them to work on competing contracts on opposite branches of the same river. He offers the first man to get a half-million in board feed to market a $1,000 bonus while golddigger French ingenue Yvette (Denise Darcel), whom the boys met in France during the war, says she'll marry the winner.
The broad humor of Thunder in the Pines is less effective than the subtle digging of the jungle cliches in Jungle Goddess's script. Jeff and Boomer merely come off as a couple of immature fatheads acting like schoolboys, though Reeves and Byrd infuse their parts with a lot of energy, and the less comic action scenes aren't bad for a low-budget film.
Also, quite unlike Jungle Goddess, which makes use of overly familiar stock shots of amused monkeys, fleeing flamingoes and the like, Thunder in the Pines' use of stock footage is generally much more effective, and the less familiar shots of real loggers is actually pretty interesting all by itself.
Talbot is enjoyable as the oily con-artist ready to milk Jeff and Boomer dry, but Paris-born Denise Darcel, decked out a beret and raincoat so that we know she's French, is quite awful. She rolls her eyes and vamps unrestrainedly, in constant, fidgety motion like a character in a Dave Fleischer cartoon.
Video & Audio
Though both films show a little damage here and there, mostly in the form of an occasional bad splice, each is near-pristine with impressive sharpness and good contrast. Jungle Goddess's splices cut into some dialogue for a minute or two about 38 minutes into the picture, but otherwise it looks great. For some reason, the audio (English only) sounds very tinny, as if it were amplified through a coffee can. This is distracting, but after a while one becomes accustomed to it well enough. Kit Parker and/or VCI earn bonus points for presenting Thunder in the Pines "in glowing Sepia Tone" as trumpeted on the film's original advertising. It looks even better and the audio is just fine here. There are no subtitle options.
For fans of George Reeves and Adventures of Superman VCI's DVD offers a lot of nice extra features, supplements that are surprisingly deemphasized on the cover art. Included are several featurettes of varying quality. Biographer Jay Alan Henderson doesn't have much to say in his segment about the two features, but Carl Glass' George Reeves: His Life and Legacy offers a nice overview of the actor's career, and Steven Kirk hosts an ingratiating segment about efforts in Reeves' hometown to build a George Reeves museum and restore his first two homes. There are a couple of text essays, one a rave of Hollywoodland that nonetheless points to a couple of that film's factual errors, while Richard C. Potter's song, "Oh, George" is a heartfelt tribute to the actor who was either murdered, killed accidentally or committed suicide when he was just 45 years old. There's a smattering of other miscellana, such as unrelated trailers for other VCI titles, including what looks like an excruciatingly bad army comedy called As You Were (1951).
Fans of George Reeves and those with a fondness for postwar program pictures will enjoy Kit Parker and VCI's George Reeves Double Feature, a fun package of well-transferred Bs and entertaining supplements. Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.