"Anything's possible in the jungle" - Jungle Jim (Johnny Weissmuller)
After playing Tarzan for about 15 years, first at MGM and later at RKO, an increasingly flabby Johnny Weissmuller worked his way further down the Hollywood food chain, ending up at lowly Columbia where for a time he starred as Alex Raymond and Don Moore's comic strip hero Jungle Jim, in sixteen features produced during 1948-1956.
The movies are not well regarded, even by fans of such modest genre films. Moreover, the entire series virtually disappeared into a black hole when local TV stations stopped airing them after the advent of infomercials and old black and white movies were virtually banished to cable television. But thanks to Sony's "Screen Classics By Request" line of DVD-Rs, six Jungle Jim features - the others being Mark of the Gorilla (1950), Pygmy Island (1950), Fury of the Congo (1951), Jungle Man-Eaters (1954), and Jungle Moon Men (1955) - have been newly remastered and are ripe for reappraisal.
Not only do the films now look terrific, it turns out that at least some in the series are a lot better than their reputation would suggest. None are lost classics, but overall they're about on par (or nearly so) with the Tarzan movies being made concurrently (and by this time starring Lex Barker) a few blocks south over at RKO - in other words, not bad. The earlier Jungle Jims are generally better and have healthier budgets than the later ones, which confusingly incorporate stock footage from the first few entries. But even the later Jungle Jims are harmless and enjoyable.
Jungle Manhunt (1951) is both a bit cheaper and more routine than the earliest entries yet isn't as goofily over-the-top as the later ones. Its narrative incorporates two jungle movie staples: the search for a wealthy man lost deep in the jungle and nefarious treasure hunters frightening superstitious local natives and enslaving them. However, Jungle Manhunt does briefly feature dinosaurs, making this also science fiction. And, what's more, its coming attractions trailer, included as an extra, briefly shows off an outrageously silly-looking monster mercifully cut from the final theatrical version.
What's wrong with the poster on the left? Nothing, except the cast and crew on the poster actually appeared in Voodoo Tiger, not Jungle Manhunt.
Three men dressed in skeleton costumes with an army of native warriors behind them attack a peaceful and, though set in Africa, decidedly Polynesian-looking village. The village is sacked, violently by '50s B-movie standards, and its survivors enslaved. The script and production suggest Jungle Manhunt was cobbled together in great haste: backing this and subsequent raids is a pistol-packing white man in a pith helmet. His face is obscured for the first half of the picture, as if a surprise reveal was intended for the climax. But then about halfway through Dr. Mitchell Heller (Lyle Talbot), who's using the natives to manufacture artificial diamonds, clearly and casually goes about his villainy without any Big Reveal at all.
Elsewhere, Anne Lawrence (Shelia Ryan) is photographing some interesting stock footage of natives fishing and riding rapids in long canoes. When her boat overturns, Jungle Jim (Johnny Weissmuller) rescues her along with her "waterproof" 16mm camera - though the two men that were in the boat with Anne are never mentioned nor heard from again. C'est la vie.
Perky Anne - Ryan is quite likeable in this - tells Jungle Jim that she's on the lookout for all-American football hero Bob Miller (Los Angeles Rams quarterback Bob Waterfield, then also married to Jane Russell). Bob disappeared in a presumed plane crash nine years before. In another clue that this was written in a hurry, out of nowhere a native suddenly steps into the frame and hands Jungle Jim a note, then just as quickly disappears. The note informs Jim of a meeting of jungle chiefs to discuss the recent attacks. One of the chiefs, Bono (Rick Vallin), asks Jim to investigate. Thinking Bob might be mixed up in all this trouble, Anne joins Jim's party, which includes Bono as well as Tamba (Tamba), Jim's excitable baby chimpanzee, a primate prone to frequent back flips.
Jungle Manhunt is business as usual with but a few twists on its overly familiar material. During their search, Jim's band encounters several dinosaurs, played - in outtakes from One Million, B.C. (1940) - by a Gila monster and alligator with a fin glued to its back, suggesting a Dimetrodon. "A hundred foot long if they're an inch!" exclaims Bob. The creatures quarrel unhappily and the Gila monster looks genuinely injured after enduring the alligator's death roll.
The coming attractions trailer includes footage of a man-sized, Tyrannosaur-shaped monster cut from the final film. It's a flimsy, ludicrous costume not even on the level of those found in Unknown Island (1948), a low-budget King Kong knock-off. Later on Jim, swimming underwater, watches a battle between a shark and a giant octopus, creatures nearly as improbable in the middle of darkest Africa as the dinosaurs.
Critics often complain the Jungle Jim movies were restricted to soundstage jungles of the type later seen on TV shows like Gilligan's Island. But this seems to have been filmed mainly in the rocky wilds of Chatsworth and the jungles of the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, frequent locations for such films.
As in several other Jungle Jim movies, there's something like an effort to fool movie audiences wandering in late (as was common back then - audiences usually stayed for these continuously-run double features until they were back to where they had started) into thinking they were seeing not Jungle Jim, but Tarzan. "Aren't you ... ?" Anne asks with accentuated pause. Jungle Jim and Weissmuller moved to television a few years later, a little bit before the movie series ended, and since Columbia's rights had expired, for the last three movies the character's name was changed from Jungle Jim to Johnny Weissmuller. Follow that?
"Pat, I'd like you to meet my friend, Johnny Weissmuller."
"No, the African explorer."
"Gee, you look just like Jungle Jim. Or maybe Tarzan with his clothes on."
Video & Audio
According to Bill Warren's essential book Keep Watching the Skies!, Jungle Manhunt was originally released in sepia tone, though the transfer here is in ordinary black and white. Nonetheless, the image looks just great, with much detail, impressively rich blacks and good contrast. The region-free DVD-R disc's mono audio (English only, with no subtitle options) is likewise strong. There are the usual chapter stops every ten minutes, but no other menu options, save for that lone Extra Feature, an amusing trailer, complete with narration and text.
Sony's decision to release Jungle Jim movies to DVD-R format is nicely timed, considering Warner Archive Collection's "Tarzan" line recently wrapped with that film series' final entry, Tarzan and the Jungle Boy (1968). While the worst Jungle Jim movies are admittedly pretty lousy, overall the series is livelier and more colorful than conventional wisdom suggests. Jungle Manhunt isn't the best of these releases so far - I'd vote for Pygmy Island or maybe Fury of the Congo - but it's adequate, and I'm tickled to finally get the chance to see these and hope more will follow. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.