My notes on Jungle Girl (1941)
Whatever they lacked in dramatic credibility, acting performances or sensitive depictions of non-caucasian characters, Republic serials didn’t stint on action. Rival companies tend to open an average chapter by getting the hero out of the fix he was in last week and then dawdle for ten minutes or so before some new peril set up a ‘to be continued …’ caption; in Jungle Girl, the mid-sections of every chapter offer as many dangers as the fade-outs, with various good guys sometimes cramming in as many as four escapes from certain death into any one seventeen-minute installment. Kids must have felt they got value for money.
Based on ‘Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous novel’ (well, not as famous as some of his other novels), this introduces its characters and premise in an extra-long first chapter. In the interior of Africa (played, as usual, by California), saintly Dr John Meredith (Trevor Bardette) ministers to the medical needs of the village of Kairobi, and has been given a lion amulet which entitles the holder to visit the mines of Nakros where a fortune in diamonds has been stashed by the tribe. Nyoka (Frances Gifford), Meredith’s daughter, is an athletic gel in a brief but modest leather minidress, much given to swinging through the trees like her creator’s most genuinely famous character and palling around with native lad Kimbu (Tommy Cook), one of the most annoying characters in all serials. The doctor is lured by obvious wrong ‘un Slick Latimer (Gerald Mohr) to see to his disgraced twin brother, then killed. Bradley Meredith (also Bardette, barely differentiating the characters) and Latimer return to Kairobi, intent on grabbing the diamonds, with the wicked twin posing as his good brother and pretending to be semi-amnesiac. The witch doctor Shamba (Frank Lackteen), whose voodoo spell might have contributed to Meredith’s death, also has evil plans, and wants to regain his former position as juju-dispensing local dignitary. Nyoka, who never suspects her father is an imposter (and doesn’t seem too upset when she eventually learns her beloved Dad is dead), is allied with pilot Jack Stanton (Tom Neal), who sports a pith-helmet and muscle shirt, and comedy relief Curly (Eddie Acuff), who can throw his voice.
For fifteen chapters, everyone runs around like crazy, grabbing the amulet or the diamonds, and the frankly feckless natives (burly white folks with fright wigs and skirts) always seem ready to sacrifice or spear the heroes who are supposed to be helping them. Among the prize perils: a tunnel that fills with gushing water, a floor that rolls away to reveal a bottomless pit, a killer ape, a diamond-mine ore-crushing device, a gun tricked up to go off when a plane takes off and shoot the pilot, an automatic spear-shooting device. Nyoka is a rare girlie heroine, mixing it with the stuntmen in many fights, and often allowed to rescue a tied-up hero from certain death. Rather disappointingly, however, the stiff Stanton is allowed gradually to take over the leading role, and the finale finds Nyoka cheering feebly on the ground as the pilot grapples in mid-air with main baddie Latimer. Everyone is cast to type, and fulfils it admirably (except Cook, who needs to be slapped more often than he is) – with the gaunt and mean-eyed Lackteen, as often, especially credible as the skulking, treacherous witch doctor. Nyoka returned (played by Kay Aldredge) in Perils of Nyoka, but her surname was then changed to Gordon so that Republic wouldn’t have to pay the famous Burroughs any more royalties.
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