It may be a jungle out there, but Judge Dylan Charles didn't think this epic portrayed it realistically. Or interestingly.
1000 jungle terrors! 13 chapters of savage thrills!
Although I'm sure I don't have to, I'm going to give ya'll a quick rundown of what a serial is. Way back when, in ye days of olde, there existed the chapter play or serial. Each week a new episode, 15 to 20 minutes long, at your local movie house would advance the story. It was a television show before there were televisions. These serials covered a wide range of genres, from superheroes (The Green Hornet) to horror (The Whispering Shadow) to westerns (Jesse James Rides Again). At the end of each chapter, there'd be the obligatory cliffhanger: "Will Bob escape the passel of bloodthirsty lions? Find out next week at this theater!"
Now, I have far more familiarity with the superhero serials. I grew up watching the Green Hornet gassing racketeers and Lamont Cranston dressing up as a walking Chinese stereotype and trying to guess which insurance investigator was really The Masked Marvel. So the jungle picture is a new thing for me. So far, I'm not impressed.
Jungle Queen is the not-so-epic tale of British and American agents trying to foil the sinister plots of the Nazis on the eve of World War II. For some reason, the Nazis really, really want to control Middle Africa, a vaguely defined region of the continent which I assume is somewhere in the middle. Instead of rolling in with a couple of tanks, Nazi agents Lang (Douglass Dumbrille) and Bork (Tala Birell) try and set up a puppet king to rule all of Middle Africa. This involves a convoluted plan that just aches for someone to come along and screw it all up. Enter Bob (Edward Norris), Chuck (Eddie Quillan), and Pam (Lois Collier); two Americans and a Brit, respectively. But the Nazis are almost too clever for them and they need all the help they can get. Thankfully, Lothel, Queen of the Jungle (Ruth Roman) pops up like the deus ex machina she is and saves the day—again and again and again. This has to be the longest plot synopsis I've ever written.
Anyway, the only thing a cliffhanger has to be is exciting. You don't watch a serial for the deep thinking or for a social message (unless that message can be boiled down into "Nazis bad" or "America good"). It's gotta be fast-moving entertainment that grips the audience right till the very end as the hero is seemingly gunned down by mobsters or his plane crashes or whatever. Jungle Queen is far from gripping and not even that exciting. Fisticuffs are few and far between and it's generally just a lot of bad accents talking about improbable plans to control "Middle Africa." The cliffhangers aren't exciting because the directors resort to the cheap tactic of having Lothel save everyone too many times. The best example of this comes comes when Chuck is in danger of being eaten by crocodiles. Lothel hauls out a massive slab of raw meat and then heaves it into the river. However, Jungle Queen does deserve the distinction of actually having a genuine cliffhanger; at one point, Bob literally hangs from a cliff by a rope that is just about to snap. It gave me goosebumps.
The heroes and villains are all pretty sturdy cardboard cutouts; nothing to be ashamed of, but also nothing to write home about. Lang is a puffy, middle-aged man with no distinguishing features. Bob is chiseled and knows how to shoot a gun. Pam has a British accent. Whoopee.
Luckily there's Lothel, the very white jungle queen. Ruth Roman is the quirkiest damn thing in the whole movie. She acts more like a bird or insane cat, turning her head to odd angles and prancing about in what appears to be ballet shoes. Her character is never explained. She shows up and coos out a few cryptic words, and then she prances off again. Where does she come from? Why is she helping the people of Middle Africa? Why in God's name is there a crazy woman running around a jungle in flowing robes? Eddie Quillan is the second-best thing going for Jungle Queen as the plucky comic relief. But really, all he has to do is have any defining characteristic and he'd stand out from the humdrum crowd around him. The fact that he's wacky just means I can recognize him when he comes onto the screen. Unlike Bob, who even has a dull name.
Then there are the Africans. The African people in this movie are nothing more than a collection of dunderheads, subject to the manipulations and whims of the lily white meddlers. They're either duplicitous and evil (you know, the ones who work for the Nazis) or overly aggressive and simple (the ones who don't work for the Nazis). Even their savior comes in the form of the white Jungle Queen. Wouldn't it have made more sense if she was black? The only saving grace is that they (inexplicably) speak impeccable English. I don't think I could have sat through 240 minutes of broken English intermingled with a screenwriter's idea of what an African language sounds like.
Jungle Queen is a subpar example of a serial: Boring characters with a meandering plot and minimal action. Find a copy of The Adventures of Captain Marvel if you want something really good. On another, final note, thanks to Todd Gault's Serial Experience (http://www.serialexperience.com/index.php) for the facts on serials.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
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