Appellate Judge Mac McEntire just got lucky.
"Why, it's Tim Tyler!"
Many decades ago, "jungle adventure" was a marketable genre for movies. It was all about heroes venturing into the unknown, surviving based on their skills and their wits, braving off attacks from wild animals, and occasionally finding lost treasure. The middle section of 1933's King Kong is probably the most famous example of the genre familiar to today's moviegoers.
Back in the day, though, jungle adventures were big bucks, and the famous serials cashed in it. That brings us to Tim Tyler's Luck, based on the newspaper comic strip by Lyman Young, about an all-American kid and his adventures in the wilds of Africa. Universal adapted the strip into a 12-part serial in 1937, now restored onto DVD courtesy of VCI Home Video. So put on your pith helmet and let's go exploring.
Facts of the Case
Tim Tyler (Frankie Thomas, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet) stows away on a freighter headed into the jungles of Africa. He hopes to locate his father, a researcher studying gorillas, who has turned up missing. Along the way, Tim makes friends with Lora Lacey (Frances Robinson His Wildest Night), who has traveled to the Dark Continent not to hunt big game, but a big criminal: the notorious Spider Webb (Norman Willis, The Avenging Rider). Spider has his hands in all kinds of nefarious activities, including poaching, diamond thievery, stirring up war between the natives and the peacekeeping Ivory Patrol, and even stealing Tim's father's armored jungle cruiser.
Throughout the course of these 12 chapters, Tim's search will lead him to confrontations with vicious animals, and even more vicious thugs. But he's not helpless. Thanks to his quick thinking, and a friendly panther named Fang, Tim is ready for whatever challenges face him in the jungle.
There are really two ways to look at Tim Tyler's Luck. The first is through the cold, unfeeling eyes of a critic, one that demands quality entertainment and cannot overlook low-budget sets and gaping plot holes. The second perspective is that of the sunny, rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, where films are a product of their time, and where the good-natured intent of the filmmakers to provide rousing, high adventure fun is a saving grace.
The critical: There's not much of a narrative to Tim Tyler's Luck. Characters meet, get separated, regroup, split up, get back together again, and so on. But really, all this is mostly an excuse to get to the next action set piece or cliff hanger. The good guys chase the bad guys through one chapter, and in the next it's the bad guys chasing the good guys. At times, it feels like the plot is just going around in circles.
The nostalgic: The whole series moves along at a brisk pace, which works in its favor. Just when the characters get out of one jam, they jump right into the next. Viewers will barely be able to keep up with the all various scrapes and near-misses. Tim Tyler's Luck is more about taking a wild ride then it is a beginning-middle-end narrative, so just sit back hold on for dear life.
The critical: There's not a lot of character development for Tim. He's here to save his father, and anyone else he meets in danger along the way, but that's about it. Will viewers really be able to identify with this kid who's so squeaky-clean? From the moment when he first shows up, wearing what looks like a Boy Scout uniform (heck, knowing Tim, it probably is a Boy Scout uniform) Tim never once drops his good-natured routine.
The nostalgic: Not every hero has to be a tortured anti-hero. Conflict in the story comes from taking Tim, a nice kid who always does the right thing, and throwing him headfirst into a world of criminal thieves and deadly jungle beasts. It's almost refreshing to see a movie hero who does nothing but stand up for the straight and narrow.
The critical: Other characters don't fare much better. Lora is just as single-minded in her pursuit of Spider as Tim, and she tends to disappear into the background for long portions of the story. As our villain, Spider Webb (what kind of silly name is that?) gets to talk tough and snarl a lot, but he too suffers from a lack of any real character development.
The nostalgic: Frances Robinson is just gorgeous as Lora, and not only does she add a female presence to the film, but she's never the damsel in distress. Instead, she's just as courageous as any of the guys. Spider Webb (what a cool name!) stepped right out of an old fashioned gangster flick, and every one of his lines is a riot. You know how comedians will often mimic old gangster movies by saying "N'yeah see?" Well, Spider talks like that for real here.
The critical: Most of the action scenes center on the "jungle cruiser," a combination tank and retro sports car that the villains use to speed through the jungle. Perhaps at the time this was considered futuristic technology, but to today's eyes, it comes across as just clunky, and far too much time spent watching this contraption zip around.
The nostalgic: The use of the "jungle cruiser" certainly makes this series stand out from other jungle adventures of the period. I can't help but wonder if the creators of Batman Begins had the cruiser in mind when they came up with the "tumbler" in that movie. Both vehicles are oversized and not visually attractive, but they're great fun to see in action once they get going.
The critical: Like a lot of movies of this type, Tim Tyler's Luck relies on stock footage of actual jungles and actual jungle animals to enhance the excitement, and no doubt to stretch out the budget. Although the actors do occasionally interact with some animals themselves, it's still pretty obvious to spot the differences between the trained animals and the ones filmed in the wild, not to mention the differences between the southern California landscape—including good old Vasquez Rocks—and the Congo.
The nostalgic: Although the stock footage is obvious, the editors do a fairly admirable job of making sure each stock shot moves the scene forward. When a lion chases Tim up a tree, it looks a lot like the same tree in both elements. Less discerning viewers who find it easy to get caught up the action might not even question the edits in some scenes. Also, some of the stock shots are pretty exciting in their own right. Like when that black panther was fighting the lion? That's some seriously eye-popping animal carnage right there.
The critical: It's a serial, so of course there are cliff hangers, including one early on that actually has someone barely hanging onto the edge of a cliff. More often that not, though, the resolutions to these cliff hangers are cheap copouts. One chapter ends with Tim—or, more accurately, Tim's regret-nothing stuntman—getting mauled by a giant lion. But then, at the start of the next chapter, Tim is atop a tree saying, "Boy it sure is a good thing this tree was here," and the brutal mauling apparently never really happened. I guess he is lucky.
The nostalgic: The creators really know how to make the most of a cliff hanger, leaving audiences at the end of each chapter with no idea how our heroes will escape. Along with the lion attack, there are gorilla attacks, alligator attacks, grenades, quicksand, and more. Tim is always right on the verge of death, only to get out of it with seconds to spare. I guess he is lucky.
The critical: The black and white picture tends to be slightly hazy, dark around the edges and overly bright in the center of the screen. Considering how other films from this era look, though, the picture could have been much worse. Similarly, the mono sound is hardly immersive, but it does its job at least. Also, the first 10 chapters are on the first disc, and the final two chapters are on the second? How does that make sense?
The nostalgic: Extras include a lengthy interview with Frankie Thomas, in which he discusses his entire career, including films, radio, live television, and even a mention of his novels. There are also the original theatrical trailer for Tim Tyler's Luck and some wonderfully entertaining trailers for other classic serials. Some talent bios round out the extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The critical: There are African natives in the movie. They wear grass skirts. They throw spears. They speak in broken English. It's likely that some viewers will be turned off by this, with allegations of stereotyping. The natives are never treated badly, though, and no one makes racial slurs toward them, but viewers should know going in that they are a part of the story.
The nostalgic: The story makes it clear early on that there are two groups at play here: The "good white men," who cooperate with the natives, respect nature, and study the animals, and the "bad white men" who take advantage of the natives, tear down the jungles, and hunt the wildlife for sport. This would appear, to me at least, that the movie was somewhat ahead of its time.
Whether you enjoy Tim Tyler's Luck depends on what you hope to get out of it. It barely stands up against any kind of scrutiny from today's eyes. It's not exactly the finest made movie out there, even for a serial. But, as a piece of nostalgia, it's great fun, with more than two hours of non-stop old-fashioned jungle adventure.
Tim's luck has saved him again. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• 2005 Interview with Frankie Thomas
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