“Jungle Jim” (‘37)
I was filled with a delicious sense of anticipation as I sat down to watch a serial I had never seen even a single second of—“Jungle Jim”. The serial had been released to theatres in ‘37. Depending upon what month, I would have been 6 or 7 years old. At first I tried imagining I was watching the serial through the eyes of a youngster in that age bracket. It didn’t take me long to get a headache from this bizarre experiment, so I stopped the tape and rewound it to the beginning.
While this was happening, I thought about what I knew about this heroic fictional character. “Jungle Jim” was created in comic strip form as competition against “Tarzan of the Apes” which appeared in a rival newspaper chain. The year was 1934. It was drawn by the brilliant artist Alex Raymond who was also drawing “Flash Gordon” at the same time. “Jungle Jim” became so popular it had its own radio program the following year.
Now I was ready to view the serial with senior citizen eyes. The opening scenes in Ch. 1 were so exciting it could easily have served as a cliffhanger on its own merit! It is the year of 1920. An old two-master schooner is at the mercy of a terrible storm at sea. Crashing waves, lightning and devastatingly fierce winds surround the beleaguered vessel. There is chaos on deck. Wild animals which have been captured are getting free as their cages crash to the heaving deck and break open. In addition to the ship’s crew there are three passengers, the Redmond family, consisting of father, mother and a very young daughter. The out of control schooner hits a reef and begins sinking with the captain ordering his passengers to the lifeboat while he writes a frantic message. Sealing it in a bottle and throwing it overboard, the hastily written note gives the date, latitude and longitude off the coast of Africa, and the name of the family boarding the lifeboat.
Over 15 years pass before the bottle, washing ashore, is found and brought to the attention of a friend of the Redmond family. On the slim hope some family member might still be alive, he travels to Africa, but he has another motive. An immense inheritance awaits any survivor. There is an additional problem. A supposed relative, Bruce Redmond, is trying to claim the fortune stating he is the only living heir. The family friend arrives at the main African outpost only to discover Bruce Redmond is already there hiring men of dubious character to help search the jungle and confirm once and for all that he is the sole surviving member of the Redmond family.
To thwart Redmond’s plan, an effort is made to hire Jungle Jim for a separate expedition. But Jim has already accepted a previous job offer and has to decline. This situation changes when Jim’s best friend is killed by LaBat, one of the men in Redmond’s party, causing Jungle Jim to take off with his companion, Malay Mike, to track down the murderer. In the meantime, Redmond makes a deal with Slade, another one of his hirelings, to make sure no member of the missing family ever leaves the jungle if they’re found alive.
Jungle Jim and Malay Mike encounter Joan, a young woman who has the strange power to control lions. Asking her help in their effort to locate LaBat, the two adventurers do not learn until later Joan is the missing heiress. In a plot development that’s never explained, Joan takes Jungle Jim and Malay Mike to a temple to meet her “father”. Posing as her father is a fugitive wanted for murder and his sister, addressed by the interesting names “The Cobra” and “Shanghai Lil”.
In the early chapters there is unintentional humor when Joan keeps making reference to “my father, the Cobra.” Aided by his “daughter’s” seemingly mystic power over savage beasts, the Cobra rules a tribe of natives. Naturally, he and Lil are both suspicious of Jungle Jim’s motive for being there and cause dangerous situations for he and Mike at every opportunity.
For the first six chapters there is a double story line: the primary plot is to find and kill any Redmond family member, the secondary storyline is Jungle Jim’s search for LaBat. The remaining episodes concentrate on the efforts of Jungle Jim and his friends to keep Joan, the Lion Goddess, alive.
The names of most of the leading players are familiar to today’s serial fans beginning with Jungle Jim himself. Grant Withers also had the lead or supporting roles in “Red Rider” (‘34) (with Buck Jones), “Tailspin Tommy” (‘34), “Fighting Marines” (‘35), “Radio Patrol” (‘37) and “Secret of Treasure Island” (‘38). Raymond Hatton (Malay Mike) tied Withers’ record of serial appearances with “Three Musketeers” (‘33), “Rustlers of Red Dog” (‘35), “Undersea Kingdom” (‘36), “Vigilantes Are Coming” (‘36) and “White Eagle” (‘41). Evelyn Brent (Shanghai Lil) went straight four years later as the heroine in “Holt of the Secret Service” (‘41). Henry Brandon (The Cobra) was in “Secret Agent X-9” (‘37) (also just released by VCI), “Buck Rogers” (‘39) and his prestige performance for the title role in “Drums of Fu Manchu” (‘40).
With one exception the writers did not show much imagination with cliffhanger endings. The exception comes in the closing minutes of Ch. 6, “Drums of Doom”. Jungle Jim and Malay Mike refuse to tell The Cobra where Joan is hiding, so the two brave men are stood in front of about a dozen native archers who raise their bows and arrows as the Cobra commands they shoot. The deadly shafts are released as the episode ends! (Spoiler warning!) In the Ch. 7 recap we see Kulu, Joan’s native friend, has arrived a few seconds earlier, grabbed a large war shield and jumped down in front of the unprotected Jungle Jim and Malay Mike. The arrows thud harmlessly into the heavy shield. I thought this sequence was well done.
Jungle Jim has the usual amazing powers of recuperation all serial stars seem to enjoy. In the Ep. 9 ending, Jungle Jim is shot by Shanghai Lil. (Spoiler warning!) Clutching his chest he staggers and falls backward out of a high window into a courtyard. Approached by an ally asking if he is hurt, Jim rubs his arm (not his chest) and responds, “Not badly.” Then, throwing a rope up, he begins to climb back to the window from which he just fell. What a guy!
If some of the Universal sets for the Cobra’s quarters look familiar, you may come to realize the last time you saw that certain winding staircase the Frankenstein monster was clumping down it.
There is much to recommend “Jungle Jim”. All 12 chapters have complete opening and closing credits—always a “must” for serial aficionados. It is an absolute joy to watch. Any film this beautiful would almost have to have been taken from a pristine 35mm print; probably languishing in Universal vaults all these decades. Special effects in the form of erupting volcanoes, explosions and landslides were quite well done. And the acting itself was competent for this type of film.
As Joan Redmond, leading lady of “Jungle Jim”, Betty Jane Rhodes was born in Rockford, IL, April 24, 1921. “Somehow, the date got mixed up,” she explained “and a lot of sources say April 21, but 21 is the year, not the day. My health was not good, so we moved to San Francisco when I was very little. My brother both sang and played the guitar—he took me to audition at a radio station in San Francisco, and I started singing, professionally, on the radio with Al Pearce at age 9. I joined KHJ and then went to KFWB. I was the youngest staff artist in the country, on radio. I sang with the Warner Bros. orchestra, doing 4 shows a day.”
Betty Jane was only 14 when she landed a role at Paramount. From Paramount, Betty Jane went to Universal, where, at not quite 16, she filmed “Jungle Jim” with Grant Withers. “I remember going to serials at Saturday matinees when I was a kid. The first thing I remember about ‘Jim’ is that I was on the set with a large cage. I was supposed to be sleeping on a rock, and they brought in this huge lion. He was supposed to come up and sit beside me. But the set was so warm, he spread his whole body around me and went to sleep! It took big, big fellows to get this lion off of me—he was heavy and he was hurting my legs. Two weeks later on another picture, Charles Bickford was in a scene with this same lion. I don’t recall the movie’s title, but Charles Bickford’s Adam’s Apple moved, and the lion bit it! He was in the hospital for some time. I felt so sorry for him. I liked him; he was such a nice person.”
As for being frightened herself, “I was not, but my mother was. I love animals, and have had them around me all the time. It was just another big animal to me. And, there were baby lion cubs there as well.”
As for any other near-misses, “On the backlot there was another harrowing accident. Universal had a pond, and they took me out on a raft, not far from the shore. I was to get in the water and swim to shore. They had these hoses underneath the raft to make it move like we were in high currents. No one told me—and I barely made it to shore!”
As for her co-stars, “I played my own mother, in Chapter 1, and Grant Withers’ love interest the rest of the time. I was too young to be either! (Laughs). There was a black boy (Al Duvall)—a lovely young man, everybody liked him a lot. He was my chief protector in the serial. In real life, he worked at a bank at night; then all day on the movie. Grant Withers was a nice person, and he was nice to me when I was a kid. He and his wife (this was after he was married to Loretta Young) lived down the street and they had a big dog. They were happily married.”
Summing up her work on “Jungle Jim”, Betty Jane smiles, “I had fun working with everybody. I enjoyed it, jumping off rocks! It was exciting and such fun for me.”
Later, the young star returned to Paramount. It is her work there for which she is best remembered. “Like most every other girl at the time, I wanted to marry and start a family. I met Willet H. Brown, and after we married, I retired. He was in real estate, and owned several radio stations. He also had the Hillcrest Cadillac Agency. We were married 45 years, before his death.”
Femme fatale Evelyn Brent, who plays Shanghai Lil, The Cobra’s evil associate in Universal’s “Jungle Jim”, was born Betty Jane Riggs in Tampa, FL, October 20, 1899. Her mother was a Syracuse, NY, girl, only 13 and unmarried when she became pregnant by a well-to-do young man. Her mother was sent to Florida to have the baby and later allowed to return to Syracuse where she died while Evelyn was still a baby. The grandmother raised Evelyn in Brooklyn, NY, but she died when Evelyn was 14.
While still in high school, Betty Jane played hooky one day and was successful in obtaining extra work in “A Gentleman From Mississippi” and “The Pit” both in 1914. Later, she obtained a role in “The Heart of a Painted Woman” at the Popular Plays and Players Studio in 1915. She was given a better role at the same studio (releasing through Metro) in “Shooting of Dan McGrew” the same year. After that, still using the same Betty Riggs, she was handed the major role of the Indian girl, Snowbird, in “The Lure of Heart’s Desire” (‘16). From then on she ordained herself with the more impressive name of Evelyn Brent.
During WWI Evelyn nearly died of pneumonia during the Spanish influenza epidemic. Following several more films, she took a trip to Europe around 1919 and while in England landed a stage role and spent the next several years (through 1922) in England making films and appearing on stage.
Returning to Hollywood in 1923, the 5’ 4" brown-haired, dark-eyed Brent began a successful film career, usually in commanding women roles.
She was first married to producer Bernard P. Fineman in 1926. They divorced in ‘28 and she soon married director/producer Harry Edwards but they too divorced in the late ‘30s. She later married vaudeville actor Harry Fox whom she remained wed to til his death in ‘59.
Although Evelyn made the transfer to sound quite well with her husky voice, by ‘35 her starring days were over, no longer earning $4,500 a week as she had for Paramount-Famous Lasky. At that time she stated, “Bad management killed me. Bad management of all my affairs, both personal and professional. My own naivete completed the slaughter.”
Brent carried on, exemplifying her talent particularly well in William Boyd’s “Hopalong Cassidy Returns” (‘36) and “Wide Open Town” (‘41), the 3 Mesquiteers’ “Westward Ho” (‘42), and other tough-gal roles through 1948. She made a bit of a return on the “Wagon Train” episode “Lita Foladaire Story” in ‘60.
Besides her showy role as Shanghai Lil in “Jungle Jim” in ‘37, she held her own as smart, undercover Treasury agent Kay Drew against tough-as-nails Jack Holt in Columbia’s “Holt of the Secret Service” (‘41).
After a brief period as an agent, Evelyn drifted out of show business entirely. Brent died at 75 at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, CA, of a heart attack June 4, 1975.
Handsome enough to play leads, Henry Brandon was typecast as a villain, whether it be Caucasian, oriental, Indian or Nazi. From age
Universal recognized his serial potential and cast him as the dastardly Cobra in “Jungle Jim” (‘36), mastermind criminal Blackstone in “Secret Agent X-9” (‘37) and treacherous Capt. Lasca in “Buck Rogers” (‘39). In 1940, at Republic, he became the epitome of evil in the role for which he will always be associated, Dr. Fu Manchu in “Drums of Fu Manchu”.
Born Heinrich Kleinbach in Berlin, Germany, in 1912, Brandon came to the U.S. at a young age and studied acting at the famed Pasadena Playhouse when he was 17. Brandon was playing an old man in a stage presentation of “The Drunkard” when producer Hal Roach spotted him and cast him in Laurel and Hardy’s perennial Christmas classic, “Babes in Toyland” (later retitled “March of the Wooden Soldiers”). Many roles followed.
After service in WWII, Brandon split his time between films, the legit stage and television on through a “Murder She Wrote” in ‘87.
Brandon died Feb. 15, 1990, at 77. Director William Witney called him, “One of the fine actors that somehow got overlooked in Hollywood.”