Fates Worse Than Death: Darkest Africa

While showing off his African base camp to a pair of circus promoters, animal trainer Clyde Beatty is called to action: a lion has escaped its confinement and ended up in the same cage as a tiger. Immediately, Beatty steps in to prevent the big cats from tearing each other apart. Just as he did in his circus act, he calms and separates the two animals with only a metal chair, a whip to get their attention, and a pistol (loaded with blanks). Afterwards, Beatty decides he might work that up as part of his act, but he can’t explain why a tiger, native to India, was loose in the African jungle. Later, making his way to a nearby village, he discovers that someone–white men, based on the prints of boots in the soil–has been disturbing his animal traps.

Little does Beatty know that he is being watched, not by whomever emptied his trap, but by a young boy and his seemingly tame companion, a large gorilla. At the village, the boy, clad only in a fur loincloth, reveals himself in order to rescue a baby threatened by a lion. Using just a stick, the boy holds off the lion as well as Beatty could have! Impressed by the boy’s skill and shocked at his appearance, Beatty approaches him and hears a seemingly impossible tale: Baru, the son of missionaries, was raised alone in the jungle by animals after his parents’ death. Bonga, his ape companion, befriended him after Baru’s escape from the lion pit in the city of Joba. Joba is known only as a legend, a city that lies beyond a taboo region the natives consider haunted, and one which outsiders are never permitted to leave alive. Worse yet, Baru’s sister Valerie is still being held at Joba, where the high priest Dagna has installed her as a goddess (thereby keeping a strong grip on power); it was in trying to help Valerie escape that Baru was captured in the first place.

Beatty immediately takes this story at face value–perhaps convinced by the boy’s amazing rapport with animals–and agrees to help rescue Valerie. This conversation, held in full view of the village, gets the attention of Craddock and Durkins, the crooked traders and ivory smugglers who have been messing with Beatty’s traps, among other crimes. They notice the unusual clasp on Baru’s loincloth, inlaid with rare green diamonds: the jewels too are from Joba, and the pair take an immediate interest in shadowing Beatty as he accompanies Baru back to Joba on his mission of rescue, becoming the secondary villains of the film. It’s quite a bit of plot to set up so quickly, an almost literal “call to adventure,” but there’s never any question that Beatty will lend his support to rescue the “beautiful blonde goddess” held against her will. Before you know it, Beatty has had his manager and aide-de-camp Hambone prepare bearers for an expedition into Darkest Africa!

Republic came out of the gate strong with Darkest Africa, its first serial, but of course the Republic formula was built on the previous success of Mascot, the studio that preceded Republic prior to a merger and reorganization, and the skills of the old hands producing their serials. Co-director (with Joseph Kane) B. Reeves Eason had a career that went back to Vaudeville and the silent era and had helmed several serials for Mascot (and would continue to direct for Republic). Clyde Beatty had also previously starred in The Lost Jungle for Mascot. Beatty was the leading lion tamer of his day (he’s billed as the “world’s greatest wild animal tamer” in this), joining his first circus at age 16 as a “cage boy” and working his way up until he had formed his own show in partnership with the Cole Brothers in 1934; the 1930s and ’40s were the highest points of his fame, and in addition to making films he wrote several popular books about his exploits. Beatty was primarily an animal tamer and performer as opposed to a collector like Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck, but his public persona was that of a big game hunter (he preferred training wild animals to those raised in captivity, as he felt captivity dulled their wits): as Rhina Kirk describes in Circus Heroes and Heroines, “For his performances and public appearances Beatty dressed like an African hunter of Hollywood movies–shiny boots, flaring white breeches and pith helmet.”

Naturally, when he appeared in those Hollywood movies, the setting is the jungle rather than the circus. Beatty is playing “himself,” as he did in The Lost Jungle, and as in other cases the story is written around those talents he was known for: obviously, each chapter gives him an opportunity to face off against one or more big cats, either in a cage or in the wild. His act usually included mixed lions and tigers, their natural animosity to each other making for dramatic situations and heightened stakes, so a contrivance is introduced to justify the appearance of tigers in the African jungle. Part of Beatty’s act included him “staring down” a lion or tiger, subduing it with his dominating will, so Beatty the character also does it a couple of times to escape from being mauled.

Despite its title and focus on jungle cats, Darkest Africa is mostly a “lost world” story, with similarities to The Phantom Empire and Undersea Kingdom (the next Republic serial, also directed by Eason). For creators of H. Rider Haggard’s and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ generations, those blank, “unexplored” sections of the map were tempting invitations to free-associating invention. The mysterious city of Joba lies in a “haunted” region in the “mountains of despair,” taboo to the natives, beyond a volcanic region and adjacent to the territory of the “tiger men” (the tribe venerate the tiger and are the source of the tigers found in the jungle). As a writer, once you’ve set up all those barriers, you can put absolutely anything you like in there, from survivals of ancient civilizations (some of the title cards suggest that Joba was founded by Solomon) to secret high technology (the city is protected by winged “bat-men”–I assume their uniform is a winged flying harness rather than the natural wings of Flash Gordon‘s hawk-men, but the effect is the same). Joba is also described as the “city of the Golden Bat,” with the old god having slept in the temple for three thousand years (this last fact is something of a throwaway: it only comes up once, when the high priest Dagna commands Hambone to use his magic to reawaken the Golden Bat, apparently a plan B to cope with the loss of Dagna’s chosen goddess Valerie, but it’s the kind of detail I dearly love in stories like this). Joba would make a kick-ass setting for a fantasy role-playing game.

Once the action centers on the city itself, it might as well be on the planet Mongo as anywhere else, as it is pure fantasy. Valerie (the beautiful Elaine Shepard) is indeed being held against her will by Dagna (Lucien Prival, who had appeared in Bride of Frankenstein, among many other films), forced to play the role of “Goddess of the Golden Bat” with the elderly Gorn (Edward McWade), keeper of the sacred books, her only companion and advocate. Valerie’s situation is an interesting twist on the “white goddess” character (a type I have some fondness for, even as I’ve acknowledged ways in which it can be problematic): she has the love of the people, and privileges, such as a sanctuary closed even to Dagna, but no freedom, so despite her exalted position she is another example of that standby of the serials, the damsel in distress (until, at least, the end of the serial, when she threatens to sacrifice herself to force Dagna’s hand).

The supporting heroes are also quite diverse (in character type, at least)–there’s no worry of getting characters mixed up in this one! Baru is played by Manuel King, billed as the “world’s youngest wild animal trainer”; he was thirteen years old when Darkest Africa was made, and it was apparently the only film he was ever in, but he lived to be 92 years old, only passing away in 2016!

Bonga, the “ape with almost human understanding,” is credited as playing himself, as if he were an animal star like Rex the Wonder Horse or Rin-Tin-Tin, but in reality Bonga was played by stuntman (and star of Undersea Kingdom) Ray “Crash” Corrigan, the all-around athlete, stunt double, and (later) owner of the extensive studio ranch dubbed “Corriganville.” Corrigan was a “gorilla man,” one of a subset of stunt performers who specialized in playing simians and most of whom owned their own costumes, and while it is clear that Bonga is a man in a suit, he is still a strong, vivid character, with both impressive physicality (Bonga swings from tree to tree on vines, for example) and expression (see below for more on this specialized art).

Then there’s Hambone (Ray Turner), Beatty’s comic-relief factotum; on the surface, Hambone is a walking stereotype, a pop-eyed fraidy-cat bumbler, a black American (as opposed to the mostly anonymous African natives) in the Stepin Fetchit mold. As the story continues, however, Hambone reveals depths of shrewdness and resourcefulness. When Beatty’s bearers return to the village without their boss, scared off by Joba’s patrolling bat-men (or “wind sentries,” a nicely evocative name), Hambone heads into the jungle alone to track down Beatty and rescue him if needed. Overburdened with duffel bags and an enormous elephant gun, Hambone’s separate adventure, shown intermittently, plays like a spoof of Beatty’s journey: Beatty runs afoul of the tiger men and is thrown into a tiger pit, which he gets out of through a combination of his skills and Bonga’s help; later, Hambone is cornered by the same tiger men and manages to avoid being thrown in the pit by the good fortune of his grenade belt landing in the fire and scaring the tribe away; and so forth. Once Hambone arrives at Joba (and wanders in the front door unseen, as opposed to the arduous secret entrance Beatty and Baru made, spied on at every turn by Dagna’s sentries), he rejoins the main plot, doing his part to help Clyde Beatty save Valerie . . . and the day.

What I Watched: Darkest Africa (Republic, 1936)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Home Video (continuing my summer of VHS, this included having to open the case and clean the heads on my VCR to get it playing correctly–thank goodness for YouTube tutorials!)

No. of Chapters: 15 (but most are only about 15 minutes long)

Best Chapter Title: “Trial by Thunder-Rods” (Chapter Ten) The two smugglers, Craddock (Edmund Cobb) and Durkin (old reliable Wheeler Oakman), have forged an uneasy alliance with Dagna, warning him of the approaching “outlanders” (Beatty and Baru) and offering the high priest a shipment of rifles in exchange for more of the green diamonds they covet. Once Hambone arrives with his elephant gun, Dagna has the idea of testing it against the smugglers’ “thunder-rods” to determine which is more powerful–by having Craddock and Hambone aim at each other and fire simultaneously! Amazingly, this is not the actual cliffhanger of this chapter.

Best Cliffhanger: Unsurprisingly, most of the cliffhangers involve lions or tigers, with Beatty’s skills put to the test to get him out of the jam in the following chapter. There are also a few actual cliffhangers, as in the first chapter (“Baru–Son of the Jungle”), when the ledge supporting Beatty and Baru collapses during an earthquake and they appear to be buried in an avalanche. There are also two cliffhangers in which Beatty hides behind something and is detected, leading to enemies attacking his hiding spot with spears or rifles. However, my favorite cliffhanger is in Chapter Nine (“When Birdmen Strike,” another great chapter title). Beatty has escaped through the mines beneath Joba into the jungle in order to find the ammunition cached by Craddock and Durkin. After finding the crate of ammo, he attempts to cross a clearing with it, drawing the Bat-men away from Baru. Shown zig-zagging across the clearing from overhead, Beatty is an easy target, and without actually showing the hit, the last shot reveals Beatty, prone, with a spear appearing to skewer him. (As the following chapter reveals, Beatty once again feigned death, the spear having passed under his arm and stuck into the ground. Repeat after me: “That was a close one!”)

Sample Dialogue: “You must not forget that Beatty enjoys the reputation of being the world’s greatest wild animal trainer.” –Durkin, warning Dagna not to underestimate Beatty (Chapter Seven, “Swing for Life”)

What Others Have Said: In light of “Crash” Corrigan’s performance as Bonga, let us check in with a “gorilla man” from a later generation, special effects artist and collector Bob Burns. Burns explains how he learned the ropes from ape performer Charles Gemora: “He shared with me some of his trade secrets for bringing life to a mask that was limited, mobility-wise, to simply opening and closing its mouth. For example, he explained that if you wanted to look ferocious you should rear back your head while opening the mouth, which shows the audience more teeth and creates an illusion of facial expression. He also stressed the importance of acting with your eyes, as they are the only exposed part of the wearer. Charlie was so skillful in projecting with his eyes that people who have watched his performances sometimes swear they saw the gorilla’s brow and other facial muscles move–even though everything is immobile.” –Bob Burns with John Michlig, It Came From Bob’s Basement!: Exploring the Science Fiction and Monster Movie Archive of Bob Burns

What’s Next: Join me next time as I tackle another Republic serial, 1944’s Haunted Harbor!

Advertisements

Fates Worse Than Death: Junior G-Men

Which is more terrifying: to be trapped in an out-of-control elevator, plummeting down the shaft to the basement, or to be in the bottom of that shaft, trapped as the elevator descends to crush you? Billy Barton and Harry Trent, the heroes of the 1940 serial Junior G-Men, face both situations: the first as enemies thrown together by chance and the second later as allies, once street kid Billy has seen the necessity of joining forces with the Junior G-Men, perhaps even signing up to become one himself! In between those two cliffhangers, they and their friends face off against kidnapping attempts, fires, and explosions, even experiencing a building coming down around them! It’s all in the line of duty for the Junior G-Men!

Several times during this series, I have commented on the necessity of combining the action and mystery formulas of the serials with other genres: of course there are superhero, Western, and jungle adventure serials, to name a few, settings capacious and widespread enough to encompass whole strands of serial style. One can be a fan of one of those formats and have plenty to watch without ever having to branch out. But there are also settings and premises that were only adapted to the serials a few times: the “giant bug” creature feature of Panther Girl of the Kongo comes to mind, and Junior G-Men is an example of the serialization of the “juvenile gang” film. Kid characters aren’t too unusual in serials, but Junior G-Men is a vehicle for the Dead End Kids, essentially a genre unto themselves. The Dead End Kids began as a group of young actors who broke out together in the Broadway play (and 1937 feature film) Dead End, a slice-of-life drama about tenement life in Lower East Side New York. They went on to star in numerous films together in different combinations, eventually devolving from the socially-conscious melodrama of Dead End and Angels With Dirty Faces to the goofy, sitcom-like antics of the Bowery Boys in the 1950s. The additional billing of the “Little Tough Guys” in the cast of Junior G-Men does not indicate a second group, but rather an attempt to rebrand the troupe after moving from Warner Brothers to Universal; it’s a little confusing. (Trav S.D., author of books on Vaudeville and film comedy, has a more detailed breakdown of the Dead End Kids and their various spinoffs here.) Notably, Leo Gorcey, whose name is most closely associated with the later Bowery Boys, does not appear in Junior G-Men.

As Junior G-Men begins, we observe Billy Lang’s gang in its natural habitat, the city streets, engaging in the kind of behavior teenage boys get up to in packs: rough-housing, verbally busting each other’s chops, catcalling women, and cadging apples from street vendors (okay, that last one is a bit more specific to their time and place). The only indication that these tough kids might be more than loudmouthed delinquents is when Billy (Billy Halop) pushes one of his fellows out of the way of a speeding car. You could call it Billy’s “Save the Cat” moment, but it just ends up causing more trouble, resulting in a wreck and traffic jam that spirals into a fight between the drivers.

While the cops are distracted and the other adults are rubbernecking, Billy and the boys help themselves to the pies from the back of a stalled bakery truck. A slick-looking, better-dressed boy observes them at a distance, and once they’ve left, helps the cops track down the teenage pie thieves. That boy is Harry Trent, head of the local Junior G-Men chapter and an aspiring Fed, just doing the right thing in the name of law and order; once Billy and his gang find out who squealed on them, they invade the Junior G-Men’s clubhouse and beat the snot out of them, at least until one of the junior agents is able to place a call and summon the police.

It might end there, but once Harry’s uncle, FBI agent Jim Bradford (Phillip Terry), arrives, he learns that “Billy Lang” is actually Billy Barton, the missing son of one Colonel Barton, a scientist and inventor who had disappeared years earlier. (Col. Barton had placed his son in a military school before going on the mission during which he went missing, a school which Billy ran away from, leading to life on the streets and his new assumed identity.) Bradford realizes that Billy may be the key to defeating the Order of the Flaming Torch, a secret organization dedicated to overthrowing the United States government.

With their choice of iconography, an arm holding a raised torch, and their penchant for Roman columns in their hideout, the Torch gang (or “Torchies,” as they are frequently called later) suggests a fascist insurgency, but as usual their exact politics are left a mystery beyond their goal of replacing democratic government with their own rule. And they seem close to achieving it: their cells are spread out across the country, and they’ve succeeded in kidnapping several scientists and other prominent individuals, like Barton, to force them to work for their cause. Col. Barton (Russell Hicks) is the inventor of a new explosive (“Bartonite,” of course) that is not only more powerful than any yet developed, it can somehow cause the detonation of any other explosives within a range dependent on how much of the substance is used. Barton has thus far refused to share the formula for his explosive, only preparing small amounts for the Torchies to test; while he maintains that leverage, he remains alive. Once the Torchies, and their leader Brand, have the formula, they can manufacture as much of the substance as they want, and they will be ready to make their move. Brand learns that Billy is Col. Barton’s son, and immediately plans to kidnap him, hoping to use Billy to force his father’s hand.

Many serials and pulp narratives start out with characters suspicious of or antagonistic to each other, but Junior G-Men really goes the extra mile in establishing Billy’s dislike for Harry. Harry Trent (played by Kenneth Howell, not one of the regular Dead End Kids) is an uptight square, at first appearing to be the kind of rich “softy” the Dead End Kids beat up for laughs in their earlier films. His efforts to bring the kids to justice for stealing a few pies shows, at best, an eagerness to show off and be part of the system, and he seems to expect Billy to thank him for showing him the way back to the straight and narrow.

Because of the Production Code and the need for clearly-drawn heroes and villains, the serials were generally pro-law-and-order (their earnest squareness is a frequent target of later spoofs), so making the anarchic, sarcastic, and authority-defying Dead End Kids the heroes (and keeping the antagonism going for as long as it does–it’s about halfway through before Billy really commits to working with Harry and his chums) makes for an unusual change of pace. When Jim Bradford appeals to Billy’s sense of patriotism, the word hardly has any meaning, he’s been pushed around so much. “The government or the cops never did nothin’ for me!” Billy sneers. “Stop preachin’ to me, wiseguy.” Proof that the “juvenile delinquent” archetype of the 1950s had deeper roots than many think.

At first Billy doesn’t believe Bradford’s claim that the Torchies are holding Col. Barton, but once he sees the evidence for himself he acts: at first on his own, still refusing the aid or advice of the FBI (“I’ll find him without the help of any copper!”), and later only grudgingly cooperating. Most of the middle chapters feature at least one scene in which Billy observes Harry’s cutting-edge police work, so like the Dick Tracy serials, and says something like, “That scientific stuff of yours is pretty good.” There’s even a montage in which Bradford explains the FBI’s fingerprint database, complete with stock footage of agents combing through thick files and using the latest technology like computer punch cards.

Billy is won over as much by the cool radio equipment and good food at the Junior G-Men clubhouse as he is by Harry’s and Bradford’s efforts at persuasion. Eventually he agrees to “put our wallop together and go after those Torchies.” Even then, Billy and his gang do things their own way, and they don’t really change character. It’s sometimes a little frustrating–there are plenty of times Billy takes dumb risks instead of waiting for backup, but that’s what we love about the loose-cannon detectives in later mismatched buddy cop comedies, isn’t it? Serial heroes can sometimes be a little too perfect, so the often-fractious efforts at teamwork between the raucous kids and the straitlaced FBI makes for a lively, colorful adventure. It’s also generally exciting and satisfying to see the kids get one over on the pompously assured Brand (Cy Kendall, seen before in this series in The Green Hornet and Jungle Queen). “They got away, as usual,” Brand’s right-hand man, Severn (Ben Taggart), says morosely after yet another failed encounter.

Aside from Billy, the Dead End Kid who gets the most screen time is Gyp, the cut-up (and would-be lady’s man) played by lanky, rubber-faced Huntz Hall. Most of the overt comic relief comes from Gyp (or at his expense), giving Billy space to brood and take charge of situations. Many of Gyp’s lines, mostly “so’s your old man” non sequiturs, are really memorable because of Hall’s delivery: when Gyp–who is earlier shown learning how to drive–jumps into Harry’s car after Billy and Harry have been grabbed yet again by the Torchies, he yells at a pedestrian, “Hey, whadya wanna do, become an angel or somethin’?” It’s funnier on screen than it is in print.

Other gang members, regular members of the troop, include Lug (Bernard Punsly) and Terry (Gabriel Dell), but they don’t get more than a few lines at a time and are mostly noticeable when the kids have to split up into different groups for plot reasons (that’s pretty much the way the formula plays out in regular Dead End Kids or Bowery Boys vehicles, as well). They still come off better than the Junior G-Men, however: aside from Harry, I couldn’t remember the names of any of the others, and they’re pretty much completely interchangeable. The numbers of kids pays off in fight scenes, however, which they throw themselves into with gusto, filling the screen with action and practically tearing the sets down (that rowdiness apparently continued off the set, and was one of the reasons the troupe passed under different studios and producers over the years).

As far as I can tell, Junior G-Men lies halfway between the soapy but plausible mixture of drama and comedy in the early Dead End Kids films and the kooky, formulaic encounters with ghosts, psychics, and Russian spies in the Bowery Boys pictures. Already, Billy’s gang is shown living out the teenage fantasy of independence, with a cool junkyard clubhouse (hidden behind a secret entrance in a fence, of course), and it goes without saying that their battles with the Torch gang are pure pulp. With America pulling out of the long Depression, even such concerns as hunger and physical danger are mere inconveniences or opportunities for adventure rather than the soul-destroying epidemics of Dead End. Conversely, Billy’s disillusionment with the government is mined for drama, and the Torch gang isn’t playing around (interestingly, gunplay is largely avoided because the FBI doesn’t want to start shooting with kids around, and the Torchies don’t want to lose their leverage over Col. Barton by accidentally killing his son). Much of the charge in Junior G-Men comes from characters from two different genres–the slapstick and sarcasm of the kid gangs and the clipped “Now see here” patter of the crime serial–bumping against each other. The result is a unique and entertaining film in which the roots of many future kiddie adventure flicks can be seen.

What I Watched: Junior G-Men (Universal, 1940)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Rhino Video (It is also on YouTube, which is where I grabbed the screen caps.)

No. of Chapters: 12

Best Chapter Title: “Trapped by Traitors” (Chapter Six); but have no fear, victory is ultimately assured by “The Power of Patriotism” (Chapter Twelve)!

Best Cliffhanger: In the aforementioned “Trapped by Traitors,” Billy and the gang trace the Torchies to their city hideout in an unfinished apartment building and decide to do some snooping without involving Bradford. However, Bradford overhears the boys’ plans and summons his own G-men to raid the hideout. Bradford arrives just in time to help Billy and Harry out of a trap and shake off their would-be captors, but unbeknownst to our heroes, Brand has had both towers of the apartment building wired with explosives that can be set off remotely. Learning that their cover has been blown, Brand gives the signal, and stock footage of the apartment tower collapsing are alternated with interior shots of billowing dust and rafters caving in. Will the senior and junior G-men make it out in time? (Dialogue from Chapter Six, including “Oh boy, that was a close one!”, suggests they will.)

Sample Dialogue:

Bradford: Did the Torch gang clear out?

Gyp: Yeah, but they won’t get far.

Bradford: Why not?

Gyp: I knifed one of them.

Bradford: Knifed ’em?

Gyp: Ehhhh, I knifed one of their tires.

(Chapter Seven, “Flaming Death”)

What Others Have Said: “A big, stout, lumbering man, whose first impression of drowsiness or laziness was disarmingly deceptive, [Cy Kendall] portrayed with finesse the sly, crafty, insinuating gang boss who badgered those around him with guile and deceit, praising them with a sarcastic display of oily supercilious charm, while constantly nagging them with a cynical sneer of thinly disguised contempt. His ‘boys’ never knew what he really thought of them, but the audience did. He was so easy to hate that regular serial fans grew to love him.” –William C. Cline, In the Nick of Time: Motion Picture Sound Serials

What’s Next: The Dead End Kids starred in two more serials for Universal, Sea Raiders and Junior G-Men of the Air, which I may get to, but for now I’m heading back to the jungle with Clyde Beatty in Darkest Africa! See you next time!