Fates Worse Than Death: Lost City of the Jungle

“The warmonger who steals peace is the worst of all thieves.” –United Peace Foundation member

Agent Rod Stanton of the United Peace Foundation should be basking in triumph: thanks to his efforts, the world is rid of Sir Eric Hazarias, one of the most pernicious warmongers ever, Hazarias’ car having driven off a bridge and burst into flame. The Foundation is one step closer to its goals of uniting the world and banishing war forever. However, Stanton cannot be satisfied until he has followed up on rumors that Sir Eric didn’t die at all, but rather one of his doubles, and the warmonger has resurfaced in the Himalayas under the name “Geoffrey London.” Stanton, with the support of the Foundation, flies to the remote nation of Pendrang, even though a consistent headwind makes it nearly impossible for even the best pilot to get into Pendrang with the approach of winter. Add to that the presence of a stowaway, Marjorie Elmore, daughter of the archaeologist whose expedition in Pendrang is being financed by “Geoffrey London.” When the weather brings their plane down in the inhospitable, icy Himalayan mountains, where the threat of deadly cold and avalanches is more immediate than the machinations of Sir Eric Hazarias, nothing could seem farther away than the warmth of the jungle, but that is their ultimate destination: the Lost City of the Jungle, in fact!

Ah, the jungle. Jungle adventures were so popular in the 1930s and ’40s that Africa and South America weren’t big enough to contain them, and new exotic locales had to be found for adventurers to explore. Pacific islands worked for a while, but even those no longer seemed so exotic or scary now that thousands of American G.I.s were returning to the mainland and setting up tiki bars and hosting luau-themed barbecues in the back yard. Particularly after World War II, when the wide-open frontiers of Africa and the Middle East were hardening into closed national borders, and there were fewer blank spots on the map for writers to speculate about, the settings for “lost world” stories and jungle treks moved to less likely but still mysterious places.

So it is that Lost City of the Jungle takes place in the fictional nation of Pendrang, in “an isolated jungle basin in the Himalayas,” making for an odd juxtaposition of ice-covered mountains and sari-wearing natives living among palm trees. Apparently there are some tropical rainforests in the eastern foothills of the Himalayans, but Pendrang, as described, is truly hidden in the center of the range, cut off from the rest of the world by heavy ice that blocks the passes in and out for five months of the year (conveniently trapping good and evil characters alike without escape or outside aid).

Plausibility aside (a disclaimer that should be assumed with most serials), Pendrang is an interesting place and a lively, varied setting for adventures. Although there is a whiff of Shangri-La about Pendrang, there are no lamas or immortals. The capital city of Zalabar is purely worldly, ruled by the casino operator Indra, whose wealth allows her to bend the laws to her liking, and the mystical beliefs of the tribesmen who live in the surrounding jungle turn out to have a surprisingly rational basis. Indeed, the “eternal sun” the natives venerate in the name of the “glowing goddess” is revealed to be a radioactive element, the MacGuffin for which the bad guys are searching. This is the age of science, baby!

Once Stanton (Russell Hayden) and Marjorie (Jane Adams) make it to Zalabar with the help of local agent Tal Shan (Keye Luke of the Green Hornet serials), they reunite with Dr. Elmore (John Eldredge). Elmore is a man of scholarship, completely unaware of the real goals of his patron, or that his assistant, Professor Grebb (John Gallaudet, whose voice sounds uncannily like Bob Newhart’s), is secretly in league with Hazarias. The main thread of the plot is a classic treasure hunt, with characters finding clues in the forms of tablets, tomb carvings, and plaques covered with hieroglyphics that must be translated to determine the next step. (Of course one or more of these artifacts get stolen and must be recovered, and there are still the natives, for whom these are sacred objects, to worry about.)

The land beneath Pendrang is full of caves and tunnels, and needless to say there are deathtraps to snare the unwary, such as tomb chambers that fill with gas and ledges that hang precariously over pools of bubbling lava, forming some of the serial’s cliffhangers. If those don’t bring our heroes’ adventures to an end, perhaps Hazarias’ henchmen Marlow (George Lynn) and Johnson (Dick Curtis) will. There are always henchmen.

Lost City of the Jungle followed Jungle Queen by a year, and shared the same directors, Lewis D. Collins and Ray Taylor. Like the earlier serial, in addition to the usual action there is an emphasis on spycraft and agents working for global forces, although the apolitical “United Peace Foundation” is a step back from the explicit references to the Allies and Axis in Jungle Queen (the United Nations resolution is mentioned, but the Foundation is a bit more hands-on). Sir Eric Hazarias, who is indeed going by “Geoffrey London” in Pendrang, is first and foremost a capitalist, a non-ideological promoter of war who hopes to profit from conflict around the world. In Pendrang he is looking for “meteorium,” the element critical to his scientist Gaffron’s design for neutralizing the atomic bomb (still a startlingly recent development). Once the element is isolated, this anti-nuke device will be sold to the highest bidder, and the nation who owns it will be free to use atom bombs without fear of reprisal.

Lost City of the Jungle is also similar to Jungle Queen in lacking title cards or narrator for recaps at the beginnings of chapters: instead, each chapter begins with a meeting of the United Peace Foundation back in San Francisco, going over Rod Stanton’s progress in the Pendrang matter. Reminders of important details are also included in dialogue, which makes things flow organically but results in “TV exposition” in which people repeat information they already know to each other. If the relationship between meteorium, the atomic bomb, and the glowing goddess is confusing at first, don’t worry: it gets explained multiple times.

Finally, another similarity to Jungle Queen is the shifting loyalties and hidden motives of many of the characters, making for an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. If anything, the depth of characterization is greater here than in Jungle Queen (while still relying on many stock character types). I particularly like the circle around Indra (Helen Bennett) at her Star of Asia Casino, a neutral territory at which the de facto ruler of Zalabar can interrogate strangers and make deals in safety, as long as she keeps the police and guards paid off. It reminds me a bit of Rick’s Café in Casablanca, and the most colorful side characters are found here: “Doc” Harris (Ted Hecht), the cool casino manager, and “System” Reeves (Arthur Space), a hapless gambler who’s convinced he’ll crack the roulette wheel any day, but who in the mean time is a useful extra pair of eyes for Harris.

On that note, at least one of those character twists was the result of offscreen events: Sir Eric is played by Lionel Atwill, who had been a major horror star in the 1930s; when not playing out-and-out mad scientists, he portrayed well-spoken, monocle-wearing villains (including Dr. Maldor in the Captain America serial). That Atwill, who had at one time been as big as Lugosi and Karloff, ended his career in “Poverty Row” serials and B movies was the result of an earlier scandal in which Atwill was found guilty of perjuring himself following a police raid on an orgy at his house in 1940. After that, the majors (with the exception of Universal, who continued to find parts for him in the Frankenstein series) effectively blacklisted him. Lost City of the Jungle was, in fact, Atwill’s final film; he died during its production, and in addition to such time-honored tricks as using a double to finish some of his scenes, the producers had the script rewritten, bumping up the importance of another character. Early on in the story, it is revealed that Sir Eric’s personal secretary, Malborn (John Mylong), is actually the power behind the throne, directing events from relative obscurity with Sir Eric as a mere figurehead. Of course, eventually Malborn goes too far and Sir Eric asserts himself. . . . The reconfiguration around Atwill’s death makes sense in retrospect, but not knowing it while I was watching the serial, I suspected nothing. It just felt like a particularly twisty plot.

What I Watched: Lost City of the Jungle (Universal, 1946)

Where I Watched It: TCM has been running this one on Saturday mornings this summer, but it’s also on YouTube, so I watched about half on my DVR and then went ahead and finished watching it online.

No. of Chapters: 13

Best Chapter Title: It’s a toss-up between “Wave-Length for Doom” (Chapter Three) and “Death’s Shining Face” (Chapter Six).

Worst Chapter Title: Actually, most of the chapter titles in this are pretty blah, but the worst is the title of Chapter Seven, “Speedboat Missing.” The extreme passive voice, as if the title were a flyer announcing a search for lost property, goes against all the principles of dynamic phraseology I’ve been hammering on for the last six(!) years. Even adding the definite article to make it “The Missing Speedboat” would at least be neutral, but it’s not even about a missing speedboat: the chapter ends with a high-stakes chase on the water, with Marlow throwing grenades at Rod and Tal Shan.

Best Cliffhanger: As in Jungle Queen, the cliffhangers are not always the best parts of the chapters, with some of them seeming like afterthoughts. However, there are a few good deathtraps in the serial style, and the best is at the end of Chapter Nine, “Zalabar Death Watch.” After being lured to the schooner on which Dr. Elmore is being held (the presence of the schooner in landlocked Pendrang, justified as a folly built for river trade that never materialized, is typical of serials’ use of stock locations and situations without much concern for realism), Marjorie is tied to a chair and placed in front of a bookshelf. On the mantel are two bronze elephants, and with the flip of a switch they begin to move towards each other, triggering a gunshot from a mounted rifle when they make contact. The kidnappers’ hope is to make Dr. Elmore talk before that happens, but will Rod and Tal Shan decipher the secret message Marjorie left behind in time to rescue her?

Sample Dialogue:

Gaffron: Now our hands are tied, we can do nothing!

Sir Eric: Our hands are never tied, remember that!

–Chapter Ten, “Booby Trap Rendezvous”

What Others Have Said: “The stocky, suavely sinister [Lionel] Atwill was one of the most menacing character actors of the classic age of horror. The man behind that façade was equally fascinating . . . and some would say almost as sinister.” –“Dr. Abner Mality,” “The Rise and Fall of Lionel Atwill” at Ravenous Monster

What’s Next: It’s back to the big box of VHS tapes; join me next time as I review The Masked Marvel!

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Fates Worse Than Death: Haunted Harbor

Captain Jim Marsden is in trouble: his schooner Dolphin disappeared with a million-dollar shipment of gold bullion, and he’s deep in debt. To compound the suspicion, Vorhees, the man Marsden owes, has been murdered, and Marsden was discovered with the body. Before dying, Vorhees gave Marsden a name and a location–“Carter . . . Haunted Harbor”–but it won’t do him any good if he hangs for Vorhees’ murder.

Broken out of jail by his crew and offered a place out of the law’s reach by a businessman friend, Marsden makes for the island of Pua Mate to run the trading post and investigate Haunted Harbor. On the way there, he and his crew rescue an injured doctor and his daughter stranded by a storm. Once on the island, Marsden and his new friend Patricia Harding search for the identity under which Carter hides: is it Dranga, the assistant at the trading post? Or Kane, who operates a gold mine? Or is it . . . well, actually we know right away that it’s Kane, and there really aren’t very many other suspects, but it takes a while for all of this to come to light. In the mean time, in addition to the danger and double-crosses that come from his search for Carter, he attempts to solve the mystery of Haunted Harbor, which the natives fear to approach. Are the two cases related? I think you know the answer to that.

As Patricia Harding, Kay Aldridge has Big Hermione Energy.

Despite its Pacific island setting, Haunted Harbor is stylistically similar to Zorro’s Black Whip, which would immediately follow the same year. Aside from leads Kane Richmond (Spy Smasher) as Marsden and Kay Aldridge (Perils of Nyoka) as Patricia, it shares a few cast members with the other serial, as well as both directors (Spencer (Gordon) Bennet and Wallace Grissell). Most notably, George J. Lewis, who would play the hero of Zorro’s Black Whip, plays the duplicitous Dranga, a role apparently more typical for him. The most prominent side characters are Marsden’s crewmen and friends Yank (Clancy Cooper) and Tommy (Marshall J. Reed), and Kane/Carter’s chief henchmen, Snell (Bud Geary) and mine foreman Gregg (Kenne Duncan). (In typical serial fashion, Kane/Carter works his evil through his henchmen for as long as possible to keep Marsden from suspecting him: at one point Marsden even turns Gregg over to Kane, believing that the foreman is Carter.)

Stuntmen Dale Van Sickel and Tom Steele also appear in the casts of both films, a sure sign of energetic fisticuffs to come. As in Zorro’s Black Whip, the fight scenes–and there are many–are chaotic brawls, full of leaps and falls, taking place on sets crammed with breakaway furniture and loose objects that can be thrown or scattered around (the interior of the trading post is trashed several times, but is always straightened up in time for the next bout!). Of course, the men’s hats stay firmly on their heads, the better to disguise the use of stunt doubles.

Patricia mostly gets knocked out during these struggles, and she gets tied up more than once; I haven’t yet seen Perils of Nyoka (it’s on my list), but stills from it suggest that being bound was an Aldridge specialty. Typically, Patricia is the only female character, and while it’s a foregone conclusion that she’ll end up falling in love with Marsden (“Jim don’t need any help now,” Galbraith tells Yank after everything has been wrapped up), any potential chemistry is sublimated through the cinematic power of terrified screaming on her part and take-charge masculine problem-solving on his. Solve the mystery of Haunted Harbor, and you have solved the mystery of the human heart.

There is also gunplay, but most of the time when someone gets the drop on another character and says “hold it right there,” their quarry is able to twist the gun out of their hand, or kick some object into them to knock the gun loose–moves that would surely get someone killed if they weren’t very lucky–and the scramble starts all over again. (Of course, when the plot dictates that a character’s time has come, the bullet is suddenly very accurate.) It’s worth noting that Kane/Carter (played by career heavy Roy Barcroft) has one of the most gruesome comeuppances of any serial I’ve seen, but it occurs just off screen, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks with their imagination.

The most distinctive feature of Haunted Harbor is the location that gives the serial its name: the natives have stopped working to harvest copra* for the plantation (owned by Galbraith, the same man who owns the trading post Marsden manages), frightened off by demons and sea monsters. (The natives are mostly an abstraction, talked about more than seen, although one chapter takes place in the natives’ village.) It takes Marsden a while to get to the harbor to investigate for himself, but when he and Patricia take a boat out onto the water, the surface is disturbed by a horrible-looking sea serpent spouting steam from its nose. It sinks and pops back up in several locations, never attacking but looking menacing nonetheless. Marsden fires at it, but the bullets have no effect (his rifle had previously been loaded with blanks by Dranga, covertly working for Kane/Carter, but Marsden doesn’t know that). Real, honest-to-God monsters aren’t too common in the serials, especially those that aren’t otherwise science fiction, but the Haunted Harbor sea serpent is a memorable and well-designed creature, a candidate for a “deep cut” when discussing the sometimes quaint beasts that haunt old black and white movies. (The Lydecker brothers, Theodore credited and Howard uncredited, are responsible for the serial’s many effects shots, but I’m not sure if they actually designed the creature’s appearance.)

* the dried kernel of the coconut, from which oil can be extracted–see, I’m learning stuff from this!

Other than appearing in title cards at the beginning of each chapter, the first glimpse the audience gets of the sea serpent is at the end of Chapter Five (“Harbor of Horror”), where its appearance and Marsden’s attempt to fight it form the cliffhanger, and then we don’t see it again until the last few chapters. It’s not hard to see why: as cool as the design is, the creature barely moves, its rigid expression frozen in place, relying on surprise and superstition to scare off the unwary rather than a real physical threat. As anyone who’s seen an episode of Scooby-Doo might guess, the sea serpents are fakes, mechanical monsters controlled from a remote switchboard and placed in the harbor to scare the natives away, allowing Kane/Carter to carry out his real scheme undisturbed. Although he doesn’t say so right away, Marsden clearly suspects this, but it isn’t until he can get a diving rig and crew to the harbor that he can prove it.

Like most of Republic’s output, Haunted Harbor goes down easily: it’s slick and entertaining, and the story is so straightforward that there’s not much risk of the audience getting confused. Transplanted to television, the narrative formulas established in serials like this would continue for decades (in particular, the “man on the run” aspect of this story foreshadows series like The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk, and it is episodic enough that one could imagine it being much longer, stretching out Marsden’s search for Carter in order to clear his name). It’s worth noting that Haunted Harbor was based on a novel by “Dayle Douglas” (a pen name for screenwriter Ewart Adamson) and was the last direct serial adaptation Republic made (although there would be a few more Zorro titles, presumably original stories licensing the character).

What I Watched: Haunted Harbor (Republic, 1944)

Where I Watched It: A two-tape VHS set from Republic Pictures Home Video (The title card on the tape version actually calls it Pirates’ Harbor, the title under which Haunted Harbor was rereleased in 1951.)

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Crucible of Justice” (Chapter Fifteen)

Best Cliffhanger: Republic in the mid-’40s seems to have rediscovered the element of sex appeal that had been toned down in some of their earlier serials. A “damsel in distress” bound, gagged, and in immediate mortal peril is a common shorthand for the serials, and while the ubiquity of this device is frequently exaggerated, there are nevertheless examples that justify the image. In Haunted Harbor, Patricia Harding is often on the receiving end of such treatment, nowhere more graphically than at the end of Chapter Nine, “Death’s Door.” In this chapter, Patricia has been abducted by Carter’s men and is held hostage in exchange for Dranga, whom they suppose to be injured and at risk of spilling Carter’s true identity. While the henchmen wait for Dranga to be delivered, they tie Patricia to a post in Kane’s mine and aim a powerful air drill at her, its trigger tied to the door so that if anyone enters the machine will fire its (loosened) bit through her skull. As in most cliffhangers, the threat is established, and then we are reminded of it via crosscutting between the outside room (where Marsden, having disguised himself as the actually deceased Dranga, is fighting it out with Carter’s henchmen) and Patricia at the post, quaking with fear, her eyes bulging. It’s a strong image, the kind of thing that makes an impression and looms larger in the memory than the more numerous prosaic scenes: no, women weren’t being tied up all the time in the serials, and this is just one cliffhanger out of many in this specific serial, but I can see why it tends to be remembered over other, less primal, scenes. (This was the era of Wonder Woman, after all.) Of course, once Marsden has finished mopping up the bad guys, he goes to the door and pulls it open: the air drill comes to life, and the bolt is fired. . . .

Best Resolution: At the beginning of the next chapter (“Crimson Sacrifice”), when Marsden opens that door, activating the air drill, Patricia simply ducks, sliding down the pillar so that the bit drives into the wood just above her head.

No offense, but that’s kind of anticlimactic. It means she wasn’t really tied that tightly in the first place, doesn’t it? My favorite resolutions tend to display the characters’ (and writers’) ingenuity in finding surprising ways out, but this is a bit of a shrug. In any case, as the story continues, Marsden gets into trouble for presenting the chief of the natives with a radio, a radio that has been hooked up with an explosive by Carter’s men so that it will take out the chief and make Marsden look bad. Sure enough, after the explosion of the chief’s hut, Marsden is accused of witchcraft (“You brought the devil box here to slay our chief!”) and immediately seized; in no time at all, he’s been tied to a platform suspended over a raging funeral pyre. The chapter ends with the flames surrounding him and the platform collapsing into the bonfire.

But wait! As resolved in the next chapter (“Jungle Jeopardy”), Patricia, who has been forced to stand by and watch, grabs a gun from her captors and shoots the ropes that bind Marsden (through a wall of flames and at a distance, the kind of one-in-a-million shot that serial heroes routinely make), then covering his captors so that they can both escape. Now, that’s more like it.

Sample Dialogue: “Haunted Harbor certainly seems quiet and peaceful enough. . . . A sea serpent!” –Patricia Harding, Chapter Five (“Harbor of Horror”)

What Others Have Said: “[Roy] Barcroft played many minor parts in serials until 1944. That year he took the lead villain’s role in Haunted Harbor at Republic, and launched an amazing career. For the next ten years, he played a succession of bad guys probably unequalled by any other actor in the field–pirate, outlaw, gangster, crooked cop, spaceman, renegade, crooked sheriff, saloon keeper, politician–you name it. He was Republic’s top villain for those ten years, and the man the fans ‘loved to hate.'” –William C. Cline, “Good at Being Bad” from Serials-ly Speaking

What’s Next: I’m taking a slight detour from my “summer of VHS” to examine a late Universal serial, Lost City of the Jungle!