Sunday, December 18, 2011

Kimbar of the Jungle (1949); The Dinosaur and the Missing Link (1915); The Ouija Board (1920)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a smorgasbord of shorts I’d downloaded from, including a real oddity: a 1949 TV show called Kimbar of the Jungle, a Tarzan knock-off starring Steve Reeves in the title role, and a scrap of film so obscure that’s page on Reeves doesn’t list it. What makes this even odder was that its producers wanted to make a classic, old-fashioned serial for TV, complete with cliffhanger endings, only they were shooting for a time slot of just 15 minutes (!) and so the scrap we have is just 10 minutes long, and while it’s ballyhooed as the first episode of a serial, “The Lion Men of Tanganyika” (actually normal humans dressed in really risible “lion” suits; they not only looked funny in the wrong way but covered the bodies of the actors so well I suspected that there were white people inside even though the lion men were supposed to be African natives), the post on said that this was the only episode actually filmed.

It’s a nice little curio, fun to watch when Reeves is on screen showing off his body (blessedly naked from the waist up!) — it’s interesting that back in the 1950’s you could still win Mr. Universe without turning yourself into something as downright ugly as Arnold Schwarzenegger; Reeves comes off as muscular but without having built himself so far as to look like a relief map of the moon — and rather stupid at other times, especially since much of the soundtrack is animal noises unrelated to any human language. Apparently we were expected to believe that Kimbar, like Dr. Dolittle, had managed to figure out how to talk to the animals in their own tongues — the principals at the trading post (or whatever it was) who were being menaced by the lion men even sent Kimbar’s pet chimpanzee to fetch him — and at one point they referred to him as “king of the jungle,” just before we saw a series of quite venerable clips of wild fauna and I joked, “The King of the Jungle is reviewing his stock footage.”

The other items we watched last night were one of Willis O’Brien’s earliest films, The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, and an “Out of the Inkwell” Fleischer brothers’ cartoon called The Ouija Board. The Dinosaur and the Missing Link was made in 1915 and was a bit of a surprise because of how crude it was; that early, O’Brien wasn’t yet doing authentic-looking stop-motion models but was instead practicing what eventually came to be called Claymation, animating both his human and non-human characters out of clay. The effect is charming but low-tech and the film itself — except for a beautiful shot of the missing link hanging from a tree branch (a still of this appeared in the book The Making of “King Kong” and was captioned with an explanation that O’Brien called this character “Kong’s ancestor”) — is pretty dumb, a would-be comedy that isn’t all that funny.

The Ouija Board was the least ambitious of these three films but also easily the most entertaining: genuinely funny in its fusion of live-action and animation, and with some excellent gags (the ouija board itself is actually in the live-action portion of the film, but its needle is being moved not by magic vibrations but by Koko the Clown, an animated character, crouching under it) including a great finale: Koko leaps off the animated page but instead of going back into his inkwell (which is how these things usually ended) he leaps onto one of the three humans in the room and becomes a large black stain on his white shirt. One of the three live-action people in the movie is Black, and is obliged to do the usual scared-servant schtick (a real pity, especially since he’s a lot better-looking than most of the people after him who did these parts), but aside from that lapse The Ouija Board is genuinely creative and also very funny and well worth its six-minute running time.