Monday, September 17, 2012

Captive Girl (Columbia, 1950)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Captive Girl, a 1950 entry in Columbia’s “Jungle Jim” series starring Johnny Weissmuller as the white big-game hunter in Africa, originally created in 1934 as a comic strip by the talented and prolific Alex Raymond (who also created Flash Gordon and drew the Secret Agent X-9 comic strip for Dashiell Hammett!), who ended up on the big screen when cheapie producer Sam Katzman (running a company of his own variously called Banner, Esskay and Sam Katzman Productions) bought the rights and worked out a production/distribution deal with Columbia to make a series of Jungle Jim movies aimed at the prepubescent (or barely pubescent) male audience that flocked to Saturday matinees. As his star he tapped former Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, who was still a nice-looking man and convincingly butch but was getting too hefty to be credible wearing a loincloth and swinging on jungle vines. Charles and I had watched the first Jungle Jim movie not long ago and hadn’t thought much of it, but I wanted to watch this one because one of the villains was played by Larry “Buster” Crabbe, who had a career trajectory similar to Weissmuller’s: they were both champion swimmers, both won Olympic gold medals, and both got signed by movie companies to play Tarzan (so Captive Girl counts as one of my “doubles” movies). The story is the typical fol-de-rol concerning an African tribe; its hereditary ruler, Chief Mahala (Rick Vallin, the nice-looking and surprisingly talented young man who was in Ghosts on the Loose with Bela Lugosi, the East Side Kids and Ava Gardner, who of course went on to biggers and considerably betters — Vallin should have had more of a career than he did, since he was not only personable and good-looking but he obviously could act, even though here the only concession to “nativicity” was plastering dark-brown makeup on his face that made him look like a white guy who’d gone to a really good tanning salon), has just returned from getting a white man’s education and is ready to take over and rule the tribe. Only he’s got a major rival for the throne: the tribe’s medicine man, Hakim (John Dehner, virtually unrecognizable under the bone-studded headdress he wears in all his scenes), who’s out to murder all his rivals and take the chief’s position himself.

There’s also a white villain, deep-sea diver Barton (Buster Crabbe), who uses a SCUBA tank when they were still a relative novelty on the screen and who’s out to steal the treasure buried in the “Lagoon of the Dead,” including the golden chains with which the medicine men tie up anyone they want to get rid of to weight down their bodies so when they’re thrown into the lagoon, they’ll drown. And the “Captive Girl” of the title is a mysterious someone-or-other (Anita Lhoest), an impassive woman with long blonde hair (she looks something like Morticia Addams would have if she’d dyed that long straight hair blonde and dressed in a leopard-skin two-piece swimsuit) and a pet tiger (I’m not making this up, you know!) whom she can control by whistling at it. Captive Girl was at least marginally better than Jungle Jim even though the director (William Berke) and screenwriter (Carroll Young) were the same, if only because this time around Berke got a better sense of atmosphere and was considerably more adept at matching the film’s oodles of stock footage to the new scenes (a better cinematographer — Ira Morgan instead of Lester White — no doubt helped). The plot is silly and the film suffers from the weird resistance of Katzman’s casting director to using Black actors as the “Africans” — the “natives” in this film either look like (East) Indians, Polynesians or whites getting the suntan treatment, but it’s still a lot of fun to see Weissmuller (or his stunt double, Paul Stader) swing through the jungle on rope vines as he had in his old Tarzan days, and perhaps out of reference to their swimming backgrounds writer Young and director Berke staged the climactic fight scene between Weissmuller and Crabbe under water, which was fun.

The gimmick is that the mystery blonde woman is actually Joan Martindale, the daughter of two anthropologists who set out to discover the “Lagoon of the Dead,” did so but then were caught and killed by Hakim, so she’s been staging one-woman guerrilla attacks on him ever since (exactly what she was doing to discomfit him, Young never specified), and the surprisingly thrilling climax to an otherwise rather dull movie occurs when Jungle Jim, Mahala and Joan, captured by Hakim and seemingly doomed to eternal rest in the “Lagoon of the Dead,” are rescued by a stampede of primates, summoned by Joan’s whistle, who overpower the baddies and spare the lives of the good guys. It’s a neat ending but also a mysterious one: obviously the monkey stampede is pre-existing footage, but from what, and how was it staged in the first place? There are also major roles for Jungle Jim’s pet chimpanzee as well as the obnoxious poodle he had as a pet in the first film — they don’t get along, of course, though at times the chimp delivers a more expressive and emotionally committed performance than any of the humans in the film and he and the dog work out a deal whereby they trade bananas for bones (this was obviously supposed to make the original audience think, “My, how cute”).