V I D E O   R E V I E W   B Y   J A M E S   N E W M A N

Over the past year, VCI Entertainment has supplied serial lovers with three of the most sought, most rare chapterplays from the classic period of the American sound-era serial. First, in early 2001, VCI delivered The Phantom--the original Columbia serial starring Tom Tyler as the popular comic strip adventure hero. And now VCI has added Jungle Girl and Drums of Fu Manchu to their serial library. Previously, both serials had only been available in generally low-quality third- and fourth-generation dupes from video companies that specialized in public domain movies. These prints were of such poor quality that most vestiges of details were long gone.

At least a decade ago, I tracked down a VHS copy of Jungle Girl--fueled by serial expert Alan Barbour's much-quoted comment (you'll find it on the cover of VCI's DVD release of Jungle Girl) in which he called Jungle Girl "the best of all jungle serials." But what I discovered was a muddy video transfer taken from a print with burnt out details. Some movies can survive bad prints and washed-out video transfers and convey some of their charm and visual integrity. Not so with Jungle Girl. I was ready to write off Jungle Girl as one of the most over-rated serials of all time. It seemed slow, repetitive, bland, and generic. Like many much-ballyhooed movies that haven't been available for screenings for several decades, its reputation had apparently been much inflated--exactly because so very few people could see it. But now, VCI comes to the rescue with their superb DVD presentation of Jungle Girl.

With key assistance from the British Film Institute, a 35mm fine grain positive print was unearthed. This print was not flawless, and therefore additional material was supplied by the National British Film and Television Archive. The result is a generally sharp video transfer that restores detail and contrast. The video transfer isn't perfect. Every now and then the image becomes noticeably more grainy. I assume these are the materials from the National British Film and Television Archive. The print from the British Film Institute seems to have been the victim of a collector who snipped out key segments--such as a portion of the sequence where Nyoka is tied to a post and a marauding gorilla closes in on her. In instances like this one, the image becomes slightly muddy and somewhat textured. But this is quite likely the best that Jungle Girl will ever look and serial lovers should rejoice that it's finally available from a reputable source. This is a major new release that should be part of any serial fan's video library.

Loosely based upon a novel by Tarzan of the Apes author Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jungle Girl was produced by the most famous studio in the history of serialdom--Republic. Burroughs sold the film rights for Jungle Girl to Republic for a reported sum of $5,000 (an impressive amount in its day), and Republic handed the directorial assignment to William Witney and John English, the greatest directing team in serial history. A list of their serials is very nearly a list of the best serials ever made, including The Adventures of Captain Marvel, Zorro's Fighting Legion, and Fighting Devil Dogs. By 1941,the year of Jungle Girl's release, the Witney-English partnership was nearing its end. In 1942, Republic began assigning them separate projects (with Witney directing Spy Smasher and Perils of Nyoka and English directing Captain America). But in 1941, they were still at the height of their powers.

What made their serials together so successful? Not all serial fans agree. Some focus on the excellent stuntwork of Yakima Canutt and David Sharpe. Others mention the polished look supplied by the Republic technicians, including strong special effects and model work by Howard Lydecker. But the proof is in the images. While most serials have strictly utilitarian imagery, Witney and English frequently added exciting visual touches. Jungle Girl lacks some of the more striking effects of their best work together (such as the scene from Zorro's Fighting Legion where Zorro crashes through a plate glass window, directly into the camera), but the serial contains several subtle-but-striking images. One trick in particular sets the camera tracking forward--ever so slowly--at moments of high tension. At the end of Chapter One, for example, heroine Nyoka and hero Jack Stanton become trapped in a cave as a torrent of water surges toward them. They find their escape blocked. They turn back toward the water, and as they do, the camera tracks toward them as their eyes open wide and their jaws drop--"Next week, Chapter Two!" says the title card.

Jungle Girl tells the story of Nyoka, who lives in the unexplored jungles of central Africa with her father. They're friends with a local tribe who have amassed an impressive cache of diamonds which are hidden within a well-guarded cave. However, word of the diamonds has reached civilization and a team of strong-arm men soon come calling. Jack Stanton is the pilot who flies this group of thugs to the jungle, but when he discovers the true nature of their mission, he decides to help Nyoka. The ensuing adventures involve a flooded tunnel, a stone idol, a sacrificial altar, a shrinking room, a savage gorilla, a log bridge that spans a canyon, an impromptu barbecue with Nyoka on a spit, and many other terrors.

Jungle Girl is blessed with one of the best casts of any Republic serial. Frances Gifford was borrowed from Paramount Pictures to play the lead role. Republic had only a thin crop of female actresses on contract and quickly recognized the need to look beyond their walls for a lead actress capable of carrying an entire serial. So they convinced Paramount to lend Gifford for several weeks. The resulting chapterplay is one of the important turning points in the history of the serial. Whereas sound-era serials of the '30s were almost always about male heroes (with women as friends or assistants, if they existed at all), Jungle Girl proved that serials could be built around women characters. Soon afterwards, Kay Aldridge starred in Perils of Nyoka and Linda Sterling starred in Tiger Woman and Zorro's Black Whip. A new era of the serial was born (although this period is actually a throwback to the formative period of the silent serial when heroines such as Pearl White frequently saved the day).

Jungle Girl was Frances Gifford's one-and-only appearance in a serial. When Republic decided to make a sequel, they pursued her to reprise her role. According to Alan Barbour in Days of Thrills and Adventure, "She was scheduled, and announced, to play her Jungle Girl character again ... but personal problems intervened and another casting choice was made." It's unfortunate that she only appeared in this one chapterplay. She was easily the most athletic and convincing actress to appear in a leading role in a serial. While her replacement, Kay Aldridge in Perils of Nyoka, was clearly doubled by stunt men (most noticeably by David Sharpe), it's hard to tell if Miss Gifford was doubled. Through her athletic presence and judicious editing, she appears to perform virtually all her stunts--whether it be swinging on jungle vines, diving head first over 30 feet into a lake, or balancing on a log bridge. And of no little importance, Gifford was genuinely beautiful. Every boy who saw her in Jungle Girl in theaters back in 1941 must have developed a crush. At the same time, however, you can see her limitations and understand why she never became a major actress: watch her eyes. In those scenes where she isn't asked to emote, her eyes drift out of focus and her posture goes limp (with her arms hanging lifelessly at her sides). But when she has lines, her eyes light up.

Co-starring with Gifford is Tom Neal, whose fame has been ensured in the cult movie pantheon for his performance in the B movie crime classic Detour (directed by Edgar G. Ulmer). He's a definite improvement over Republic's usual stable of generic, interchangeable actors. Although he's relatively short, he's intense and possesses a rough brand of charisma. Rounding out the cast: Gerald Mohr plays the evil American who leads the campaign to the liberate the jewels from their temple hiding place. Mohr starred in numerous bad-guy roles throughout the '40s and '50s. He was a poor man's version of Humphrey Bogart whose greatest frame came as radio's Philip Marlowe. Frank Lackteen stars as an evil witch doctor. With a rodent-like face, he was a veteran of bad-guy roles from both silent and sound-era serials. Tommy Cook stars as a simple-minded native boy (an absolutely embarrassing characterization) who comes to the aid of Nyoka and Jack; Eddie Acuff stars as Jack's sidekick. He provides most of the comic relief. And Trevor Bardette stars as Nyoka's father and as her father's evil twin brother.

Jungle Girl is a strong serial, but it is beset by a problem that frequently afflicted jungle serials--a creeping sameness. Seen over and over during the course of a 15 chapter serial (of nearly four hours duration) the same sets and camera setups become mind numbing. Every now and then, a new set is added to the mix, as when a rock crusher and conveyor belt are used in Chapter 11 (apparently borrowed from a Canadian mounties serial), but overall Jungle Girl lacks variety, and as a result, it becomes somewhat stale. Is it the greatest jungle serial as Alan Barbour claimed? Well, I think I prefer both Columbia's The Phantom and Republic's Jungle Girl sequel Perils of Nyoka.

For an example of a serial with loads of variety, turn to VCI's other major serial release, Drums of Fu Manchu, based upon characters created by Sax Rohmer. Like Jungle Girl, Drums of Fu Manchu was previously only available in dupey-looking prints. So VCI's release of Drums of Fu Manchu is a major addition to any serial lover's video library, but unfortunately VCI's source print is less than ideal. Accordingly VCI is only offering a VHS version and no DVD release. The image is soft and a bit muddy, and VCI's video tapes (it's a two-tape set) wouldn't track very well on my VCR. The image was prone to jitter unless the tracking was set far to the extremes, causing some dropouts to appear. And during some lengthy scenes set at night, the image is so muddy that it's difficult to tell what's happening. But the disappointing quality doesn't completely obscure the serial's charms. This is one of the all-time great serials. It's filled with remarkable, surprising sequences unlike those you'll find in virtually any other serial.

Drums of Fu Manchu gets off to a thrilling start in Chapter One as Fu Manchu unleashes a battalion of his goons--called the Dacoit--to kidnap an archaeologist who possesses an important ancient relic. This relic is a clue to the location of the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. In this sequence, the Dacoit enter the museum by walking on telephone wires that lead to the building's roof. Inside the museum, an Egyptian sarcophagus contains Fu Manchu's daughter, who emerges at an opportune time to open the rooftop door and let in the goons. It's a startling sequence that occasionally strains credulity but it's always inspired. Fu Manchu's henchmen are hardly human. They're more like zombies. Each member of the Dacoit has a Y-shaped scar down the middle of his forehead, a reminder of the brain operation that put him under Fu Manchu's control. The lead henchman even has fangs like a vampire.

In Drums of Fu Manchu, Sir Nayland Smith (William Royle) of Scotland Yard is the hero. He has been tracking Fu Manchu (Henry Brandon), who in turn is searching for Genghis Khan's scepter, which he believes will allow him to rule all of Asia. To find the scepter, however, Fu Manchu must first find the segments of an ancient scroll, which when pieced together reveal the whereabouts of the lost tomb of Genghis Khan. In his effort to thwart Fu Manchu, Smith uses the services of a much younger man, Allan Parker. While Parker takes the more dangerous missions and frequently gets into fist fights, Smith does most of the brain work (although he can throw a mean right cross when necessary). Smith is too old (pushing 60) to play the hero role alone. So Parker plays an important function as he helps boost the serial's action quotient.

While Jungle Girl suffers from sameness, Drums of Fu Manchu moves through an astonishing variety of locales. It starts in San Francisco, where Nayland Smith has returned after an apparent run-in with Fu Manchu in Asia, and then it moves aboard a trans-Pacific flight. In India, Smith and Parker battle the emissaries of Fu Manchu before heading for the foothills of the Himalayas, where they search for the tomb of Genghis Khan. The final episodes take place inside an ancient temple.

From its very first scenes, Drums of Fu Manchu conveys a sense of terror. As in the classic French serial Les Vampires, we get a villainous force of unimaginable strength and treachery who will stop at nothing to get what they want. We're left with a feeling of hopelessness. How can our heroes survive? How can the world survive?

Directed by William Witney and John English, Drums of Fu Manchu is perhaps their finest serial ever. It's so good that occasionally it recalls Flash Gordon, especially in a sequence where Fu Manchu pulls a lever that releases a trap door and drops Allan Parker into an octopus tank. Unfortunately, however, Drums of Fu Manchu lacks a strong feminine presence, other than Fu Manchu's daughter, who figures in only a handful of chapters before dropping out of sight altogether. In addition, Drums of Fu Manchu is occasionally marred by its meager sense of technological innovations. For example, in an early chapter, we're supposed to be impressed when Fu Manchu claps his hands to turn on/off the lights in his palace. So he's got "the clapper"? In scenes like this one, the serial dips perilously toward camp. But other innovations are effective, such as the mini-cameras concealed in the wrist bands of the Dacoit. Fu Manchu can use the cameras to watch whatever is happening by turning on his own video monitor. In addition, Fu Manchu makes imaginative use of a face mask, similar to those used in Mission: Impossible 2, that allows him to pose as Allan Parker.

During the final chapters, Drums of Fu Manchu falls prey to one of the greatest pitfalls faced by serials: the battle for Genghis Khan's scepter deteriorates into a game of I've-got-it-no-I've-got-it. At this point, even the cliffhanger endings become a bit mundane, as when Parker appears to fall into an inferno. But the following chapter says, no, he didn't fall at all. This kind of fuzzy thinking might've worked when serial episodes were shown in theaters a week or more apart, but on video--where the viewer has a handy rewind button--it becomes obvious that the filmmakers cheated. The biggest hurdles that modern viewers may face, however, are the arguably racist characterizations. Fu Manchu and his cohorts are represented by broad racial stereotypes that align the orient with treachery. If you can place these characterizations within the time period they were created--at the onset of American involvement in WWII--the negative stereotypes are somewhat excusable and to certain extent, even to be expected (although they remain an obstacle for viewers to navigate).

At its best, though, Drums of Fu Manchu attains heights that compare favorably with the best of any other serial. At the end of Chapter 5, for example, Fu Manchu takes possession of an ancient scroll, but there is no conventional cliffhanger. Instead, the chapter ends with the ominous possibilities posed by Fu Manchu moving closer to his goal. It's refreshing to see a serial break free, if ever so briefly, from the tyranny (and the limitations) of the cliffhanger ending and offer a more profound (if less immediately thrilling) chapter conclusion. Significantly, Fu Manchu survives the serial's final chapter--perhaps for a sequel that never materialized. So while Nayland Smith wins this encounter, the threat of Fu Manchu survives.

In the post-September 11th environment, Drums of Fu Manchu is somewhat prescient. It's about an Asian warlord with world conquest on his mind who incites other Asian groups against the infidel invaders. He twists loyalties with local tribes, but they don't see how he's using them for his own purposes. However, before the serial is over, loyalties begin to shift, with the Hi Llama calling Fu Manchu a "false prophet."

VCI's release of Drums of Fu Manchu is a major arrival for serial fans. I can only hope that a better-looking print will one day be unearthed and released on DVD. Until then, this VHS edition will have to suffice.


Jungle Girl is now available on DVD and VHS from VCI Entertainment is a digitally mastered transfer. On DVD, Jungle Girl includes nearly an hour of theatrical trailers for serials such as Adventures of Red Ryder (1940), Great Alaskan Mystery (1944), Tailspin Tommy (1934), and Riders of Death Valley (1941). Suggested retail price: $29.95 for both DVD and VHS. Drums of Fu Manchu is now available on VHS from VCI Entertainment. No DVD release is currently scheduled. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For more information, check out the VCI Entertainment Web site.


PHOTO CAPTIONS: left – Nyoka (Frances Gifford) is menaced by a gorilla in Jungle Girl; right – Fu Manchu (Henry Brandon) holds Nayland Smith (William Royle) at gunpoint in Drums of Fu Manchu