The other day Turner Classic Movies featured a full 24 hours of movies starring Johnny Weissmuller. Of course the majority of the films shown were his MGM and RKO Tarzan flicks. That’s cool. Seems appropriate for a hot August day with the locusts clicking outside and the temperature and humidity in my neighborhood not much different from what you might find in the African jungle. But what made the Weissmuller tribute interesting was what happened in the wee small hours of the night, after the kids had gone to bed and only the hopeless insomniacs were up.
When they ran out of Tarzan movies, TCM started showing a couple of the less-often-seen Jungle Jim movies Johnny made when he got too old to play the Lord of the Jungle. Around 5:00 a.m they rolled out Pygmy Island, perhaps the wildest, craziest, strangest movie in the 15-film series.
Jungle Jim was originally a comic strip character created by the legendary Alex Raymond, who also created Flash Gordon. Universal made a serial based on the comic back in the 1940s, starring Grant Withers. The character didn’t reappear in film until the late 1940s when Columbia started cranking out the low-budget features starring Johnny W. The series as a whole is entertaining, but they were definitely made for the Saturday matinée crowd, back when they had Saturday matinees, and Columbia stuck to the usual jungle movie formula for the most part. But when they got to Pygmy Island, the fifth film in the series, something happened. I don’t know what, but this particular entry isn’t like any of the 14 other films at all.
The story starts when the U.S. government sends Major Bolton (David Bruce) to the jungle to find a missing pilot, whose dog tags were found by Jungle Jim floating on a raft alongside a dead white pygmy, killed by an arrow presumably shot from the bow of a Bush Devil, a member of an evil jungle cult. There is also a rope found on the raft made of some mysterious plant fibre that won’t burn or break that the U.S. government wants to get its hands on as a defense weapon. However, a “foreign power” also wants the plant that the fibre comes from. Steven Geray plays Leon Marko, the owner of a jungle trading post, who is really a secret agent for the unnamed “foreign power.” His henchmen are played by Tris Coffin and William Tannen, veteran actors who worked in numerous old serials and low-budget films.
When you’re watching movies like this you have to make allowances—overlook little technical glitches. For instance at the beginning of the film, a newspaper flashes on the screen with the headline: OFFICER BELEIVED VICTIM OF INTERNATIONAL CONSPIRACY. That’s right, the word “believed” is misspelled in the headline. But that’s a minor point. Next we have a flashback scene showing Jungle Jim’s discovery of the dog tags and the raft with the dead pygmy. Clearly visible is a string that some off-screen crew member is pulling to bring the raft toward Jim over on the river bank. I blame high def TV for that. You weren’t supposed to see that. Probably wouldn’t have noticed it on standard def.
But things pick up right after that with a crocodile in pursuit of the raft, and the dead pygmy, who probably looks to the croc like a good before lunch snack. Jim dives in and fights the crocodile with a knife. Good crocodile fight. You have to give one star right off the bat to any film featuring Weissmuller fighting a rubber crocodile. Nobody did it better.
Then Major Bolton arrives and teams up with Jim to find Captain Kingsley, the missing pilot. Well, get ready for the first shocker. The pilot turns out to be Captain Ann Kingsley. “She’s a woman?” Jim asks in deadpan surprise. (Johnny wasn’t the most expressive actor of his time.) Not only is she a woman but she turns out to be played by none other than actress Ann Savage! You know who Ann Savage is, right? She played the most evil femme fatale in all movie history in another low-budget classic, “Detour.” Yeah, that Ann Savage. I guess her movie career didn’t go so well after “Detour,” to end up in this turk— er, I mean classic.
Here Ann plays the heroine. But she looks just about as fed up and disgusted with life as she did in Detour. From the look on her face, she probably wanted to kill her agent for getting her the part. We first find Ann amongst the titular pygmies of Pygmy Island, a tribe of about a thirty midgets. Judging from their ages, it would seem that perhaps director, William Berke, got day passes from the Woodland Hills Nursing Home for the retired Munchkins of The Wizard of Oz. The pygmy leader, Makuba, is played by Billy Curtis and you can spot an uncredited Billy Barty in some scenes, as well. In order to get off the island and join up with Jungle Jim and Major Bolton, and to avoid the arrows of the Bush Devils, Makuba tells Ann to lie down on a raft and he’ll cover her up with branches. There is something so weirdly hilarious about this scene, and the way she lays there while Billy Curtis piles the branches on her and himslef—and something so pathetic that her career had brought her to this–I can’t begin to describe it. Makuba says: “Now look like driftwood. But we not!” It’s a wild moment and worth another star. Give Ann Savage some credit. She stuck it out.
The pygmies in this movie, by the way, are another weird touch. For one thing, they all wear long black wigs and leopard skin loincloths. And they are very adept at swinging through the trees on vines, like a bunch of mini-Tarzans. There are several scenes of them doing so, with Johnny Weissmuller looking up at them nostalgically, perhaps remembering the old days. He too may have been wondering what the hell happened to his movie career.
Truly one of the highlights of the movie comes later when Jungle Jim must cross a wide ravine on a rickety rope bridge stretched between two cliffs. He and his pet chimp, Tamba, start across, but all of a sudden what comes out of the jungle on the other end of the bridge??? You guessed it. A killer gorilla. Okay, any film with a guy in a gorilla suit automatically gets another star. So we’re up to three stars already. The fight scene that has Jim hanging from the swaying bridge with Tamba jumping up and down on the gorilla’s head as the beast stomps on Jim’s fingers with its feet is mind-blowing. It is also probably the scene that inspired George Lucas and Steven Spielberg when they were putting together “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”– if they would only man up and admit it.
Well, I could go on and on about “Pygmy Island.” There’s a great elephant stampede scene, mucho fisticuffs and shoot outs between Jim, Major Bolton, and the vine-swinging pygmies and the evil trader/secret agent Marko and his men, who by the way were really the ones posing as Bush Devils. Finally during a climactic battle, Jim and one of Marko’s henchmen fall into a pool of quicksand. Another star for scenes with quicksand in them.
As you can see, Pygmy Island is a film not to be missed. A whacked out, four star classic. I urge you to keep checking your TV listings for TCM’s next showing of this bizarre little movie. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.