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During World War II, the Nazi High Command sends agents into the African jungle to stir up the local Tongghili tribes against the British Allies. This allows them to plant Commander Elise Bork, posing as a scientist, and her subordinate, Lang, within the Tambosa Experimental Farm. Along with the help of Maati, an evil rival tribesman, they search for the legendary Secret Sword, which has mysterious powers. Two Americans, Bob Elliott (Edward Norris) and Chuck Kelly (Eddie Quillan) arrive to aid the Allies and meet Pamela Courtney (Lois Collier), who is looking for her father, an explorer who mysteriously disappeared. Bork and Lang feign friendship with the trio in order to find out what they know, before trying several ways to kill them. Their attempts always fail though, due to the well-timed appearances of Lothel (Ruth Roman), the beautiful and mysterious Queen of the Jungle, Tongghilis spiritual leader. In desperation, the Nazis try to kill Lothel by letting loose wild animals, and setting fire to the jungle. Lothel, however, walks through the flames un-harmed and seems to tame even the wildest beast. And in the end, she helps our heroes end the Nazi terror and return peace to the jungle, before vanishing into a sheet of flame.
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In 1939, the Nazi high command has decided that control of Africa is required before they can conquer Europe. They plan to do this by installing a Judge of the tribes in "Middle Africa" sympathetic to their cause, and start by murdering the current judge. But Lothel (Ruth Roman), known by the natives as "the woman who walks through fire" is interfering with these plans. She appears, through the flames in the chamber of judgement and warns the natives that foreigners are responsible for the murder. Meanwhile, the British have sent for Pamela Courtney (Lois Collier), Secret Service agent to convince her uncle, Alan Courtney (Boyd Irwin) to investigate the murder of the judge. At Tambosa, where the British Commissioner, Braham Chatterton (Lester Matthews) has his headquarters is an Experimental Farm, run by Dr. Elise Bork (Tala Birell), a Nazi secret agent, and her underling Lang (Douglass Dumbrille) who are responsible for the murder. Also headed to Tambosa, supposedly to do some hunting, are two Americans, Bob Elliot and Chuck Kelly (Edward Norris and Eddie Quillan), who happen to be on the same flight as Miss Courtney. The 'plane is sabotaged by the Nazis and crashes, and our trio, at first not trusting each other, have to deal with the usual lions, leopards, crocodiles and unfriendly natives before they can even start trying to find the Nazi agents.
While a somewhat plodding jungle serial, it is entertaining even if, or maybe because several elements make little sense, and most of the acting is good enough. Our human heroine, Lois Collier doesn't seem helpless, Edward Norris isn't too wooden and the comedy is kept within reason by Eddie Quillan. Clarence Muse does well as Kyba, candidate for judge opposed by the Nazis, and there are some fine minor roles, including Budd Buster as Jungle Jack and Cy Kendall as bad-guy tavern operator Tambosa Tim. While Tala Birell and Douglass Dumbrille do their dirty work with some flair, most of the time they are rehashing the plot, asking "what happened to..." instead of actually doing something. Universal seemed to think acted-out introductions were an improvement over spoken or written summaries, but they take up a couple minutes at the start of each chapter and often there's more later on. As for the plot, installing one sympathetic tribal judge doesn't seem sufficient for Germany to control much of Africa, but logic isn't the point of serials, and don't expect any explanation for why Lothel appears or how she keeps from snagging her flowing apparel in the underbrush. Universal includes a lot of stock footage, much of it pretty old, but while no credit is shown for the music, it is appropriate and at times quite effective.
VCI's edition, #8531 is on a single DVD. The source is obviously a 16mm reduction print, titles headed "Commonwealth Pictures Presents" and while reasonably free of dirt and scratches, the image isn't exactly sharp. It's also a little muddy, though the gray scale is adequate to keep most of the scenes from being lost in darkness. The sound is slightly muffled, deficient in high frequencies but clear enough for the extensive dialogue, though in the last chapter there are periodic blips as if some noise had to be chopped out. Not unusual for available prints of Universal serials of the 1940's, and good enough to display the dreadful quality of the stock footage, especially the grainy, fuzzy scene with the natives beating on a large metal plate. Somewhere a few small defocused dark spots got in, probably dirt on the illumination optics, either in the reduction process or the video transfer, though they aren't too distracting. There are occasional shifts in the audio level, one where the sound momentarily becomes quite loud in the opening credits, the same copy used for all chapters with MPPDA certificate number 10412, likely from the second chapter. The only "Extras" are two trailers, for "Jungle Queen" and "The Phantom Empire." The trailer for "Jungle Queen" has a slightly sharper and less-grainy image than the film itself; the sound is also crisper, if with a little noise.
While "Jungle Queen" will probably appeal most to serial-movie fans, and it is not one of Universal's best, the mildly-looney title character helps, the cast is interesting enough, and the meandering plot has some variety, aided by good performances in several roles. The print is far from pristine, but VCI has cleaned it up fairly well and isn't hard to watch for those familiar with typical editions of other Universal serials from the 1940's. But it is best to watch it with a day or two between chapters so the dialogue doesn't seem more redundant than it actually is.
THE STORY: The film is set in 1939, just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Nazi officers decide, (as Hitler employs his well-known artistic skill doodling a skull and crossbones on a notepad), that parts of Africa must fall under their total domination in order for them to control military activity in the Mediterranean region; however, they are concerned about widespread rumors of a Jungle Queen, a sort of goddess to the various indigenous tribes of "British Middle Africa," who might impede their aggression. Covert Nazi agents are sent into the district to thwart both the Jungle Queen and any British or American agents who might arrive to contradict their plans.
The Jungle Queen, Lothel (played by Ruth Roman), is known to the tribal groups as "the lady who walks through fire" because she periodically appears from the entrance of a sacrificial fire cave at a shrine-like stone temple in the jungle. She thus issues a warning to the ruling "judge" of the tribal populace about the Nazi intrusion.
Two American Secret Service men are sent unofficially to the jungle city to assist their British allies in subverting Nazi activities but their airplane crashes in the jungle. The two men, Bob Elliot (Edward Norris) and Chuck Kelly (Eddie Quillan), along with the daughter of a prominent British professor, Pamela Courtney (Lois Collier), are the three lone survivors of the crash -- the Jungle Queen helps them all to eventually return to the British headquarters subsequent to a few run-ins with some Nazi-motivated native tribesmen.
From this point forward, it's tit-for-tat in the battles between the Nazis and the allied agents, the tribesmen intermittently switching their loyalties as they are artfully manipulated by the respective factions. Specifically, subsequent to the murder (by a Nazi native operative) of the ruling judge, the issue of who will be the subsequent leader of the tribesmen (the man who is responsible for holding "The Secret of the Sword"!), becomes the concern and focus of Lothel the Jungle Queen, the British and American operatives, and the Nazis.
There are specific actors who make outstanding contributions in various chapters of this serial and I'd like to point them out here:
Douglas Dumbrille plays "Lang," a Nazi of The First Water -- he conveys a stellar performance here as he did in yet another outstanding period film, Charlie Chan: Castle in the Desert [VHS]. (This remarkable film is also available on DVD, but only by acquiring the Charlie Chan set: Charlie Chan Collection, Vol. 5 (Charlie Chan At The Wax Museum/Murder Over New York/Dead Men Tell/Charlie Chan In Rio/Charlie Chan In Panama/Murder Cruise/Castle in the Desert).)
"Kyba," one of the three candidates for the native ruling judge, is portrayed by Clarence Muse who brings a particular dignity to all his film roles, even in the comic relief ones as he did in Sherlock Holmes in Washington where he was cast as George, the shrewdly observant porter in a train club car. He also made his indelible mark in a lengthy role in the complex Bela Lugosi vehicle, Invisible Ghost where his character was that of the clever butler, Evans.
"Captain Drake" is played by Oliver Blake, (sadly, uncredited for his rather lengthy speaking role here), who also played the ostentatious hotel-keeper in Charlie Chan: Castle in the Desert [VHS] -- astoundingly, he wasn't credited for that remarkable performance either! He appeared well over 100 times in various film and television performances, including his integral contribution as the bartender in Raintree County (DVD) Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift - BY GOLDEN CLASSIC COLLECTIBLES.
And finally, Tala Birell (born in Romania in 1907 as Natalie Bierl) playing Nazi subversive "Dr. Elise Bork," epitomizes everything we have come to expect from the stereotypical female Nazi [film] spy: tall, blond, attractive, large-busted, cold-hearted, (she ruthlessly stabs Captain Drake in the back with a big dagger because she believes he's "not dependable"!), and so on. She is also known to us as "Antonya Raskolnikov" in the landmark 1935 Russian epic Crime and Punishment (1935) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2 Import - Spain ]. (Douglass Dumbrille additionally stars in this terrific film.)
The various chapters are directed by Ray Taylor and Lewis D. Collins for Universal Pictures, presented by Commonwealth Pictures Corporation. The screenplay was written by George Plympton (who wrote for MANY of these sorts of serials and films), Ande Lamb, and Morgan B. Cox.
The thirteen chapters are as follows:
-- Invitation to Danger
-- Jungle Sacrifice
-- The Flying Mountain
-- Wildcat Stampede
-- The Burning Jungle
-- Danger Ship
-- Trip-Wire Murder
-- The Mortar Bomb
-- Death Watch
-- Execution Chamber
-- The Trail to Doom
-- Dragged Under
-- The Secret of the Sword
This serial represents a bulwark of great settings, locations, and cliffhanger ambiance including all manner of Nazi uniform regalia, a secret radio headquarters, hidden telephones, pit-type lion traps, tusk necklaces, thatch and bamboo jungle villages, campfires with giant coffee pots, big daggers, canoes, memorable "woodie" station wagons, elephant gun bullets, a cool old tavern, a ship ("The Silver Star"), a machine gun booby trap, interesting period rifles (including German Mausers and .303 British Enfields), handguns, and much more. We also get to view a savory amount of the inevitable wild animal filler-footage featuring chimpanzees, hyenas, apes, lions, deer (it looked like a white-tailed fawn to me), and crocodiles (which appear to actually be Florida alligators.)
In summary, this is an outstanding jungle thriller which has it all for devotees of the genre and I highly recommend it. If you'd like to see a jungle serial of similar excellence, be sure to watch Nyoka and the Tigermen (Digitally Remastered). For some cool episodic television versions of this genre, I also recommend the various entries of Ramar of the Jungle - Volume One.