Review: Daughter of the Jungle (1949)

A textbook example of mid-century cheap thrills, Republic's Daughter of the Jungle (1949) serves up multiple genre elements in one package. You want gangsters? You got 'em! You want restless natives on the hunt for blood? You got 'em! You want a feisty young woman in a miniskirt who swings from the trees like Tarzan? Well, you can't have that...just kidding, she's here too! In many ways, Daughter of the Jungle exemplifies the high concept/low budget approach that Republic and other poverty row studios excelled at creating during the Cold War era. 

The film opens on an airplane above the jungles of Africa. Inside the craft are a couple of gangsters being transported back to the States by two police officers, but because this is a jungle adventure film, the plane crashes within minutes and it quickly becomes an "every man for himself" situation. Deep in the bush, the emergency landing was witnessed by the plucky survivors of another plane crash, which occurred over a decade ago. During their years in the jungle, these original survivors have adapted to their surroundings and the youngest of them, a girl named Ticoora (Lois Hall) has grown into the titular vine-swinging daughter of the jungle, traversing the dangerous landscape with the greatest of ease. But a group of restless natives also saw these new arrivals land in their jungle, and they're going to do everything they can to reach them first. 

Let's tackle the most obvious point first: the movie has not aged well in terms of social awareness. The natives--with their witch doctor face paint and elaborate headdresses--are a thin caricature, falling just short of saying "Ooga Booga." The central heroine of the film is a young white woman with lovely legs who knows the jungles better than the tribespeople who were born there. But context is always key and this was 1949, just a few years after World War II. These films reflect their era and should not be judged by the progress we've made in the intervening decades--to do so would be to miss out on a lot of fun. By acknowledging the film's limitations, we're free to explore its many delights. 

There are lots of jungle girls populating the cinema screens of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, but Lois Hall's Ticoora seems almost identical to a future Republic hero, 1955's Panther Girl of the Kongo. The costumes aren't identical, but they're pretty close. Like the Panther Girl (and Sheena, decades later), Ticoora is a variation on Tarzan, swinging around the jungle like she was born there, and in Ticoora's case, even mimicking the unique yell that Tarzan belts out. She represents purity, innocence, and the beauty of nature. Sure, it's easy to be cynical about the character (indeed, many are), but her underlying sweetness is disarming. Lois Hall is very watchable in this starring, top-billed role. For those who want more, she starred in a handful of Monogram westerns opposite Johnny Mack Brown--all of which are available on DVD as part of Warner Archive's Monogram Cowboy Collection sets, which I thoroughly enjoy.

Sheldon Leonard gives an over-the-top performance as a gangster who's just this side of Eddie G. Robinson's Little Caesar. When he roughs up various people by slapping them around, it's so cliche that one can't help but snicker. James Cardwell plays a strapping, cornfed good guy who could have anchored a whole string of these B-movies had fate dealt him a different hand. He's got the barrel chest and lantern jaw that these kinds of parts demand, but this is a low point in his career, coming a few years after bigger roles in better movies. When his opportunities continued to decline into uncredited roles, he took his own life in 1953. 

Daughter of the Jungle achieved infamy when it was featured in Harry and Michael Medved's The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Reader, take note: The Medveds also penned The Golden Turkey Awards and The Hollywood Hall of Shame, making something of a career out of calling out what they perceived to be "bad cinema." What must they think of this current era of $300 million spectacle cinema with wall-to-wall CGI and nary a plot to be found? I bring this up to say that you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone saying nice things about Daughter of the Jungle. Indeed, its very reputation seems to hinge on its appearance in The Fifty Worst Films of All Time, as if this badge of dishonor is all that's worth discussing. 

But I like Daughter of the Jungle. Mind you, I'm not saying its a great film--it isn't, but then again, how many B-movie productions have the distinction of being truly great? They don't aspire to greatness; they never aimed to be more than a brief diversion, a programmer on a bill of other, similar movies to fill out a larger experience. Call them the trash TV of their era, but they knew what they were. For those of us who are part of the "rerun generation," these cheap little B-movies serve up everything we want: fun locales, swift action, easy characterization, and dialogue that feels direct and to the point. Because they didn't have the budgets for lavish effects or epic storytelling, they end up as potent little bursts of cinema--snacks not meals--but satisfying in their own way. And because they're a product of their time, they're both a time capsule and remarkably human creation, with the metaphorical fingerprints of their writers, directors, and cast visible in every frame. May I never grow so cynical that I lose the simple joy that these movies offer. In an artificial world, these movies feel more real than anything at the multiplex today. 

The film makes a worldwide Blu-ray debut as part of Imprint's Tales of Adventure Collection 2 and is sourced from a 4K scan. We're also served up a longer cut of the film than previously available--80 minutes, rather than the previously-circulated cut which ran 69 minutes. I'm not so familiar with the film that I can easily point out differences, but it's always cause for celebration when a film is released uncut. Gary Gerani provides an audio commentary to the release, which is a welcome addition, given the film's lack of history online.

 On the surface, it seems strange that Imprint--a brand associated with cinema of the highest quality--would give such lavish and prestigious treatment to a movie that has been summarily dismissed by the cinema establishment. Upon further thought, it makes total sense: by restoring the film to its proper running time and serving up a beautiful transfer, Imprint has removed all the barriers that might keep viewers from giving this film a fair shot, allowing it to find an audience it hasn't previously had in the home media era. If you're curious enough to have read this far, you're the perfect candidate to discover the campy fun that Daughter of the Jungle serves up in spades. 


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