Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Frances Gifford & Jungle Girl

From my unpublished "Next Week at This Theater")

A Paramount contract player from Long Beach, California, recently divorced from alcoholic actor James Dunn, Frances Gifford (1920-1994) never actively pursued a career in serials but was lent to Republic by Paramount along with Ella Neal, who would appear, to much less effect, in Mysterious Dr. Satan (1940). Despite starring in such notable MGM pictures as Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945), Little Mister Jim (1946) and The Arnelo Affair (1948), Gifford is remembered only for her two jungle dramas, Jungle Girl and the 1943 RKO Johnny Weissmuller vehicle Tarzan Triumphs.

In 1948, en route to Lake Arrowhead with Metro executive Benny Thau, she was badly injured in a two-car accident and her personality reportedly changed overnight. MGM let her go and although she struggled along for another five years, the damage was done and in 1958 she was admitted to Camarillo State Hospital. She reemerged, healthy, in 1983 and reportedly collaborated on Ohio-based filmmaker Richard Myers’ tribute to Jungle Girl, also entitled Jungle Girl, according to Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times “a gentle dream/memory work of haunting visual beauty.” In her final years, Frances Gifford performed charity work and was a volunteer with the Pasadena Public Library.

Jungle Girl co-director William Witney remembers Frances Gifford with fondness in his autobiography, “In a Door, into a Fight, Out a Door, into a Chase: Moviemaking Remembered by the Guy at the Door” (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2004):

“When we heard the front office had borrowed a girl from Paramount we all groaned, but for once we had to admit that after all the mistakes they had made, the law of averages finally prevailed. They had hit the jackpot. She was a beauty.”

(Among Republic's previous "mistakes," Witney mentions the other starlet borrowed from Paramount, Ella Neal.)

Jungle Girl (Republic 1941)

Desiring the famed Diamonds of Nakros, guarded by a tribe of Lion Men, gangster Bradley Meredith (Trevor Bardette) kills his identical twin brother John (also Trevor Bardette) and takes his place as the local doctor. Not even John’s daughter, Nyoka (Frances Gifford), detects the difference, at least not at first, but before long she, along with pilot Jack Stanton (Tom Neal) and his sidekick Curly Rogers (Eddie Acuff), is fighting tooth and nails not only to rid the jungle domain of Bradley and his gangster pal Slick Latimer (Gerald Mohr) but also the traitorous witch doctor, Shamba (everybody's favorite accented serial villain Frank Lackteen).

Having decided to return to an earlier age and resurrect the serial queen, Republic did very well indeed by borrowing Frances Gifford from Paramount. A pretty starlet who could also act, Gifford became perhaps the quintessential sound serial heroine, and although she later earned a contract from lofty MGM and co-starred in several grade-A productions, Jungle Girl remains her most memorable role. The serial was lost in copyright limbo for decades and when it finally surfaced in the 1990s, few fans were disappointed. Not since Pearl White clung to the gorges of Ithaca has a serial heroine endured as much as Miss Gifford’s Nyoka, who survives every peril known to woman, including almost perishing in an abyss, being burned at the stake, boiled in oil, and mauled by the obligatory man-sized gorilla. Gifford comes through it all with every hair in place, helped immeasurably by not only leading man Tom Neal (who shortly after having a bullet removed from his shoulder is able to hang on to the wheels of a plane in mid air!), but also stunt doubles Dave Sharpe (who performs the wine-swinging) and Helen Thurston. It is all very excitingly directed by the team of Witney and English, and acted by a superlative supporting cast; even the comic relief, Eddie Acuff, is tolerable, as is Tommy Cook, formerly Little Beaver in Adventures of Red Ryder (Republic 1940). Little Kimbu, in fact, is simply Little Beaver with a different fright wig. Although they certainly did not shy away from using his famous name in all advertising, Republic cleverly left Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original alone and even invented a new name for his heroine, Nyoka. This proved fortunate when a sequel was suggested less than a year later.

Due to the locations at Sherwood Forest and the leafy Corriganville, Jungle Girl actually looks more “jungle” than most tropical serials, but the supposedly Native extras, who wear black Harpo Marx-style wigs, somewhat detract from the overall impression. Why Republic didn’t hire African Americans to play the natives, as they would a decade later for Jungle Drums of Africa (1953), is one of those questions better left unasked. In any case, the natives, such as they are, pudgy white guys with body paint, remain the chapter play’s greatest detriment. Like Westerns, jungle serials are somewhat limited in ways to endanger people and Jungle Girl uses every clichĂ© in the book. But you cannot deny that after a while the spectacle of spear-carrying natives running to and fro wears off and you must rely on the featured villains. Trevor Bardette, despite his dual-role, is somewhat underused, mainly sulking in his hut and leaving it up to Gerald Mohr and the henchmen to chase down the heroic quartet. Mohr, however, is well cast, and Frank Lackteen, as the witch doctor, positively shines in a getup that probably kept children awake long into the night in 1941. Lackteen’s hatred toward Nyoka is never properly explained but you cannot deny his effectiveness. The print viewed is from a British release and Shamba’s demise, along with a sequence involving the gorilla, is slightly censored for gruesomeness (the British and, strangely, the Finns, were more squeamish than almost anybody else). The cliffhangers, however, all survive intact and this is where Jungle Girl meets all expectations as perhaps the best jungle serial of them all.

About the production:

Republic purchased the rights to Rice Burroughs’ 1932 novel, which was set in Cambodia, for $5000 with the stipulation that only one serial, and only a serial, would be produced and that the rights would revert to Burroughs’ after seven years. Republic, of course, solely used the title and Burroughs’ marquee-ready name, and Jungle Girl was created whole cloth by the studio writers. Although split-screen technique was used in certain sequences, Al Taylor, who also played a henchman, doubled for one or the other of the Meredith twins in over-the-shoulder shots.

… and their fellas: Tom Neal

Tom Neal (1914-1974), who according to Witney showed up on set of Jungle Girl complete with a valet, was at one point promoted by MGM as another Clark Gable but his most memorable performance came in the dirt cheap PRC noir Detour (1946). Neal made headlines publicly battling for the affections of buxom starlet Barbara Payton, who later became a call-girl. Then in November of 1965 he received a verdict of involuntary manslaughter in the shooting death of his second wife and was sentenced to a 15-year prison term. He was paroled in December of 1973 but died of a heart attack eight months later. Neal also starred as the would-be Dick Tracy character of Bruce Gentry (Columbia 1949).

(right: Tom in an iconic pose with the fantastic Ann Savage in Detour)

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