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As the 1940s waned, Olympic swimming star Johnny Weissmuller - for many the definitive screen Tarzan -was entering middle age, and facing the realization that after sixteen years of vine-swinging, his days of bringing off the loin-clothed look were just about behind him. The next phase of his movie career came courtesy of producer Sam Katzman, who ensured that Weissmuller, no longer quite so svelte, would continue to patrol the veldt. Procuring the film rights to Alex Raymond's comic-strip big game hunter Jungle Jim (1948), Katzman gave Weissmuller the ideal vehicle to extend his movie career, as he would assay the adventures of the safari suit-clad hero through a popular string of Bs through the mid-'50s.
The first entry of the series finds Weissmuller's Jim Bradley engaged to lead a safari by the attractive medical researcher Dr. Hilary Parker (Virginia Grey). The object of the good doctor's fascination is a rare poison utilized in tribal rituals that she believes to be key in developing a cure for polio. Amongst her party is Bruce Edwards (George Reeves), ostensibly along to make a photographic record, but much more interested in the legendary treasure-laden temple where the medicine men administer the drug--and willing to make sure that he'll be the last alive at journey's end.
The safari itself is fraught with the expected perils, with Jim having to go head-to-head with a crocodile, leopard and lion due to Edwards' treachery; the sinister shutterbug's scheme ultimately comes undone courtesy of the hero's pet raven. Rounding out the principal roles were Rick Vallin as Jim's funny-pages ally, the tribal chief Kolu; Lita Baron as his tempting sister, Zia; and the British character veteran Holmes Herbert as the game commissioner.
Longtime MGM stock player Grey had worked with Weissmuller twice before, as second lead in Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942) and as the romantic interest to Johnny's only non-Tarzan/Jungle Jim lead in Swamp Fire (1946). The heavy here, Reeves was still four years away from coming to embody a pop-culture hero himself, courtesy of his six-season run on TV's Adventures of Superman. "For the most part, Weissmuller is impressive as Jungle Jim," the Los Angeles Examiner opined. "If the youngsters take to him in this role, as I think they will, Johnny is set for a number of years to come. He looks the part, the acting demands are not great and he still will have plenty of opportunity to swim."
The modest project fared well enough to warrant another dozen Jungle Jim programmers into 1954; a Weissmuller-starring Jungle Jim TV series followed, which lasted a single season. The grant of the character rights for the television production extinguished Katzman's rights to the "Jungle Jim" name, but that didn't keep the producer and star from returning to the wild; Weissmuller climbed back into the khakis for three more big-screen jungle adventures through 1955, with the hero character re-dubbed, fairly enough, "Johnny Weissmuller." The last such entry, Devil Goddess (1955), would be Johnny's last film appearance until he joined the sea of veteran cameos in the industry homage Won Ton Ton: The Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976).
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: William Berke
Screenplay: Carroll Young (story and screenplay); Alex Raymond (comic strip)
Cinematography: Lester White
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Film Editing: Aaron Stell
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller (Jungle Jim), Virginia Grey (Dr. Hilary Parker), George Reeves (Bruce Edwards), Lita Baron (Zia), Rick Vallin (Kolu - Chief of the Masai), Holmes Herbert (Commissioner Geoffrey Marsden), Tex Mooney (Chief Devil Doctor).
by Jay S. Steinberg