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Pygmy Island

Pygmy Island(1950)

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teaser Pygmy Island (1950)

Though he had worked exhaustively since 1932 playing Tarzan the Ape Man for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and RKO Radio Pictures since his debut in the role in 1932, Olympic gold medalist turned swimsuit model turned actor Johnny Weissmuller exited the experience in 1948 with less money than he had going in. Three divorces and a fondness for gambling had put the actor in the red - with more than $40,000 owed to his personal manager, Bo Roos (whose financial expertise had earned him the nickname "Uncle Deductible" by his gaggle of spendthrift clients, among them John Wayne, Joan Crawford, Red Skelton, Fred MacMurray, and Weissmuller). Though finding love again with fifth wife Ailene Gates, Weissmuller honeymooned on the cusp of uncertain future... until the invitation came from producer Sam Katzman to sign with Columbia Pictures as the star of a series of B-films based on a popular newspaper comic strip from the Flash Gordon team of Alex Raymond and Don Moore.

Trading in his loincloth for a set of jungle khakis, Weissmuller stepped into the part of Jungle Jim (1948) for a total of sixteen feature films and a one season small screen spinoff produced by Columbia's television arm, Screen Gems. Unlike his deals with MGM and RKO, which were flat rate buy-outs that paid him well but stiffed him on back end profits, Weissmuller was guaranteed a percentage by Columbia, as well as residuals for future TV sales, and a measure of creative control. Even more importantly, after sixteen years of near nakedness, he got to wear clothes. Pygmy Island (1950) was the fifth film in the series and depicted the search for an elusive and indestructible jungle fiber with infinite wartime applications by both the United States Army and foreign agents posing as white traders. (In his first outing, Jungle Jim had opposed greedy opportunist George Reeves, himself on the cusp of the role of his lifetime as TV's Superman.)

The direction of Pygmy Island was entrusted to William Berke, who had overseen the series beginning with Jungle Jim. Berke got his start in the film business as an office boy before graduating to supporting roles as an actor in western shorts for Vitagraph as William Lester. He eventually graduated to writing screenplays, mostly oaters, for Universal (during which time he worked often with rising talent William Wyler) before forming his own production company in 1933. In the course of a very busy twenty-five year career as a director-for-hire (during which time he signed his work alternatively as William Hall and Lester Williams), Berke turned his hand to a number of film series and focused on such disparate folk heroes as Dick Tracy and Flash the Wonder Dog. Berke would stay with the Jungle Jim series through six installments, ceding the canvas chair to Lew Landers for Jungle Manhunt (1951) and continuing to helm both television (The Goldbergs, The Gene Autry Show, Annie Oakley) and the occasional second feature, many of them (FBI Girl [1951], Cop Hater [1958], The Mugger [1958]) crime films.

Producer Sam Katzman and director Berke clustered around their star player a winning supporting cast for Pygmy Island, boasting an assortment of familiar faces. Though she is squarely on the side of the angels (and Uncle Sam) in Pygmy Island, leading lady Ann Savage would in later years attain the status of pop culture icon for having played the bipolar femme fatale of Edgar G. Ulmer's pinchpenny film noir classic Detour (1945). Third-billed David Bruce would experience his own form of cinematic immortality (though posthumously), celebrated by younger generations of classic monster fans as Universal's The Mad Ghoul (1943). On hand throughout Pygmy Island in smaller roles - both figuratively and literally - are Tristram Coffin (bullet-headed hero of Republic's King of the Rocket Men, 1949) and midget actors Billy Curtis (The Terror of Tiny Town [1938], Hitchcock's Saboteur [1942]), Billy Barty (Bride of Frankenstein [1935], The Day of the Locust [1975], and Angelo Rossitto (Freaks [1932], Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome [1985]) as the eponymous aboriginals.

Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: William Berke
Writer: Carroll Young
Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan
Editor: Jerome Thoms
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller (Jungle Jim Bradley), Ann Savage (Cpt. Ann R. Kingsley), David Bruce (Maj. Bolton), Steven Geray (Leon Marko), William Tannen (Kruger), Tristram Coffin (Novak), Billy Curtis (Makuba), Billy Barty (Kimba), Angelo Rossitto (Pygmy in Cave), Tommy Farrell (Captain), Selmer Jackson (Pentagon Officer), John George (Pygmy in Rescue Party).

by Richard Harland Smith

Tarzan, My Father by Johnny Weissmuller, Jr., with William Reed and W. Craig Reed (ECW Press, 2008)
Alex Raymond: His Life and Art by Tom Roberts, with Alex Raymond (Adventure House, 2008)

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