The 1941 cliffhanger serial Jungle Girl is one of the best serials ever made.
It's got everything. Evil identical twins? Check. Booby-Trap filled Diamond Mines? Check. An evil Witch Doctor? Check. Human Sacrifice? Check. Guy in a Gorilla costume? Check. A pretty Heroine who swings around on vines? You betcha.
This was my first serial. Sort of.
I had heard the term cliffhanger before. Read that they inspired Star Wars and Indiana Jones. But I had no idea what they were. Reading a Flash Gordon comic by Al Williamson, I read that one of his greatest influences was something called "Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe." I decided to look it up on Youtube. Turns out it wasn't a movie, but an early example of a mini series. It didn't hold my interest. I was new to the whole retro thing.
But something called "Jungle Girl" appeared on my "Recommended for you." I decided to check it out.
Youtube only had chapters 1, 9, and 10. ("Chapter" is cliffhanger speak for "Episode")
The ending of chapter 9 had me hooked. Our three daring heroes were trapped in a tiny chamber by the evil witch doctor, who had pulled a secret lever, and now the floor was disappearing into the wall, and a gaping pit was opening under the feet of our imperiled protagonists...
Chapter 10 ended with our heroine, Nyoka, caught snooping around the bad guy's hideout. She's left tied to a pole, just as the guy-in-the-gorilla-costume escapes from his cage. He is coming towards her, intent on tearing the flesh from her bones (That's what guys in gorilla costumes do. Everybody knows that).
And then it just cut off! Not only was I thrown into the middle, but I had no idea what would happen next! As I was pretty green when it came to serials, I didn't know everything would turn out okay.
I became pretty obsessed by serials after that. I watched every one I could find. I don't know if that would have happened if Jungle Girl hadn't left me cliffhung.
Eventually I tracked down Jungle Girl on DVD. Sort of. My copy was defective. The first 10 chapters played fine. 11 through 15 were missing. I went through 3 DVDs before I found out how Nyoka escaped from the guy in the gorilla suit!
It was worth all the effort and frustration in the end. Jungle Girl is one of the best serials out there. Really solid story telling you won't find in other serials.
For example, in an early chapter, Nyoka, Jack, and Curly are trapped in an oil swamp. The natives are chasing them and throwing flame tipped spears. The oil catches fire and our gang is cut off from the shore. How will they ever escape? Find out at this theater next week!
Later on, the bad guys sweet talk the natives into stealing the fuel for the heroes airplane so they can't leave the valley. Our heroes catch the natives in the act, and pursue. They have a showdown at the cliffs, and in the fight, the cans of fuel catch fire and explode! Avalanche!
So our heroes decide to refine the oil from the swamp, and build a refinery using bamboo and coconuts. After a showdown in the refinery, Nyoka is in peril again, as she hangs above a vat of the boiling oil...
That one plot thread effectively keeps Nyoka and the Gang from leaving the valley, and leads to at least 3 chapter endings. It's rare that you see that much foresight and planning in a serial!
People who complain about a lack of good action roles for women in Golden Age Hollywood really should watch some of these old cliffhangers. Yes, by technical definition Nyoka is a "Damsel in Distress." But more often than not, she's the one leading the action. And in a good serial every main character spends some time in peril. Jack is also a "damsel" in several chapters. Even comic relief Curly spends some time in jeopardy. And Kimbu-the-Annoying-Jungle-Kid is a total damsel in distress.
Use of a child actor is one of the weak points of this serial. The other weakness is the way Shamba the Witch Doctor is forgotten towards the end of the serial.
Every chapter ending involving the Diamond Temple is terrific. The first chapter has a flooding tunnel that is visually mirrored in 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom'. There is a big sacrificial alter it the shape of a lion's head. The victim is strapped down to the lion's moving jaw and then lifted up to the roaring flames. There's a big bamboo-and-coconut conveyor belt that leads to a big rock crusher that the natives use to mine the diamonds.
I get a kick out of the way, if our heroes need to sneak into the back entrance of the mines, they lower a vine from the cliff-top and climb down to a secret tunnel. They toss the same vine down several times over the course of the Chapter-play. What I want to know is, who's the Joker who keeps putting the vine back where it was?
Overall, this is a great serial. Likable, if sometimes a bit wooden, characters. Great chapter endings. A story that holds together really well.
If you like Indiana Jones, Tarzan, or King Solomon's Mines, give this a watch. It should be right up your alley.