Thursday, December 20, 2018
The 12 Days of Mantan Moreland: Law of the Jungle (1942)
American singer Nona is stuck in an African nightclub ever since her passport went missing. Her devious employer Simmons has secretly been holding onto her new passport to keep his prize performer from leaving, and even convinces the almost sympathetic visiting paleontologist Larry that she's a con artist (Just a shame then that while she doesn't sound convincing in the least, she happens to be telling the truth). Despite his best effort though, he's unable to stop the woman from running out after witnessing a murder carried out by two foreign agents. Not realizing top secret papers were hidden on her persons in the commotion, Nona runs deep into the jungle, where she stumbles upon Larry and Jeff's expedition. While coming to a mostly frosty reception at first, Nona and Larry start to get friendlier, and he's keen to protect her when various dangers start threatening them all...
Law of the Jungle isn't that interesting a picture. I had high hopes, but they were relatively quickly dashed. The story isn't terribly interesting, taking forever to kick into gear. It's about 40 minutes into an hour long movie when the villains finally cross paths with the leads. From then on things just sort of amble about, before reaching an amusing yet unsatisfactory conclusion.
'Professor' Larry is a condescending dick, who's tolerant enough to treat Jeff as an equal (albeit a clear underling), but not enough to grant that same status to the 'uncivilized' natives, despite one early scene giving me hope, where he actually decides to listen to the natives' insistence that he bury the dead he's studying for fear of bad luck. He's pretty sexist early on, too, having this to say-"There's no place for a woman in my scheme of things. In fact, you'd be nothing but a nuisance.". Blech! He's mixed as the hero, getting some good moments in, but also some screw-ups.
Nona isn't very likeable to start with, but is ok enough overall. She gets one odd scene where she's coming onto Larry (and not very subtly if I may say so myself!), and tries getting him in the mood by telling him to picture her as one of the skeletons he digs up. Errrrrrrr... Anyway, she gradually improves, but she never really contributes to the plot, and the romance between her and Larry is hilariously sudden.
Jeff is a largely amusing character. Some of the lines he get can be a bit weird, but for the most part he's entertaining. I kinda wish the movie had ditched the whole nazi plotline, and romance twaddle and just stuck with an Africa Screams style Moreland vehicle.
Some months ago I saw Safari adventure film The Savage Girl, and found the African-American character present in the land of his ancestors to be an interesting and unique addition to such a movie. With that in mind, I was looking forward to that element here, and I was at least partially not disappointed. It's perhaps more prominent here than in that movie, but still not given that much focus.
As it is, Law of the Jungle has a few politically incorrect lines, and its characters can be demeaning at times (whether intentionally or unintentionally is anyone's guess), but it's not racist. It even states at various points that the native Africans aren't stupid, and certainly not cannibals like Jeff erroneously thinks. Even so, this doesn't mean the movie is exactly progressive.
The acting is ok, but mediocre, hampered by the uncharismatic leads, while the villains are boring. The actor playing Simmons is Patric Macnee lookalike Arthur O'Connell, and he does an ok job (particularly with the British accent), but the movie doesn't do much with him. Laurence Criner suffers the same fate, which sucks as I really enjoyed him! He's got a great screen presence, and his part of the film is when I was enjoying myself more. His fake UK accent is a bit weird, but unintentionally sounds a bit Caribbean, which is somewhat fortuitous. On a sidenote, at first I thought the movie was being racist by casting a white guy as the tribal chief, but nope, Criner is just lighter skinned. He's still black. It's appreciated seeing a tribal native in a film like this who actually speaks English instead of a cringey 'bongo bongo' fake language. He totally saves the day, too! I remind you that there was only like 5 minutes left of the movie at this point, and the majority is the chief and Jeff being chummy and playing dice, with the villains being apprehended with a simple command of "Get them".
While he's not the lead, Mantan Moreland gets plenty to say and do, and steals the show on numerous occasions, definitely getting the best/funniest lines in the movies. Jeff: "It ain't just the drums that worrying them and got 'em scared. It's them bones that you're fiddlin' with."-Larry: "Nonsense."-Jeff: "Well that's one way to put it, but them boys figure that them bones were walkin' around here once, and the folks that was wearin' them don't like what you're doing to 'em no-how!".
Jeff: "Oh Mr. Larry, you ain't intimating that I've been elected to be no gravedigger, is you?"-Larry: "I certainly am. Somebody's gotta bury 'em."-Jeff: "Why me? I'll be in one of them holes soon enough without staging no preview!".
"Anything what once was and ain't no more can't hurt nobody!".
"Jeepers, ain't this a sitchyation! Cannibals on the right of me, cannibals on the left of me, and me...with no life insurance.". There are all of those and more, such as his amusing line about a Harlem stew.
There's one musical number courtesy of Arline Judge. At first her voice had me realizing why she was still stuck in Africa, but I dunno. Maybe it's just an unconventionally deep singing voice? I'll give her the benefit of the doubt.
The effects are passable, helped greatly by the black-and-white nature of the film. The sets wouldn't be much to look at in colour, but here they're not terribly egregious. The gorilla costume though...It seems like the same one used in all of these African adventure movies (and even horror stuff like The Ape Man) Worse is that the inclusion of it feels pointless, since the beast only shows up for one short scene. You better believe I was disappointed with the DVD cover, which promised Doctor Doolitle/Pygmaelion style hijinks with Mantan and a comedy gorilla!
Law of the Jungle is a pretty mediocre movie, and at times it seems like it isn't even trying. Despite this, Mantan Moreland is funny to watch as ever, and the film is hardly long, with enough tolerable moments to keep you watching until the end without switching off...