Sunday, January 29, 2023

Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955)

Panther Girl of the Kongo was the second last serial made by Republic Pictures. Republic always made terrific serials so it will be interesting to see how this late entry stacks up.

It’s a jungle girl adventure so that’s a good start. And it features giant bugs. Not what you expect in a Republic jungle adventure serial but this was 1955 and giant bugs were all the rage.

Jean Evans is a photographer in the jungles of the Congo. She is known as the Panther Girl, after an encounter with a killer panther. She swings from tree to tree and rides an elephant but oddly enough we don’t really get an explanation as to how she became a jungle girl. And she certainly doesn’t seem like a woman brought up in the jungle.

This was 1955 and audiences were getting a bit sensitive about hunting so Jean does all her shooting with a camera.

She gets some film footage of something very strange - a crawfish wandering about the jungle. A very very large crawfish. It’s the size of a lion.

Jean enlists the help of Larry, a formidable hunter and an old Africa hand.

As well as giant bugs there is of course a guy in a gorilla suit.

Those giant bugs are not a product of nature but why would anyone want to create gigantic crawfish in the middle of Africa? It turns out that the bugs are part of a plan to frighten off the natives. A mad scientist named Morgan has discovered diamonds but he can’t mine them unless he can persuade the local tribe, the Utangas, to leave the area.

The scientist has two goons working for him, Cass and Rand. The claw monsters should frighten off the Utangas but Cass and Rand now have the job of frightening off Jean and Larry. That will require a different approach. Morgan doesn’t want Jean and Larry killed but if that proves to be necessary it doesn’t worry him too much.

Most episodes are taken up by various attempts by Rand and Cass to get Jean and Larry out of the way. Jean and Larry slowly (very slowly) piece the puzzle together and discover what Morgan is up to.

If you compare Panther Girl of the Kongo to an earlier top-notch Republic jungle girl serial like Jungle Girl or Perils of Nyoko it’s obvious that there’s been a bit of a decline in quality. Of course many of those earlier serials were directed by William Witney, the master of the serial format. Panther Girl of the Kongo doesn’t have the superb cliffhangers that Witney always provided. The cliffhangers here are quite OK but they just lack Witney’s flair.

The plot also tends to keep covering the same ground. Cass and Rand keep trying to ambush Jean and Larry and they keep failing.

Serials are often accused of repetitiveness. That’s a valid criticism of some of the lesser serials although it’s much less of a problem in the really good serials. Panther Girl of the Kongo is not in the top rank and you do sometimes get the feeling that the action scenes are falling into an overly familiar pattern. They’re very well-staged, but a bit more variety would have helped. A major problem with these very late examples of the form is that budgets were very very tight indeed and it’s not easy to come up with lots of varied and exciting action scenes when you have no money to work with.

Director Franklin Adreon does a competent job within the budgetary constraints he had to cope with.

Morgan is a reasonable villain. He’s motivated more by straightforward greed rather than the more grandiose things that usually appeal to mad scientists (like world domination). He probably needed to be a bit more overtly villainous.

One amusing feature is that there’s not a single person in the story who can actually shoot. The good guys and the bad guys fire hundreds if no thousands of rounds at one another with remarkably disappointing results. You expect the bad guys to be poor shots (the bad guys have to be lousy shots in these kinds of stories but Larry is a top big game hunter and Jean is a jungle girl who has spent her life in the wilds so it’s a bit surprising that they’re lousy shots as well.

Phyllis Coates as Jean makes a reasonably acceptable heroine. Myron Healey as Larry is OK as a fairly stock-standard hero.

There was a strict dress code for jungle girls. Their skirts had to be very short. Jean wears some very very short skirts. When she’s in her hut she looks like a typical 1950s American housewife but as soon as he heads for the jungle she dons her sexy jungle girl outfit.

In my personal view the way to enjoy a serial is to watch no more than one episode per day. If you fall for the temptation to binge-watch then they can seem to be repetitive. In the case of Panther Girl of the Kongo it’s probably even better to space out your viewing a bit more - maybe one episode every couple of days.

If you’re new to the world of movie serials then Panther Girl of the Kongo is not a great place to start. It’s not too bad but there are much much better serials to start with - Jungle Girl (1941) and Perils of Nyoka (1942) are superb jungle girl serials. Spy Smasher (1942) is perhaps the best serial ever made. Daredevils of the Red Circle (1939) is almost as good. Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) is very very good also.

Panther Girl of the Kongo is worth seeing if you’re already a hardcore serial fan.

Olive Films released this one on Blu-Ray and it looks terrific.

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