Olive Films and Paramount have released on Blu-ray PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO, the 12-chapter serial from Republic Pictures released in 1954, produced and directed by Franklin Adreon, written by Ronald Davidson, and starring Phyllis Coates, Myron Healey, Arthur Space, John Daheim, Mike Ragan, Morris Buchanan, Roy Glenn, Archie Savage, Ramsay Hill, and James Logan. The next-to-last chapter play ever produced by the studio most associated with the serial form, PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO is not much more than a reworked (or worked over) version of the earlier 1941 Republic serial, JUNGLE GIRL, with a sci-fi angle thrown in—perhaps as a last ditch effort to keep the dying format viable with dwindling Saturday matinee kiddie audiences. Fans of the format won’t complain too much, though. No extras, but Olive’s 1.37:1 Academy ratio black and white transfer (uploaded to an anamorphic platform) looks a treat.
The Utanga District, in Western Africa. Wildlife photographer Jean Evans (Phyllis Coates, GIRLS IN PRISON, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN), working for “the international foundation,” is shocked to discover a new species in the bush: tank-sized crawfish (yep). Unable to get adequate movie footage of the terrifying creature (it ate her camera), Jean sends for her friend, white hunter Larry Sanders (Myron Healey, CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN), a move that briefly settles the nervous natives who believe Sanders’ magic is more potent than Jean’s. Jean, known to the Untanga as “Panther Girl” when she saved some villagers from a marauding cat, is on thin ice: if she can’t solve the mystery of the giant crawfish by killing a few, and thereby breaking the bad juju, she’ll most likely be asked to politely leave the village by Chief Danka (Roy Glenn, TARZAN’S FIGHT FOR LIFE, ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES), and there goes her photography gig. Little does she know that that’s exactly what cold, evil scientist Dr. Morgan (Arthur Space, ABBOTT & COSTELLO IN HOLLYWOOD, CANADIAN MOUNTIES VS. ATOMIC INVADERS) wants: everyone out of the Utanga District. Why? Because that played out gold mine everyone has forgotten about has something far more valuable in it now: diamonds, and the good doctor doesn’t care how many gigantic lobsters he has to grow, if it gives him and his henchman Cass and Rand (John Daheim, ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE AMAZING COLLOSAL MAN, and Mike Ragan, EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?) enough breathing room to snatch that ice.
Growing up in that period after serials were long gone from screens and before they became available again on videotape, my only childhood experiences with them (the best time to watch them) were FLASH GORDON repeats on Channel 50 out of Detroit, and the occasional TV rerun of features that were assembled from edited-down serials, such as 1966’s THE CLAW MONSTERS, the 100-minute edit of PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO (which I believe Sir Graves Ghastly used to show). Having seen quite a few serials now (while certainly claiming no expertise), it’s clear that PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO is no shining example of the format...but it ain’t so bad, either. Economics, changing audiences, and the rise of television contributed to the death of big-screen chapter plays, but don’t forget to include an overall tiring of the format, too, long before PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO’s debut. The narrative and stylistic formulas, eventually degraded and made clichéd through excessive repetition—goofball cliffhangers, endless fistfights, missed pistol and rifle shots from five feet away, heroines who faint on cue, spectacular explosions that kill no one, cardboard sets, threadbare scripting—were beaten into the ground by the time of this next-to-last Republic serial. And so, PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO had very few new things to offer an already severely dwindled audience share (as an example of the format’s death spiral economics by the early 1950s, even with all the cost saving footage lifts from the earlier JUNGLE GIRL serial, PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO cost just as much produce as the 1941 outing...and with a far smaller potential pool of ticket buyers).
It’s easy to dismiss entirely something like PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO, particularly today when irony, self-righteousness, and outright scorn have supplanted many critics’ ability to simply just enjoy a movie for what it is, and within its historical context (the most vivid example of that being GONE WITH THE WIND, which for many decades was considered one of, it not the, greatest achievement in American moviemaking...and which is now, outrageously, viewed as something akin to a national embarrassment). Taken at face value—a very late example of a tired, played out formula—PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO didn’t thrill me like FLASH GORDON used to do, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say the time passed pleasantly enough while it played. My youngest daughter laughed through a few chapters (the format lends itself to their “binge” habit), and jumped during one of the “big claw” scares, a reaction from an already technologically-jaded youngster that would seem to indicate some residual entertainment value to PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO.
My biggest complaint with PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO wasn’t lack of action, but rather the sameness of it. The somewhat lackluster fistfights all looked alike, and the A-B-C shootouts were covered with the same 45 degree angles, and with the same missed ricochets from ten paces out. PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO is busy enough...but bland. The acting is equally proficient but languid, even staid; an old pro villain like Healey might have been able to give his lead character a bit of Dan Duryea's enigmatic anti-heroism, but nobody involved either wanted or had the time to be that ambitious (Space is usually a welcome familiar face, but frankly he’s a drag as the brains-heavy). I just wish the moviemakers could have had more fun with it (when Jean’s given the amusing line, “Well...it sounds ridiculous, but it looks like a giant, overgrown crawfish,” that’s the beginning and end of self-awareness here). Technically everything is competent, but nothing exceeds “routine.”
PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO’s storyline makes no sense whatsoever. She’s working for the U.N. or something, making wildlife films? Who knew it was that hard to get a reel of film out of Africa. But she’s also a female Tarzan, swinging on vines? How’d that happen? The brains-heavy is worried about diamonds, when he capable of giving a moonshine jug of hormones to a tiny crawfish and grow a behemoth the size of city bus (why not just invent the Red Lobster restaurant chain and retire a multi-millionaire)? So with the story out, it’s just a matter of enjoyably picking out PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO’s goofs and flubs, as well as the isolated bright spots. There’s one standout shot of Coates, tied to a tree and screaming her lungs out, as a gorilla suit moves in on her—a shot worthy of the best men’s magazine covers of the day (she’s sexy as hell in another scene, panting like mad when her skintight Robin Hood playsuit gets soaking wet—va-va-va-voom—darkening her slicked-back hair. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie finds her looking disappointingly older than her thirty years, with those nasty gray-at-the-temples highlights in her sensible wave and set). The movie’s best “intentional” flub is that seriously out-of-proportion claw that comes out of that relatively small holding box (it looks great, but apparently there was no money for a variety of sized claws), while the best one-take mistake comes during an arrow attack, when Coates takes a shaft boink right to the forehead (like a scared pro, she just keeps her head down till they called cut). Briskly put over, PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO isn’t the best serial you’ll ever see (by a long shot), but with moments like that, it’s not the worst, either.
The Academy ratio 1.37:1 1080p HD black and white transfer of PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO looked pretty good, considering the relative obscurity of the title. The grayscale is a little washed out, but other than some iffy contrast values at times, the image is sharp and clean, with minimal damage and speckling. Grain is reasonably tight. The DTS-HD Master audio English mono track has a healthy re-recording level, with clean dialogue and just a hint of hiss. English subtitles are optional. No extras, unfortunately. (Paul Mavis)
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