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Thursday, November 5, 2020

Ball of Fire in the Jungle - Law of the Jungle (1942)

Did anyone notice that a year after its release, Howard Hawk’s BALL OF FIRE (1941) was remade as a low budget jungle adventure?

In LAW OF THE JUNGLE (1942) singer Nora Jones (Arline Judge) is stuck in a small African town without a passport, singing for her keep at the local watering hole run by the shifty Simmons (Arthur O’Connell). When Nazi agents kill a British agent there, Nora hotfoots it into the jungle rather than stick around to get pinned for the murder. Fortunately she stumbles into palaeontologist Larry Mason (John King) and his assistant, Jefferson Jones (Mantan Moreland). Mason, being the stereotypical scientist, just wants to get rid of her so he can get back to his digging undisturbed. But Nora’s in a pickle and will have none of that and so tries to warm Larry up with her feminine charm.

                                                     Arline Judge, John King & Arthur O'Connell

Unknown to Nora, she’s carrying important papers from the British agent that will blow the cover of her boss, Simmons, and his Nazi colleagues. Before you can say ‘Auchtung!’ our heroes are running for their lives, pursued by the Nazi’s and eventually captured by hostile tribesmen. Salvation comes in the form of the Oxford educated Chief Mojobo played by Laurence Criner, who you saw playing briefly opposite Fay Wray in Black Moon (1943) and in King of the Zombies (1942). Criner turns out to be a Lodge Brother of Jefferson’s with no love of nasty ‘foreign agents’, so, unsurprisingly, everything works out on the end. Nora even thaws out Larry and snags her man!

                                                                         Digging for fossils

Plotwise, the only notable thing about the production is how closely the Nora and Larry interactions mirror those of firebrand Barbara Stanwyck to Gary Cooper’s bookish professor in the screwball classic Ball of Fire. Arline Judge was a hard working B actress in the 30’s and 40’s, while John King is noted for playing the singing cowboy, Dusty, in the long running Monogram Range Buster series. King is a handsome stand in for Cooper, and dark-haired Judge looks and sounds a lot like Stanwyck. I’ll bet good money that director Jean Yarbrough noticed the similarities and directed Judge to delivery her lines as if she was Stanwyck in Ball of Fire. I’d go further and suggest that Judge and King were even hired for their resemblances to Stanwyck and Cooper. Or maybe Yarbrough just thought up an interesting way to put a fun spin on an otherwise pedestrian film.

                                                              The great Mantan Moreland

The real star of the film is, of course, Mantan Moreland. The brilliant comedian featured in dozens of Monogram films in the 30’s and 40’s, usually taking at least second billing and stealing every scene that he appeared in. Moreland perfected the pop-eyed, scared of his own shadow routine that was often the only part available to black actors in films of that era. But, Mantan made that part his own and, for all of his supposed cowardice, he more often than not ended up saving the day. You laugh with him, never at him. And given the predicaments that he usually finds himself in – chasing or being chased by murders and other sundry criminals – I can’t but help agree with him that those situations are best stayed out of!

                                                                        Arthur O'Connell

The other notable appearance is by Arthur O’Connell. His role as the treacherous Simmons was a rare occurrence for him in a Poverty Row B picture. He had a number of small-to-large roles in classic films such as Citizen Kane (1941), The Naked City (1942) and Force of Evil (1948) before earning Oscar nominations by recreating his Broadway role in Picnic (1956) and for playing Jimmy Stewart’s drunken mentor in Anatomy of a Murder (1956). Readers of a certain age will best remember him playing the pharmacist in a long running series of Crest toothpaste commercials in the 1970’s.

Finally, film aficionados will know prolific director Jean Yarbrough for his work with Abbott and Costello, and directing cult classics such as The Devil Bat (1941) with Bela Lugosi, and the last (and least) of the classic Universal monster films, such as She-Wolf of London (1946; the last of the Wolfman-related films) and the iconic Rondo Hatton in The Brute Man (1946).

Is Law of The Jungle Worth My Time? The presence of Mantan Moreland and the thin Ball of Fire connection will make this of interest to film buffs; otherwise I’m sure that there are hundreds of better films to spend your time with. Also to be avoided if you cringe at the stereotypical depiction of African natives.

Availability: Only on YouTube as far as I can tell.