Serials are a wonderful phenomenon unto themselves. They aren't self-contained units like movies or TV show episodes. They're something that we watch in a different way entirely, with each open-ended chapter gradually adding up to a cumulative whole.
And since the usually rather uncomplicated overall story must be sustained throughout these multiple chapters, it must necessarily be rambling, padded, stretched-out, repetitive, and filled with dead ends and shaggy-dog subplots. (This is why so many serials have so easily been edited down into regular-length feature films.)
Because of this, serials seem to take place in their own unique, utterly unreal universe where actions are rash, dialogue is corny, the laws of physics don't apply, and logic as we know it simply doesn't exist.
Regarding the serial-like Saturday morning TV series "Jason of Star Command" I once said: "There's nothing like a show that's both stupid and cool at the same time to bring out the kid in me." This is, to me, a perfect summation of the appeal of the serial. Since it's resolutely unlike anything else, it offers a whole different appeal and a refreshingly naive and uncomplicated kind of fun that's simply indescribable.
Which brings us to PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO (1954), the latest classic serial to be released on Blu-ray and DVD by Olive Films. The penultimate chapter play from Republic Pictures, who gave us THE ADVENTURES OF CAPTAIN MARVEL, it came near the end of the glorious serial era but still serves as a fun and exciting example of it.
The lovely and talented Phyllis Coates, who first played Lois Lane opposite George Reeves in the TV series "The Adventures of Superman", stars as Jean Evans, known as "The Panther Girl" by the local natives due to an earlier incident which has become legend. Jean's profession as a fearless wildlife photographer makes her a bit of a female Carl Denham, who once boasted that he would've gotten "a swell shot of a charging rhino" if his assistant hadn't run away with the camera.
To this end, Morgan has created a growth formula to turn crawdads--yes, crawdads!--into giant lobsters known as "claw monsters" which Cass and Rand then herd toward the village to wreak fear and havoc. (And, potentially, one hell of a seafood dinner.)
The whole thing's too much for even the intrepid Jean to handle by herself, so she calls upon the aid of her pal, big-game hunter Larry Sanders (Myron Healey, THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST, THE UNEARTHLY, RIO BRAVO) to come join in the hunt for the claw monsters and to help deal with Cass and Rand, who make quite a nuisance of themselves at the behest of Dr. Morgan.
Thus, we have the groundwork for 12 entire chapters filled with furious fistfights, blazing shootouts, jungle perils, and an ample serving of giant lobsters. Sanders handles the frequent fisticuffs, with Jean usually falling and conveniently getting knocked out at the onset of each fight. The shootouts are a different matter, as Jean wields a rifle or a pistol with equal skill.
Each chapter ends, of course, with a cliffhanger, with Healey's character being the subject of a surprising number of them. Most aren't all that imaginative, involving falling trees, exploding dynamite, quicksand, etc. but some end on a more exciting note with Jean being menaced by a giant lobster claw or an advancing gorilla-suit suitor.
Phyllis Coates, who somehow looked appealingly MILF-y even in her 20s, makes for a fetching heroine when Healey isn't hogging the action limelight himself. Many viewers used to seeing her in the prim 50s fashions Lois Lane wore in "Superman" will delight at the sight of Phyllis running around in her jungle miniskirt and boots for 12 chapters. (She also sports a robust, chest-heaving scream that rivals that of the great Fay Wray herself.)
While much of the action consists of stock footage from the 1941 Frances Gifford serial JUNGLE GIRL, Phyllis gets ample opportunity to show off her character's derring-do when the usually self-reliant Sanders stumbles into a few sticky situations that require rescue by the Panther Girl.
In one scene she executes a thrilling high dive off a cliff to save the drowning hunter. In another, she does a backflip off a swinging vine just in time to wrestle a crocodile that's about to eat him.
Since this is a budget-conscious jungle adventure, the Republic backlot is pressed into service to stand in for darkest Africa, along with a standing town set, a simple native village, and a limited number of interior sets including the doctor's lab, the diamond mine, a saloon, and Jean's rustic jungle bungalow.
Special effects by the ubiquitous Howard and Theodore Lydecker (COMMANDO CODY: SKY MARSHAL OF THE UNIVERSE, JOHNNY GUITAR) include some cool rear-projection shots of those wonderfully hokey-looking claw monsters with Jean and Sanders blasting away at them in the foreground.
The DVD from Olive Films has an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 with mono sound and optional English subtitles. No extras. The transfer is from a near-pristine print with beautiful black and white photography that's just a joy to look at. (Note to subtitle writers: in 1954 it was "Miss", not "Ms.")
PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO probably wouldn't rank among the best serials of all time, but darn if it isn't one of the most downright fun and enjoyable ones that I've seen. There's just something about these things--stupid, yes, but totally cool--that I find utterly irresistible.
Buy it at Olive Films
Release date: Feb. 21, 2017