KING OF THE JUNGLE (Paramount, 1933), directed by H. Bruce Humberstone, from Charles T. Stoneham's novel, "The Lion's Way," is an adventure story that capitalizes on the current success of TARZAN, THE APE MAN (MGM, 1932), that starred Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller. While it's quite evident for rival studios to come up with imitations of their own, this appears to have been the only one made during the height of all those "Tarzan" adventures and the long series of popular sequels and carbon copies. Paramount acquired its own Olympic swimming champion in the physique of Larry "Buster" Crabbe, much taller and broader shoulders than Weissmuller, in a Tarzan-like imitation as Kaspa, the Lion Man, but unlike "Tarzan," this one didn't develop into a "Kaspa" series in spite of it's somewhat left open conclusion.
The story opens in the jungles of Africa where coming down a hill is a little boy (Ronnie Cosbey) in safari clothes roaming about by himself. He encounters little lion cubs, starts playing with them until the mother lion approaches. She carries the boy away, but eventually allows the youngster to continue to play with her cubs. This epilogue fades some twenty years showing the development of this little straight haired blond boy into a grown-up curly darker-haired jungle man sporting a leopard skin loincloth, roaming about the jungle helping his lion friends. Enter the white hunters who encounter this half-naked native who only communicates in grunts and groans. He's captured and caged up labeled as "what is it?" in a cargo ship bound for America along with the lions, where he is to be sold off as a circus attraction. However, close to port, Kaspa escapes his captivity, swims towards the city where he is soon noticed by spinster passersby taking a stroll through the park one day. They notify the police that they have spotted a naked man in the area. Pursued by the police, Kaspa enters into an open window to the apartment of Anne Rogers (Frances Dee), a schoolteacher, and her roommate, Sue (Nydia Westman). After offering him some food and seeing he could be tamed, especially since he's captivated by her beauty, Anne, after encountering Kaspa's captures, agrees to assume her new position in educating and civilizing the jungle man while becoming part of a lion act at the circus. In spite of his fame and fortune, Kaspa finds he's not happy with his new life and wants to return to Africa, taking the lions with him, but is faced with certain situations holding him back.
In watching KING OF THE JUNGLE, one cannot help but compare this to the Edgar Rice Burroughs character. Unlike the "Tarzan" adventures, KING OF THE JUNGLE takes a different turn in not being set entirely in the jungle. It does consist of some wildlife scenes in the beginning, but nothing memorable nor climatic as those frequent crocodiles fights or native uprising in the Tarzan tradition. During its second half which finds Kaspa in civilization, he is taught to read, write and speak in an articulate manner by his teacher girlfriend (not like the MGM series where Tarzan speaks only in mono syllables), as well as abandon his jungle attire while off duty from the circus to go seen fully clothed, predating Weissmuller's trip to the Big Apple by nine years in TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE (1942) which has Tarzan in Stone Jungle wearing fashionable suits. However, much of the true action in KING OF THE JUNGLE takes place in the circus portion highlighted by a fire blaze where Kaspa risks his life to save his caged animal friends, especially the lions.
Although a good story, there's really no explanation to Kaspa's origins, who his people are, and why and how he, as a little boy of 3, ended up in the jungle of cubs in the first place. Could it be that there was an airplane crash, for instance, by which the youngster became the lone survivor? How did he acquire the name of Kaspa? Did scenes such as the aforementioned wind up on the cutting room floor before its theatrical release?
Aside from Frances Dee as Kaspa's newfound mate, Sidney Toler as the circus owner, Irving Pichel and Douglass Dumbrille add fine support, along with Warner Richmond Barrat as the drunken circus worker responsible for the fire, and Patricia Farley as a circus employee/ flirt who has her her eyes on Kaspa, only to be told by the educated jungle man in his new English vocabulary to "Scram!" as she tries to get his attention.
In the mid 1970s, aside from seeing this movie occasionally on commercial TV, I recall watching "Buster" Crabbe as guest on the long running "Joe Franklin Show," based in New York City on WOR, Channel 9, where he recalled KING OF THE JUNGLE to be the only "A" movie he ever made. Although Crabbe did lose out in playing Tarzan to Weissmuller a year before, he did enact the part in an independent chaptered serial and re-edited feature of TARZAN THE FEARLESS (1933). Much to the delight of Weissmuller fans, Crabbe never played the legendary jungle hero again. Two Tarzans, too many. However, Crabbe did leave a mark in cinema history playing "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers" for Universal's weekly serial department.
Out of circulation since it's frequent showings on American Movie Classics in 1989, KING OF THE JUNGLE, which runs at 70 minutes, is currently available on video by logging onto TVIDEO.com (***)
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