The Bootleg Files: King of the Jungle

BOOTLEG FILES 815: “King of the Jungle” (1933 adventure film starring Buster Crabbe).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.


In 1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer scored a commercial hit by casting former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller in the title role of “Tarzan the Ape Man.” Paramount Pictures thought it could replicate the rival studio’s success, but rather than acquire the rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan character it opted to make a quasi-Tarzan film based on Charles Turley Stoneham’s “The Lion’s Way” – in which a Tarzan-type character was raised in the African jungle by lions rather than apes.

Since Weissmuller was under contract at MGM, Paramount found its own Olympic swimmer – Buster Crabbe, who did some uncredited bit parts in a few films but never headlined in a production. The resulting 1933 film “King of the Jungle” is nowhere near as artistic as “Tarzan the Ape Man,” but it is an entertaining little distraction.

The film opens in colonial Kenya, where the parents of three-year-old Kaspa (played by Ronnie Cosby) takes him into the wild for a photographic expedition. The parents are killed by the wild beasts – the trashed remains of their camp offer a mute record of their demise – but the child somehow survives and is seen wandering about with a large knife, eating berries from a bush and climbing rocks. Ronnie finds a den with lion cubs, but the lioness-mother doesn’t kill him – instead, she carries him into the den and positions him as being an orphaned cub in need of a surrogate family.

Fast forward and the child has matured into Buster Crabbe – a clean-shaven muscular man wearing a leopard-skin loincloth. The limited English he knew as a child vanished over time and in adulthood he communicates with the lions through a series of roars and growls.

This leonine paradise is interrupted by white American hunters guided by native Kenyans (whose accents seem closer to Biloxi than Kilimanjaro). The Kenyans are aware of a white Lion Man running around in the wild, but the Americans are not impressed – until poor Buster is caught with the lions in a trap. The Americans are working on behalf of a circus and they decided to imprison Kaspa and bring along with the lions for a new life under the big top.

All goes well on the voyage to America, with Buster being caged with the lions, but once they are in New York Harbor he escapes and dives off the ship and swims through the Hudson River to the shore. The police chase him through Central Park and he somehow winds up in the house of a teacher (the lovely Frances Dee) who gains his trust and curiosity with a baked potato, a glass of water and a piano. Buster is captured, but the circus owner invites the teacher to join the circus and tutor Kaspa into becoming civilized.

The remainder of “King of the Jungle” is mostly focused on Kaspa becoming a modern guy – the buff physique is covered with decent clothing, his hair is neatly trimmed, he speaks English without flaw, and yet he can still roar and growl at the lions while ensuring they are not abused by the circus owners or the boorish people who come to gawk at them. There is a big fiery climax that is genuinely exciting, with kudos to co-directors H. Bruce Cumberstone and Max Marcin for orchestrating a stunning sequence that must have been very difficult to stage.

None of “King of the Jungle” makes any sense – no more than the Tarzan films made any sense. To its credit, the film establishes Crabbe as an impressive physical presence as the feral Lion Man. While he is strictly okay with dialogue in domestic scenes, he is striking when he is a loincloth and called on to do intense physical activity – Crabbe exudes pure superhero quality, and it is not surprising he would be tapped to play Tarzan later in 1933 in an independently produced film. Of course, he would gain immortality a few years later as the outer space icons Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers – all of those roles required a muscular charisma rather than intensive dramatic skills.

One of the heels in this film is played by Sidney Toler, who is best remembered for playing Charlie Chan. For moviegoers who only know Toler as the wily Chinese detective, it is amusing to see him playing a villainous American.

Unlike MGM’s Tarzan, there were no further Kaspa adventures. “King of the Jungle” became mostly forgotten over time, to the point that Crabbe needed to screen his personal 16mm print during his late-life appearances at celebrity nostalgia festivals.

Paramount has never released “King of the Jungle” on commercial home entertainment, but an unauthorized posting based on Crabbe’s personal print can be found on YouTube. Running slightly more than an hour, it is a harmless lark from a less-sophisticated era.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, every Sunday. Phil Hall’s new book “Jesus Christ Movie Star” is now available from BearManor Media.