I’ve been looking forward to seeing The Jungle Princess with as much joy as I’ve been lazy about getting back to my reviews, apparently. I really have. I’ve been wanting to get back to the reviews, but I just didn’t do it. As soon as I received The Jungle Princess in the mail though, it went straight into my laptop.
Dorothy Lamour was a genuinely fine human being. You can see her child-like playfulness and honesty as an orphaned Malaysian native show right through The Jungle Princess and that’s what makes a story that is the women’s version of Tarzan watchable–well, Dottie with quite a dash of Ray Milland.
The other thing that plays in favor of the film is that in regular circumstances with the plot taken out of the jungle, it would have walked a very, very fine line with the censors. Since the film was placed in a jungle setting, there appears to have been a magical rule that meant things could be a bit more wild without getting in the censor’s hair–my new dream is to see the drafts of the script for this film and the censor’s comments on each scene. I can’t even imagine the cuts they might have made in other circumstances. Especially given the fact that a white fellow fancied a native. In Tarzan, at least the jungle boy was free, white, and over twenty-one. Surely the film wouldn’t have been made in any other setting. As it was, the risque-interracial material went as unnoticed as the film did to a great deal of reviewers at the time. There’s no doubt the film bolstered Lamour into instant stardom, but surprisingly made little splash outside of grandiose billing. The Tarzan films certainly set a precedent that was evident from everything from the staging to the publicity for the film, but the The Jungle Princess carried it just that much farther.
The story is fairly simple. Boy wants to complete a novel and tries to dissolve his writer’s block by finding inspiration in Malaysia jungle–a small jungle town that boasts a mysterious laughing tiger. Boy gets attacked by tiger and finds the laughter really comes from a native girl who knows nothing of civilized ways.
Dorothy Lamour did several of these films, all with plots that deviated little, but this was the first and it was the first role she had where she had not only a substantial part, but also played the lead. Lamour had been groomed by Paramount, but found the process too slow and decided to speed things up by getting her own agent. She had a bit parts in Footlight Parade (1933) and College Holiday (1936), but other than that she had no screen time. It’s amazing that her personality alone would have been able to carry this film alone, but she really did have the talent to make it work. She was formerly a singer in Herbie Kay’s band. She was also married to Herbie Kay at the time, but that didn’t last very long.
The chemistry between Lamour and Milland is what really makes the film work though. In Lamour’s Autobiography, she said Milland taught her more about acting than anyone else she worked with. During the filming, there was an incident on set where he saved her life.
Dorothy Lamour’s 30-inch head of hair is getting her into trouble out at Malibu Lake, where she’s working in “Jungle Princess.”… One scene called for her to dive into the water, hair streaming behind her… in the first take her hair caught on a snag and might have drowned her had not Ray Milland dived in like a true hero and extricated her.
They made two more ‘sarong’ films together, but the two that followed could never match the original. Milland was at the turn of his career as well. Unlike Lamour, Milland had been in many small parts in the early 30s in both British and American films. He finally got his break in We’re Not Dressing (1934) and was signed by Paramount. He had a memorable role in Big Broadcast of 1937 (1936), but for the most part he was well below second billing status. It’s interesting to note that even though Dorothy Lamour was a complete novice compared to Ray Milland by years, she had top billing in the film. It must have been clear to Paramount that Lamour would be an instant star.
The “Seattle Daily Times” said of Lamour:
Johnny Weissmueller must look to his laurels, he has a feminine rival, Dorothy Lamour, radio singer…she is now a screen star by virtue of her appearance in The Jungle Princess…and if her performance counts for anything she has the acting gifts to go with her physical charm and appealing singing voice.
Lamour’s home paper, the “Times-Picayune” of New Orleans noted:
It is to be hoped that Lamour isn’t detained too long in the jungle. She is pretty, has a good voice, and seems completely at ease in front of the camera, three qualifications for a better role than she has here. Those movie moguls know their business, and no doubt one of their main objectives in “The Jungle Princess” was to introduce Lamour to the public.
Paramount had a hit–a film that looked rather like an ‘A’ movie which was often shown as a ‘B’ movie. It may have been considered a B movie, but the only song Lamour sings, “Moonlight and Shadows” was number one on The Hit Parade. The film may or may not have been overlooked and it’s certainly rare today–not commercially available anywhere, but one of the most notable things about the film may not have been that it’s Lamour’s debut or that it helped propel Ray Milland’s career, but that it featured a couple of mixed race in an unlikely year to do so.