PANTHER GIRL OF THE KONGO (1954, Dir. Franklin Adreon)

Olive Films BD $29.95, DVD $19.95
168 min. / B&W / 1.37:1 / 12 Episodes / English Subtitles

When director Fred C. Brannon died shortly after completing Jungle Drums of Africa in late 1952, Republic producer Franklyn Adreon needed to find a replacement to direct the studio’s serials, and – based upon the undeniable conclusion that if talentless former propman Brannon could direct these things, anybody could – Adreon hired himself, figuring that if it didn’t work out, the new guy would at least be easy to fire. It would have been no surprise, then, if the final five Republic serials, all produced and directed by Adreon on ever-shrinking budgets and over-reliance on stock footage, stunk like yesterday’s herring. The five serials (Canadian Mounties vs. Atomic Invaders, Trader Tom of the China Seas, Man with the Steel Whip, Panther Girl of the Kongo, and King of the Carnival), although they fall well short of the studio’s heyday a decade earlier, did end up holding the public's interest across three months each. Panther Girl of the Kongo, is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films.

Pretty photographer Jean Evans is in the Kongo to take movies of wild animals for an unspecified project (stock footage for serials, maybe); she is befriended by a gregarious tribe in the Utanga village, and they call her the Panther Girl because she killed a panther that was terrorizing the village, honest, and wasn't THAT helpful. One day while filming a lion, she and her friends are attacked by what looks to be a giant lobster, and even the Panther Girl is scared o' THOSE things. She calls her old friend, Larry Sanders, a Great White Hunter, who immediately makes a giant cup of hot butter sauce (just kiddin'). The giant lobsters (sorry, they’re “crayfish” we’re told) are the creation of kindly old Dr. Morgan, who has invented a growth hormone. He’s trying to use the monsters to scare the tribesmen away so that he can mine and steal diamonds he’s discovered in a nearby cave. His two henchmen, Cass and Rand, ask him why he doesn’t just sell his growth formula to the highest bidder. “I don’t want to get in trouble with the authorities,” the doctor replies straight-faced, as if that answer makes sense.

Okay, that’s enough plot for even the most stalwart serial fanatics. Over the next 12 weeks, the Panther Girl and her friend Larry will duck giant crayfish, dodge spear-chucking evil tribesman from across the river, hide behind ferns to fend off Cass and Rand’s bullets, and tickle a cantankerous gorilla into submission before uncovering the plot explained in the previous paragraph.

Of all the serials I've seen, Panther Girl comes closest to the cheesy 1950s sci-fi films I grew up on, lurid masterpieces of low-budget thrillmaking like It Conquered the World, From Hell it Came, and Teenagers from Outer Space. Oh, how I wish they’d showed serials at the theatre I attended every weekend in the mid-1960s to see these and other B&W horrors; Panther Girl would probably be my all-time fave serial to this day.

The Panther Girl is none other than our old friend Phyllis Coates, freshly removed from the office of Lois Lane on the first season of The Adventures of Superman. She’s even more attractive here, and it turns out she’s got great legs and a scream that could knock the good dishes off the china cabinet. Unfortunately, she falls victim to the dreaded TRHS (Typical Republic Heroine Syndrome); during fights, she’s pushed against the wall, a comfy sofa, or even a wicker chair, which knocks her unconscious so she doesn’t get in the way. What a waste of valiant femininity, as is the outfit she wears when she’s not dressed in her fighting togs: she looks like a waitress.

PG’s boyfriend is Myron Healy, in one of his few turns as a hero. There’s a reason he usually plays bad guys, folks: he comes across as dull and dour, reeking of stale tobacco, cheap gin, and sweaty underclothes, about as charismatic as a giant crayfish. Arthur Space is the rather soft-spoken mad scientist; you don’t know his name, but you’d recognize him. Gene Roth and Tom Steele both have bit parts, but nobody else deserves a mention: you won’t find an Anthony Warde or George Chesebro hanging around this village, unfortunately.

Inasmuch as Miss Coates is wearing Frances Gifford’s old costume from Jungle Girl (1941), it’s a surprise to see that there's not much stock footage from that particular chapterplay. David Sharpe donned the dress and a wig to do lots of very fancy vine swinging for the earlier serial, but the image is used sparingly here. I didn’t know whether to be impressed or disappointed that more 14-year-old Sharpe footage isn’t in view. Unfortunately, there isn’t much crayfish footage, either: the studio was too cheap to spring for rear-screen projection, so the big nasties are never seen with the human cast, making us sort of take it on faith that they’re REALLY big. Oh, except that there IS one giant claw that reaches around trees and over rocks to grab the Panther Girl every now and then, if she’s good enough to stand perfectly still and hold her arm out.

As with their earlier serial releases (Invisible Monster, Commando Cody and Flying Disc Man from Mars), Olive Films has given Panther Girl a gorgeous release with as good a picture and sound as you'll ever find on one of these things. And as always, we'll caution the audience: watch these things once a week (with a cartoon and a B-movie) lest the repetitiveness get to ya. Other than that, highly recommended.