Cast and Credits
Marion Nichols, John George, Angelo Rossitto,
Running Time: 68 minutes
Completed: June 15, 1950
Copyright Date: November 1, 1950; Renewed November 11, 1977
Release Date: November 1950
First showing in Canada: March 17, 1952
L'Île des Pygmées [Fr]
Buschteufel im Dschungel [Gr]
L'isola dei pigmei [It]
A Ilha dos pigmeus [Pg]
Diablos de la selva [Sp]
Jungle Jim finds a WAC captain’s dog tags among the effects of a dead pygmy, apparently slain by Bush Devils, a witch-doctor cult, long thought to be disbanded. He sends these and a fire-resistant rope to the U.S. War Department, prompting an investigation.
Major Bolton and his tropical unit are brought in to work with Jim to find both the missing captain and the mysterious N’goma plant, source of the strategic rope fibre, used by a tribe of white pygmies to make lassoes.
Opposing them is Leon Marko, a foreign agent, who has been using the Bush Devil legend to keep the pygmies at bay.
Meanwhile, Ann Kingsley, the sole survivor of her party, has been rescued by the pygmies and is attempting to return to Bugandi with the help of Makuba, the pygmy chief. On the way, they find Marko’s boat, along with some Bush Devil costumes. Marko discovers them and they are forced to escape into the lake, and are rescued only by the timely arrival of Jim and the soldiers.
By now, Marko’s men have located the plants in a nearby swamp and are heading for it. He stations men at various points to ambush the soldiers, but Jim and Makuba, scouting ahead, immobilize them.
Eventually, Jim is captured by Marko, who decides to use Jim as a hostage to get the N’goma plants past the troops, having of course destroyed the remaining plants.
Fortunately, Makuba and his people lie in wait in the trees, and pick off the members of Marko’s gang, until only the Marko and Kruger are left. Then they leap from the trees and capture them.
Later, as the military unit prepares to depart, Makuba promises to keep the U.S military supplied with N’goma plants, as part of their own “good neighbour” policy, suggested of course by Jungle Jim.
On April 6, 1950, a Johnny Weissmuller Aquacade was announced in the Hollywood Reporter. It was to be a 20 week tour of Eastern and Midwestern cities beginning with Cincinnati, Ohio. The first six dates were also to feature a swimming-talent-beauty contest, the winner getting a top role opposite Weissmuller in Pygmy Island, which was scheduled to begin filming in late June.
Since Ann Savage was subsequently chosen to play the female lead, we can assume that the contest was another example of Hollywood ballyhoo.
To populate the Pygmy tribe, Katzman rounded up as many Hollywood midgets as possible, including Billy Curtis (1909 - 1988) and Billy Barty (1924 - ).
At 4' 2", Curtis had already been through the Vaudeville circuit with his sister Mary. And later he discovered professional wrestling before starring in his first film Terror in Tiny Town (38). And he played the Munchkin Mayor in The Wizard of Oz (39). It was from this latter film, that a number of anecdotes have appeared over the decades about him and the other midgets in the film, most of which have since been debunked.
Curtis later appeared in Hellzapoppin' (41), The Thing (51), Invaders from Mars (53), Gorilla at Large (54), The Court Jester (56), The Incredible Shrinking Man (57), Dirty Harry (71), High Plains Drifter (73), Eating Raoul (82), the made-for-TV-film It Came Upon the Midnight Clear (84), and his last film Head Office (86).
On television, the diminutive actor appeared in The Adventures of Superman, The Lone Ranger, 77 Sunset Strip, Bonanza, Ben Casey, I Spy, Batman, Bewitched, Star Trek, Gunsmoke, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and The Twilight Zone.
He retired to Nevada in 1988, where in November of that year he succumbed to a heart attack.
The cigar-smoking Curtis had a reputation as a swaggerer, and somewhat of a braggart, and it was not entirely unfounded. For instance, he claimed to have been one of Margaret Hamilton’s rescuers when she was burned during a scene from The Wizard of Oz, a statement which Hamilton vigorously denied. Yet, some of the stories about him, such as those relating to Judy Garland, are spurious, at least in the minds of her children, who confirmed that their mother was a very inventive storyteller.
As the pygmy chieftain, Curtis received $750 per week from Katzman’s paltry budget, a great deal more than his congeners like Hazel Resmondo, whose daily take was a mere $22.50, and this for only a few days work.
Curtis’ role in the Carroll Young screenplay is eminently unchallenging. Even the stuntwork is performed by another, although Curtis had done stunt work for other actors, especially children.
The vine swinging which reappears ad nauseam in the film was done by fellow midget John George, whose main claim to fame is undoubtedly his role as Barnaby’s minion in the Laurel and Hardy vehicle Babes in Toyland (34).
In the role of Kimba (Tembo according to the pressbook) was 3' 9" Billy Barty (1924 - 2000), who has since become even more famous than Curtis.
Born William John Bertanzetti in Millsboro, Pennsylvania in October 1924, Billy Barty and his family travelled to California when he was three years old. He began his show business career spinning on his head in front of the Selznick studios, while a film was being shot there.
A director was so impressed that he cast the sprout in a silent comedy called Wedded Blisters (27). Later, independent filmmaker Larry Darmour put him in the Mickey McGuire comedies as Mickey Rooney’s younger sibling. By the mid 30s, Barty had already appeared in Gift of Gab (34), Bride of Frankenstein (35), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (35).
He would liked to have had a part in The Wizard of Oz (39), but the rules governing the use of underage actors worked against him. By law, anyone under the age of 18 could only work so many hours a day and had to be through by 6 o’clock at night. So MGM preferred to hire only midgets over the age of 18. That way, there were no restrictions on how long and hard they could work.
Next he worked in Vaudeville with his two sisters until 1942, at which time Barty completed his High School education, and entered college to earn a degree in journalism.
By 1948, he was back in show business working with Jerry Maren, who had teamed up with Billy Curtis during the war years. By 1952, he was on television with Spike Jones and his zanies. He was also appearing on the Ford Festival, Club Oasis and Circus Boy.
Barty liked to remember the day he visited Busby Berkeley on the set of Jumbo. He hadn’t seen the director in years, but he had been a friend since he appeared in The Gold Diggers of 1933. Berkeley asked him if he’d like a part in the film, and Barty said “sure!” So the director turned to one of the writers and said, “Write Billy a part.”
Although he had prominent roles in two Elvis Presley films, Roustabout (64) and Harum Scarum (65), Barty’s big break came when he was featured in The Day of the Locust (75), in which he gave one of his best performances. This led him to Won, Ton, Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (76), W. C. Fields and Me (76), and his role as the Bible salesman whom Goldie Hawn unceremoniously flings out of her window with a broomstick in Foul Play (78).
He also showed up in Under the Rainbow (81), a frivolous and unflattering portrait of the life of the midgets during the filming of The Wizard of Oz (39). Barty also played the title role in the TV film Rumpelstiltskin (87).
His TV work continued with his appearances on Rawhide, Get Smart, Man from Atlantis, Charlie’s Angels, Little House on the Prairie, CHiPS, and Ace Crawford - Private Detective.
His off-screen activities included helping to found the Little People of American Organization that, among other things, offered $30 000 a year in scholarships. Another of his organizations was the Billy Barty Foundation, and he had his own golf tournament The Billy Barty Invitational.
In 1981, Barty got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In June 1999, Barty's 70th year in show business was celebrated with a dinner. And thanks to his nephew Michael Copeland and wife Debra, there is now an official website for Billy Barty.
Barty was uncredited in Pygmy Island, but did get a few lines of dialogue, such as they were.
Ann Savage, born Bernice Lyon in Columbia, South Carolina in February 1921, was cast as a WAC captain, a role which might have proved well chosen had she been able to exhibit a little of the toughness of which she was capable, but for all her screen time, she was variously aided by Jungle Jim, the pygmy chief, Makuba, or the soldiers. She exhibited none of the independent strength which critics saw demonstrated more than adequately in the poverty-row-budgeted, but cult classic, Detour (46). She enjoyed working on the film, but confessed to me that her scenes involving the chimp made her extremely nervous.
The former model came to Columbia as a contract player, and from all accounts, spent a good deal of her time escaping studio boss Harry Cohn’s amorous and ubiquitous tentacles. In 1953, she left films after shooting The Woman They Almost Lynched to pursue independence, which included learning how to fly. Her only TV appearance was apparently an episode of Death Valley Days, which debuted in September 1953.
She returned to the screen in the 1986 film Fire with Fire, playing of all things a nun.
I sent her a photo of her with Billy Barty and Billy Curtis, and she wrote to me to say that she enjoyed working with both of them, but the photo also reminded her that she was a “city gal,” and she should stay out of the jungle. And on reading the Hollywood Reporter's assessment of her role in the film (she was seen as miscast), she wrote: “ But the money was good.”
David Bruce played the headstrong Major Bolton, who “rushes in where angels fear to tread,” and then reflects on it afterwards.
Born Marden Andrew McBroom in Kankakee, Illinois in January 1916, Andy, as he was known to his friends, was an outgoing and adventurous kid. Swimming and diving in a local quarry, he became sufficiently proficient to consider training for the Olympics, but only briefly.
In 1934 he entered Northwestern University to study law, but fell in love with acting when he joined the University’s Dramatic Society. After a successful portrayal of the title character in Shakespeare’s Henry V, he changed his major and upon graduating, he signed with the Mansfield Players of Oklahoma. After a season, he signed with another group, then another until he reached New York, where actress Julie Bishop (a.k.a. Jacqueline Wells) suggested to him that he try Hollywood.
In 1940, McBroom headed for Hollywood and through Miss Bishop, he met agent Henry Willson, who changed his name to David Bruce and got him a stock contract at Warner Bros.
His first role was in Errol Flynn’s The Sea Hawk, which also co-starred Brenda Marshall. Bruce and Marshall dated regularly until she met and married William Holden in 1941.
When war broke out, Bruce was released from his contract to join the Naval Air Force, but a chronic ear infection made him unsuitable and he was discharged. He returned to Hollywood where he played in John Wayne’s Flying Tigers, before landing a long term contract with Universal.
Despite the roles, some of which were ludicrous, Bruce never failed to impress the critics. One of them, The Mad Ghoul (43), in which he played George Zucco’s doomed student has become a cult classic, thanks in part to Bruce’s portrayal. At about this time he married his drama coach Cynthia Sory, with whom he had his only child, singer-composer Amanda McBroom.
Following the war, Bruce's contract with Universal lapsed and he found himself freelancing.
By 1950, he was appearing in several Columbia pictures - Pygmy Island, Masterson of Kansas, Cannibal Attack, and the serial The Great Adventures of Captain Kidd. He also played Harry Henderson, Beulah’s boss on television during 1952-53.
By now he was disenchanted with the roles he was getting and left the business to become an advertising executive. And when his wife died from cancer in 1962, Bruce had a bout with alcoholism.
It was his daughter’s show business ambitions that encouraged Bruce to return to the screen, and he guested on shows like Barnaby Jones and Cannon, and he had a small part as a reporter in Moving Violations (76). It was during his work in this film that he collapsed and died. An autopsy revealed a serious hypertension and cardiovascular disorder.
The Hungarian-born actor Steve Geray (1899/1904? - 1963) played arch villain Leon Marko, commissioned by a foreign power to abscond with the valuable N’goma plant. Geray began his career as a member of the Hungarian National Theatre before moving to England in 1935. After appearing in a number of British films, he moved permanently to the United States in 1941, and was in constant demand for every grade of film, whether as a harmless professor in Tarzan and the Amazons (45), or a cold-war agitator and spy in Tobor the Great (54).
The talented character actor always gave a good performance, and on many occasions his acting was superior to his dialogue, and this despite his accent.
His final film was in the bottom-of-the-barrel Jesse James vs. Frankenstein’s Daughter (66), which also featured in one of her few screen appearances, Weissmuller’s biographer, Narda Onyx, as the “Daughter.”
Geray'’s chief henchman was Bill Tannen (1911 - 1976), who had started out at Columbia, moved to MGM for a time, and then freelanced. He had already appeared briefly in Tarzan’s New York Adventure, and would appear with Weissmuller in three additional Jungle Jim films.
Along with his substantial list of film credits, Tannen seemed to be everywhere on television, mostly in westerns and occasionally on Perry Mason.
By the end of his career, his appearances, mostly as members of a crowd, were not being credited on screen. His brother was Charles Tannen, also an actor, and his father was Julius Tanner, who was a Vaudevillian headliner.
Critics rightly pointed the finger at a poorly written script, filled with empty dialogue. It seemed as if the writer was struggling to give each of the secondary characters something to say. This is especially obvious in some of the lines given to Billy Curtis and Billy Barty.
When Makuba is disguising the raft to look like driftwood, he finishes with this line:
Makuba: Now we look like driftwood, but we not. [No kidding!]
Later, when Jim and the soldiers rescue Makuba and Ann from Marko, Ann explains why Marko was after them. Makuba then confirms it with an empty line of dialogue.
Ann: Makuba and I saw a bush devil costume on his
Makuba: Oh, yes! We see!
When Jim prepares to disable the guards at the villains’ boat, Ann and Makuba appear, and Jim tells them his plans, whereupon another empty line.
Jim: I figured on getting the fellows on the boat
first, and then the men watching the trail.
Ann: So they can't ambush the rest of our party?
Jim: That’s the idea.
After the villains pass the pygmies’ cave, several of them come out, and Kimba tells them what he intends to do, and repeats what they all have heard. More empty words.
Kimba: Stay in cave. I try to find chief Makuba. I tell him about white men who play bush devils. Now, go, go.
When he catches up with Makuba, the thought occurs to the latter that his people can help capture the bandits. But at least there’s a little humour in this exchange.
Makuba: You get our people, Kimba.
Kimba: Me go.
Makuba: Tell 'em come quick, or they miss big fight.
Kimba: Good, me go quick!
And to round out the examples of the empty dialogue, the following occurs when Jim and Makuba finish with the men who have been deployed by Marko to ambush the troops.
Jim: I'll try to get a
little closer to them. When I do, you poke this [the bush devil mask]
around the tree.
Makuba: So they think one of their men play bush devil? You smart, Jim.
Jim: That’ll give me a chance to rush them.
The other unfortunate Katzman ploy is the seemingly endless repetition of the vine swinging sequence.
When I first met Tommy Farrell and asked him if he had any recollections about this film, he related an incident concerning the quicksand scene in which Weissmuller and Tannen are battling it out. While they were in the mud, the crew had to halt to reload the camera. While this was going on, Weissmuller and Tannen were forced out of the mudpit by a horde of ants.
I can attest to the ant population at Corriganville; they are everywhere.
One curious thing about this film. When it debuted in Toronto, Canada, it was 1952, two years after it had been made. For some unknown reason, its release had been held up, even though this wasn’t the case in the U.S.
Johnny Weissmuller matches wits with foreign agents to save a valuable fiber plant for the U.S. His heroics as Jungle Jim provide enough juve interest to get "Pygmy Island" through program bookings, although footage is overlong for release intentions.
Routine plot sends Weissmuller into the jungles to find a missing army captain who disappeared while tracing the plant in pygmy territory. An army unit goes with him and the hero spends as much time saving it as he does in tracking the missing officer. Usual set-up of jungle perils hamper the search, plus some ambush plots hatched by Steven Geray, foreign agent, who wants the plant for his country.
By the time William Berke's direction gets it all sorted out, Geray and his use of renegade whites to impersonate witch devils has been exposed; the missing captain, none other than Ann Savage, is saved, and Weissmuller has fought off crocodiles, stampeding elephants, a mad gorilla and sundry other perils that give him less trouble than Geray's gang of cutthroats.
Billy Curtis plays the king of the pygmy tribe that protects Miss Savage until the rescuers arrive. Little men are also in at the kill when Geray and his men get their just deserts. Matching Weissmuller's standard work are David Bruce, William Tannen, Tris Coffin and others.
The Sam Katzman production has okay budget values for the lowercase release aims, and technical assets are stock.
Variety - Second Review
Even the fabulous Pauline would have found it difficult to survive all the perils encountered by Jungle Jimmy (Johnny Weissmuller) in "Pygmy Island." Footage might get junior to the edge of his seat, but adults will view it between yawns due to an extremely poor story.
Script by Carroll Young is just too slight to hold interest for 69 minutes. For the Sunday comics, however, yarn would be perfection due to the abundance of scrapes Jim gets himself into. Among these is a water battle with a crocodile, an elephant stampede, a battle with a giant gorilla and a flimsy bridge hundreds of feet above a canyon, a fight in quicksand,not to mention his dodging scores of sniper bullets and machine gun fire.
Yarn twirls around efforts of some foreign agents to prevent Weissmuller, femme lead Ann Savage, a Pygmy tribe and two dozen army men to locate a rare tropical plant which can somehow be used in the manufacture of war arms.
Sam Katzman's production in itself is good, making use of sepia lensing, fine stock shots and exteriors, but William Berke's direction is burdened by the script. Performances and remaining technical credits are all stock.
The Hollywood Reporter
Johnny Weissmuller's latest vehicle, "Jungle Jim in Pygmy Island," is an overplotted and confusing adventure film with little chance of being popular with anyone but juveniles. The film suffers from plot trouble, as it attempts to cover a mix-up of a search for a valuable plant, secret agents of a foreign power also after the plant, a US army expedition, pygmies, bushdevils and Weissmuller displaying his athletic prowess. Director William Berke never quite succeeds in making the drama either clear or even reasonably lelievable. Sam Katzman provides a fairly elaborate production, with adequate jungle backgrounds and some outstanding footage of an elephant stampede. The photography and technical credits are adequate. [...]
Weissmuller looks better and slimmer than he did for a while, delivers his dialogue in clear English, swims and does his athletic stunts well. Miss Savage seems miscast as the captain. [...]
The Film Daily
The N'goma plant is the lure this time. As "Jungle Jim," Johnny Weissmuller assists an American military mission to secure the plant because it is stronger than nylon, resists fire and will serve many useful defense purposes. Only the white pygmies living at Bugandi know where the plant may be found and they are in constant fear of the Bush Devils, characters planted by the wily Steven Geray who represents another power. Ann Savage is an army captain sent by Washington into the jungle.
With a great deal of swinging through tree tops and many flashes of the camera to the antics of a chimpanzee, the tale boils along to a pitched battle between Geray's men and the army. The pygmies aid in the defeat of the Geray force. Grateful, they give the plants to the Americans and "Jim" awaits another adventure.
Here is another number for the youngsters. It is quite harmless and provides simple adventure and excitement to provoke imaginative response on their part. William Berke directed.