* For years, speculation has run rampant that David Janssen played Weissmuller's younger brother, but the only adolescent in the film appears near the beginning, announcing the return of Johnny Duval. So if this is Janssen, he is not the brother, merely a neighbour.
Running Time: 69 minutes
Copyright Date: December 30, 1945
Released September 6, 1946
First Showing in Canada: November 4, 1946
Le Marais en feu [Fr]
Sumpf des Grauens [Gr]
Fiammi nella giungla [It]
Pántano de Fogo [Pg]
Fuego pantanoso [Sp]
Returning to Delta Island after a stint in the U S Coast Guard as a bar pilot, a shell-shocked Johnny Duval hopes to marry his sweetheart, Toni Rousseau. Entering the scene is Janet Hilton, a spoiled rich girl, who intends to keep Johnny to herself.
Meanwhile, Johnny's friends in the Coast Guard trick the pilot into steering a boat and thus regain his nerve. Unfortunately, this is short-lived, as an accident occurs in which Toni's grandfather, Tim, is killed. Thinking himself responsible, Johnny goes on a drunken binge and is hit by a truck. He regains consciousness in the Hilton home, where Janet keeps him isolated and persuades him that his former friends want nothing to do with him.
Johnny learns the truth when he prevents the Hiltons from arresting a local trapper. P.T. Hilton has outlawed hunting and trapping on the marsh, which he has purchased for his own use.
Johnny's rival for Toni, Mike Kalavich, decides to burn the marsh rather than be kept out by Hilton. Toni rushes to warn Johnny, but is accidentally shot by Kalavich.
Toni recovers and Johnny regains his commission in the Coast Guard.
On February 17, 1944, Johnny Weissmuller was signed for the Pine-Thomas production Combat Correspondent, which was to deal with the famed Marine Corps correspondents and was to co-star Robert Lowery. The Hollywood Reporter also mentioned a second feature designed as an historic epic of the covered wagon days. The ballyhoo added that it was going to be produced on a grand scale, with musical numbers. The first film was mentioned again on March 3, but then nothing was heard of either film after that date.
These were but two of the projects promised Johnny by Pine-Thomas to be distributed by Paramount studios. The idea apparently appealed to the Olympic swimming champ, since he was trying to get more money from Lesser, and this would give him a chance to try his thesping abilities in non-Tarzan roles. So with the blessings of Lesser (who certainly must have realized what the result would be), Johnny signed a three-picture deal with Pine-Thomas.
However, when all was said and done, Johnny did only one picture for the bottom-of-the-barrel producers: Swamp Fire, a yarn about a Louisiana bar pilot in the bayou country. Johnny was to get $75 000, and a naval adviser was engaged to ensure authenticity.
Despite the story's potential, the result left a great deal to be desired. The dialogue was unabashedly amateurish, making it impossible for the principal actors to give credible performances. However, the film did make one thing clear: Johnny's co-star Buster Crabbe was the more versatile actor.
The best part of the film was the scenery and the camerawork, and the pressbook went to great pains to talk about Billy, a Georgia-born alligator, supposedly 200 years old. The reptile had been in the spotlight since 1909 according to the write-up. Needless to say, Johnny's tousle took place with a non-breathing substitute .
The romantic angle was also played up, with both Carol Thurston and Virginia Grey vying for the hero's affections, but here again the performances were unconvincing.
When Johnny saw the result, he was happy to return to the Tarzan series and complete his contractual obligations with Sol Lesser.
Cast as Johnny's main love interest was the sloe-eyed and diminutive Carol Thurston (1923-69). She had made a hit as nurse Tremartini (Three Martinis) in The Story of Dr. Wassell (44) starring Gary Cooper. But the actress was strictly B-movie material, although her features made her ideal in roles as an Eskimo, Indian, South Sea Islander, or, in this case, a Cajun. This is what got her work in films like Arctic Manhunt (49), Conquest of Cochise (53), Killer Ape (53) (her second film with Weissmuller) and The Hypnotic Eye (60). Her final big screen appearance was in the 1963 film Showdown. On television she appeared in The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Death Valley Days, Frontier, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rough Riders and Rawhide. She passed away on the last day of 1969 at the rather young age of 46.
A big drawing card had to be the casting of “Larry” Buster Crabbe (1908- 83) as Johnny's nemesis. This really was a saleable idea. Crabbe was another Olympic swimming champion who had succeeded as an actor in Hollywood. Columbia reused the idea in the 1950 Jungle Jim film Captive Girl.
Born Clarence Linden Crabbe in Oakland, California, Buster moved with his family to Hawaii while he was still quite young. His father, who had originally come to California from Hawaii to study at UCLA, was to act as overseer on a pineapple plantation. At high school, the young Crabbe showed great promise as an athlete, playing football and basketball, and winning a city championship as a boxer. But his forte was unquestionably swimming, and while the chronology is unclear, he ended up at USC to study law on a swimming scholarship. This led to a seat on the American Olympic team.
In the 1928 Olympics, he placed fourth in the 400 free style event coming in less than a second after Sweden's Arne Borg. But in 1932, he beat out world record holder Jean Taris of France by a tenth of a second to win the only American gold medal for men's swimming in that Olympiad. He would later say that it was this win that opened up the doors to a Hollywood career.
To help augment his income while at University, Crabbe worked as a lifeguard, then in the basement of a clothing store. He also had the good fortune to be called in by film studios to work as an extra. The first film he recalls appearing in was Good News (30). And having met Joel McCrae while working as a lifeguard, he got to double for him in RKO's The Most Dangerous Game (33).
Then, after an uncredited role in Island of Lost Souls, Buster was given the lead as the Tarzanesque Kaspa, the lion man in King of the Jungle (33). This led to a contract with Paramount at $100 per week. The studio lent him out to other studios and producers, such as Sol Lesser, who wanted him for Tarzan the Fearless (33), a serial that did not do very well. It was later trimmed down to a feature film.
The following year, he had a small part in You're Telling Me starring W.C. Fields. He found Fields to be a surly grouch, and did not enjoy working with him at all.
In 1936 Paramount sent him on loan to Universal for Flash Gordon, based on the Alex Raymond character. The serial was so successful, that a sequel was done almost immediately. Next came Red Barry, then Buck Rogers, and finally the third member of the Flash Gordon trilogy. What amazes me is that Universal did not consider Crabbe for the role of Jungle Jim, another Alex Raymond character. Instead the role went to Grant Withers. Had Crabbe played the lead in that serial, its history would undoubtedly have been different. The Jungle Jim serial was believed to be lost, but a print was found and is now available through VCI Entertainment.
At the same time, Crabbe was making westerns, and became as well known in that genre as he was in the serials.
In the late forties, a free-lancing Buster Crabbe signed with Sam Katzman for the serial The Sea Hound (47), and then continued to appear in other projects for Jungle Sam, including Captive Girl (50) with Johnny Weissmuller, and two more serials: Pirates of the High Seas in 1950, and in 1952, King of the Congo.
Then Crabbe and his family moved east to consider some non-movie endeavours. For five years his Aquaparade toured America and Europe. He also began a boys' summer camp in New York State. And he had financial interests in a swimming pool company.
In 1955, Crabbe went to North Africa to film pilot episodes for a proposed TV series to be called Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion with his ten-year-old son Cullen. The series, sponsored by Heinz, went on the air for two years before going into syndication for another five.
As he got older, Buster became interested in good health for seniors, and wrote Energetics, a fitness book for people over 50.
In 1965, Buster was one of the big three honorees appearing to help promote the opening of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. (The other two were Johnny Weissmuller and Eleanor Holm.)
In 1979, he was asked to appear on the TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, as “Brigadier (Flash?) Gordon.” in an episode titled “Planet of the Slave Girls.” Near the end of the episode, the audience is treated to a little insider humour and nostalgia when Gil Gerard compliments Buster on his flying skills. The dialogue went something like this:
Crabbe: I've been flying these
ships since before you were born.
Gerard: (with a twinkle in his eye) You think so, eh? [a reference to his having been in suspended animation for 500 years]
Crabbe: (whimsically) Son, I know so. [The original serials were made before Gerard was born.]
In 1980, Buster appeared in the film Alien Dead as a sheriff. He was also touring the country, giving interviews, and reminiscing about his career.
In 1982, he appeared in the embarrassing feature The Comeback Trail, as a washed-up cowboy star. The film was never released theatrically.
Then on May 23, 1983, Larry “Buster” Crabbe, who was still swimming daily, suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 75 years old. Four years later, his wife, Virginia (who was MGM soundman Tom Held's daughter) donated her husband's film collection to USC's Moving Image Archive.
In 1994, Crabbe was elected posthumously as one of USC's 16-member inaugural class for its Hall of Fame.
Virginia Grey made her second screen appearance with Weissmuller, this time as the “other woman.” (She had already appeared in Tarzan's New York Adventure (42).)
The feisty actress (1917-) entered pictures shortly after her father died. He had been one of the original Keystone Kops, and later a director for Mack Sennett. Grey's mother then went to work as a film cutter for Universal. There she got her daughter an audition with Paul Kohner, who was producing Uncle Tom's Cabin (27). The ten year old got the part of Little Eva.
Following that stint, Miss Grey worked off and on as an extra or stand-in until the mid-30s, at which time she was given a contract with MGM. In 1937, she landed the lead in Bad Guy opposite Bruce Cabot of King Kong fame, but she failed to click. From then on, she had to content herself with leads in minor pictures, or supporting roles in major ones.
She dated Clark Gable at MGM until he met and married Carole Lombard in 1939. But she still put in an appearance with him that same year in Idiot's Delight, as one of his dance troupe.
By the early 40s, the actress had left MGM and was free-lancing. And by the 50s, she was active on television.
Never married, Virginia Grey retired from films and television in the mid-70s.
Among her many films are Another Thin Man (39), The Big Store (41), Whistling in the Dark (41), Tarzan's New York Adventure (42), Stage Door Canteen (43), Unconquered (47), Mexican Hayride (48), Slaughter Trail (51), Tammy Tell Me True (61), Flower Drum Song (61) and Rosie (68). Her last big screen appearance was in Airport 1975.
And on television she appeared in series like Wagon Train, Yancy Derringer, Bonanza, The Virginian and I Spy.
Johnny Weissmuller finally gets away from his Tarzan roles for an everyday part in "Swamp Fire." Pic is a sentimental melodrama among river pilots and trappers in the Louisiana bayous. Modestly-budgeted, filled with action from boat collisions and swamp fires to fist-fights, film should attract family trade in neighborhood and dual houses for ok returns.
A routine story isn't handled with particular originality or skill, and performances are of a piece. But film has a certain flavor from home scenes among the Cajuns, and from picturesque bayou and river scenes, to offset. Camera work on the water is good, especially in the fog scenes.
Story concerns Weissmuller, a bar pilot in the treacherous waters at the mouth of the Mississippi, who went to war, had his ship sunk under him, and returns home with nerves gone. His rehabilitation to bar pilot through love of his French sweetheart is complicated by rivalry of a trapper and designs of a society dame. Before pic ends, Weissmuller has swum a river, killed an alligator, fought the trapper, rescued his girl from a swamp fire, with sundry incidentals in between.
An oversize Weissmuller moves somewhat woodenly though the picture. Virginia Grey is attractive and slinky enough as the predatory dame, and Carol Thurston is cute and convincing as the loyal sweetheart. Buster Crabbe is a satisfactory villain.
From L to R, Buster Crabbe, Carol Thurston,