Graceful and alluring Dorothy Lamour stars as Ulah, The Jungle Princess, in this chimerical but endearing, black-and-white 1936 Paramount production that launched her career. Ray Milland co-stars as Christopher Powell, a hunter who comes to the Malaysian jungle to capture wild animals but himself falls captive to Ulah’s native beauty, her stunning singing voice, and her child-like candor. The Jungle Princess taps deeply into the fantasy of the orphaned, nature-nurtured child, who by virtue of being human ascends to the throne of wild domains. The roughly contemporary Tarzan franchise starring Olympic medalist Johnny Weissmuller (12 films between 1918 and 1948) and the1942 version of The Jungle Book starring Sabu also capitalized on that tradition. And let’s not forget Johnny Shepherd as Bomba, The Jungle Boy.
When I was a kid, I loved this stuff. Being a semi-nature child myself who kept company with wild animals in the woods and weeds of Virginia, movies of this sort, no matter how silly, made perfect sense. Oscar-nominated The Jungle Book is far and away a better movie than The Jungle Princess, but like the fierce-browed and free-spirited Sabu, Dorothy Lamour casts a screen presence that makes watching her pretty darned enjoyable. Co-star Ray Milland €”eh, not so much.
The storyline: Little Ulah (Sally Martin) and her grandfather (Bernard Seigel) are the only survivors of an elephant stampede that destroys their Malay village. They go to live in the jungle with Ulah’s pet tiger cub Limau until an adult tiger kills Ulah’s grandfather. Now on her own, Ulah develops the skills necessary to survive the Malaysian jungle’s perils. She finds a cave and makes a cozy home of it with Limau. Girl and tiger grow up together, and local natives, overlooking the fact there’s a beautiful girl living all on her lonesome in their neighborhood, come to believe that the silvery laughter they hear whenever they encounter the tiger means that the big cat is a devil.
Despite the indigens’ angst over the demon tiger, grownup Ulah (played by Lamour), Limau, and their chimpanzee friend Bogo live in peace in the jungle until American hunter Chris Powell decides to investigate the natives’ stories of le tigre qui rit. Limau, perhaps understanding better than Ulah what Chris’ presence means for the future, wastes no time in attacking the him. Ulah calls Limau off, and while Christopher binds his only wound from the onslaught €”a sprained ankle €”the fascinated Ulah creeps up from behind without his noticing. (Did he learn nothing from the tiger attack?) When he realizes she’s there, he chirps out a friendly schoolboy, €œOh, hello! € Ulah helps Chris (she speaks no English and pronounces his name €œKiss €) limp to her cave where she tends his sprained ankle with natural remedies and sings to him a beautiful native love song that he thinks is a lullaby. Viewers don’t know it’s a love song either (though there’s ample reason suspect so) until Chris teaches Ulah enough English that she’s able to translate the song’s seductive lyrics into words that anybody can understand clearly. Ulah’s childlike forwardness puts pressure on Chris, already engaged to the sophisticated Ava (played by Molly Lamont).
Back at the hunting camp, Chris’ friends, fiancÃ©e, and the native camp staff think the devil tiger ate Chris and break off their search for him. This frees Chris to enjoy a lengthy and provocative convalescence under Ulah’s very warm and tender care. When Chris abruptly returns to his hunting compound, Ulah and her animal companions follow on the sly, but of course, the tiger, chimpanzee, and beautiful girl have a difficult time keeping a low profile. Supposedly experienced wild game hunter Chris seems very surprised to discover that Ulah has shadowed him to camp.
Jealousy erupts between Ulah and Chris’ socialite fiancÃ©e Ava, who nevertheless attempts to €œcivilize € Ulah–possibly in a misguided attempt to level the playing field. The plan backfires, and Ava realizes quickly that she’s losing Chris to the untameble and thoroughly beguiling jungle princess. Indeed, Chris’ perpetually soused friend Frank (Lynne Overman) and even Ava’s own upper-crust father (Hugh Buckler) also find Ulah to be completely enchanting. Only the superstitious Malays working the hunting camp share Ava’s poor opinion of Ulah. Because of her familiarity with the ferocious Limau, they believe the jungle girl to be a witch and the tiger to be €œher servant, € which I suppose the hapless creature is, more or less. The natives capture Limau with the intent of destroying him. Ulah tries to free her friend but is betrayed. She flees the angry natives but falls into a tiger trap that the natives dug to catch Limau. With clear-thinking Bogo’s help, Chris finds Ulah and tries to lead her back to her cave and safety, but the disgruntled natives arrive and stop them €”mostly because that mooncalf Chris leads them right to her. With drums pounding and foul looks, they prepare to kill Ulah in fitting ritual fashion. Chris summons enough presence of mind to protect Ulah from the witch-loathing natives, but Bogo finally gives up on Chris, takes matters into his own simian but capable hands, and saves the day. How? Let’s just say that the movie ends pretty much the way it begins.
I got a kick out of this golden oldie. It’s a lively tropical romp, complete with chimp-using-human-toiletries jokes. Obviously, The Jungle Princess is not a thinking-man’s or –woman’s movie. To accept the story’s premises you have to shush your brain repeatedly. (Chimpanzees in Malaysia? No. Orangutans? Yes.) If you want a nature-based story that’s more thought-provoking, try The Wild North starring Stewart Granger. But in my opinion, Dorothy Lamour makes an engaging jungle princess. The main male characters’ behavior appears to support the European clichÃ© that American men never grown up. I’m very disappointed in them all, especially Chris. Nice enough fellow, but the plot depends upon his being a complete nudnik. That Ulah finds him irresistible is tragic. A girl who can control an adult male Malayan tiger shouldn’t have to settle for the first glint of boyish charm that turns his ankle among her malu malu flowers.