In Africa, John and Edith Knolls take their little boy into lion country for a photographic expedition, but both parents are killed by lions. The precocious boy keeps his father's hunting knife and is reared by lions as if he were their own cub. Years later, he is able to communicate with the lions by roaring. When the young man helps the lions raid a cattle ranch, he is caught and sold to an American circus along with his lion family. Neil Forbes, the manager of the circus, names the young man Kaspa, and has him shipped to San Francisco. Upon docking, Kaspa, wearing only a leopard skin, dives into the bay. When he finally swims ashore, he is chased through a park and into a private home, where he startles Ann Rogers and her roommate, Sue. The police arrive and Ann accompanies Kaspa back to the circus, where she is invited to travel with the circus to educate him. As they become better acquainted, Kaspa and Ann fall in love. After Gus, a member of the circus, taunts a lion, he loses his arm and later plots to kill the animal. Kaspa quits the circus because he wants to return the animals to Africa, but in the meantime, Gus gives poisoned meat to the lion who mauled him. Forbes catches him, and in the ensuing struggle, a lamp falls over and the tent catches fire. After Gus is arrested, the whole circus goes up in flames, causing a panic, but Kaspa rushes in and saves the lions. He then returns to Africa with Ann, and together they set the lions free.
This 1933 pre-code antique is a delight on several levels. For once, it's a jungle movie from the early thirties when MGM's Johnny Weismuller was bringing in the money as that studio's Tarzan. So, Paramount wanted some of the jungle action and created this very enjoyable variation of the wild boy raised in the jungle by wild animals. I've always felt Buster Crabbe was terribly under-rated. Here he is in all his near naked glory as Kaspa, the Lion King. We're never really explained as to how he escaped a wrecked plane and managed to grow up into this radiant Adonis but since this movie was made before the production code, we get to see lots of Buster since he wears a bikini sling-shot so abbreviated that he really is virtually naked, except for his rear-end. In fact, the movie's ads were aimed primarily at the women audience members at their chance to see a beautiful Adonis in the near altogether as this jungle god. The cast is surprisingly strong with excellent production values, camera work and editing. The best part of the movie by far is the huge circus fire at the end. Not sure how they did this but the fleeing circus patrons look genuinely terrified and Buster is in his glory as he breaks through the police lines to rescue his beloved cats. There is naturally a love story to all this and Francis Dee makes a delightful choice as a school teacher who see's the real potential of this jungle boy when he invades her apartment. She takes him under her wing and travels with the circus to support and educate him. This was Buster's first movie, fresh from winning major swimming olympic awards and his natural beauty is spell-bounding. His torso is beautifully proportioned, he sports a thick head of dark curls and his face is as innocent and boyish as one would expect of a young male suddenly thrust from the jungle into the wilds of a big city. This quality of wide-eyed innocence is what new audiences are discovering about Buster Crabbe as they watch him in "Flash Gordon", his various serials and especially another jungle yarn, "Tarzan the Fearless" in which he reprises his identical bikini slingshot and makes a very appealing young Tarzan.
During the 1930s-60s, Hollywood made a ton of Tarzan and Tarzan knockoff movies. A few of the Tarzan films (especially the ones with Johnny Weissmuller) were excellent...and most of the rest were pretty crappy...particularly the knockoffs. These knockoff and crappy Tarzan pics abound with terrible stock footage (often of animals not even native to Africa) and the plots are, to put is charitably, pretty dull. In light of this, I was shocked how much I enjoyed "King of the Jungle", a knockoff all the way...but a wonderful knockoff.
The story starts out pretty much like Tarzan. Some parents bring their very young child to the African savannahs in order to go sightseeing. However, they are killed and the child is but a toddler. But instead of apes adopting the child, it's adopted by a lioness!! Now don't start complaining about how 'that's not possible'....it's not like it's very likely gorillas would successfully raise a child either!
The child grows into a man (Buster Crabbe) and he is at home with all the lions. However, when some folks come to the savannah looking for lions, they accidentally also capture the young man. He is given the name 'Kaspa the Lion Man' and is taken to America in a cage!! Not surprisingly, he soon escapes but manages to meet a nice lady (Frances Dee) and she is able to convince him to go back with the folks...and she is hired to take care of him. Soon, Kaspa has learned to talk and is a bright, handsome guy....and he has a strong affinity for lions. He becomes the ultimate circus lion tamer--doing his job with no whip, no chair, no gun...just love for the animals. What's next? See the film....you won't be unhappy.
This film is not without problems. The most obvious is the similarlity to Tarzan. It's too similar in spots and is truly a knockoff. There also are some godawful staged fights...such as when they have a bull and lion spar each other as well as later in the film when a lion and tiger fight. I don't think any of the animals were killed or seriously injured....at least in the footage you see...though it is cruel and irresponsible. However, it also has some amazingly good qualities....no crappy stock footage(!!!), a breathtaking finale at the circus as well as a wonderful and sweet ending. Overall, a lot more good than bad in this one...and it's no wonder Crabbe's next film was a movie serial...."Tarzan the Fearless".
Entertaining Tarzan imitation
Paramount's answer to Tarzan, with Olympic athlete Buster Crabbe as a child raised to adulthood by a pride of lions. The expected complications result when Buster and his furry pals are transported to a circus. Charmingly clumsy in its early scenes, the film builds to an exciting, fiery conclusion. Animal activists will wince at a brutal battle between some big cats, but otherwise it's very entertaining.
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