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Jungle June: Moon Over Burma (1940)

It's summertime, when the weather gets sweltering and the imagination conjures images of tropical jungles, exotic cultures and wild animals. Join us on a trek through a genre that has seen a resurgence in recent years with films like Jungle Cruise and The Lost City, but which flourished in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the jungle film.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Chuck (Robert Preston) and Bill (Preston Foster) are two regular fellas that own a Teak lumber camp that’s having some money troubles. On a trip into Rangoon, they run across Aria Dean (Dorothy Lamour) who seems to be stranded in the city, in the same way that beautiful women tend to get stranded in cities like this in old films. Her past is vague as are her intentions, but she looks great and can sing, and what else does a red-blooded American man from Brooklyn (or Illinois) want? Naturally, she makes her way back to the logging camp with the men, where a good old-fashioned rivalry for her love sets in. But love isn’t the only thing trouble going on in the camp, someone is also trying to sabotage the harvest so they can take over the lumber camp.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: There isn’t a lot of logic in the writing. Since the guys running the logging camp cause the beautiful nightclub singer to lose her job, there is no choice but to take her with them into the dangerous jungle and sacrifice the best cabin for her. Naturally she takes along her most revealing white clothing, which somehow remains spotless and bright. (Did she use Lux flakes or Rinso in her wash?) I did like that they at least acknowledged the customs of the natives and that Lamour's character's behavior was rude and offensive. RB: If this seems like the plot of a plug and play, bread and butter film from 1940, you’d be right, because that’s exactly what this is. The plot, which had been presented seemingly a million times before, and would be a million times since, is really just an excuse to dress Lamour up in various figure-hugging outfits and let her sing a couple of songs. As far as that is concerned, this film works just fine, and I did enjoy it on that level.

SG: If you’ve seen one of these girl-in-the-jungle movies before, you know just what to expect from this one. The downside of Moon Over Burma is that there is nothing outstanding to recommend it. Wilson Collison of Glouster, Ohio wrote the story in 1938 and Harry Clork and W.P. Lipscomb adapted it for the screen. Hedda Hopper called Moon Over Burma “the worst picture of the year.” Originally Paramount announced George Raft and Fred MacMurray as the leading men, which I think would have made for a stronger movie. Preston and Foster are generic and forgettable. Studio publicists tried to make an item of Lamour and Preston, but he was dating the woman who would become his wife, Catherine Craig.

RB: Albert Basserman gives what is likely the best performance in the film as a blind camp supervisor. He handles his role with finesse and compassion. The friendship he bonds with Aria is touching, and also aids in creating depth to Aria’s character that the simple love triangle doesn’t touch. When she interacts with him, the viewer understands more why Preston Foster’s character falls in love with her. Robert Preston, an alcoholic, seems more interested in her for her physical attributes, so we understand why we are expected to root for her and Bill to wind up together.

SG: Basserman and Lamour share the most exciting scene in the film, in which she accidentally releases a cobra into the room when she attempts to play a decrepit piano in the corner. Her blind companion senses the snake and feels it inching closer to him and preparing to strike. In her memoirs, Lamour said it was a real cobra trained by Grace Wiley and the actress was terrified of working in the scene. During the first take, the snake shed its skin, "probably the only strip act you could get past the censors in those days, but we still couldn't use it in the film."

As with many movies in this genre, animals are present, and they weren't always well-treated. Two of the elephants used in the film, Queenie and Sallie, were fatally burned in a fire at Goebel’s wild animal farm. The elephant Lamour rides into the jungle scene was present at the fire and was nervous during the shoot, causing the actress to get motion sickness. RB: Reviewers at the time seem to feel about the film pretty much as anyone would. This is a perfectly capable film, but not one with any outstanding qualities. “This picture will not please all your patrons, although it will do better than average weekend business” opined DE Burnett of the State Theatre in Larnet, Kansas. Inexplicably, north of the border, this film didn’t fare so well. “We anticipated extra business on this one but find Lamour not so popular. Lowest gross in many months” griped Harland Rankin of the Plaza Theatre in Tilbury, ON. There was a real cornucopia of films with tropical or jungle situations in the late 30’s and early 40’s and I wouldn’t consider this to be the best of them, but it is a competent film that was a pleasant watch. The scene involving a cobra is still quite suspenseful and exciting. Lamour is always lovely (in spite of what some theater owners say) and this film is no exception.

SG: “Enticing Dorothy Lamour, the excuse for all this excitement, manages a performance which her fans will find properly magnetic. Even though she doesn’t sport a sarong in this picture, her assets are displayed to advantage. Her performance moreover is more sprightly than most of her previous ones; she wisecracks not infrequently, and her air of languor seems less studied,” wrote the reviewer for Movies… And the People Who Make Them.

RB: Moon Over Burma is not an easy film to see in 2022. Universal released it to television in 1963, but there have been no home video or streaming releases since. I found my copy, from a worn but still sharp 16mm print on DVD at a Cinevent several years ago and that’s the one we watched for this screening, so if you are a Lamour or jungle film completist, it’s out there with a little digging. Over all, I give the film a solid three stars, with the realization that it still continues to satisfy in much the same way that it did in 1940. All in all, not a bad way to spend an evening at all. SG: Jerry Mason wrote for Photoplay that the title song, “has a nice throbbing quality which shows up well in dance tempo as performed by Glen Gray and His Casa Lomans (Decca) and Ray Noble (Columbia).” It is possible that the song has a longer shelf life than the movie itself. I found the movie to be amusing in parts, but forgettable. Two stars.

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