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Jungle June: Stanley and Livingstone (1939)

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.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Stanley and Livingstone is the true story of a newspaperman who treks into the uncharted interior of Africa to find a missing missionary presumed to be dead. It promises authentic thrills of exploration, danger and bravery by an ordinary but ambitious man. Unfortunately, the film does not live up to that promise.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: I’m the sort of guy who’s fond of movies about newspaper reporters, and also fond of jungle movies. With that in mind, it seems like Stanley and Livingstone would be a no-brainer. I mean, this is a story of a newspaper reporter who treks through the jungle searching for a missing missionary. However, for my taste, I found this film lacking. But more on that later.

Spencer Tracy is Henry Stanley, a gruff, ruthless newspaper reporter, the kind that makes for a good movie, who always beats the odds and gets the story even when he is assured that he cannot get the job done. Tasked with the impossible job of following up on reports that the world renowned missionary, David Livingstone (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) has died. Stanley heads off to uncharted territory to prove the rumors false in this elaborate A adventure film.

SG: When I see Tracy listed in the cast, I expect great things. He is an actor who is always doing something, even when he seems to be doing nothing. He does his best with the material, but he isn't given enough screen time to carry the movie. It is obvious that he is absent from the location shots, and that process shots were completed with him and inserted later. The editors favored the expensive location shots over footage that drove the story along, so the slow, deliberate travelogue style corrupts the pacing of the narrative.

RB: It's no secret that my taste in film tends to veer more toward obscure B’s so I admittedly entered into this lavish Fox film with a bit of trepidation. As it turns out, I was right. For my tastes, this film stunk, and was everything that I dislike about this sort of thing. The film seems to have been overlong for no reason except to fill pomp and circumstance. There were some impressive scenes and effects, but I was much more fond of other films that tread similar ground, Gunga Din comes to mind.

SG: You know it is bad when the usually boring exposition scenes are the most exciting part of the movie. Our introduction to the bustling newspaper offices of the New York Herald and the beginning ship journey to Africa where Stanley meets the owner of the London Globe are dynamic. At the office, there is the excitement of a new lead, the runner zooming through the office to be the first to put out a story, and the grandness of the location, clearly a time capsule. On the boat, there is the anticipation and tension of Stanley meeting the publisher he admires and the results that could come from their interaction. In comparison, the jungle sequences fall flat, partly because of the heavy reliance on stock footage and long shots. There is a lot of walking in organized lines. It seems too clean and too easy.

RB: I typically enjoy FOX films, but the combination of the overlong scenes of marching and tromping through the jungle (on location, it should be noted, which is impressive and unusual, I admit) combined with the overtly Christian message, that seemed shoehorned in, even though this was a story about a missionary left me cold.

The missionary aspect of the film was often pointed out in promotion materials. Hedda Hopper, in her column of August 13, 1939 pointed this out multiple times in a review that can only be deemed as unprofessionally complementary, stating that the picture was fine for "you who long and hope for a spiritual regeneration" and that the "wise guys" may feel that "having a lot of natives in darkest Africa singing "Onward Christian Soldiers is a lot of bunk. But Dr. Livingstone didn't think so when he actually did it years ago. Nor did Darryl Zanuck when he had vision enough to take a real story from life and make it into one of the most throbbing human-interest stories of our day". MOST THROBBING HUMAN-INTEREST STORIES OF OUR DAY? Well, that's a glowing endorsement if nothing else, but I wonder if we both saw the same film.

To think that in this banner year of movies, audiences could pick this "throbbing human-interest story" or go down the street and see Hedy Lamarr and Robert Taylor in Lady of the Tropics? Well, I know where I'd pluck down my 35 cents...

SG: Of course, in jungle movies, we often encounter racism. It seems that the filmmakers of the time tried to be respectful of the natives overall, but the sentiments of the time permeated their good intentions. Livingstone refers to the people he serves as being mentally inferior and that they must be treated like children, though he does condemn violence against them. There is a funny scene where Walter Brennan attempts to interact with a black man chewing something he wants (candy? tobacco? I couldn't tell.) so he mimes to him his intentions. When he gets some of the stuff, he says, "Thank you," and the man promptly responds, "You're welcome."

In his most recent book on 20th Century Fox, Scott Eyman wrote, "1939 was a step up, not in design, but in execution... The nineteenth-century epics were returning profits and proved that David O. Selznick wasn't the only game in town when it came to romanticizing the past." The film did well at the box office and reviewers seemed pleased with the film.

Box Office Digest's writer said, " Someone came up with the clever idea of having Spencer Tracy’s marvelous voice do the narrating while in the action of the picture he was supposed to be writing in his diary. It is very effective, and saves some moments that might have stayed too long in a monotone."

Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune wrote, "What distinguishes it, as much as anything, to my mind, is the show's lack of hokum. Having set out to celebrate a strange quest and encounter in the heart of darkest Africa, it does just that with little juggling of actual facts."

Delight Evans for Screenland magazine wrote, "It may sound downright maudlin to call a picture noble, but that's how Stanley and Livingstone impresses me. It is a fine and noble effort... [it] has a message; and it shines through all the thrilling melodrama and cannibal chases so brilliantly that it is never lost and never resented."

RB: I’m not the only one who isn’t in love with this movie, though I will concede that I am certainly in the minority. Most theater owners gushed over the film. “…One of the absolute best you will have on your screen this winter…We enjoyed the enthusiastic comments from our patrons as much as the above average box office receipts” opined AN Miles of the Eminence Theatre, Eminence, KY.

In Leonardsville, KS, John Stafford, manager of the Royal Theater noted that “90 per cent of the patronage like it; 10 per cent did not” while Harry Blumbaugh at the Mapleton, MN Ritz Theatre may have stumbled onto the problem with some viewers. “Good educational picture. Failed to draw. Picture needs extra advertising. Suggest school and church tieup."

SG: The movie hasn't aged well. It may have had a big budget, but I'd rather watch a B-movie with a jungle theme, dubious dialogue and lots of hokum than Stanley and Livingstone. 2 stars.

RB: For all the budget and rigmarole, there’s not much in this movie that’s actually FUN. I found it a chore to sit through, and am glad that I don’t have to revisit this one any time soon. 2 stars.

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