One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had some unrealistic expectations when she visited a theater:
The Symphony is still jungling but if you go down there expecting to see in Miracles of the Jungle anything of the miracles of natural history, you’ll be disappointed. There’s darned little nature, except as revealed in naked forms, and no history natural or otherwise. The miracles are like unto the ancient serial ones, disclosed in The Perils of Pauline, the Cuttings of Kathleen, and such-like film literature of ancient vintage.
In short, it’s all pretty much like the naïve blood-and-thunder stuff that Penrod used to write, out in the old barn. There are buryings alive, poisoned bathing suits, and such-like cheerful carryings on, with the hero and heroine always escaping just in time to kick old man Death in the eye. The king-pin miracle man is the death-proof Zeda, who is another Maciste in his ability to break down doors and smash chains.
They’re a funny lot, those characters in serials, aren’t they? They never seem to learn anything. They may be gagged and bound and carried off and dropped down wells a hundred times, and the next time anybody whistles down an alley, there they are all ready and fresh for a new adventure. I suppose they’d think it was awfully dull if they weren’t nearly drowned or burned or hanged several times each day.
In the present Book of Jungle Miracles, the chief aim and ambition of everybody seems to be to get the lions and tigers to bite somebody. But they never do it. Even when the animals have the best chance in the world, they don’t do it. I guess maybe the play didn’t fool them either.
Grace Kingsley had had enough! She really shouldn’t have expected a documentary: the ads made it clear that it wasn’t educational. The L.A. Times rarely reviewed shorter films, but the Symphony was showing six to eight reels each week of the thirty-reel serial as a feature. Maybe serials are better in smaller doses, and eight reels at one sitting are just too much.
She didn’t bother to catch the actors’ names, but that was just as well, because she didn’t think much of them:
There’s a fat, musical comedy king, and there’s a vamp in modish jungle attire, viz, a couple of tiger skins torn in all the becoming places, there’s giant Zeda, who wears only an inadequate little curtain and a heroine in khaki. There’s also a mad prince. I should think he would be mad, the way people leave him in the lurch and lose themselves in jungles.
Well, one thing you can say for the Miracles, there are no dull moments. Either Zeda is chewing up a tree, the tiger is taking a peek at the human menu, or the heroine is finding something new to fall off of or into.
No dull moments—what else do you want from a movie in the middle of August? I bet her negative review sold some tickets. Other reviewers who went in expecting a serial hated it much less than she did. C.S. Sewell in Moving Picture World wrote, “Judging from the first three episodes, the thrills are of such quality and quantity as to satisfy the most exacting serial fans… the action deals with two secret service men who are sent from America to find a man in Africa who is suspected of murder.” Exhibitors’ Herald had equally realistic expectations, and said: “the first three episodes of this serial indicate that it stands out above the usual wild animal serial. The story is more or less plausible, and the thrills are very well directed.”
The man responsible for directing it well was Edgar Allen Martin. A former stage actor, he began in the film industry as a writer for Selig in 1911, and he became a director there in 1913, beginning with one-reel dramas like Her Stepmother (1913). In 1914 he started mostly specializing in shorts that featured animals, like The Lion Hunter (1914) and Perils of the Jungle (1915). In 1920 he made his first serial The Lost City, and they made Miracles of the Jungle to capitalize on its success. Unfortunately, it was his last film. In October, Selig announced plans to make another jungle serial, but it never got made. After working with William Selig for his whole movie career, in December 1921 Martin took him to court to recover $18,950 he said he was owed. There was no further news about it in paper, so they might have settled. Martin died in 1926.
You probably won’t be shocked to learn that they lied in some of the publicity material. Miracles was shot in darkest Edendale, not Africa, and it was a showcase for the animals of the Selig Zoo. Mary Mallory has written about its history; they tried to make it a theme park but that didn’t work out.
Grace Kingsley’s vacation didn’t come a moment too soon. She took the next few weeks off, and so will the blog. Enjoy your August!
“Jungle Film’s Second Book at Symphony,” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1921.
“New Selig Animal Jungle Serial,” Motion Picture News, October 8, 1921, p. 1893.
“Open Trial of Suit Against Producer,” Los Angeles Herald, December 1, 1921.
“Reviews,” Exhibitors’ Herald, April 30, 1921, p. 64.
C.S. Sewell, “Miracles of the Jungle,” Moving Picture World, April 23, 1921, p. 881.
“Some Unusual Jungle Heroes at Symphony,” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 1921.