THUNDER IN THE PINES
*½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras C
starring George Reeves, Ralph Byrd, Greg McClure, Michael Whalen
screenplay by Maurice Tombragel
directed by Robert Edwards
*/**** Image C- Sound B Extras C
starring George Reeves, Ralph Byrd, Wanda McKay, Armida
screenplay by Jo Pagano
directed by Lewis D. Collins
by Alex Jackson Was George Reeves a talented or interesting enough actor to merit VCI digging up a couple of his 1948 demi-features and releasing them on DVD? Without the novelty of him later becoming television's Superman and the rumours of conspiracy surrounding his suicide, there's nothing particularly engaging about the actor. In Thunder in the Pines, it looks like Reeves might be the poor man's Kirk Douglas (whose star was rising at around the same time). The Douglas persona is jovial and heroic, sensitive but manly--essentially, for me at least, he's an idealized father figure. This seems to be what Reeves is going for, but he's only operating at half the wattage. He isn't a star and hasn't the confidence of Douglas, that audacity to dominate the picture whenever he's on-screen. He's just a small fry.
To be fair, Reeves isn't entirely to blame for the failure of Thunder in the Pines. The movie as a whole--in terms of its writing, direction, cinematography, and other performances--strikes a tone of somewhere between smarmy and naïve. It reminded me of the student-produced assemblies I had to sit through in high school. But Reeves does little to save it. Douglas transcends camp: He comes on too strong and is too good for you to ever condescend to him; even in a goofy Disney movie like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, he fucking kills. He's a cartoon who knows, understands, accepts, and celebrates his cartoon nature--an avatar for cartoon ideals. It's impossible to laugh at an actor like that, and so you end up laughing with Douglas. Reeves simply isn't that kind of powerhouse; he lacks the alchemy to turn lead into gold.
Jeff (Reeves) and Boomer (Ralph Byrd) are war buddies now in the logging business. Landowner Nick (Lyle Talbot of Plan 9 from Outer Space fame) hires the pair and offers a bonus to whomever can produce the most lumber. Meanwhile, a mail-order bride (Denise Darcel) arrives from France. She hedged her bets by writing to both men and upon learning about the contest agrees to marry the winner, sweetening the pot considerably. Complicating things further, Nick becomes infatuated with her, and seeing as how he has more money than Jeff and Ralph combined, she isn't above taking him up on his advances.
Say this for Reeves: at least he's competent. When you watch Darcel, you quickly surmise that she has only one facial expression at her disposal, a combination of squinty eyes and a big, toothy smile. Granted, her material isn't very good. When she gets off the train she goes to the local watering hole with the guys and demands "sham-pag-nuh." Nick's jealous girlfriend pours every type of liquor they have into a big pitcher and serves it up as the "sham-pag-nuh." The concoction is noxious to everybody but Darcel, who downs two glasses, does the eye squint and tooth flash, and proclaims, "C'est bon!" This scene is generally a good index of the film's wit and insight into human behaviour.
It'd be churlish and more than a little obvious to label the film homoerotic. Thunder in the Pines is a fantasia of hyper-masculinity and an attraction to burly, barrel-chested men precludes and encompasses the realm of sexuality. Yeah, if it were a Kirk Douglas instead of a George Reeves in the lead, this could've been something. As it is, Thunder in the Pines is a bad film. There's no depth to it, nothing to chew on, nothing for us to process or reflect upon. It only works on a surface level and on a surface level it's really pretty stupid. Still, I have a surprisingly intense affection for the picture I can't quite shake. My man cred is so far in the shitter that I thought a log flume was a ride at Six Flags; in Thunder in the Pines, we see it being used as intended. We also see loggers operating two-man saws, as was standard procedure before the advent of the chainsaw. When they aren't cutting down trees, they hang out at the café, where they play poker, drink beer, and wear flannel. All of this is rendered in a "glowing Sepia-tone" that evokes the fresh pine smell of the cool Wisconsin air. Nevertheless, Thunder in the Pines is yet another B-movie I wish I'd seen when I was young. Very young. It's likely the only way the film could resonate is as a faded memory.
Without a substantial screen presence, there's no way that George Reeves can survive Jungle Goddess, the kind of movie that found its raison d'être as cheap filler for the UHF stations. But, as is so often the case, while the actual film is less fun to watch than Thunder in the Pines, it makes for a more stimulating discussion. Indeed, Jungle Goddess was featured on the third season of "Mystery Science Theater 3000". For what it's worth, I think I can finally, definitively say that I'm over "Mystery Science Theater 3000". It's not so much that I'm against the idea of mocking movies--it goes without saying that I would rather sit through the "Mystery Science Theater 3000" version of Jungle Goddess than the straight one. Moreover, I believe that sustaining and even enjoying mocking a film you adore evinces genuine emotional security and acceptance of the film's perceivable flaws. I fondly remember attending a screening of Kubrick's The Shining, top-ten material for me, and watching in amazement as the audience cackled derisively at the early scenes of domesticity. However kneejerk, their laughter was a genuine reaction to the material, and if anything it accentuated my enjoyment of the film.
No, my problem with "Mystery Science Theater 3000" is more a matter of, Why would you spend your time watching and condescending to crap when you could spend it watching something good? An average episode of the show runs two hours, which is far too long for a handful of cheap laughs. The line in the film most vulnerable to snarking comes from the Jungle Goddess herself (Wanda McKay), who was a teenage heiress before her plane crashed in the Congo. Talking about how she misses civilization, she remarks, "I could sure go for a charbroiled hamburger sammich and some French-fried potatoes." Yeah, that's amusing, but such pleasures are meagre and hardly worth investing a casual viewing, let alone a considered one. I feel a mixture of envy and pity for anybody who finds sustenance in this.
The jungle goddess is returning to her native South Africa when the pilot announces that England has just declared war on Germany. An elderly woman gets up to sing "God Save the Queen" and the goddess joins in. The melody takes over on the soundtrack. In the next scene the captain tells his co-pilot, "I hoped to see Betty and the kids by Christmas. I wonder how long it will be now. At least I can send him a picture of his dad in an RAF uniform." Then the plane suddenly has technical difficulties and goes down in the jungles of Africa. World War II has little if anything to do with the narrative proper, it's mainly shoehorned in there for ready-made sentiment. That said, I do believe the war had a positive impact on American cinema: Though it wouldn't fully mature until the 1950s (if then), all that heartfelt melodrama and soppy jingoism indicates growth of some sort. The movies began to rediscover the sincerity they lost in the move to sound.
That isn't to say that scenes like this aren't insulting, mind you. And I can't help but suspect that the post-war sentimentality is somehow linked to the film's shameful racist attitudes. The goddess is hailed as such by the natives because they have never seen a white woman before--she is "The White Goddess." Reeves and his partner (Ralph Byrd) track her down to inform her that her father has died and she is now officially a millionaire. An overzealous native greets these two white gods, and Byrd, frightened, shoots him dead. Byrd is subsequently captured and the white goddess regrets to inform him that murder is a capital offense and he will have to be executed. How are the boys going to get out of this mess? The problem is that in the context of the film, shooting a black African isn't any more reprehensible than shooting a feral lion or tiger. Similarly, we encounter a justice system without any real moral dimension. The natives are dangerous, but as racial inferiors they can't be expected to know better. While Jungle Goddess hates Nazis, it sees blacks as merely subhuman. Its values appear to be in the interest of preserving of Old Europe and a white aristocracy.
Not all movie racism is bad movie racism. To a degree, racial caricature has made a comeback as a retaliation against the anaesthetic effect of political correctness. Done with verve, it can carry a strong visceral charge. Jungle Goddess is not done with verve. The black actors look exhausted, withdrawn, and defeated. Whereas Stepin Fetchit managed to attack the system from the sidelines by exaggerating black stereotypes to the point of hyperbole, here the stereotypes are tacitly accepted, meaning the system has won. The mediocrity of Jungle Goddess is precisely why it's so chilling: There's nothing subversive to the film's racist attitudes--it never occurs to anyone that something rotten is going on.
As previously implied, if Thunder in the Pines and Jungle Goddess aren't fodder for the Goodtimes library then nothing is. VCI has nonetheless attempted to show the films a little love in this "George Reeves Double Feature" edition, part of their ongoing rollout of "orphan" titles licensed from the Kit Parker catalogue. Again, Thunder in the Pines' 1.33:1 transfer preserves the film's "glowing sepia tone," a gimmick that helps to disguise the occasional defect in the source print. Similarly, good sound levels and a crisp representation of the logging effects compensate for the occasional bit of static on the Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack. Jungle Goddess' 1.33:1 transfer is impressively crisp initially, but it grows fuzzy and diffused as the film begins to rely upon static interiors. The source print is at times in incredibly poor condition; a bout of splicing at the 38-minute mark is nothing short of inexcusable. The Dolby 1.0 mono audio is passable, if a bit on the hollow side.
"The Life and Legacy of George Reeves" (13 mins.) includes "Thunder in the Pines and the Jungle Goddess" with film historian Jan Alan Henderson, "George Reeves: His Life and Legacy" with Reeves biographer Carl Glass, and "The George Reeves Memorial" by Steven Kirk, curator of the George Reeves Memorial in Woolstock, Iowa. I don't know what to say about this. The featurette as a whole gives us few indications as to why these men have devoted their lives to the "life and legacy of George Reeves"--something was clearly lost in translation. The text essay "At Least It's Better than a 'C'" by Lou Koza and the audio essay "George Reeves as I Know Him" by Jim Nolt tell us that Reeves played supporting roles in A-films and the leading role in B-films. Wow, you don't say. "Hollywoodland - Flight of the Innocent," also by Koza, is a fawning text-based review of the eponymous 2006 film that's nonetheless careful to acknowledge a handful of historical inaccuracies. The highlight of the disc is Richard C. Potter's "Oh, George," a tangy novelty song memorializing the actor's suicide; alas, it runs on for a ludicrously indulgent six minutes. An advertising gallery for Thunder in the Pines, a photo gallery of George Reeves, and trailers for Black Pirates, Tales of Robin Hood, As You Were, Kentucky Jubilee, and Shep Comes Home round out the platter. Originally published: March 20, 2007.
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