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Home | Film Review: Congo Bill (1948)

Film Review: Congo Bill (1948)


“Congo Bill, a tamer of wild animals, intends to find Ruth Culver, a missing woman who has just inherited the Culver Circus, worth half a million dollars. He has heard of the existence somewhere in Africa of a white queen who might be Ruth. Once on the African continent, Congo Bill’s safari gets attacked several times. The man behind all that is none other than Andre Bocar, a trafficker in cahoots with Bernie MacGraw, who hopes to capture the Culver inheritance. With the help of Cameron, a mysterious stranger, Congo Bill manages to locate Lureen, the white queen, who turns out to be Ruth Culver as the tamer had guessed. But trouble is not at an end yet. Indeed Nagu, the witch doctor, who smuggles gold with Bocar, tries to get rid of Congo Bill. To no avail, for Bill and Cameron (who happens to be a colonial officer) recover the gold and capture Bocar. Congo Bill returns to the USA with Lureen/Ruth with a view to creating new circus, even bigger than the former one.” (courtesy IMDB)


Jungle Jim was the hero of a series of stories in various media, starting in 1934 as a newspaper comic strip chronicling the adventures of the great white hunter Jim Bradley. The character also trekked through radio, film, comics and television adaptations. The strip was created by King Features Syndicate in order to compete with the popular comic Tarzan by Hal Foster. William Glenmorgan, better known as Congo Bill, was created by Whitney Ellsworth and artist George Papp in 1940 as an answer to Jungle Jim. Bill and Jim dressed alike, with jodhpurs and pith helmets, and pursued many of the same kind of adventures and dangers. Jim’s jungle adventures took him to South East Asia, while Bill’s took him to Africa. Congo Bill was never the breakout star that his comic-strip rival was, and DC Comics relegated him to secondary status in most of the publications he appeared. For instance, he was the back-up feature to the Spectre in More Fun Comics and Superman in Action Comics. During his tenure in Action Comics, Bill acquired Janu the jungle boy, a thinly disguised version of Tarzan, who had been living in the wild since the death of his father. Janu became Bill’s one-and-only sidekick.

Congo Bill made his first appearance outside the universe of comics in a fifteen-part movie serial made by Columbia Pictures. Produced by Sam Katzman, Congo Bill (1948) followed the adventures of the titular hero (Don McGuire) as he attempts to find and rescue Ruth Culver (Cleo Moore) from the dangers of deepest darkest Africa. The serial begins when Ruth is set to inherit a fortune, and her family hires the adventurer to bring her back to civilisation. Congo Bill follows a legend about a White Queen named Lureen (also Cleo Moore), but his path is strewn with more obstacles than the average Saturday morning matinee. Eventually he finds her and stops the man who will lose a fortune if she is found alive. By 1948 the popularity of movie serials was beginning to wind down, but producer Katzman pulls out every stop to make this particular one memorable. Don McGuire is perfect as Congo Bill, and Cleo Moore chews up the scenery as the damsel-in-distress as well as the White Queen of Africa (after Cleo Moore became a famous film starlet, Columbia Pictures re-released the serial in 1957 for her admirers to enjoy).

Chapter 1 – The Untamed Beast. Tom and Bernie MacGraw (Stephen Carr and I. Stanford Jolley), co-managers of the Culver Circus and administrators of a $500,000 trust fund, have been holding the money for any surviving heir of Les Culver, original founder of the circus who, with his party, mysteriously disappeared in Africa almost twenty decades before. Culver’s daughter Ruth, a baby at the time, was among those who vanished. According to the trust terms, the MacGraws will acquire the money unless an heir appears within the next year. Tom tells Bernie he has heard from Andre Bocar (Leonard Penn), a trader in Icala, Africa, of the rumoured existence of a white queen in the interior, and he plans an expedition there soon. Bernie tries to eliminate his brother by clubbing him into unconsciousness and dragging him close to the cage of a dangerous gorilla. Congo Bill (Don McGuire), wild animal trainer and jungle specialist, rushes to the rescue but is waylaid by two assailants.

Chapter 2 – Jungle Gold. Congo Bill’s attackers are frightened off and he continues to the aid of the fatally injured Tom. Before Tom dies, he asks Bill to find Ruth Culver, the missing heiress, if at all possible. Bernie and his accomplice Morelli (Hugh Prosser), worried about Congo Bill’s suspicions, plan to do away with him. Morelli, expert knife-thrower, hurls a blade at a man thought to be Bill standing on a bridge, and the figure falls to his death.

Chapter 3 – A Hot Reception. The man killed turns out to be a circus security guard. Bernie sends Bill to Africa after wild animals and sends a telegram to Bocar to have Bill disposed of when he arrives. Bill meets a man who has information on the Culver expedition, but the man is murdered, and two of Bocar’s men trap Bill as he searches for evidence.

Chapter 4 – Congo Bill Springs A Trap. Bill is saved by an unseen man and leads his safari team toward the forbidden valley of Namu to look for the mysterious White Queen. He chooses a youth named Kahla (Neyle Morrow) as his gun-bearer (Kahla essentially replaces Janu from the comics). Bocar’s men speed past the group, shooting indiscriminately. Bill and Kahla race after them, when suddenly their car is caught in an explosion.

Chapter 5 – White Shadows In The Jungle. The uninjured Bill rescues Kahla from the wreck. As the safari pushes closer to the forbidden land, Lureen (Cleo Moore), the White Queen of Namu Valley, orders Tonata (Stanley Price) to capture the white hunter. The witch doctor Nagoo (Frank Lackteen) tells Tonata to kill the whole safari team, lest they learn of his illicit gold shipments to Bocar. Bill and Kahla are attacked by Tonata, Kahla stumbles and, as Bill bends to help him, a huge rock falls.

Chapter 6 – The White Queen. Congo Bill pulls Kahla to safety as the boulder hurtles past. The mysterious stranger chases off the pursuing tribesmen. Soon afterwards, Lureen’s lion attacks Bill and, when she tends to his wounds in her tent, Bill discovers that she is Ruth Culver. Tonata and Nagoo plan to sacrifice Bill. Threatened from all sides, Bill and Lureen attempt to cross a swamp full of quicksand.

Chapter 7 – Black Panther. The stranger and Kahla save Bill and Lureen from the quicksand. She remains with her tribe while Bill continues the search for a stolen Culver letter that would prove her identity. Kahla serves as a lookout while Bill ransacks Bocar’s house for the letter, is knocked out by Bocar’s henchmen. Bill escapes capture. Kahla revives but springs a trap which throws him into a pit containing a wild black panther.

Chapter 8 – Sinister Schemes. Congo Bill saves Kahla from the panther, and Bernie and Morelli arrive from the USA. Meanwhile, ill is captured and placed under an elaborate torture mechanism. Attempting his rescue, Kahla is knocked out and Bill moves steadily closer to the revolving knife blades and certain death.

Chapter 9 – The Witch Doctor Strikes. Bill is saved by the stranger. Bocar, seeking to make peace with Bill, proposes that he head a new safari organised for Bernie, and Bill decides to play along. Tonata’s tribesmen attack them and Nagoo promises not to harm them, but asks that the expedition take back to Bocar certain goods, really gold he is smuggling. Bill is captured when he trails Nagoo to a sacred temple. Bowmen string their arrows and let fly.

Chapter 10 – Trail Of Treachery. Bill escapes death when Kahla topples a stone idol in the path of the arrows. Nagoo agrees to commute the death sentence. The expedition leaves for Icala, carrying the concealed gold. Bocar plans to highjack the safari at night to obtain the gold, but Lureen sees him and is seized. Attempting to free Lureen, Bill is caught in a noose. He’s left hanging helplessly, head down, when a Bocar man fires at the hanging figure, which suddenly goes limp.

Chapter 11 – A Desperate Chance. Having only pretended to be hit, Bill frees himself and releases Lureen. The mysterious stranger, Cameron (Jack Ingram) and Kahla are captured at Bocar’s hideout, and Congo Bill goes after his friends. Kahla, who has escaped, intercepts Bill and leads him to Cameron. Bernie and Morelli knock out Kahla then overpower Bill and Cameron, rendering them unconscious, while a fire sets off some nearby explosives.

Chapter 12 – The Lair Of The Beast. Congo Bill regains consciousness a few moments before the explosion and drags Cameron to safety, and Kahla manages to join them. Lureen decides to return to Namu to make sure her witch doctor is punished, but she is captured by Nagoo. Congo Bill’s party splits in two, and Cameron is captured by Nagoo and is hypnotised into knifing Bill at the next opportunity.

Chapter 13 – Menace Of The Jungle. Cameron only pretends to kill Bill because he knows he is being watched by Nagoo, who has followed him. Bill and his friends rescue Lureen. Bocar kills Nagoo and then, with his allies, heads back to Icala. Bernie and Bocar quarrel over the gold and there is a split between the two factions. Bernie and Morelli try to eliminate Lureen by letting a dangerous gorilla into her bedroom.

Chapter 14 – Treasure Trap. Congo Bill arrives just in time to save Lureen from being killed. Two of Bill’s friends are captured by Bocar’s men and are taken to his hideout to be questioned. Congo Bill and Kahla follow and free the prisoners, whom Bocar has tied up in the hot sun to loosen their tongues. Bill starts out to locate the hiding place of the gold, but is caught in a deadly trap while one of Bocar’s men stands by to prevent his rescue.

Chapter 15 – The Missing Letter. Bill is saved by Cameron but the small party is trapped with the arrival of additional Bocar men. Bocar sets off a blast by remote control but only destroys his own men. Bocar is seized and Cameron, taking charge of him, reveals himself as a member of Colonial Intelligence, working on the theft of the gold, which was stolen from the government. Bernie and Morelli seize Congo Bill and Kureen, but Bill manages to free himself and subdue his enemies. Bill and Lureen leave for the USA, promising a bigger circus than ever.

In 1954, Congo Bill had a comic book of his own, but it lasted only seven issues because, by then, stories about jungle adventurers seemed rather quaint and uninteresting to a public that hungered for science fiction and superheroes. in 1959 he encountered a rare gold-coloured gorilla who wore a magical ring, and obtained a similar ring from a witch doctor, and used it to transfer his consciousness to that of a gorilla. The beast was known as Congorilla, but the concept never caught on with readers and it was left behind. Years later, Bill was trapped in his gorilla form upon the death of his human body, and becomes the protector of a band of gorillas as well as friend of the South African superhero Freedom Beast. When the gorillas and Freedom Beast are slaughtered by hunters, Congorilla decides to seek justice by killing the villain Prometheus, after which he became a full-time member of the Justice League. During his time with the League, Bill faced off against such foes as the rogue Starheart and Eclipso, and became close friends with Starman and Supergirl. Congorilla ultimately chooses to resign from the League in order to help organise the superheroes of Africa into a more efficient team, as well as to find a worthy successor to carry on Freedom Beast’s legacy. More recently, Congo Bill has shown up in his own four-part miniseries published by Vertigo Comics in 1999, and has the distinction of being one of the longest-running series in the history of DC Comics. And it’s with this uplifting thought in mind I’ll politely ask you to please join me next week to have your innocence violated beyond description while I force you to submit to the horrors of…Horror News! Toodles!

Congo Bill (1948)

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