The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies, Chapter 8: ‘Congo Bill’ (1948)
ScreenCrush editor, comic-book lover, and undiagnosed masochist Matt Singer is systematically watching every single (American) comic-book movie ever made in the order in which they were released. This week in The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies: A dude name Bill who hangs out in the Congo.
Congo Bill (1948)
Director: Spencer Gordon Bennet and Thomas Carr
Writers: George H. Plympton, Arthur Hoerl, and Lewis Clay
Starring: Don McGuire, Cleo Moore, Leonard Penn
Based on: Congo Bill, created by Whitney Ellsworth and George Papp, in More Fun Comics #56.
Onscreen Iteration: First (and only) appearance.
The Best Special Effect: Congo Bill is a jungle adventure serial and Bill himself (Don McGuire) has no super-powers, so the film isn’t heavy on special effects, good, bad, or indifferent. The most impressive visuals involve the occasional appearances by genuine wild animals, who pop up at Bill’s day job at the Culver Circus, and while he’s out on safari in Africa. In the most sensational moment out of all 15 chapters, Bill confronts and then wrestles with a lion. This is no dude in a cheap lion costume; it’s a full-on carnivorous beast, and the footage of McGuire’s stunt double tumbling with the cat while his arm is propped in its gigantic mouth is incredible and terrifying. Normally I would never advocate for putting anyone in harm’s way just for the sake of a few cheap thrills in a movie, but the rest of Congo Bill is so incredibly dull, I’ll make this one exception.
The Worst Special Effect: At the end of Chapter 10, Congo Bill is lured into a trap by his enemies, who’ve tied up the white queen from Africa’s “lost tribe” (Cleo Moore) and left her as bait. Bill steps right into a waiting snare, which hoists him into the air. A lurking henchman aims his pistol and BLAM! — that’s the cliffhanger leading into Chapter 11, which picks up the action and sees Bill go limp after the gunshot. There’s no visible wound whatsoever, but the baddie assumes his prey is dead anyway and leaves without checking his target. After he’s gone, Bill stops playing dead and then releases himself and the queen. I can’t decide if the villain is an absolute moron for not checking Congo Bill’s pulse, or Congo Bill is a genius for exploiting the rule of old movies that states people who get shot bear no physical evidence of their wounds.
Most Dated Moment: Seriously? This is a serial about a white guy who goes by the name “Congo Bill,” who travels to Africa for the express purpose of capturing animals for an American circus. This “primitive” land is ruled by a white queen and a witch doctor (played by Frank Lackteen, a Lebanese-born Russian actor) who dresses like a Native American and leads a “lost tribe” (who aren’t lost; everyone knows exactly where they live) of men and women who dress like Polynesians. Every moment in Congo Bill is the most dated moment.
Most Timeless Moment: Can I say the lion gnawing on the stuntman’s arm again? Otherwise, I got nothing.
Further Thoughts: The Complete History of Comic-Book Movies is finally approaching the end of the serial era of comic-book movies and not a moment too soon. The filmmaking team that produced Congo Bill along with other Columbia serials like Superman were, by this point, rapidly running out of viable plot twists and cliffhangers. Several of the big to-be-continued moments are resolved by characters literally flicking off switches on death traps (thank goodness death traps come with conveniently located off switches!), and others are even more hilariously easy to escape. One involves a “big” boulder that’s about three feet in diameter rolling down a hill. WILL CONGO BILL CASUALLY TAKE ONE STEP TO HIS LEFT IN TIME?!? (Spoiler alert: He will.)
The plot stalling typical of most serials in order to stretch their thin narratives across 15 chapters reaches epic new lows of desperation in Congo Bill. Most of its story hinges on an all-important letter; it proves that a missing woman named Ruth Culver is the rightful heir to the Culver Circus where Congo Bill works. One of the brothers who currently manages the circus entrusts the letter to Congo Bill and sends him to Africa to find Ruth (who, as you might have already guessed, is actually the lost tribe’s white queen). The other brother wants Bill to fail so he can keep the circus, and sends men to steal the letter. The dope who runs the jungle outpost (and dollar-store knockoff of Rick’s Café Américain from Casablanca) where much of Congo Bill is set finds the letter, and then loses it for a dozen chapters because he totally forgets where he left it. This is, in the most literal sense, the dumbest deus ex machina I have ever seen. I would laugh if I wasn’t so terminally bored.
Congo Bill himself isn’t much of a hero, or at least he wasn’t at this point. A simple adventurer with no special abilities (or basic personality traits), the fact that he got a serial at all owes more to the overall popularity of jungle stories like Tarzan and Jungle Jim at the time than anything particularly distinctive about the Congo Bill series itself. A decade after this film was released, the Congo Bill of the comics found his mind transferred to the body of a super-powered gorilla; henceforth, he was known as Congorilla. I think we can all agree that Congorilla is a vastly more appealing character than plain old Congo Bill. Sadly, he was created ten years too late to factor into this film, which could really use an infusion of super-powered talking apes (or really anything of interest whatsoever).
There are many worse comic-book movies than Congo Bill, but few that are less entertaining. At least epic disasters like Steel and Catwoman are compelling in their awfulness; Congo Bill is four hours of interchangeable white dudes in white suits and white hats running around Africa (a.k.a. Southern California very poorly disguised to look like Africa) double-crossing one another over the rights to run a circus. Nobody in the history of the world has cared this much about a circus. Even P.T. Barnum would be like “Forget it dudes, it’s not worth all this hassle. Just open a Pinkberry or something.”
Long, slow, and unexceptional, Congo Bill is a thoroughly skippable portion of comic-book movie history. If they ever made a Congorilla movie, though, that would be pretty awesome.
Congo Bill is currently out-of-print on home video. Bootlegs are available on eBay.