The jungle adventure, East of Borneo, is today’s Trillion Dollar Movie. This 1931 film has been largely forgotten, overshadowed by King Kong, the Tarzan movies, Island of Lost Souls, The Most Dangerous Game and other escapist jungle fare that Hollywood created in the early years of the Depression.
That’s unfortunate, because East of Borneo is well worth watching. It’s not as epic as King Kong or as tightly scripted as The Most Dangerous Game, but the wild animal thrills rival any from the Tarzan flicks. Witness the scene of a condemned prisoner forced to swim in a lagoon crawling with ravenous, flailing crocodiles. This was before CGI, so these humongous crocodiles were real, and altogether terrifying. Director George Melford filmed the perils with such realism that he came to be typecast, following this assignment with East of Java as well as Jungle Menace and Jungle Terror.
The tale takes a little while to pick up speed, but stick with it — the second half rocks, including a magnificent volcano eruption that rains down fire and brimstone on the jungle kingdom of Marudu. That’s where an alcoholic doctor played by Charles Bickford has gone to lick his wounds, after mistakenly presuming that his wife (Rose Hobart from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) has been cheating on him. She tracks him down, hoping to patch up their estranged marriage, but he wants nothing to do with her. Of course, he has a change of heart after Marudu’s impervious and Sorbonne-educated rajah, Prince Hashim (Georges Renavent), starts making a play for his woman. The jealous doctor snarls, “White women are bad enough in their own environment, but when you get them into the jungle…”
It’s a little melodramatic by today’s standards, but not so much to be relegated to the scrapheap. One side note: The servant girl Neila is portrayed by Lupita Tovar, fresh off her appearance in the Spanish-language version of Dracula, directed by Melford and filmed at nights on the same set as the Bela Lugosi version. This Mexican-born beauty, the mother of actress Susan Kohner, is still alive and kicking, having celebrated her 102nd birthday earlier this year. Enjoy, and do return next Friday for another Trillion $ Movie.