Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Jungle Adventure Cycle That Never Was

There have been several occasions in this blog that I have written about various cycles in American television. A cycle is perhaps most simply defined as a trend or fad towards certain types of programming. The best example of a cycle may be the one towards Westerns in the Fifties. This cycle began in 1955 with the success of such series as Gunsmoke and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. It lasted until 1960, a full five years. There were times during the Western cycle when there was a Western on one of the networks every night--often more than one. A more recent example of a television cycle is the one towards police procedurals that began with the success of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Starting in 2000, it seems to me that the police procedural cycle is only just now coming to an end.

Of course, not all cycles last as long as either the Western cycle or police procedural cycle. Many only last two to three years. And then there are those cycles that never really begin. Such was the case with jungle adventure series in the Sixties. Within a two year period three different shows (four if one counts a Saturday morning cartoon) set in the jungle debuted on American television. Only one of these series saw any real success and, perhaps as a result, a cycle towards jungle adventures never got off the ground.

Here it should be pointed out that while jungle adventure was something new to network television in the Sixties, it was nothing new to local television stations in the United States. With the success of the Tarzan movies, jungle adventure was a popular movie genre in the Thirties,Forties, and Fifties. Movie series devoted to such characters as Jungle Jim and Bomba the Jungle Boy saw some degree of success. Naturally, these movies found their way to television in the Fifties and Sixties. Eventually, television would produce its own syndicated jungle adventure shows. The earliest of these may have been Ramar of the Jungle. The series featured Jon Hall as Dr. Tom Reynolds (AKA Ramar), a physician who operated in the jungles. It ran in first run syndication from 1952 to 1954 and many years afterwards in reruns.

The success of Ramar of the Jungle may have led to two more jungle adventure series, both airing in the 1955-1956 season. Jungle Jim was based on the comic strip of the same name, upon which the movie series starring former Tarzan, Johnny Weismuller, was also based. The TV series did not see the success of either the comic strip or the movie series and lasted only one season. The other jungle adventure show to debut that season also lasted only one year, but it is somewhat better remembered. Sheena, Queen of the Jungle was based on the comic book character of the same name, created by the legendary Will Eisner and S.M. "Jerry" Iger. Irish McCalla played the lead role, admitting, "I couldn't act, but I could swing through the trees." While the series only lasted one season in first run, it has been remembered ever since, if for no other reason than McCalla's statuesque form and her somewhat scanty (for the era) costume.

The jungle adventure shows of the Fifties were made primarily for a juvenile audience and would probably appear very unsophisticated to the eyes of modern viewers. Not only were they shot on budgets even smaller than many of the jungle adventure movies that preceded them, not only was the acting and writing often less than desirable, but they featured the sort of colonial attitudes and racism that would very slowly fade from view in the late Twentieth century.

Indeed, there was very little of the sort of colonial attitudes that permeated the Fifties jungle adventure shows to be found in their counterparts in the Sixties. The Sixties jungle adventure series were a bit more sophisticated. In fact, they were made to appeal to adults as well as children. Regardless, they saw very little success. In fact, even the king of the jungle adventure genre, Tarzan could not master the Nielsen ratings.

Tarzan was the first of the jungle adventure series to debut in the Sixties, on NBC on September 8, 1966. Tarzan came to television courtesy of Sy Weintraub, the man who had produced the last few Tarzan movies, and starred Ely in the title role. Ron Ely's Tarzan was a sharp contrast to the Tarzan of the Johnny Weismuller movies. Having returned to the jungle after receiving an education in civilisation, Tarzan spoke in more than monosyllables. Jane was nowhere to be seen on the series, although the chimpanzee Cheeta was still around. While Tarzan had seen success in both books and movies, it would seem success in television would escape him. The Sixties series Tarzan lasted only two seasons. Other series based on the adventures of the apeman that have aired since have fared no better.

While Tarzan was still in its first season, the second jungle adventure show debuted as a mid-season replacement. Daktari first aired on CBS on January 11, 1966. The show followed the adventures of Dr. Marsh Tracy (Marshall Thompson), a veterinarian at Wameru Study Center for Animal Behavior in East Africa. It was based on the 1965 movie Clarence the Cross Eyed Lion and developed by legendary television producer Ivan Tors. Daktari received very good ratings in its earliest seasons, even ranking in the Top Twenty Five shows for the year at one point. Success would not last for Daktari, however, as its ratings declined in its final year. In all, it would last only three seasons. As to why the show saw more success than either of the other two prime time jungle adventure shows, it is perhaps because it was slightly different from the usual jungle adventure show. With a hero who was a veterinarian, episodes of Daktari often focused on animals as opposed to the usual diamond smugglers and corrupt hunters (although it featured those as well).

The final jungle adventure series of the Sixties was Cowboy in Africa, which debuted on ABC on September 11, 1967. Also developed by Ivan Tors, the series was based on the 1967 movie Africa: Texas Style and starred Chuck Connors as a cowboy hired to introduce American ranching methods to a game ranch in Kenya. Featuring a protagonist who was a champion rodeo rider in Africa, the series blended both Western and jungle adventure genres. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Cowboy in Africa did not last long. It went off the air after one season.

As of September 1967, there was a jungle adventure show airing on each of the networks. In fact, it could be argued that one network actually had two, although one of its jungle adventure shows aired on Saturday morning. George of the Jungle was an animated series produced by Jay Ward and Bill Scott, the men also responsible for The Bullwinkle Show and many other classic cartoons. It debuted on ABC in September 1967. The primary segment of George of the Jungle was a sly parody of Tarzan and other jungle adventurers. Although incredibly strong, George is as dim witted as they come. He believes that his elephant Shep is a big dog and does not seem to realise his friend Ursula is a girl. Adding to the humour of the show is the fact that George's friend Ape (his name is the same as his species) is a very adroit intellectual. George of the Jungle ran a few seasons on Saturday morning before going on to a healthy syndication run.

As stated earlier, by September 1967 every network had their own jungle adventure series. By September 1969 every one of these shows would be gone. And despite the novelty of a jungle adventure series being on each of the networks (a situation that has never happened again), there was no rush on the part of the networks to produce more. It all came down to ratings. Except for Daktari in its first two seasons, none of the jungle adventure series on prime time network television performed well in the Nielsens. The networks then probably saw no point in creating more jungle adventure series.

As to why the networks seized upon the jungle adventure genre to begin with, that may have been due to two factors. The first was perhaps the fact that many of the old jungle adventure movies (from Tarzan to the movies of actress Acquanetta) had been released in syndication to television in the Fifties. Noticing the popularity of the jungle adventure movies on local stations, network executives may have naturally looked to the genre for the next hit. Another factor may have been the fact that the Sixties saw several movies set, if not in the jungle, then at least in Africa. Beyond the usual Tarzan movies, there were also such varied films as Hatari, Call Me Bwana, Zulu, and Born Free. Indeed, it is notable that Tarzan, Daktari, and Cowboy in Africa were all spun off from films.

As to why the Sixties jungle adventure series failed, the reasons may be no farther than George of the Jungle. The reason that George of the Jungle worked so effectively as a parody is the fact that the jungle adventure genre had been done to death by the Sixties. It can be argued that Ruyard Kipling more or less invented the genre with The Jungle Book (although it is set in India rather than Africa). Edgar Rice Burroughs popularised jungle adventure with the Tarzan novels (first published in 1912). Naturally, movies, comic strips, and comic books followed--the first Tarzan movie was released all the way back in 1918. By the Sixties there would be little wonder if the genre was a bit tired and shopworn. And while the Sixties jungle adventure shows were a bit more sophisticated than their predecessors, they were still rife with many of the cliches of the genre. The basic plots seen in Ramar of the Jungle and Sheena, Queen of the Jungle in the Sixties could still be seen in the Sixties Tarzan series and Cowboy in Africa. It is perhaps notable that Daktari, which departed somewhat from the jungle adventure formula, was the most successful of the three shows. Quite simply, if a cycle towards jungle adventure on the American television networks never quite got off the ground in the Sixties, it might have been because these particular shows did not add very much new to the genre. Regardless, it is perhaps remarkable that there was a point in the Sixties that three (or four, if you count George of the Jungle) jungle adventure shows aired in the same season on the American television networks.

1 comment:

d. chedwick bryant said...

hmmmm... I watch so many old movies--and I love all of the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies. Jane was pretty cool, and Cheetah was magnificent! Johnny was easy on the eyes and you knew he was smart and kind even though he was a man of few words. (A Gary Cooper type in that way )

I wonder if nature shows and people like Steve Irwin can help bring the Jungle theme back again.

The hospital theme is one I have no interest in--

I never gave cycles and themes much thought before.