The Lost Messenger (Selig, 1915)
Another splendid jungle adventure from our old pal Colonel Selig.
Charles Clancy (Earle Foxe), a representative of the Great American Circus, is in Africa trapping exotic animals — mostly large cats, but also a zebra, a rhino, and an elephant. He meets John Gladding (Fred Hearn), a trader who lives in the jungle with his daughter Kate (Vivian Reed). John is sick with the plague. Charles offers to stay with them, but John insists that his daughter will see him through.
The very instant that Charles leaves, John dies. The native servants, evidently frightened by the plague (and I don’t see why they shouldn’t be), refuse to stay in the cabin and all but one flee. Kate is left alone with Wamba (Walter Beckwith). She sends him out with a message to Charles.
The very instant that Wamba leaves, a lion pounces on him and he’s killed. Unlike in The Last Man (1924), where the menacing puma was just a dummy, a very real lion jumps on the stunt man here and falls on top of him when they hit the ground. This is happening literally steps from the door, but Kate doesn’t seem to hear it. She’s in the cabin with a couple of tame leopards. She’s holding a stick and doing some kind of circus act with them while her father’s corpse is presumably in the corner of the room… you know, this is a really weird scene. Anyway, she evidently decides that she needs some air.
The very instant that Kate leaves, a growling tiger rushes for her. She runs back inside. The tiger paces in front of the door. She reaches for the pistol at her hip, but that won’t do. She instead takes an elephant gun from the wall and loads a cartridge. She shoots through the window, but I guess she was aiming at the lion? I don’t know, but the tiger doesn’t care and I guess she doesn’t have any more bullets. She opens the door and commands the leopards to attack… and they do. They kill the tiger (or rather, they roll around with a tiger puppet for a while) and Kate calls them back inside.
A year passes. Charles is back in the jungle, or maybe he never left, but at any rate he finds the sun-bleached skeleton of Wamba, and on that faithful lost messenger, he finds Kate’s cry for help. He rushes to the cabin but it’s not so much a rescue as Kate and her leopards seem to be perfectly fine. Back at the boat (there’s a boat evidently), someone named Tom writes to Charles that they’re ready to leave and he’d better come aboard. Charles writes back that he’s staying with his new wife.
The story is nutty and I love it. I expected that, but what I wasn’t expecting was how well shot the film is. It looks much, much better than it has any right to, with some creative framing, well-timed cuts, and appropriate reaction inserts. I think that the legitimately good cinematography coupled with the supremely kitschy storyline really elevates the film to something special. It’s different from The Last Man, which really only works on a so bad it’s good level. This is an unusual but entertaining mix of good-bad meets good-good.
My rating: I like it.