Wednesday, May 25, 2022

KING OF THE KONGO: The 1929 Cliffhanger Serial

The year was 1929. Mascot Pictures, a relatively new movie studio, produced what would become the first cliffhanger serial with sound. A Secret Service agent searches the jungle for his missing brother, also an agent. He encounters a young woman there who is also searching, but for her missing father. They encounter a gang of ivory smugglers who hold a prisoner who knows the secrets of the missing people and a lost treasure. The pair are also menaced by a giant gorilla which guards the temple which is the smugglers' lair.

King of the Kongo featured dialogue and sound on discs which required the movie theaters to play the discs in sync with the movie. As each chapter of the "part talking" version began, it looked like a typical silent film with title cards. It was accompanied by synchronized sound effects and music recorded on large discs similar to record albums. In the middle of each chapter there are several segments where the title cards stop and a full dialog sequence commences. After a few minutes the dialog on the audio stopped and the title cards resumed - again accompanied by just music and effects. This was one of several techniques used in the late 1920's for making films that were not fully a talkie and not fully a silent either. The "sound on disc" system quickly fell out of favor for "sound on film" which provided better synchronization of the dialog with the video.

Boris Karloff faces off against the mad gorilla.

Karloff in a life-or-death struggle.
Photo is a screen capture from the restored version.

A complete 10-chapter copy of the silent version of this serial is held by the UCLA Film and Television Archives. The version which survives on home video among collectors is the “part talking” version, but it is missing the original audio. For years there were rumors that a private collector was known to own a number of the original sound discs, but holding on to them jealously. Such rumors are not uncommon among film buffs and, if true, is usually the result of why film preservation never meets fruition.


Walter Miller, an actor who, like Ben Wilson, was often featured in those silent cliffhanger serials, shared time with a man in a gorilla suit and a rising Hollywood star named Boris Karloff. With such titles as “Terrors of the Jungle,” “Temple of Beasts,” “Man of Mystery,” and “Jungle Justice,” you can imagine why fans of cliffhanger serials have been eagerly awaiting someone to put both time and effort into restoring this cliffhanger with those sound discs.


Thankfully, a film preservationist named Eric Grayson became the man to spearhead such a restoration project and it looks like the serial will finally be available on DVD and a restored version using today’s technology.

Eric posted a Kickstarter to raise the funds to have the serial completed and released on DVD and Blu-Ray. I am pleased to say he reached his goal and (according to the projected timeline) the serial will be in the hands of fans like myself within a few months. I have said it many times and I will say it again. How much a collector has or what they have will not impress me. What they did to preserve their holdings can impress me. Which is why, when the Blu-Ray is in my hands, I will be giving Eric a virtual five-five with praise on social media. 


If you want to check out a fascinating five-minute video revealing how much work went into the restoration, along with screen comparisons, visit the link below. And, if you want to financially support his work, contact Eric directly to pre-order your Blu-Ray.