From Jungle Princess to Queen of Sarongs

The Jungle Princess is perhaps best known for launching the career of Dorothy Lamour, who went on to play many more sarong-clad characters (such as Jungle Love [1938] and the popular Road to… series [1940-1962]). However, it also received rave reviews for its use of Malay dialogue and the re-creation of a Malayan jungle.


Starring Ray Milland as earnest, if not often clueless, Christopher, who is injured and nursed back to health by a Malay who had spent her life living in the wild, played by Dorothy Lamour, this Tarzan-like film also features a love triangle when Christopher has to choose between Ulah and his English fiancee. The film also tips its hat to our old friend Frank Buck, with Lynne Overman playing a senior explorer named ‘Frank’. In fact, Overman’s character was praised for offering a much needed comedic relief ‘just when the love story begins to be a little tiresome’.[1]

While the animal scenes were impressive, with elephant stampedes, tigers roaming alongside Ulah, and a climatic scene of simians charging through the village to save their Jungle Princess, less attention was perhaps paid to the plausibility of a chimpanzee being found in Malaya.

Local audiences were however, able to overlook the false sets because of some attempts at the use of Malay language. Indeed, Lamour sings admirably in Malay, buoyed further by her beautiful voice (she was after all a radio crooner before this first foray into film). In fact local papers advertised the film as “The First Jungle Picture with REAL MALAY spoken.” (see poster featured above)

It was the combination of the use of Malay, and the familiar jungle setting, was what made Jungle Princess a hit even with Netherlands East Indies. According to the manager of Paramount films in Java,

Films like ‘Jungle Princess’ with Dorothy Lamour were being shown in the smallest kampoungs and natives, never having seen a film before, packed the halls when they learned that they could hear their own language’.
TPJ-article 1

N.I’s Native Cinema Audiences Are Liking Jungle Films, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942), 12 July 1938, p. 3

While such statements reek of colonial assumptions about local populations, there is perhaps some truth that Hollywood films featuring portions of dialogue that locals understand better would draw more crowds. Whether the local population turned up laughing at the jokes or at the ways the actors delivered their lines, however, will remain unknown. It seems that the Jungle Princess made at least one linguistic mistake. Adidah Amin, in a 1989 Straits Times article discussing the finer subtleties of saying ‘I love you’ in Malay, states

Sure, a sarong-clad Dorothy L’amour in Jungle Princess sang “Moonlight and shadows…saya cinta lu, my sweet!” but no self-respecting Malay of that time, sarong-clad or otherwise, would ever utter such a phrase.[2]

No discussion of the Jungle Princess can escape the sarong-clad Dorothy Lamour. Supposedly beating fifty other actresses for this job, with her bravery (to act alongside the tiger) and her beauty, Lamour had to douse herself in grease paint and memorise the Malay lines to play a convincing Jungle princess.

tjp-article 2

New York Post, 19 Dec 1936, p. 9

With this role, Lamour catapulted herself into Hollywood as the indisputable sarong queen. Tired of being typecast and as part of a publicity stunt for Paramount’s mystery-comedy My Favorite Brunette (1947), she publicly burned a sarong in 1946. Nevertheless, she would continue to don the sarong for roles in the immensely popular Road to… series. Despite only 11 out of her 34 films featuring her donned in the sarong, they were the ones which turned out to be hits at box offices. As film scholar Ethan de Seife argues, it was a combination of the audience’s preferences and Lamour’s charm which led Paramount to persistently cast her as such:

Like any actress, Dorothy Lamour presented the studio with a difficult problem: how to exploit the particular characteristics and/or talents of a particular performer? But, though the solution to this problem will differ for every performer, the process of finding the solution is business as usual. Lamour happened to look good in a sarong, and the public happened to have a corresponding appetite for South Seas pictures.[3]

Join us for the screening of The Jungle Princess, featuring animals out of their natural habitats, Malay dialogue, and the Dorothy Lamour as the inimitable sarong party girl. 19 Jun, Wed, 7pm at the NUS Museum.

[1] ‘Jungle Princess’ Entertaining to Old and Young Alike’, Schenectady Gazette, 30 Jan 1937, p 8

[2] To find out a more suitable way to express your love in Malay, check out Adidah Amin, ‘“I love you” is fine … but not “Aku cinta kau”’, The Straits Times, 3 July 1989, p. 5

[3] For more about Lamour’s career, check out Ethan de Seife ‘What’s Sarong with this Picture? The Development of the Star Image of Dorothy Lamour’, Senses of Cinema, last updated October 2002 [Cited 14 June 2013]. Thanks to Trina Bong for highlighting this article.


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