J …is for

The Jungle Goddess


The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913), now considered the first true serial, had thrilled moviegoers with its unfamiliar locations, its exotic characters, and its remarkable wild animal scenes. By the early 1920s, a cycle of jungle-themed serials capitalized on that popular fascination and created much audience excitement. The fifteen-part The Adventures of Tarzan, for example, released in December, 1921, starred Elmo Lincoln, who had played the title role in the 1918 feature film Tarzan of the Apes, a box-office success that convinced producers such films could be extremely profitable for their studios. Unsurprisingly, other jungle serials quickly followed, including Universal’s The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, which drew on its literary source but exhausted the original story early on and relied on a lot of absurdity to reach its eighteenth and final episode.

Stanley in Africa (1922), a picturization of the search for the lost Dr. Livingstone, similarly required some rather heavy embellishments with various fictional details and subplots in order to extend the serial. A Dangerous Adventure, released that same year, was plagued by animal attacks and other production problems but nonetheless brought moviegoers into a jungle storm, to a volcano, and into a lion’s pit, a leopard’s cave, a hippo’s swamp, and a tiger’s lair.

The Jungle Goddess was one of the most elaborate jungle films ever produced.

One of the best jungle serials, however, was William Selig’s The Jungle Goddess (1922), state-righted for distribution by the Export-Import Film Company. Directed by James Conway, with a scenario by Frank Mitchell Dazey and Agnes Christine Johnston, it was, Kalton Lahue reported, more elaborate in its production values, more daring in its presentation, and more expensive than any of Selig’s earlier ventures (including the company’s first jungle serial Miracles of the Jungle [1921], also directed by Conway, in which two Secret Service officers are sent in search of a murderer to Africa). The Jungle Goddess used more than 470 of the animals in the private zoo that Selig maintained in the Lincoln Park area of Los Angeles, and it employed numerous massive sets, including a large jungle-god set that reportedly took two months to build. The stunts were similarly sensational: for instance, twenty lions housed in the stone god were involved in a hair-raising rescue of the heroine, the climax of which occurred when a large elephant swung his trunk around a trapped lion and threw it viciously to the ground, killing it. As the trade papers noted, the animal sequences produced enough thrills to excite even the most hard-boiled fan. The serial also distinguished itself by its multitude of villains—three different ones in all. According to Lahue, as soon as one was killed off, another took his place.


The plot was equally exciting. The young heroine Betty Castleton, daughter of an English lord, is kidnapped and placed in the basket of a balloon (a familiar serial device), which is accidentally cut loose and takes flight. After drifting for several days, the balloon sails over Africa, where it is shot down by natives’ flaming arrows. Although little Betty is offered as a sacrifice to the lions, she survives the encounter. Believing her to be a white goddess, the natives adopt her; and she lives among them for many years until one of her former childhood playmates comes in search of her. His search involves many risks and numerous harrowing adventures, but eventually the two are reunited. The risks and adventures continue as the pair travels through Africa, India, and China in an attempt to return to civilization.

The acting, especially by the two actresses who portrayed Betty (the young Vonda Phelps and the older Elinor Field), was excellent; and the direction by James Conway was strong. But it was the “reality” of the jungle, with its elaborate sets, that was most impressive. Selig demonstrated once again why he was the master of animal pictures. Audiences were also titillated by the somewhat risqué depiction of the older Betty, clad in her bare-backed jungle dress and animal-tooth necklace.

Betty (Elinor Field) with one of the many animals in the film.

The jungle craze would continue, especially in the feature films of the 1930s, when Tarzan, Mighty Joe Young, and King Kong would dominate the silver screen and rule the box-office.

Betty as the “jungle goddess.”



Survival Status: According to the Columbia Women Film Pioneers Project, several episodes (some complete, some only one-reel), survive at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Director: James Conway

Release Date: May 15, 1922

Release Company: William N. Selig Productions, distributed (on a State Right basis) by Export-Import Film Company.

Cast: Elinor Field (Betty Castleton), Truman Van Dyke (Ralph Dean), Vonda Phelps (Betty as a young girl), Marie Pavis (Betty’s mother), Lafe McKee (Chief Obar Sen), Olin Francis (High Priest), William Platt (Constable), L. M. Wells (Dr. James Scranton), George Reed (Native Guide).

Episodes: 1. Sacrificed to The Lions (three reels, with the rest of the episodes in two reels). 2. The City of Blind Waters. 3. Saved by the Great Ape. 4. The Hell Ship. 5. Wild Beasts in Command. 6. Sky High with A Leopard. 7. The Rajah’s Revenge. 8. The Alligator’s Victim. 9. At Grips with Death. 10. The Leopard Woman. 11. Soul of Buddha. 12. Jaws of Death. 13. Cave of Beasts. 14. Jungle Terrors. 15. The Mad Lion.