Lola Lane was the oldest and least talented of the three Lane sisters; she was also the one with the campiest forename. (The others were Priscilla and Rosemary.) 'Zanzibar' is a B-movie campfest, and Lola Lane was a good choice for the ludicrous lead role. In some ways, this pull-the-stops-out movie reminds me of Tod Browning's 'West of Zanzibar' ... partly because of the title, partly because of both films' equally dodgy backlot versions of darkest Africa, and partly because the heroine of this movie is named Browning.
Jan Browning (Lola Lane) is a woman big-game hunter; I suppose that such a character was vaguely plausible to movie audiences at this time, as they would have seen Osa Johnson starring in some popular documentaries featuring *genuine* footage of Africa. This is 1940, and World War Two is going blazes in Europe and the Pacific, but you'd expect Jan to be safe in Oonga-Boonga Land. (The dialogue says this place is Zanzibar, but it looks more like Oonga-Boonga Land.) Well, maybe not. It seems that those pesky Nazis are planning to colonise Zanzibar and use the natives for slave labour. Those Nazis just don't know when they're not wanted. The British consul (who has an American accent) orders Jungle Jan to get svelte in the veldt and come back with the sacred skull of an African tribal chief. (He's already dead, so it's not as if he actually needs his skull anymore.) It seems that the superstitious natives worship this Nigerian noggin, so whichever white nation gets hold of it will be regarded as Bwana by the natives.
On her quest to find the McGuffin cranium and bring it back alive (or dead), Jan gets tied to a stake (nice bondage scene) and she also has to contend with some stock footage of an erupting volcano, plus stock footage of a shipwreck and some lethargic lions. Watch out! Stock footage!
This movie has the feel of an old-time adventure serial, with perils plaguing the heroine, one at a time, in rapid series. The cast is a notch above what one normally expects from a serial. Eduardo Ciannelli plays a Nazi villain with a Polish name. The Anglo-German character actor Henry Victor gives one of his quirky performances; Victor was tall, good-looking and a talented actor who might have touched stardom if he could have controlled his erratic accent. The black American actor Clarence Muse, who (in real life) spoke in a cultured voice befitting his education and his high intelligence, is lumbered here with another of the pidgin-English roles that plagued him throughout his long career's struggle against racist typecasting.
'Zanzibar' is campy fun, spoilt by a few racist assumptions. We can't let those nasty Nazis exploit the African natives, but apparently it's OK for the British to play Bwana if they wanna. Ah, well. It would be unfair to compare this movie to 'Citizen Kane' or 'The Battleship Potemkin', but - within the standards of its own genre - I'll rate 'Zanzibar' 7 points out of 10. Unga-bunga-boonga!
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