Pamela Muir is a lovely veterinarian, who thinks the animals should run free. Steve Stratton is a hunter, who hires natives to assist with the capture and care of the animals. One day Stratton fires one of the locals. To get revenge, the former employee frees the animals just before a wealthy buyer is to arrive. Unfortunately, Stratton blames Odongo, an innocent young boy, for the crime. Heretofore, Odongo believed Stratton cared for him. The distraught Odongo runs off into the dangerous wilds. Muir and Stratton are forced to put aside their differences and search for him. Written by
Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn persuaded Rhonda Fleming an African trip and her choice of leading man from contract players Macdonald Carey and Jack Lemmon as leading man. She opted for the more experienced Carey and added in a 1994 interview, "I think Jack owes me for not making 'Odongo'" See more »
When Odongo calls Missy in the first scene, a collar and chain are seen around her neck in the first shot, but these are missing in subsequent shots. See more »
When I saw that ODONGO (1956) starred Rhonda Fleming and Macdonald Carey, I assumed it would be another African potboiler with an embittered hero, a footloose American girl, some steamy romance, and lots of chases through the jungle and battles with the natives and such. (Think JIVARO, with Fleming and Fernando Lamas.) Imagine my surprise when the film's credits came on accompanied by a jaunty, saccharine children's song about "Odongo, the animals' friend" (sung by the Coronets). For a second there, I thought I'd slipped in a copy of "Kimba, the White Lion." What was this film going to be about?
Well, it turns out to be a mildly entertaining tale about the antics of captured African animals and their human keepers and caretakers. Carey plays Steve Stratton, a hunter who collects animals for zoos and circuses, and Fleming plays Pamela Muir, the shapely red-headed veterinarian newly hired to monitor the health of the animals being held for their buyers. When Stratton had hired "P.J. Muir," he didn't know she was a woman and is a bit upset, thinking the job will be too much for her. He urges her to leave but allows her to stay until he can find a new vet. In the meantime, there are plenty of animals to take care of and Muir plunges into her work with courage and dedication. Odongo is a spirited adolescent Indian boy (played by Juma) who works for Stratton, feeding and caring for the animals and also serving the whites at dinnertime. (Man, do they work this poor kid.) Stratton is an occasionally harsh father figure to the boy, scolding him for developing overly close relationships with the animals and taking him hunting to try to get him to learn to shoot antelopes (to get meat for the camp), all to no avail. The boy can't bring himself to kill.
Most of the film consists of slices of life in and around the camp and on the hunts for new animals. At one point, natives seek help when a woman in their village has complications during childbirth. Stratton refuses, but Muir insists on going and helping out. Serious conflict is introduced when Walla, a disgruntled native who'd been fired by Stratton, sneaks into camp one night, frees all the animals and then sets fire to the place. Odongo is blamed for the crime and he runs away. Walla finds Odongo and abducts him. When Walla is identified as the culprit by a wounded witness, whites and local natives join in the hunt. The chase is on.
It's not clear what audience the film was aimed at. There's more than enough animal antics and interaction with the endearing Odongo to make child viewers happy and comedy relief is provided when a visiting English buyer arrives with his ditzy wife and spoiled son. However, the adult drama involving Muir and Stratton and their inevitable romance might bore the kiddies, even though it does a good job of holding adults' interest, especially if, like me, you're a huge fan of Rhonda Fleming. Still, there's enough animal action sprinkled throughout to make the whole thing worthwhile viewing overall. Some amusing bits include a chimp playing with a dog and a baby rhino palling around with an elephant family.
Some of the actions might strike modern sensibilities as unnecessarily cruel. At one point when Stratton and his crew come upon a herd of elephants, Stratton barks out the order, "I want three babies," and the crew obliges him. The notion that it's okay to blithely steal elephant babies away from their mothers simply to feed the appetites of zoo and circus audiences is not one that would find easy acceptance today.
The film mixes location scenes of the actors in Africa with shots of them in studio recreations. One unconvincing bit has Rhonda in the studio covering her eyes and ducking as elephants stampede around her in rear projection. Her hair and makeup never even get mussed. Still, she does interact often enough with actual wildlife, including a lame elephant, a rowdy chimpanzee named "Ugly Puss," and various lion cubs to earn props for the kind of fearlessness that few Technicolor glamour queens of the time would have displayed.
The two leads are both very good and their characters are a bit more layered than they'd be in an actual full-fledged children's film. Juma, who plays Odongo, seems at home with all the animals and appears to be having a great time. He also played a character named Odongo the same year in a much more violent African adventure, SAFARI, which, like ODONGO, was a Warwick Film Production (England). There are some notable Anglo-African actors in the cast, including Earl Cameron and Errol John as two of Stratton's native assistants, and Dan Jackson as Walla. Cameron had a key role in the English racial drama, SAPPHIRE (1959), and appeared as James Bond's Bahamian contact in THUNDERBALL (1965). John appeared in THE SINS OF RACHEL CADE, PT 109 and GUNS AT BATASI. Jackson co-starred as Neb in MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961) and appeared in the pirate adventure, A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA. This was an English film co-produced with Columbia Pictures.
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