Ken Lynch, one of our readers, contributed this write-up of the movie that started it all.
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Daktari was a spin-off from Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion, a movie in which Marshall Thompson starred and collaborated on the script with Alan Caillou.
Before Daktari was broadcast on American television for the first time in 1966, it had already been a 1965 MGM feature film with the title Clarence the Cross Eyed Lion.
Here are two trailers from the movie:
from Warner Brothers
Discovery of Clarence
Ivan Tors first discovered Clarence at Africa USA, an affection training compound located in Soledad Canyon about 40 miles north of Los Angeles. Born cross-eyed, Clarence’s strange physical condition inspired Ivan Tors to create the feature film.
Because of his unusual condition, Clarence was almost given away as a cub. But Tors, who had a successful track record with animal pictures – Flipper (1963) and Rhino! (1964) – took an interest in the lion and decided he had star potential. “I’ve never seen a cross-eyed lion,” said Tors. “And neither has the rest of the world.”
The trainers even made Clarence a lion-sized pair of glasses which make a cameo appearance in the movie (they proved to be totally ineffective and were eventually discarded). Eventually, Clarence’s vision did improve.
Another not so friendly lion named Leo doubled for Clarence in some scenes. He was used only for the snarling scenes and general scenes which didn’t involve close proximity with humans. Leo had come to Africa USA from a family in Utah. His ferocity was due in part to the mistreatment he received from former owners who reportedly beat him with a stick.
Director Andrew Marton sets up the family-friendly history for the series: the veterinary surgeon Dr. Marsh Tracy (Marshall Thompson) leading the animal research station Wameru Study Center in East Africa with his daughter Paula (Cheryl Miller), whose favourite animal is a python (Mary Lou). The film also starred Betsy Drake as a Dian Fossey-inspired love interest. Clarence is soon adopted by Paula and later saves the day when Drake and her research gorillas are threatened by poachers.
Richard Haydn (from Sound of Music) plays a bumbling tutor. (co-screenwriter) plays the local District Officer – again a character that was replicated as Hedley in the series.
Clarence the Cross Eyed Lion was an excellent family-oriented animal adventure film with plenty of human interaction and comedy.
Marshall Thompson is really convincing as the head of the animal study compound who, as a widow, must take care of his teenage daughter Paula who is a bit of tom-boy but is growing up into a woman (she tapes her stockings to her thighs with masking tape to hold them up).
Betsy Drake (the former Mrs. Cary Grant) is Julie Harper who is the romantic interest for Dr. Tracy. Richard Haydn is excellent as the comic relief Rupert Rowbotham.
Add some wrestling with wild cheetahs, a few dangerous gorilla poachers, the antics of Doris the chimpanzee (Judy) and, of course, Clarence and what you have is one of the most consistently entertaining of the African animal adventure films.
The movie was a mixture of safaris, animals and adventure with some humour. A particular technique used during the film was showing the world from the view of the cross eyed lion. Authentic film footage of gorillas, shot in their natural habitat, adds to the realism.
Success leads to Daktari
The original movie was such a large public success that it led actor Marshall Thompson together with experienced producer Ivan Tors to continue the format in television as Daktari.
Here is a slide show of pictures from the movie. You can order Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion from Amazon.
And here are pictures from Ken’s collection
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