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Although he is one of the movies' most-filmed characters, Tarzan's biggest smash was through Johnny Weissmuller at MGM where the Olympic swimmer's physique made ogling a national sport. The opening segment skipped the Lord of the Jungle's origins, and later instalments gave him a son and eventually had him fighting Nazis and dictators. But some of the spirit of the books remains in the first few features, soon to be replaced by the MGM patina of glamour even in the remote African jungle.
Warners' massive disc set includes the first six features before the Tarz-dude was demoted to RKO. As most readers will want the quality report, I'll start with that first: All the shows are in tip-top shape. The first two look considerably older and less fresh, mainly because they were so popular that they were printed to death before the middle 1930s when decent duplication stocks were created so that original negatives wouldn't be worn to pieces. They can't restore what they ain't got.
The four-disc set pairs two features per disc out of chronological order, with a fourth disc for extras. All that's lacking is Carol Burnett doing her imitation Tarzan yell, the yodeling cry that's one of the most recognizable sounds of the 20th century.
The first film was shot fast by "one take" Woody Van Dyke on sets built to match the look of stock footage not used in Trader Horn, MGM's extravagant feature made two years before. The film also makes extensive use of the MGM's private zoo, where real apes and a rhino were trained for use in the film. There are lots of fake apes and crocodiles and the Indian elephants have fake African ears and sometimes tusks, but the scenes thrilled audiences back then. The structure boils down to a lot of animal attacks via rear-projection screens and other tricks; both Tarzan and his monkey friends run a gauntlet of menace every time they need to do what bears do in the woods. The wildest shot makes it look as though an elephant carries Tarzan by holding only Weissmuller's head in his mouth.
Tarzan the Ape Man is a terrific rape fantasy that shows lovely Maureen O'Sullivan (Hannah and her Sisters) tickled pink to be carried off by the big naked he-man, not to the Casbah but instead to a bug-infested nest high in the trees. She's contantly screaming in delight. When he's not punching her black and blue (Tarz has difficulty learning names) they're swinging through the forest on vines and poorly-disguised trapezes in what is clearly a substitute for sex. We do get a fairly overt fade out and lo-o-ong hold on a black screen followed by a very satisfied morning-after Jane. This being a pre- Hays Code film, we easily understand that they've done the deed. And they aren't even married. 1
Giant hunk Johnny Weissmuller is lean and has muscles but isn't musclebound - he's a sex symbol for girls and a virile role model for boys. Poor top-billed Neil Hamilton (from TV's Batman) is a pleasant stoop totally outclassed by Jane's newly-found nature boy. He's there to find a place called the Elephant Graveyard but only gets to stay long enough to bury Jane's father. This pachyderm boneyard is indeed peculiar. Every mortally wounded elephant wanders there automatically, apparently from anywhere in Africa. Nobody ever explains how the giant animals climb the Mutia Escarpment, a sheer cliff face that Burroughs (or the screenwriters) seem to have borrowed from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World.
I'll get the racial evaluations over right away - these pictures are not going to be appreciated by African Americans as they represent the lowest common denominator in prejudice. Most westerns allowed American Indians some sort of respect but the African natives are seen as animal-like savages to be "hired" and then whipped. They are superstitious to a fault, always ready to scream. The third world is a mass of subhuman tribes killing each other in gruesome ways, with their only hope being the wisdom and civilization of the White Man. Much is said in these scripts about the superiority of the jungle over civilization, but the black inhabitants are treated like an inconvenient blight in this Eden, good only for massacres and gory tortures.
Here's the best of the bunch. It's still pre-code even though its strongest scene, a nude swim, had to be trimmed and was only restored years later. Maureen O'Sullivan's loincloth costume is eyebrow-raising; after the code came in she was re-fitted for a full leather dress instead of this tiny two-piece loincloth. The first film flirted with jungle passions but this scenario is even more explicit about the relationship, with Jane and Tarzan deliriously in love. At times it looks as though Jane has fallen in love with a monosyllabic moron and their relationship is based on good sex alone. She's still screaming and it all seems a case of arrested development. Her old beau returns with a lecherous partner and we're treated to risqué scenes of Jane disrobing in a tent. Another effort is made to loot the Elephant Graveyard, but trying to sidestep the vigilant Tarzan isn't easy.
Everything in this show is outrageously violent. There are dozens of gruesome killings, mostly of screaming black natives shot in the head with arrows. A competing safari is massacred, giving us a closeup of a dead face with an arrow through its forehead and ants crawling all over it! The climb up the escarpment is pure mayhem, with apes throwing stones from above. They knock dozens of porters off the paths like tenpins, to fall screaming thousands of feet to their deaths. It's too bloodthirsty to be serious.
What's surprising seeing all these features now is the staggering amount of recycled stock footage. Native onslaughts, establishing shots, special effects and animal attacks are repeated from the first film without any attempt to disguise them. Also standing out are many complicated special effects. Whole animals are rotoscoped into scenes, such as when lions are shown hanging onto elephants.
This least-inspired sequel has more treasure seekers, accompanied by Herbert Mundin of The Adventures of Robin Hood. With the Hays code, the wilder excesses of the series are toned down even though the nasty villains still find a sticky end at the hands of natives who don't recognize the Geneva convention. Jane and Tarzan are now domesticated with a treehouse equipped with silly bamboo gadgets and an elephant-powered elevator. According to the late George Turner (a wonderful writer about this period, who edited American Cinematographer for a number of years), the limp cave at the end was once populated with weird human-bat creatures with fangs. Turner believed that Louis B. Mayer thought the scene too scary for kids and had it removed.
They didn't take out a rare appearance by Johnny Eck, the bi-lateral amputee from Freaks who walks on his hands. Here they stuff him into a Dodo suit and let Herbert Mundlin to do a quick double-take at him.
What is notable is the improved B&W film stock used. Even taking into account the dupey quality of the first two features, this sequel has less grain and a better grayscale. From here on, the quality of the shows in the collection is almost perfect.
With this third sequel the Tarzan series left Burroughs behind and fell completely in line with MGM's Andy Hardy code of ethics. Laraine Day (Foreign Correspondent) has a brief scene as "boy"'s mother; rescued from a plane crash, the baby is saved by apes and raised by Jane and Tarzan into a bright and spirited (read: disobedient) six year-old. Johnny Sheffield is terrific as the adopted son (remember - they're not married!) and he allows the filmmakers to present Tarzan's origin story by proxy.
Greedy relatives show up to claim Boy's fortune (he's a rich kid back in England) and Jane has a crisis of conscience. In a rather perverted "Kramer vs. Tarzan" twist, Jane traps the King of the Jungle in a grotto so the interlopers can flee with their heir. Naturally, stereotyped natives step in to provide a stock menace. All in all, the addition of Sheffield is a good move for the franchise. Sheffield would continue playing Boy for years, finally striking out on his own as Bomba, The Jungle Boy.
Maureen O'Sullivan adopted a new look in this film, with longer hair and different makeup. At first, I didn't think it was the same woman.
Even better than Finds a Son!, Secret Treasure has a nicely-cast group of villains. Tom Conway is the suave baddie who wants Tarzan's mountain of gold. Reginald Owen is the nice guy who gets shot in the back, something that happens a lot to nice guys in this series. Philip Dorn would later specialize in Nazis and Barry Fitzgerald is a charming Irishman who shows Boy and the natives some movies of civilization. 2 In a surprisingly sensitive scene, Boy befriends a black native kid; the Tarzan household adopts him as they would one of the animals that wander in from time to time.
This time the baddies purposely let one of their own die from the plague (nobody's concerned for a tribe that's similarly afflicted) and Tarzan is sidelined one more time so as to make a last-minute rescue possible. It's all fairly exciting, mainly because the actors are more spirited than usual.
This last MGM Tarzan show is sheer comic-book fun. Jane, Tarzan and Cheeta go to New York to rescue Boy from circus kidnapper Charles Bickford. They track him down with the help of singer Virginia Grey. Cheeta provides excellent comedy by terrorizing hat check girls, riding on taxi roofs, etc.
This is the show where Tarzan sings in the shower, I mean, yodels in the shower. Best of all, he proves himself a King Kong-like conqueror of the Big Apple, with a bold move for everything the city throws at him. Lying lawyers get tossed across the courtroom and he makes an exciting leap from the Brooklyn Bridge. It's faked, of course, but a real man scales the bridge in some impressive shots. Best of all is the tension between modern red tape and Tarzan's direct-action code. He tries to play along but finally decides that obeying the law isn't working out. We're equally frustrated by his passivity, so the release of energy is terrific when Tarzan shouts, "Tarzan go!" and leaps through a glass window to swing over the streets of Manhattan. He's no Spider-Man, but it's exciting just the same.
Warners' DVD set of The Tarzan Collection will delight vintage movie fans. A fourth disc contains a new docu hosted by Rudy Behlmer. It relates the origin of the character and his earlier film incarnations as well as detailing the MGM series. Turner has also included three short subjects. Schnarzan the Conqueror is an excerpt from the crazy comedy Hollywood Party. Jimmy Durante spoofs the Lord of the Jungle with help from a costume-challenged Lupe Velez. Rodeo Dough is an excuse for MGM star cameos in which Weissmuller plays a slightly larger cameo next to Tom Neal of Detour. MGM On Location is a promo for the clear lagoon at Silver Springs Florida, famous for underwater shooting.
Perhaps there will be a disc set someday of the RKO Tarzan films, the ones where he fights Nazis in Africa. He also gains weight, and is a long way from the narrow waisted adonis of the first two films. Unlike pulp heroes, human actors just can't stay forever young.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tarzan the Ape Man, Tarzan and His Mate, Tarzan
Escapes, Tarzan Finds a Son, Tarzan's Secret Treasure, Tarzan's New York Adventure rates:
1. Jane calls herself Tarzan's wife in one of the sequels;
maybe theirs is a common-law marriage.
2. Although I can't remember if he's the one to call a native kid a "pickaninny," at which point one's
body temperature rises five degrees.