There were more than 30 Tarzan movies made between 1932-1970, but until now they've been conspicuously absent on DVD. Warner Bros., the company that owns the lion's share of Tarzan movies via their MGM and RKO libraries, is finally giving the king of the jungle his due. Both Hugh Hudson's lavish Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) and John and Bo Derek's notorious Tarzan the Ape Man (1981) made their debuts this month. Better still, all six of the classic MGM Tarzans of the 1930s and early-'40s have been gathered in a terrific box set, The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weissmuller. The four-disc set has two movies to a disc, with the fourth disc packed with good if not great Special Features. Of the six films, only one is a dud, and most are very good, with one film an unqualified classic of fantasy-adventure cinema.
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). The first of the Weissmuller Tarzans is one of the best. Inspired in large measure by success of Trader Horn, the Harry Carey African adventure made the previous year, Tarzan's main shortcoming is the heavily reliance on stock footage from that earlier hit, seen in endless rear-screen and other primitive process shots. The movie itself, however, still holds up remarkably well, with Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton, later famous as Commissioner Gordon on TV's Batman) leading crusty James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and daughter Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) deep into uncharted Africa, in search of the mythical "Elephant's Graveyard." The band eventually ascends the perilous Mutia Escarpment, where a curious Tarzan (Weissmuller) whisks Jane away to his treetop lair. There's no "Me Tarzan. You Jane" in any of the Weissmuller pictures. Instead, their first meeting begins thusly:
Tarzan: "Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane."
Jane: "Oh please, stop!"
The film is mostly an exciting adventure, highlighted by a scary attack by a tribe of bloodthirsty dwarves who lower their prisoners into a pit holding a monster gorilla. As one might expect, the film is almost hilariously politically incorrect. Climbing the Mutia Escarpment, one of the pack-bearers loses his footing and falls thousands of feet to his death. Before he even hits bottom, Holt crassly asks, "What was in that pack?" When the natives begin getting restless, Holt instructs their black foreman, "Well, you've got your whip. Give them something else to think of." (****)
Tarzan and His Mate (1934). If it weren't for all the routine and occasionally lousy Tarzan movies, this film would be regarded as one of the all-time classics, a picture as thrilling and imaginative as King Kong (1933). This DVD release features the complete, pre-release version, which was shorn of about 23 minutes during its theatrical release and subsequent reissues and television showings. If you've never seen this incredible film, and assume all classic Hollywood films are puritanical and tame, you're in for a shock. Set "nearly a year" after the events in Tarzan the Ape Man, the film has Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton again) joining ne'er-do-well Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanaugh) for a second expedition: to retrieve the valuable ivory found at the Elephant's Graveyard, and try to win Jane back from Tarzan and return her to civilization. Things go wrong almost immediately, as two scoundrels in their expedition steal Holt's map and are (very) gruesomely murdered and their bodies mutilated by hostile natives.
After the success of the previous Tarzan and the colossal returns on RKO's King Kong, MGM accorded Tarzan and His Mate a lavishness unequalled in a Tarzan picture until Hugh Hudson's 1984 Greystoke. The exterior sets are extremely elaborate, and the number of extras and animals used in this film is genuinely staggering. The care paid off: the film is far more atmospheric and more believably African than any other film in the MGM series.
Better still, it's a perfect blend of tense action and racy, romantic sexuality. Jane's one-shot costume (she was far more demure in subsequent films) is very revealing, and her nude swim with Tarzan is almost poetic. Part of the appeal of all the Weissmuller/O'Sullivan movies is that Tarzan and Jane clearly adore one another and have an obviously active and healthy sex life quite unusual for movies of the 1930s. The climax, in which natives and man-eating lions surround the cast, cornering them against a mountainside, is a remarkable achievement; it's incredibly tense and exciting, now some 70 years after it was made. (*****)
Tarzan Escapes (1936). The only dud among the six titles, this film had a long, troubled production. Somewhere between 20-90% of the original cut of the film was completely scrapped and reshot by several different directors (the documentary included in this set isn't quite clear about how much was reshot), while a gruesome climax featuring giant vampire bats and helpful pygmies had to be toned down. It's a shame all this was cut; the climax really falls flat (and makes no sense). About the only thing left from the original film seems to be its a strange, bird-like creature, played by armless wonder Johnny Eck (Freaks). (The fact that co-star John Buckler died in an auto accident the week it was released couldn't have helped.) This picture also introduces Tarzan and Jane's treehouse home, obviously modeled after the one in Swiss Family Robinson, and complete with an elephant-powered elevator.
The story has Jane's cousins, Rita (Benita Hume) and Eric (William Henry), looking for Jane because they need her help to inherit a million-pound fortune. While all the Tarzan sequels are guilty of using stock footage, Tarzan Escapes is mind-numbingly filled with reused scenes, from the long trek up the Mutia Escarpment to Tarzan's eye-popping fight with a giant crocodile (from the previous film). The story, which eventually finds Tarzan glumly allowing himself to be captured because he thinks Jane no longer loves him, is atypically sappy, with Tarzan spending much of the film like a forlorn puppy dog. (**1/2)
Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939). Despite a title which suggests MGM sentimentality at its most stickily saccharin, this is a huge improvement over Tarzan Escapes, and full of honest, earned emotion. A plane carrying "Lord Greystoke's favorite nephew" and bound for Capetown crashes atop the Mutia Escarpment, and the only survivor is an infant child, whom Tarzan finds and eventually names Boy. The baby soon grows up to become a precocious five-year-old (and now played by Johnny Sheffield) who makes the jungle his playground. The film abounds in animal action, from some terrific underwater photography (shot in Silver Springs, Florida) of Tarzan, Boy and a baby elephant enjoying a swim, to Boy's ensnarement in a giant spider web and menaced by pizza-sized arachnids. (Spoiler, sort of...) The script was originally written with Jane dying after sacrificing herself to save Boy. This is carefully set-up early in the film as it's paralleled to the death of a mother elephant. Jane's last-second rally in the film's closing seconds rings false. Had the film actually ended as originally intended, it might have been the greatest Tarzan of them all. Even in its compromised form, Jane's last moments with Boy are quite moving, and Tarzan's sorrow at Jane's apparent imminent demise will break your heart. (****)
Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941). This time four scientists (Reginald Owen, Tom Conway, Philip Dorn, and Barry Fitzgerald), searching for the lost Van-usi tribe, learn of a mountainside of gold, and Conway and Dorn hold Jane and Boy hostage demanding Tarzan lead them to the rich vein. An enjoyable film that's more of the same, with new underwater footage (Weissmuller impressively out-swims a fish he wants to eat for dinner), greater emphasis on Cheetah's hijinks (he gets drunk in this one), and more Rube Goldberg contraptions in the family's treehouse. (A refrigerator turns up here, a dishwasher in the next film.) And once again, footage of a charging rhino (about the fifth time we've seen this footage) and the giant crocodile is brought out of storage and worked into the action-crammed plot. In fairness, it should be pointed out that since these pictures were released several years apart, and thus were only foggy memories to casual moviegoers, the use of so much stock scenes is almost forgivable, though it becomes surreal watching them now, one movie after another.
And despite all the repetition, the film has some good ideas, such as Tarzan and Boy's introduction to the movies via a 16mm projector Fitzgerald has brought along on the safari. Theirs and the naives' sense of wonder at the projected images is something to behold. With his "never again" drunk scene, talk of the Blarney and "seints presarv us" dialogue, Fitzgerald is the Irish stereotype incarnate (all he's missing is a clay pipe and muttonchop whiskers). Nonetheless, he's also sweet as one of the few outsiders Tarzan takes a liking to.
And, most importantly, Tarzan's understated nobility and love of Jane continues to delight. In one scene he's introduced to a native boy, Tumbo (Cordell Hickman), recently orphaned after his mother contracts a jungle plague. Tarzan speaks to the boy in Swahili (or maybe Tarzanspeak) and their untranslated conversation has enormous poignancy. Later on, Tarzan and Jane enjoy a moonlight swim and reflect on their first meeting, another sweet moment. (By now, Jane's once natural look has unfortunately been replaced with standard Hollywood glamour, complete with permed hair and long, false eyelashes.) (***1/2)
Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942). The last of the MGM Tarzans, and the last to feature Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, is the only film of the batch that feels like a B-movie. At 72 minutes it's substantially shorter, and the production values aren't much above that of an Abbott and Costello comedy. In this entry, Tarzan, Jane, and Boy are visited by lion-trappers Charles Bickford and Chill Wills, who kidnap Boy to put in their circus. Pilot Paul Kelly is against the idea, and with girlfriend Virginia Grey come to Tarzan and Jane's aide. The film is what the trades would describe as "sheer hokum," but the novelty of Tarzan roaming the big city with Jane in search of Boy is undeniably amusing, and surely escapist fun for its May 1942 audience (no mention is made of the war, despite the Africa setting and trans-Atlantic flight).
The change of pace setting and emphasis on comedy is easily forgiven, especially with such highlights as Tarzan scaling and diving off the Brooklyn Bridge, wearing his first suit, and hearing a soprano on the radio: "Woman sick!" Tarzan exclaims. "Cry for witch doctor!" Unsurprisingly, Cheetah runs amok in this one, including a funny but politically incorrect telephone conversation he has with janitor Mantan Moreland. Silent screen Tarzan Elmo Lincoln is supposedly in there somewhere, as a circus roustabout, but this reviewer didn't spot him. Bizarre movie connection: The Japanese monster movie Gappa: The Triphibian Monster (1967), which has mother and father giant monsters leaving their jungle home to rescue their kidnapped and exploited son, is practically a remake. (***1/2)
Video & Audio
The six films are presented in their original full frame aspect ratios, with two features per disc with all of the special features found on Disc Four. All six films look good but not outstanding. There is some minor edge enhancement on Tarzan's New York Adventure, Tarzan Finds a Son! is a little soft, and overall random reels on most of the films vary in quality. One imagines these movies were likely printed to death over the years; compared to most '30s films, these Tarzans were probably not in the best of shape. The DVD's documentary refers to Tarzan Finds a Son! as originally having been released in a sepia-tone process that unfortunately isn't recreated here. (Why not? Turner's later home video versions of Mighty Joe Young include that film's critically important tinted climax.) Mostly though, all six films play just fine, and probably look as good as they're ever going to.
The sound is representative of the era. In the case of the earliest picture, Tarzan the Ape Man, the audio is creaky enough that some viewers may want to leave the English subtitles on to catch all the dialogue. Each title includes English, French, and Spanish subtitles (Tarzan's jungle speak and native dialogue isn't translated.) All but Tarzan and His Mate have optional French audio tracks; be sure to sample Tarzan's dialogue in French, and notice how Barry Fitzgerald's Irishman sounds like Jerry Lewis in Tarzan's Secret Treasure.
The big extra is a feature-length original documentary, Tarzan: Silver Screen King of the Jungle, which traces the evolution of the character from the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories through the production of the six MGM films. It's a good documentary but it doesn't dig very deep, and the inter-cutting of talking heads, publicity shots, and film clips is a little dull. Film historian Rudy Behlmer carries the weight of the discussion. He's joined by Burroughs historian Scott Tracy Griffin, Weissmuller biographer Geoff St. Andrews, Johnny Weissmuller, Jr., Olympic gold medallist John Naber, actress Maureen O'Sullivan (in archive footage shot about ten years ago), and TCM's Robert Osborne. In a nice surprise, 72-year-old Cheetah (actually one of several chimpanzees used in the series) is shown in happy though active retirement, playing the piano and riding around in an electric car.
Besides the MGM films, excerpts from silent era Tarzans are shown, as well as clips from rival Tarzan movies made concurrent with the MGM films. The latter films appear to have mostly fallen in the public domain and the clips presented here are in very poor shape. The documentary is in 4:3 format and has no subtitles.
Though it covers most of the bases and has its share of sweet and amusing anecdotes, it's a shame that it isn't better than it is. There's no footage of Weissmuller at the 1924 or '28 Olympics, no footage from the later RKO Tarzans or MGM-released Tarzans of the '50s and '60s, no new interviews with Johnny Sheffield, Jerry Thorpe (son of director Richard, who helmed the last four pictures), Virginia Grey, Laraine Day, and others. It's too bad the filmmakers didn't think to show off Tarzan locations as they are today, such as Lake Sherwood and the Los Angeles County Arboretum.
MGM on Location: Johnny Weissmuller is a fascinating 1939 short documenting the production of Tarzan Finds a Son! during its location shoot in Silver Springs, Florida (and when the film was still called Tarzan in Exile). Better than most behind-the-scenes shows from the period, this one really gets into the nuts and bolts of filmmaking -- even the continuity man is identified. There's good footage of the "photo subs" used to shoot the underwater scenes, and of four rubber crocodiles being unloaded (they cost $2,000 apiece, according to the short). The 4:3 short is in fair condition.
Schnarzan the Conqueror is an unidentified (at least on the menu screen) clip from the feature Hollywood Party (1934), in which a very hairy Jimmy Durante spoofs the Tarzan phenomenon with a faux trailer.
Rodeo Dough (1940) is likewise presented without explanation. The one-reel short in excellent condition stars Sally Payne and Mary Treen as hapless hitchhikers who are picked up by a certain Hollywood star/Olympic athlete. Written by former actress Marion Mack, the heroine of Keaton's The General (1927), the short is a fun if peculiar mix of scripted scenes (also featuring Tom Neal) and newsreel-like footage of a Palm Springs rodeo attended by Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Jackie Cooper, Rudy Vallee, Mickey Rooney, Tom Mix, and a bearded Joe E. Brown.
Tarzan Trailers is just that, with one for each of the MGM pictures, plus an extra, advance trailer for Tarzan Escapes, billed in the menu as "animated," but actually consisting of mostly drawings instead of clips. The trailers are all in great shape, and the later ones especially are pretty emphatic that theirs star the real, the one, the only Tarzan.
When Warner Bros. first released The Searchers to DVD, they were smart in including more than a dozen trailers for other John Wayne pictures. Not only was this a fun extra, it made viewers eager to buy or rent those movies as soon as they were released. As with the documentary, it's too bad they didn't do likewise here. Had they included trailers for the later RKO pictures, it would only have fueled consumer interest in those films as well.
Even non-Tarzan fans will want to take a look at Tarzan and His Mate, while more casual film fans and jungle movie neophytes will be pleased with this mostly excellent collection of some of the best adventure films ever. Can The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weissmuller, Volume 2 be far behind?
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.