A chronologically-challenged collection of some socko Johnny Weissmuller Tarzans...at the right price. In the mouthful-titled Turner Classic Movies Greatest Classic Films Collection: Tarzan - Volume 2, Starring Johnny Weissmuller (phew!), Warner Bros. has gathered together Loin-Clothed Johnny's last two Metro efforts (1941's Tarzan's Secret Treasure and 1942's Tarzan's New York Adventure), and his third and fourth outings for RKO (1945's Tarzan and the Amazons and 1946's Tarzan and the Leopard Woman). By now, any self-respecting Tarzan fan knows these Warner compilations are just re-releases of the 2004 Tarzan box sets, sans extras, so double-dipping isn't necessary. However, these smartly-priced retreads are just right for someone new to the series...even if this one is out of whack, title-wise. Let's look very briefly at the four films here.
TARZAN'S SECRET TREASURE
"Swim!" Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) orders to his adoring, obedient family, as first he, then his common law wife Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), and then their adopted boy Boy (Johnny Sheffield), high-dive off a huge tree into the crystal clear waters of their jungle lagoon. There, down in the sand, Boy finds big, shiny nuggets that Jane explains are gold, a valuable metal found in abundance on Tarzan's vast African estate―a valuable metal that no one from the outside world must ever known is there, that is, lest they come and destroy Tarzan's precious Eden. Boy, intrigued by Jane's talk of the outside world and civilization, decides to visit there the next day...on his own. Cheetah comes along, and after a harrowing escape from a pursuing lion, Boy and Cheetah save native boy Tumbo (Cordell Hickman) from an attacking rhino. Returning to Tumbo's home, Boy sees the village is plagued with fever...and he's promptly blamed for bringing the disease. Sure to be roasted by the superstitious natives, he's saved by a safari, consisting of kindly dope Professor Elliott (Reginald Owen), slimy operator Medford (Tom Conway), suspicious-sounding Vandermeer (Philip Dorn), and even more suspicious-sounding blarney-maker, Dennis O'Doul (Barry Fitzgerald), the Irishy-est Irishman this side of Dublin. Tarzan agrees to help the safari in their quest for the elusive Van-usi tribe (since they saved Boy), but as soon as Boy spills the beans about the nuggets, everyone gets gold fever, and jungle mayhem commences.
I grabbed this collection of Tarzan films mainly to see if my eight-year-old boy would respond to them the way I did at his age. The Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan flicks were as ubiquitous on the tube as Abbott & Costello and The Brady Bunch when I was growing up, and they were always a welcome, go-to viewing experience that never seemed to suffer from repetition. Happily, despite the claims by people involved in making movies and TV for children today, these ancient adventure movies can still deliver the goods to a modern kid who's grown up on PS3s and the most expensive CGI; after watching Tarzan's Secret Treasure, my son asked to watch all the films...before he went tear-assing down the hall, trying to imitate the Tarzan yell. Not bad for 70+-year-old movie.
Watching Tarzan's Secret Treasure and the three others here after I don't know how many years, I was most impressed by the sense of physicality and freedom the filmmakers and actors got across on the screen. Of course, many before have commented on Weissmuller's and O'Sullivan's beauty and elegance (and frank eroticism) in their early pairings together. And while 1941's Weissmuller is no longer the remarkable, even startling Adonis he was in Tarzan, the Ape Man, nor is still-trim and lovely O'Sullivan as dewy fresh and achingly sexual as she was in Tarzan and His Mate, there's a heightened awareness for the viewer of their physical presence, of their bodies in motion, that seems almost subversive compared to 99.9% of studio fare from this same time period, when actors and actresses were encased in voluminous suits and unyielding dresses as they moved stiffly in their own no-touchy bubbles. There's a scene early on in Tarzan's Secret Treasure where Tarzan and Jane lean on their tree house railing contemplating the moon, their backs to us, that looks as natural and sweetly, innocently sexual, as any shot I've seen in an early Hollywood film, and that's just because Weissmuller, in his loin cloth, and O'Sullivan, in her one-piece, are so casually free in their own skins. Not confined by modern clothes, nor restricted by the more conventional storylines of M-G-M's then-contemporary dramas, Tarzan and Jane and Boy (and even Cheetah), constantly move in their frames with a fluid grace that's palpable, and wonderfully alive. No wonder kids like me pictured these characters in their minds when they jumped off their bunk beds, screaming the famous Tarzan yodel, or when they swam around in pools, wrestling blow-up rubber rafts, pretending they were alligators, or when they climbed a tree, looking out silently over their neighborhoods, imagining in vain for their own escarpment that rose from the plains to support the stars.
That being said, Tarzan's Secret Treasure is a fast-moving, fun entry in the series. Cheetah of course gets the biggest laughs here, including one of his best scenes in the series where he tangles with some sticky film emulsion and then gets drunk, rolling out somersaults in slow motion. I know various monkeys played Cheetah over the series, so whoever this one was, he's delightful, particularly when he does that hilarious "laugh take" when he pelts Buli the elephant with an eggplant (wasn't that sound bite borrowed from the Hal Roach studios?). Tarzan and Jane have a lovely moonlight swim where afterwards, Jane teases Tarzan about how civilized men would court her...which amuses the primitive, savage Tarzan no end ("Too much talk―Tarzan's way better!" he grunts as he pulls a willing Jane to him). If you're Irish, you may find Barry Fitzgerald's usual shtick entertaining...and then annoying as hell after about five minutes, while the action scenes are beautifully designed by director Richard Thorpe and Metro's top-flight crews. Tarzan's boat-flipping finale is a series' highlight, with the cool action going underwater, too, as Tarzan tries to kill as many natives as possible before he rescues a drowning Boy in the nick of time (the sequence looks pleasingly large-scale, particularly with the surprising number of real elephants used in the coordinated charges).
Critics always like to point out these films' degrading stereotypes aimed at African natives, but these same critics never complain about the rather strident anti-West (and by extension, anti-white), anti-progress, anti-civilization, anti-human versus animal, and pro-socialist messages that underlie some of these Tarzan films because let's face it...they probably agree with those sentiments. When Boy expresses any interest in the advances of civilization, imperious Tarzan shuts him down pronto (in fact, any time Tarzan gets nervous about where Jane or Boy are going in a conversation with the dreaded outsiders that's not under his control, it's a fierce, "Jane! Boy! Home!" and off they scoot). Tarzan laments any time a white outsider comes to his private Eden...but he's a white outsider on land that belongs to him because we assume he took it (you're telling me there aren't natives out there who'd like their own back-40 plot on the escarpment with a little split-level bungalow tree house?). I'm not knocking Tarzan for taking what's his, I'm just saying own it, jungle boy, and ditch the hypocrisy. And when Jane starts sighing about not knowing why men in the so-called civilized world have to pay for food―a problem, she laments, that's been plaguing civilization for hundreds of years while atomic-sized food falls abundantly at her fingertips...that is, when near-slave Cheetah isn't pressed into food service―we start sighing at the unintentional humor of her socio-economic grief...and start searching the credits for Writers Guild of America members (you think Tarzan's going to adopt orphaned Tumbo at the end of the movie? You must be forgetting the southern theatre owners). All that phony progressive/New Deal hokum falls by the wayside, though, when the elemental pleasures of the film play out.
TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE
Big shiny metal bird fall from sky, bring white devils to piss off Tarzan. After Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) helpfully educates Boy (Johnny Sheffield) with the charming thought that all outsiders are bad (only white ones ever show up, but I would imagine any race would be unwelcome to this clannish lot)...some bad outsiders show up: animal trapper Buck Rand (Charles Bickford), kindly pilot Jimmie Shields (Paul Kelly), and aw shucks circus wrangler Manchester Montford (Chill Wills). Their purpose on the escarpment? Capture lions for Colonel Sergeant's (Cy Kendall) circus back in New York City. But hold on a second: those lions are Tarzan's (Johnny Weissmuller), and he tells the white "vultures" to high-tail their asses on out of there before morning. However, the arrogant Rand isn't going to let Tarzan tell him what to do...especially when Rand wants to snatch elephant-trainer Boy and sell him to a circus. Thankfully, a tribe of Jaconi head hunters happen by (how come Tarzan doesn't say all head hunter outsiders aren't welcome?) and they snatch the whole group. Tarzan and Jane try to come to Boy's rescue, but their grape vine is hacked off in mid-swing (and mid-Tarzan yell, amusingly), and they fall, presumably, to their deaths...or at least that's what Rand hopes. He hops back on the plane with Boy, and they're off to New York, with Tarzan and Jane in fast pursuit. Once there, Tarzan, Jane, and of course, Cheetah, navigate the wilds of the Big Apple, with Tarzan in particular an amusingly large fish out of water.
A particular childhood favorite Tarzan because it's designed as much to be a comedy as an action adventure, Tarzan's New York Adventure was always a good switch-up on the Sunday morning Tarzan Theatre out of Detroit when I was growing up. Running a scant, fast 71 minutes, Tarzan's New York Adventure resembles nothing more than a comic book brought to life, with Big John Weissmuller looking like hell in a few rather startling insert shots (I always wondered if Louis B. Mayer saw the rushes for one of those scenes and decided then and there, "That's it―86 the jungle boy."). Tarzan is his usual imperious self here (I love Bickford quite rightly saying, "Where'd you get the idea you run Africa?"), until he goes all soft in the city, bowing to Jane's superior social skills ("Jane be boss here," he paternalistically allows at the hotel desk). Once he figures out the "law" ain't so good when it comes to custody suits and specifically, the chiseling lawyers who peddle them, he appropriately flips out, tossing the offending Charles Lane into the jury box before he crashes out onto the concrete jungle in a terrific action sequence where Tarzan scampers around the New York skyline.
Every couple of minutes there's a good comedy bit, such as the (unintentionally) amusing scene where Jane worries about Tarzan's, um..."strength" being sapped by the big city (she really is a tramp, isn't she?), or the racial humor of both Willie Fung as a frustrated Chinese tailor and paralyzingly funny Mantan Moreland, giving it to a crank-calling Cheetah, with the film's funniest line, "You ain't getting' fresh with me is you colored boy?" (if the lack of political correctness in these scenes makes you nervous, just remember it was jittery P.C.-conscious producers who put the brilliant Moreland out of work in the 1950s and 60s). Weissmuller yodeling in the shower (perfect sound editing there) and bouncing around the taxi cab are funny moments, but nothing tops Cheetah in probably her/his best bit of the series, where she destroys Jane's packed-away things in her hotel room. When Cheetah executes perhaps the funniest double-take I've ever seen―humans included―(when she sees herself in the vanity mirror), all minor sins of Tarzan's New York Adventure are forgiven, as indeed they are again during the fantastic finale, where director Richard Thorpe choreographs and frames the elephants blocking Bickford's car's path like giant toys in some monstrous child's playroom. Speedy comic-book fun.
TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS
Finally through batching it now that Jane (Brenda Joyce) is returning from England and the war effort, already hen-pecked Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) gets Boy (Johnny Sheffield) to sweep out the family tree nest before they both head to the local trading post where Jane is soon to arrive. On the way, Tarzan rescues Amazon Athena (Shirley O'Hara) from a rampaging panther. Ordering Boy to stay put, Tarzan takes the injured Athena back to her forbidden city Palmyria, where Tarzan, alone among all other men, enjoys free passage because he has guarded well the secret location of the deadly matriarchal society for its Queen (Maria Ouspenskaya). What he doesn't know is that Boy followed him to Palmyria, learning a secret that will soon threaten his life. Reunited (rather chastely) with Tarzan, Jane introduces Tarzan to her friend, Sir Guy Henderson (Henry Stephenson), an archeologist leading an expedition into the jungle with kindly Splivens (J.M. Kerrigan) and not so kindly Ballister (Barton Maclane) and Anders (Donald Douglas). When Henderson eyes that Palmyria bracelet that Cheetah stole off Athena, he believes he's discovered a lost tribe, but Ballister can only see the money behind such a beautiful golden bauble, and he wants more...and Boy will take them right to the treasure trove.
A terrific, pulpy entry in the Tarzan series marred somewhat by its lower RKO budget, Tarzan and the Amazons was Weissmuller's third effort for producer Sol Lesser. I know there's debate among M-G-M and RKO Tarzan devotees over which Weissmuller series was better, but I find them equally entertaining for different reasons: M-G-M for the first-rate production values and the sex (at least in the first two efforts), and RKO for their speed and cartoony atmosphere. Tarzan and the Amazons doesn't offer much in terms of further character development for the principles...but then again, few of any of the Tarzan films did that, so who's complaining? Hinging again on that familiar dynamic of Boy wanting to stretch his experiences to the outside world and Tarzan jealously grinding Boy's inquisitive mind into the ground, the movie seems to focus more on Boy and the Amazons and the greedy explorers rather than on Tarzan. He mumbles a few "jungle platitudes" as one of the explorers amusingly notes, such as "Sun like gold: too much sun make people blind," while cowed Jane and Boy sourly look on, and that's about it until the end. It's great to see Boy finally throw Tarzan's controlling b.s. right back in his face, but we've seen that dynamic play out way too many times before in this particular part of the jungle.
New director-to-the-series Kurt Neumann does keep the ball rolling at a good clip, though, including some nice touches such as the iconic upward pan of Weissmuller's still-impressive physique as he poles his raft to Jane (that's not a euphemism), and Boy's "nature boy" lyrical moment as he lolls on the raft, dreaming, trailing his hand in the water (aided immeasurably by composer Paul Sawtell's beautiful music). Neumann keeps the Amazons mostly silent and deadly, and that's cool (their costumes are pretty close to comic book Amazon, Wonder Woman), particularly when they're one-by-one zapping the craven, fleeing thieves looting Palmyria. But the low budget prevents us from seeing more of the Amazon kingdom, including the money shot (for all those 1945 closet pervs) of those statuesque dolls whipping the bejeesuz out of their male slaves. The same goes for the final barter between Tarzan and the Queen; we never get to see him negotiate for Boy's life by returning the stolen icons―a pretty important moment that leaves the viewer somewhat deflated after the zippy climax. As for our new Jane, Brenda Joyce, she's certainly a dish in her one-piece buckskin, but you can tell the producers want Tarzan and Jane to play Ozzie and Harriett here; there's almost zero sexual chemistry between the two stars (watch that first awkward kiss on the boat...), with Jane used as just another prop in the familiar plot machinations.
TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN
With the province of Bugundi soon to come under the governmental control of the British, faux-assimilated native Dr. Ameer Lazar (Edgar Barrier) is quietly planning his next move on the Western imperial forces contaminating his native land. Teaming up with Lea (Acquanetta), the High Priestess of the Leopard People, Lazar schemes for his first attack on the caravans leaving Zambesi for Bugundi. One survivor returns to Zambesi, though, telling the British Commissioner (Dennis Hoey) and Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) that leopards killed the entire party. Tarzan is skeptical that leopards would only use their claws to kill, but the Commissioner isn't having any of it, and organizes a safari to flush out the leopards. Tarzan, Jane (Brenda Joyce), and Boy (Johnny Sheffield) go along, but Lea is too smart for them; tipped off by her little brother/spy Kimba (Tommy Cook) that Tarzan doesn't buy the leopard jazz, Lea arranges for real leopards to attack the hunting party, thereby humiliating Tarzan. But Tarzan know better. Tarzan smart. When Tarzan goes after the four knock-out schoolgirls who are captured in a Leopard Men raid, Jane and Boy have to deal with little liar Kimba, who wants to cut out Jane's heart to earn his warrior status.
Completely ridiculous fun. Like an article come to life from one of those men's adventure magazines from the 1940s (I Escaped from the Island of Flesh-Eating Leopard People!), Tarzan and the Leopard Woman is my favorite of the RKO Tarzans, just because it's so straight-faced in its overripe campiness. After all, we're nonsensically introduced to Tarzan this time out wrestling in the Arab city streets with "King Kong" Kashey as Tongolo the Terrible, a nod, perhaps, to the wrestling craze that was sweeping America at the time, but a character development that makes no sense at all (since when does Tarzan hang out in the city? Or have regular buddies he wrestles with there?). Even funnier is harried Tarzan's domestic situation, where Jane, like Blondie to Tarzan's Dagwood, is yapping and complaining about how the tree house is going to "wrack and ruin" because Tarzan is too lazy to get up off his ass and fix the giant clamshell shower. I guess when there's no sex, the nagging naturally follows (Weissmuller and Joyce might as well be brother and sister here).
Much better are the villains, including Nazi-like fanatic Dr. Lazar (he's constantly throwing out a leopard high-five that looks suspiciously like the ol' "Heil Hitler") who despises the decadence of the invading West (if his exploits were reported today, CNN and MSNBC would label him a "freedom fighter"), the scheming little psychopath Kimba, who does everything but rub his hands together and chortle when he's snowing Tarzan and Jane about his intentions at the tree house, and of course, Acquanetta. Stacked like you wouldn't believe, Acquanetta had an easier air about her than her main rival, the much better known Maria Montez...as well as I'm guessing about a cup size on her Universal rival. She's quite entertaining in her best-remembered role here, although no one can hold a candle to Anthony Caruso as Mongo, throwing his hands up in mock-kitty-cat fashion, calling for his followers to dance the dance of the Leopard Men as several extras don rather sparse skins and shuffle about on the small, grimy little cave set. Director Kurt Neumann keeps the scenes short and sweet, with the "big" finale pretty satisfying in its action: Kimba and Ameer get squashed a little by Tarzan doing his Samson bit (pulling down the support beams for the cave) before little Kimba carves up Ameer, who then shoots Kimba with his last breath. Can you imagine the kids in the matinees, hollering for more of that?
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.