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Older Tarzan movies are always a treat, and I most confess that picking good-natured fun at some of their excesses makes for a good time writing reviews. The key is to communicate one's full affection along with the jokes. No matter how one looks at it, the spectacle of a muscle-bound Adonis leaping through the jungle is more than a little absurd, a perfect springboard for humor. Parodies in old Mad magazines lovingly recreated Tarzan in comics form, adding the detail of his perfect body covered with scratches and Band-Aids.
I felt a little guilty a couple of years ago poking fun at Tarzan and the Lost Safari, but to be fair even the film's creators seemed amused to play up their film's goofy content. Two readers told me that I needed to see the early-'50s Tarzan adventures of Lex Barker, and told me the title to sample was 1950's Tarzan and the Slave Girl. An RKO picture produced by Lee Sholem, it's the second Lex Barker Tarzan after Johnny Weissmuller vacated the franchise. The movie is noted for its one-shot Jane, Vanessa Brown, and an overall emphasis on sexy women, to be exact, nine attractive slave girls, not just one. It's basically one of Tarzan's "lost tribe" sagas, with fewer wild animals but plenty of action intrigues in a mountaintop burial tomb.
Tarzan and Jane (Lex Barker & Vanessa Brown) are present when kidnappers from the Lionian Tribe make off with Moana (Mary Ellen Kay), a beautiful princess of the Nagasis. He captures one of the villains, who is sick with a disease that suddenly paralyzes his legs. Back in Randini, kindly Dr. Campell (Arthur Shields) realizes that Lionia is the source of the disease, which is threatening the entire vicinity. An expedition forms to recover the stolen women and convince the Lionian Prince (Hurd Hatfield) to allow Campbell to use his anti-mysterious paralysis disease serum. Jane remains at the Nagasi camp with Lola (Denise Darcel), Dr. Campbell's buxom, sexually aggressive assistant). They almost immediately fight over Tarzan, which leads to their both being captured. Savage Wadis (a tribe) attack Tarzan and Campbell's safari, causing both Campbell's serum and Neil, a jungle guide (Robart Alda) to be lost on the trail. In the Lionian's stone citadel, Jane and Lola meet the unhappy Prince and must contend with the underhanded court advisor Sengo (Anthony Caruso). Besides lusting after Lola, Sengo makes a power grab by scapegoating the high priest (Robert Warwick) for the fact that the Prince's young son has contracted the disease. After his attempt to assault Lola, Sengo prepares to seal both women into a tomb!
Tarzan and the Slave Girl is pure mindless escapism with plenty of interesting angles. Lex Barker's Tarzan is a more articulate and less savage interpretation than Weissmuller's. This Tarzan is a better-educated peacemaker-emissary of goodwill in this corner of Africa. He can still talk to Cheeta and elephants, but his biggest Stupid Pet Trick is to use a pachyderm to bust open a royal tomb. Decidedly more vulnerable, Barker's more human Tarzan is knocked cold by ordinary Lionian foot soldiers and later captured outright. He uses athletic hand-to-hand combat in the final confrontation, but wins the day via the clever strategy of hiding inside a coffin about to be buried. Barker looks great -- lean and muscular. His later fame as frontier scout Old Shatterhand for a series of German westerns eventually overshadowed his Tarzan image, and Federico Fellini chose him to play a conceited actor in his La dolce vita. Barker may not be the most famous Tarzan, but he at least didn't suffer from the association.
Director Lee Sholem keeps the show going at a breakneck pace. The script juggles a number of issues quite well -- the Jane/Lola feud, the kidnappings, the lustful ambitions of Sengo, the sadness of the Prince, the treacherous Wadi Tribe, the bizarre stone city of the Lionians. In this Africa, black natives tend to be crude unga-bunga stereotypes, while the 'fantastic' tribes are all vaguely Caucasian. Except the women perhaps, who lean more toward Schwab's Drugstore glamour. The architecture of the Lionian city is so eclectic that we're convinced it must have been cobbled together from whatever pre-existing Babylonian, Egyptian and Roman sets were available in the RKO scenery dock. At least it looks elaborate. Producer Sol Lesser just wanted the most spectacle for his production buck.
This being an RKO release during the Howard Hughes years, it's a fair guess that the sexed-up (for 1950) slave girl angle reflects the girl-chasing mogul's personal taste. Of the captive women with non-speaking roles (Shirley Ballard, Rosemary Bertrand, Gwen Caldwell, Martha Clemons, Mona Knox, Josephine Parra and Jackee Waldron) only a couple had substantial careers, and just one (Ballard) showed up in a string of other RKO movies, including Hughes' notoriously naughty Son of Sinbad. Once in the citadel, they all wear sheer harem get-ups that were probably received a lot of Hughes' personal attention. It may be a cliché, but too many sources confirm that Hughes' decision to buy RKO could well have turned on the access it gave him to choice cuts of Hollywood 'talent'.
Mary Ellen Kay gets a couple of lines as Moana, the berry-picking original kidnap victim, but the movie is stolen by the feisty Denise Darcel, who later enjoyed a brief but notable run in showy parts in William Wellman's Westward the Women and especially Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz. Darcel's Lola takes one look at Tarzan and literally rolls her eyes and licks her lips. She states her intentions in her thick French accent and treats the somewhat passive Jane as something to be elbowed aside. The Lola vs. Jane catfight is a main attraction, as is the fierce way Lola rebuffs Sengo's rape attempt. When she doesn't want a particular man, Lola is just as violent.
We expect to see journeyman player Arthur Shields taking whatever part comes along, and he does well. Robert Alda's character has a big role to play in saving the day, yet he's not on screen long enough to distinguish himself. Anthony Caruso had been specializing in ethnic thugs or good soldiers for ten years. He was excellent in the same year's The Asphalt Jungle but continued to labor in the trenches. This show isn't exactly a career highlight for Hurd Hatfield, forever associated with The Picture of Dorian Gray. Just the same, the actor brings dignity to the role and anchors the subplot about the crippling disease.
Happily, Tarzan and the Slave Girl is not so civilized that it tempers the rough justice we associate with our favorite jungle king. Tarzan gives a number of natives a heave-ho from a tall cliff, and when he finally gets his mitts on the main bad guy, there's no talk about taking him back to face trial. Yet another Lost Civilization is now a peaceful (if bruised and sore) outpost of Tarzan's jungle domain.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Tarzan and the Slave Girl is a good transfer of this amiable, slightly saucy matinee thriller -- I can imagine kids of 1950 hooting and wolf-whistling when the 'slave girls' appeared in their hareem outfits. The last time I looked Warner Bros. had cornered seemingly the entire Tarzan franchise; they have just released a Blu-ray of the very non-escapist 1984 Hugh Hudson epic Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes with Christopher Lambert, Andie MacDowell, Ian Holm and Ralph Richardson.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tarzan and the Slave Girl rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.