(1932 – 1942)
When I was growing up way back in the ancient olden days we had exactly three channels to choose from. That is, you had three to chose from if you lived close to a Metropolitan area that had three stations broadcasting. Sometimes if you lived out in the boondocks you would be lucky to get two or in some cases even one broadcast station. But despite those drawbacks, there were some things a young kid always looked forward to. On Friday nights there was Action Theater. These were usually old Italian gladiator films repackaged as films about the Sons of Hercules. It didn’t matter to us one little bit if the moving mouths weren’t matching up to the words coming out of the two inch speaker on the front of the old black and white TV. We weren’t there for the dialog. We wanted to see sword fighting, killing, and lots of it. And most of the time we got our wish.
Saturday nights were even better. The first regular horror movie series I remember being shown on Saturday nights was Shock theater. Those films were usually all of the old Universal Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman movies. I remember when my friend Craig and I found out that they were showing Frankenstein for the first time, we looked forward to it with great anticipation. That Saturday night I went to his house to spend the night and at eleven fifteen after the local news had seemed to go on for an eternity the movie finally started. Unfortunately, we both fell asleep before the first lightning bolt blasted through Boris Karloff’s electrodes. But as the weeks went by we got better at staying awake. That turned out to be a good thing because by the time I was twelve they were showing double features and not too long after that we got the all night movies
Bridging the gap between Action theater on Friday and Shock Theater on Saturday night was the other greatly anticipated weekend movie which was shown each and every Saturday afternoon. That would be Tarzan. And for a ten or eleven year old growing up in the sixties, Tarzan movies were the bomb. I mean what wasn’t there to like? Tarzan was always fighting off crocodiles with nothing but his trusty blade or splitting open some tiger or lion’s throats. There was elephant stampedes, vine swinging, and spear throwing aplenty. And to top it off, there were always those white hunters sneaking around trying to do Tarzan in so they could head over to the elephant graveyard and rummage through it for tusks. Those dirty bastards!
When the movie ended, you went outside and became Tarzan yourself for the rest of the day. And if a few of your friends came out, you didn’t even bother arguing with them who was going to be Tarzan because we just all became our own incarnation of the Great White Ape. No, we didn’t wear loincloths, but we did yell like a bunch of banshees and go out to the woods to swing on the few vines that we could find.
There was of course only one genuine Tarzan and that would be the great Johnny Weismuller. For us, if the film didn’t star Weismuller, then we might tolerate a showing of it but that’s about it. Except of course when they would air that one crappy Buster Crabbe movie they seemed to run far to often, Tarzan the Fearless. You would quickly find something else to occupy your time rather than to subject yourself some Flash Gordon wannabe pretending to do something he wasn’t really cut out to do.
Lex Barker wasn’t too bad. We would tolerate him because we considered him to be Weismuller’s official replacement. It didn’t hurt Barker that in many ways he closely resembled Weismuller. But don’t let anybody kid you or tell you differently. Weismuller always is, always was, and always shall be THE Tarzan.
Eventually I grew up and left Tarzan behind, storing the memories of those broadcast deep into the recess of my memory cells. Up until recently, I couldn’t even tell you the last time I revisited a Tarzan movie. Some years back when AMC actually did run classic movies, they had a Tarzan film festival but because of my work schedule I had to miss it. Turner classic movies will run a feature from time to time, but generally they do it when I’m busy with other things. However, way back when I joined Netflix, and was browsing through the DVD selection, I discovered that they had the Tarzan Weismuller movies and promptly put them into my queue with the intention of getting back around to them eventually. That eventually came a few weeks ago when after not much showing up in the way of new releases to interest me, I moved them up to the top of my queue. So did they hold the same interest for me now as they did then?
Each disc had two films on them, and for technical reasons of which I know nothing about, the films were not on the discs in the order in which they were released. Disc One was Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan Escapes. Ape Man was the first of the Weismuller Tarzan films, Escapes was actually the third film in the series. Disc two was Tarzan and His Mate and Tarzan Finds a Son. Mate was the second of the series and Son was the fourth in the series. The third disc had Tarzan’s Secret Treasure and Tarzan’s New York Adventure, and these two were actually the last two films of the Tarzan series that co-starred Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane.
The first three films generally not only started out the same way, but at times it was almost as if they were using large portions of the same script. A group of bad ass white hunters gather together an expedition to climb up the Escarpment where the swinging Great White Ape is said to be having a swinging time. It is also where the Legendary Elephant’s Graveyard is rumored to exist if you believe in that sort of thing. The Elephant’s Graveyard is pretty much self-explanatory. If an elephant is mortally wounded they somehow are suppose to be able to stay alive long enough to go there to die. Sorry, but there is no explanation as to how elephants who do not live on top of the escarpment with the Great White Ape get to the graveyard, but I swear I think I once saw an elephant fly. What I’m trying to say is that at age ten you’ll believe these legends without question, but by the time you hit eleven, it gets a little more dicey.
In Tarzan movies there are bad white hunters and good white hunters. Well, let me clarify that. There are never any good white hunters at all but there are white people who sometimes go on these expeditions for purposes other than wanting to put a slug in the brain of an animal and hang it on their den wall. In Tarzan Escapes for instance, two of our principals are actually on the trip to bring Jane back to civilization because they feel that Jolly Ol’ England is the place she ought to be. In Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, one of the principals is a scientist hoping to do some research. The rule of thumb for Tarzan though is that guns are bad, guns are trouble, and the men that bring them bring still more slaughter and mayhem. Somehow I don’t think that the National Rifle Association is going to be making Tarzan an honorary member anytime soon.
The first and most important thing you have to do when going on a safari in Africa in the 1930's is to gather up as many of the local natives as possible to carry all your junk for you up the mountain. We are never told how these men are paid or even if they are paid at all. As a matter of fact, they are often treated no better than the animals in the picture and despite the fact that you know the films were made in the earlythirties, it doesn’t make the racist overtones and treatment of the natives any more palatable. For instance, in Tarzan and his Mate as they are struggling to get through the jungle and we have watched several of the natives keel over from heat exhaustion, there is this conversation between two of the principles as they take a cigarette break:
Harry Holt: Saidi, tell those boys to keep the ammunition boxes out of the water.
Saidi: Yes, BwanaMartin: How many men have we lost?
Martin: I figured ten for the whole trip!
Harry: We didn’t figure this pace. Look at the condition they’re in.
For a minute, I had to check to make sure this wasn’t a recorded conversation between George Bush and Dick Cheney assessing the acceptable losses on one of Dead Eye Dick’s drunken hunting trips. So besides carrying the luggage, the natives are obviously here for these other important reasons.
1. To either drop dead or be killed in horrific fashion by other war mongering tribes before reaching the escarpment, thus enabling the white guys to make it to the last reel.
2. To fall off the escarpment as the safari climbs upward so that the white guys can make it to the last reel.
3. To be killed at the top of the escarpment by another native tribe waiting there so the white guys will be alive when Tarzan shows up.
4. To be killed in the last reel by war mongering native tribes while the tied up white guys look on until Tarzan arrives with the elephants to rescue them.
The only consolation here is that after all is and said and done, some of the bad white hunters are usually done in as well, if not by the warring tribe than by elephant stampede or in one case, quick sand. No word on the fact if that is an acceptable loss ratio for Dick Cheney
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
In Tarzan the Ape Man, Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) joins her father James (C. Aubrey Smith) on an expedition to find the Elephant’s Graveyard. It doesn’t take long for the leader of the expedition, Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), to get the hots for Jane, seeing as how there aren’t too many eligible women running around in the jungle. A man can get lonely during those long hot African nights and needs someone to snuggle up with.
Eventually the safari makes their way up The Escarpment where Tarzan uses his world famous copyrighted yell to save the safari, first from some hungry hungry hippos and crocodiles, and then from a tribe of pygmies. And having grown tired of the company of chimpanzees, elephants, and lions, Tarzan swings in and sweeps Jane off her feet...literally. Between Jane’s squealing and whining, and with Tarzan’s lack of vocabulary skills, things get off to a rocky start between them. Jane Sleeps in Tarzan’s lair and Tarzan stays outside to pout because she isn’t being very cooperative.
The next morning while Tarzan is out hunting down some breakfast grub, Jane is rescued by Harry and her father who shoot an ape in the process. This of course doesn’t sit too well with Tarzan, because the ape was Tarzan’s best friend forever. And Tarzan, who has his own code to live by, begins knocking off the poor natives in the safari one by one, even though it was good old Harry who fired the shot. You can take solace in the fact that old Harry permanent cooks his goose with Jane by first laughing at the fact that he murdered Tarzan’s bff, and then winging Tarzan with his gun after promising Jane he would do no such thing. Well, actually his goose was probably cooked the first time that Jane saw Tarzan in his loin cloth, but let’s not quibble over details.
Eventually Tarzan’s other ape, monkey, and gorilla friends kidnap Jane and haul her through the jungle to help nurse the unconscious and ailing Tarzan back to health and it is during this turn of events where that the film and the whole series finally begins to find its footing. The sexual chemistry between Weismuller’s Tarzan and O’Sullivan’s Jane is electric, and the sexual attraction between the two of them oozes from the screen. Well, it oozes as much as was allowed in 1932 and surprisingly, it’s a pretty hefty spill.
When they gaze at each other, when they touch, when Tarzan puts his hand to Jane’s, and when Tarzan playfully massages Jane’s foot you know where this it is all headed to. And when Tarzan carries Jane off and the screen cuts to black, you know they aren’t headed off to Tarzan’s tree lair to play a game of monopoly. Sometimes that fade to black tells you more than any present R rated sex scene and I can practically guarantee you that back in 1932, it wasn’t just 10 year old kids filling up the theater. I have to believe that there was a good number of women patrons who swooned at the thought of being carried around the jungle by Weismuller, or at the very least dreaming of lifting up that loin cloth to see what was underneath.
Later, Tarzan returns Jane to her father and Harry and walks forlornly and alone back into the jungle to be with his apes. Shortly thereafter Jane, her father and Harry are captured by the pygmy tribes (who look a lot like the Munchkins in black face sans Dorothy). Then in a scene that seems to be repeated in at least two of the follow up films, (in fact, I was almost sure that they used the same exact footage in at least one of them) it is left to Cheetah to find Tarzan and inform him of Jane’s latest tale of woe so Tarzan can come riding to the rescue along with every elephant within calling range. Will Tarzan arrive in time? Will Harry and James find the elephant’s graveyard? Will Jane stay in the jungle to play loin cloth peekaboo with Tarzan or head back home with Harry? Do I really need to answer these questions, let alone ask them?
It is obvious when watching Tarzan The Ape Man that even back in 1932, the studio decided to make the film on the cheap. In the early scenes as Jane, James and Harry are walking past several native tribes, they used stock footage projected on a back screen. There are many other places in the film where the stock footage stands out like a sore thumb. What MGM hadn’t counted on was how popular the film would be.
There is no denying that in the early films it is the romance between Tarzan and Jane that is the driving force that makes the engine go, although when I was ten years old, it kind of escaped my notice. What I also hadn’t expected, besides the steaming undercurrent of sexuality, was how suggestive the film could be at times. Since the first two films were made before or during the formation of the Censorship Board, there are times when the film does skirt the edge of what may or may not have been acceptable at the time. When Jane is nursing Tarzan back to health, she uses much of her skirt for a bandage, shortening one section of it by quite a bit. Later, by the time her and Tarzan have finished a playful swimming sequence, not only is her Jungle Jane Outfit short on material, the director makes no effort to cover up the fact that the soping wet material clings to her like a second skin. But nothing at all prepared me for what was to take place in the next film.
Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
In the follow up, our good friend Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) is back in the Explorer’s club. His mission this time is twofold. One is to return to the Elephant’s Graveyard and grab some of the ivory that he wasn’t able to carry down the Escarpment on his first trip. His second priority is to woo Jane so that she will come to her senses and return back to civilization with him. Yeah, I know. Fat chance of that. Along for the ride this time is Holt’s best friend forever and Snidely Whiplash clone, Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanaugh), who after meeting Jane, begins making a play for her himself.
Everything that took place in Ape Man, also happens here in one form or another. But there are some major differences. MGM must have decided they had a good thing going because they actually decided to pour some cash into this outing. Everything from the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, to the violence, to the mistreatment of the safari natives is jacked up about 110 notches.
When Holt and Arlington head out on safari, the natives are beaten with a whip regularly to keep them in line. When one of them refuses to go forward, Arlington shoots him down in cold blood without batting an eyelid. Of course, Harry does chastize him for it.
Holt: A whip would have worked just as well.
Arlington: Perhaps you’re right. He could have carried 150 pounds of Ivory.
Yeah, the coldness of it all made me cringe quite a bit too.
In the first film, when several of the natives fall during the climb up the Escarpment, you can see their shadow on the backdrop. For the sequel they’ve not only added apes throwing boulders at the excursion to increase the body count we are never once aware of what method was used to film the sequence making it twice as horrifying. We actually get to see the spears piercing skulls, and in one instant when a man is savagely stabbed in the back, the blood spurts out of the wound as if it were a geyser at Yellowstone. The only thing missing was Technicolor.
When Tarzan and Jane finally do appear about twenty minutes into the film, imagine my surprise when Jane showed up in her jungle outfit that leaves little if anything to the imagination. The only way to describe it is to imagine the outfit Princess Leia was wearing in Return of the Jedi, then subtract several yards of fabric from the bottom. That should give you a rather clear picture. I know my memory is fading a bit but certainly I would have remembered this particular outfit if I had seen it during those Saturday TV matinees. Well, come to think of it, I was probably still a year or two away from my hormones kicking in.
One thing I know with complete certainty though is that even if I saw this film and just forgot about it, I know damn well I didn’t see the swimming sequence. That I would have remembered, something you would have remembered, and something everybody would remember once they had seen it. After a night of ecstasy, Jane and Tarzan head out into the jungle for an early morning swim. Jane has slipped into the long evening gown that Harry had given her the night before. When they reach the river, Tarzan playfully throws Jane into the river while at the same time stripping away the dress she is wearing. Quite a nifty move for an ape man, wouldn’t you say?
What ensues next is a long playful erotic swimming sequence between the two of them in which Jane performs au naturel. For all you twenty-first century ten year olds who may be hanging around, that means she was naked.
After doing some checking, I found out that this sequence was cut from the film shortly after it’s release. As a matter of fact, Tarzan and His Mate may have been the film mainly responsible for the Censorship Board beginning it’s reign of terror in Hollywood. After the scene was cut, it was lost for almost fifty years before being found and restored to the film in it’s entirety by Turner Classic Movies. The female swimmer is really not Maureen O’Sullivan though, but Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim. And although most people wouldn’t blink an eye watching it now, one can imagine the sequence raising a few eyebrows back in the thirties. There is also no denying that it adds much to the film by way of showing us the openness and frankness of the relationship between the two lovebirds.
The film wraps up in somewhat predictable fashion with Martin pulling a double cross and convincing Jane that Tarzan has been killed. Since she has nothing to stay for, Jane decides to leave the jungle with Martin and Harry, and the three of them get themselves in one helluva mess that has to be seen to be appreciated, and goes well beyond just being captured by a warring native tribe.
There can be no dispute whatsoever that this film is easily the best of the series. The production values were first rate, the relationship between Jane and Tarzan is explored in such a way that it becomes the impetus for the rest of the Weismuller/O’Sullivan outings, even if the sexual tension between the two is toned down quite a bit for the remaining four films. There is also no escaping the fact that the brutality inflicted on the natives makes the film even more difficult to watch than some of the others, yet there are other superb action sequences that make the film very exciting including a confrontation Tarzan has with a giant crocodile (Alligator?) that would have made Crocodile Dundee seem like a pussy by comparison. So of course, if you have an opportunity to watch any of these films and can only view one, Tarzan and His Mate would be the film of choice.
Tarzan Escapes (1936)
As in Ape Man and Mate, Tarzan Escapes begins once again with the principals forming another safari to head up the Escarpment. By this time though, I began to wonder why they just didn’t hire a plane and fly up, but there may have been technical details that excluded such a solution back in 1939. But by the time Tarzan’s New York Adventure rolled around a few years later, they had overcome whatever obstacles stood in the way.
The principals this time would be snotty and haughty Eric (William Henry) and Rita Parker (Benita Hume), who like Harry Holt want to return Jane to civilization. But unlike the romantic reasons that Harry had in mind, Eric and Rita need Jane to help them claim an inheritance so that they can then turn around and find a way to weasel Jane out of the money. Eric and Rita hire Captain Fry (John Buckler) to lead the expedition. Captain Fry’s motive for leading the safari is to capture the “Great White Ape” and bring it down the Escarpment for show and tell. Also along for the ride is Rawlins (Herbert Mundin), for comedy relief.
After about fifteen minutes of watching Tarzan Escapes, you’ll quickly realize you’ve been down this road before. According to one web site, DVD Verdict, the film that was released was not what was originally put onto celluloid. For some reasons that will forever remain a mystery, the original version was scrapped, the cast gathered for a reshoot, and much of the footage from previous films recycled including the giant Crocodile fight from Tarzan and His Mate. And unfortunately, the plot is almost identical to Tarzan and his Mate, the only difference is that Captain Fry wants to capture Tarzan and exhibit him in a cage instead of looking for the Elephant’s graveyard plot of the previous two films.
And sadly, Jane’s outfit from Tarzan and His Mate is now history and what she wears is closer to having come out of Peter Pan’s closet then from Jabba the Hut’s Lair. Jane’s days of sleeping in the nude seem to have come to a quick end also. The sexual overtones of her relationship with Tarzan have been watered down quite a bit, but the chemistry between the two stars manages to stay intact, especially in a long sequence which is the equivalent of a one day honeymoon.
Making it’s first appearance in the Tarzan films is the full fledge tree house that Tarzan has built for Jane. Included are many of the modern conveniences that any woman of the 1930's can appreciate. Much in the same way the Flintstones had their modern appliances, Tarzan puts anything in the jungle he can find to good use, although the one drawback is that many of the items require Cheetah power.
Just as in previous films there is the usual treacherous double crossing, this time by Captain Fry, much of which could have been avoided if Tarzan would learn a few more syllables of the English language. In the four years that have transpired since meeting Jane, his language skills still haven’t improved much. There is also as always the capture by a warring native tribe and Tarzan’s last minute rescue.
But, there are a couple of new things to look for. The warring tribe has come up with a novel form of execution in this one, and it’s interesting to watch Tarzan’s clever escape from a steel cage. (Oh! So that’s why it’s called Tarzan Escapes!), polished off with a treacherous trek through some caves where one false step can send you slip sliding away. We also discover that when it comes to anyone but Jane, Tarzan can be as cold blooded as the next guy when it comes to retribution as he anoints himself to be judge, jury, and executioner near the end of the film.
Tarzan Finds A Son (1939)
Unable to conceive a child on their own because of a malady known as censorship birth control between two unmarried individuals, it was put upon the writers to find some other method to introduce parenthood into the Tarzan movies. The reasons for doing so were probably twofold. The Jane/Tarzan relationship had been explored about as far as it could go, and introducing a young actor into the mix as Tarzan’s son would draw in a younger audience. The young actor who would play boy in this Tarzan film and seven others was Johnny Sheffield, who was said to have been hand picked by Weismuller himself. And once you see him on screen, it’s easy to see why. The part fits Sheffield like a glove.
When the infant boy’s parents are killed in a plane crash, a group of chimpanzee’s rescue him from the wreckage before natives have a chance to abscond with him. Cheetah turns the infant over to Tarzan who in turns brings him home to Jane. Tarzan doesn’t take too kindly to boy at first, especially when Jane informs him, “Baby eats first.” But it doesn’t take long for Tarzan to come around when he finds out, “Boy Strong. Jane Mother. Tarzan Father.” Yeah, his language skills are still on the slow side.
Flash forward five or six years later. Boy has grown quite a bit and has become a handful. He’s not necessarily inclined to always listen to Jane or Tarzan, and performs such stunts as swinging on a vine with one hand, or one foot even when he decides to swing upside down. In short order Boy manages to get attacked by a lion, and then caught in a giant spider web. Jane begins to worry that one day either her or Tarzan may not be around to rescue Boy and wanders what may become of him. It is these worries that play heavily into a decision she makes later.
Enter another group of white hunters with guns. We begin our meet and greet with the Gamboni tribe once again attacking as the safari runs across the river while the white guys sit up behind the rocks and shoot at them. You have to give the producers credit for one thing: They sure did get some mileage out of that scene seeing as how this is it’s third appearance. Tarzan once again stands on top of the escarpment and lets loose with his yell to once again scare the Gamboni’s away. For the fourth film in a row, the safari makes it way up the Escarpment only this time, having milked the falling native bit to death, it’s an extremely short trip and everyone makes it to the top safely, something I’m sure this particular safari was eternally thankful for.
It doesn’t take us long to find out that this group is in fact looking for Boy whose real name is Richard Lansing Junior and heir to a fortune. Sir Thomas Lancing (Henry Stephenson) and his nephew Austin (Ian Hunter) have come to the escarpment to see if there were any survivors of the plane crash. It doesn’t take long for Sir Thomas to figure out who Boy really is, and it doesn’t take his snooty son Austin and his even snootier wife (Frieda Inescort) to devise a plan to convince Jane to let Boy go back to civilization for his own well being. It is a plan in which Jane must choose between her love for Tarzan, and her concern for Boy’s well being. According to the IMDB, this film was supposed to have been Jane’s swan song, as Maureen O’Sullivan wanted out of the Tarzan series. Thankfully, fan outrage forced the producers to rewrite the ending to have Jane survive. Yep, they even had fan boys back in 1939.
Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941)
Boy may be a couple of years older in this one, but he’s not much wiser. After hearing Jane talk about the wonders of civilization, and after finding out how much Gold is worth, boy decides to take a 24 hour jaunt to the nearest skyscraper. Along the way he helps rescue an African boy by the name of Tumbo to escape from a rhino attack. They quickly become bff’s forever. Tumbo takes boy back to his tribe where an epidemic is killing off the villagers, including Tumbo’s mother. It is decided by the tribe witch doctor that boy must be sacrificed in order for the village to be rid of the plague. Boy is then rescued from becoming a flaming shish kebab by Professor Elliott, (Reginald Owen) who is on a scientific expedition to study native tribes, his partner Vandemeer (Philip Dorn) who is the leader of the safari, Medford (Tom Conway) and the newest comic relief O’Doul (Barry Fitzgerald). Later, it is Tarzan who comes to the rescue of all of them.
When Boy shows Medford and Vandemeer his gold nuggets, they plot and scheme to get boy to show them where he the gold nuggets came from. When the two of them find out that there is a whole mountain full of gold and Tarzan refuses to lead them to it, the pair do away with Professor Elliott and then kidnap boy and Jane to force Tarzan to reveal his Secret Treasure. It is left to Tumbo and O’Doul to rescue Tarzan so that he in turn can rescue Jane and Boy who are captured by another native tribe along with Medford and Vandemeer.
By now there are certain elements of these films that make them easily predictable. But occasionally there are just enough changes in the plot to keep things interesting. It was nice to see a seasoned actor like Fitzgerald, who later would win an Academy award for his portrayal of Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way.
There is another scene in this film where Jane and Tarzan go for a swim and reminisce back to how they met, how Tarzan wooed her, and they even replay the scene in which Jane compares her hand to Tarzan’s. It is always the little touches that help make a series great. Just don’t expect Jane to get naked again. Add to that the fact that they thought enough to change the end rescue scene somewhat, and Tarzan’s Secret Treasure becomes watchable, if not exactly the series finest hour.
Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)
Big game hunter, Buck Rand (Charles Bickford) and his pilot Jimmie Shields (Paul Kelly), land their plane on the escarpment in order to capture wild animals for Rand’s circus. Boy is fascinated by the airplane and wants desperately to ride in it while Tarzan gives Rand until sun-up to get out of town. After Rand sees Boy perform tricks with the elephants, he would like nothing more than to take him back to the U.S. to perform. After Jane and Tarzan are apparently killed during a native attack, Rand gets his chance and kidnaps Boy. Of course, Jane and Tarzan survive and must travel to New York to find boy and bring him home, making this film Tarzan’s fish out of water story.
It was no secret that Maureen O’Sullivan wanted out of the Tarzan series. By having Tarzan take on New York the producers had hoped to convince her to stay. But between playing Jane and going through several pregnancies in between the films, she had tired of the role and after New York Adventure her departure would stick. New York Adventure also enabled the studio to cut costs as they had already agreed to sell the waning franchise to RKO.
Although not high on a lot of people’s list of the Weismuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan films, I found the film to be a very refreshing change of pace. Many of the plot elements of the previous five films were interchangeable from one film to the next with many things being simple cosmetic changes. Having Tarzan cope with civilization for the first time had endless possibilities. And that’s probably a small part of the problem with this film.
Running a brisk 71 minutes, not many of those endless possibilities are explored especially when you consider that a good portion of the the scenes are given to Cheetah for comic relief. Still, although the film ends in the usual predictable fashion, it has it’s memorable action sequences as Tarzan escapes by runing and jumping across the New York rooftops, and takes one helluva memorable dive off the Brooklyn bridge. That alone makes this film worth watching, and for me it’s nice to see these six films finish on such a high note.
Even if you aren’t a big Tarzan film buff, or even interested in films of the era, it is worth your time to view at least one or two of the early Tarzan films, not just for entertainment but for their historical value as well. While the racism is appalling and difficult to watch at times, as I said at the beginning of the article, you can take solace in the at the fact that Tarzan judges men by their deeds and not by the color of their skin, a code which he passes on to Boy as can be seen when Boy befriends Tumbo in Tarzan’s Secret Treasure. And also as I said before, you can look at it this way: those responsible for the mistreatment of the African natives usually end up meeting their demise by the end of the picture anyway and justice is served.
Much has been said about Weismuller’s acting ability or lack of should I say. But it doesn’t take a whole lot of thespian experience to be able to point and say, “Tarzan, Jane, Tarzan love Jane.”
There is no denying his screen presence and his physique though, and it is easy to understand why he became the definitive Tarzan that many a woman of the thirties must have swooned over.
In all honesty though, the films belong to Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane as much as they do Tarzan. Although I found her a little bit overly melodramatic in the first film, if you watch any films from the very early thirties, that kind of emoting was the rule rather than the exception. It was undoubtedly a kind of overplaying the scene attitude left over from the silent era. By the second film, she seemed to have found the right balance for Jane, andleft her mark permanently on the role. There is no doubt that without her, the films just wouldn’t have been the same and never really were after her departure.
Part of the problem with the last four films of the series may have been that they were directed by Richard Thorpe. Thorpe was a journeyman director for MGM who was known for getting the shot, getting the film in the can, and bringing it in under budget. He only did close ups out of necessity when something would go wrong with the original shot. While this may have earned him some longevity in the business, it did little in the way of making him memorable as a director. The fact that the films play so well despite the assembly line production values is more of a tribute to the cast than anything to do with Thorpe’s directing prowess.
The four disc box set (one disc has special features which I haven’t viewed) is available for purchase, and all the discs are available for rental through Netflix. So if you decide to view all six films, you only have to use three rental spaces in your queue. If you want to see only one or two of the films, I would definitely opt for Tarzan and His Mate, Tarzan Finds a Son, and Tarzan’s New York Adventure to round it off with. The next six Tarzan films with Weismuller and Brenda Joyce have been released also, so you may be interested in that. It is something I’ll be checking out myself eventually
Grading the films:
Tarzan and His Mate A
Tarzan Finds a Son B+
Tarzan’s New York Adventure B
Tarzan The Ape Man B-
Tarzan’s Secret Treasure C+
Tarzan Escapes C