According to the Internet Movie Database, there have been nearly 80 feature films to star the character of Tarzan. If The Guinness Book of World Records is to be trusted (and I trust it), Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous ape man has been adapted to film third most of any literary figure, which is not to mention all the TV and comic books and radio dramas to feature the character. The only other characters to have him beat are Count Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. Tarzan started his cinematic life during the silent era with the 1918 film Tarzan of the Apes, starring Elmo Lincoln. Most of this generation may be more directly familiar with Disney’s 2000 animated film, or its two straight-to-video sequels, or perhaps the oddball Broadway musical based on the animated film. Promised for released in 2013 is another Tarzan film starring young hunk Kellan Lutz (from the Twilight movies) as Tarzan, and Spencer Locke as Jane. But Tarzan is one of those immortal movie characters, like Dracula or King Kong, that most Americans seem to just intuitively know about. His presence has leaked throughout popular culture in such a way that he has invaded even the smallest corners. You don’t really need to explain a Tarzan reference to a little kid. Somehow, without reading the books or perhaps without even seeing the movies, they have gained knowledge of Tarzan.
Don’t worry. This installment of The Series Project will not be tackling every last Tarzan film. That would take months, and I don’t have the stamina for that, and neither do you. Besides, doing such a task would violate my canonical rule. To remind you: to be a proper film series, worthy of coverage in The Series Project, there has to be some kind of solid, canonical through line. And while shabby horror series like Children of the Corn and The Amityville Horror had loose notions of canon at best, they did, at the very least, give us ever-increasing roman numerals to keep us on track. (My rule, of course, means that both Godzilla and Zatoichi loom large on the Series Project landscape.)
No, I will, instead, be covering the twelve (12) Tarzan films that ran from 1932 to 1948, as they were the films to feature Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. The first six of the series featured Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane, who would drop out and be replaced by a curious bevvy of Amazons, Leopard Women, and Mermaids. But that won’t be until the end of the series. Weissmuller is easily the most famous and iconic of the Tarzan actors, who played the role in more feature films than any other actor. Weissmuller was so iconic in the role, in fact, he has remained the primary Tarzan in the public consciousness, outliving some other poseurs who starred in Tarzan films at the same time he did. Buster Crabbe, Bruce Bennett, and Glenn Morris were all pretenders to the throne.
And while there have been hotter Tarzans (even Casper Van Dien had a go in 1998), and more realistic Tarzans, it’s Weismuller’s slicked back hair, clean-shaven body, and smooth cheeks that we all remember. And his ululating wail. Everyone knows the Tarzan yell. It’s more popular that Bruce Lee’s “Wataah!” Or even the Wilhelm Scream.
Here’s the rundown on Tarzan (movie version) for anyone who doesn’t know: Tarzan (Weissmuller) is a white man who, as a boy, was left abandoned in the remote jungles of Africa. He was raised by apes and, by dint of his human intelligence, became a respected master of the beasts. The local African tribes fear him as a magical being, and he can communicate with chimpanzees and elephants. He regularly protects helpless animals from attack by bigger animals, and he is masterful at killing lions and alligators with a knife he carries on his person at all times. Tarzan famously finds a female companion in the form of Jane Parker (O’Sullivan), a prim yet adventurous English lass who is so charmed by Tarzan’s loving simplicity (and rockin’ swimmer’s bod), she ends up living in the jungle with him. Tarzan’s many adventures usually surround a cultural clash between his place in the jungle, and the encroaching (and often greedy) white men.
Tarzan is a gentle brute who, for many years, couldn’t speak proper English. His speech is a halting collection of one-word sentences, and a few phrases of pidgin Swahili. Weissmuller was an Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer before he was an actor, so each film will feature an extended swimming sequence.
The first feature film with Weismuller was Tarzan, The Ape Man in 1932. Let’s take the plunge.
Tarzan, The Ape Man (dir. W.S. Van Dyke, 1932)
This film resembles the original Edgar Rice Burroughs novel the most closely. Or at least the novel’s first part. From what I understand (I sadly haven’t read the book yet; it awaits patiently on my shelf), Tarzan eventually moves to the big city back in Europe and becomes a well-spoken and well-dressed gentleman, whereas in the movies, he stays the shirtless savage pretty much throughout. The cool thing about the first two Tarzan movies is how long we have to wait to see the title character. For the first 38 minutes of film, we are only spending time with Jane and her retinue, trekking into Darkest Africa to locate a secret elephant graveyard.
The retinue is led by one Harry Holt, played by Neil Hamilton who would go on to play Commissioner Gordon in the 1966 Batman TV series. Harry, along with the stern-face James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) want that huge and valuable ivory store hidden somewhere in the jungle, and have been recruiting natives to lead them. The natives are wary, as they know tales of forbidden zones and white apes. The attitudes toward black people in these movies is, admittedly, primate at best. The Africans are seen as Others. Indeed, often they are seen as sub-human. In the third Tarzan film, three black men will die, and the white devil leading them will fliply comment that it was merely a close call. Not for the three guys who died, it wasn’t, you racist jerkwad. As a modern viewer, you’ll have to sort of take the racist attitudes in stride. This was, after all, the early 1930s, decades before the civil rights movement began in earnest. At the very least, the black people are never caricaturized in some of the usual ways; there is no blackface in sight, thank goodness.
Jane, James’s daughter, drops in for an unexpected visit, and boldly offers to join them on their excursion to find the elephant graveyard. Jane proves early on that she can handle a gun. In the first two films, Jane is something of a badass, relying on her own skills and charms to get out of situations. True, she does yell “Help!” a few times, but she is clearly the one in charge. I would say that, in the first two Tarzan films at least, Jane is something of a feminist icon. We’ll see more of this later on.
So our heroes trek into dangerous territory, and spend the first third of the film trekking through exotic locales and looking at exotic animals. This was from a time when exotic locales were really hip, and they would be thrown into most movies as an easy sell. Some of the shots in the film did involve actors interacting with real animals (there is a pretty exciting hippopotamus attack), but most of the footage of animals (and indeed much of the footage of African natives) would be achieved with stock footage and documentary footage spliced into the action. When one of the white men shoots an ape and kills it, we begin to see a shadowy figure stalking them. We don’t see Tarzan in close-up until 38 minutes into the film.
Tarzan is confrontational, but in a protective way; he never attacks unless provoked, and only kills lions or alligators if they’re directly going after a person or an ape. He rescues Jane from an animal attack, and spirits her off into the jungle. It’s here that the appeal of Tarzan begins to rears its head: Tarzan is, in many ways, an out-and-out pornographic fantasy scenario for young women. Jane is frightful around Tarzan, but soon learns how gentle he is, and how capable he is at protecting her. He’s not very smart, is very good looking, lives his life nearly in the nude, and seems eager to submit. Jane gives some playful speeches to Tarzan and how a girl could get used to this, and Tarzan doesn’t seem to understand. I wonder how many women (and indeed how many men) have a fantasy like this: of being physically capable, but being sexually dominated by a smart woman. There are gender-flipped versions of this fantasy in stories like Sheena: Queen of the Jungle, but Tarzan remains the bedrock.
I liked the dynamic between Jane and Tarzan, in this and in the second movies especially. Jane is a fresh-faced and open-minded woman who, while cosmopolitan, seems to have found an appealing Edenic life with Tarzan. They sleep in tree huts, swing on vines for transport, and live in harmony with most of the jungle critters. And while it’s not ever filmed, you just know they are sharing all kinds of wild banana love.
Anyway, Harry and James run afoul of some local tribes, are beset by animals, and, just as they were leaving the area, are attacked by a group of cannibal pygmies. Yes, the pygmies are a little offensive, as you can tell it’s many white dwarf actors painted black. The pygmies keep a bloodthirsty gorilla captive in a pit, and regularly throw people down to it, very much like that monster in Return of the Jedi. They capture Harry and James and Jane, and it’s up to Tarzan to rescue them. Luckily, he can summon elephants, and a wild herd knocks down the pygmy village. James, sadly, is injured in all this. When Tarzan, Jane, Henry and James flee, they do eventually find the elephant graveyard they were looking for (they followed an injured elephant), and look on in awe. Rather than taking any ivory, though, they simply rest. James dies, and is buried there. Jane, loving the jungle life, stays with Tarzan.
Tarzan is, rather wisely, not a dominant force in this film. Sure, he’s a sexual being, seeing as he’s nearly naked throughout, but Jane is the one who chooses this relationship; Tarzan never pursued her. Did I mention I loved Jane?
The next film might be even better.
Tarzan and His Mate (dir. Cedric Gibbons, 1934)
Tarzan and His Mate has pretty much the exact same story as the first film, only it seems to be writ much larger. At 104 minutes, it’s certainly the longest of this Tarzan cycle, and it feels the most epic. It has more animal attacks, bigger chases, higher risks, and better special effects. What’s more, this film was made in 1934, just before the infamous Hollywood Production Code was put into effect, so we’re actually treated to some real nudity.
You heard me right. There is full-frontal nudity in this film. Modern audiences tend to look at older films as perhaps stodgy and chaste. Let me use Tarzan and His Mate as an argument against that. There’s a scene halfway through the film wherein Jane and Tarzan go swimming (natch). When falling into the water, Tarzan accidentally rips off Jane’s dress, and she continues her swim in the nude. The underwater ballet sequence that follows is not only titillating, but it’s kind of lovely. Indeed, all throughout Tarzan and His Mate, we get more and stronger depictions of the paradise in which Tarzan and Jane live. Jane has trained Tarzan to declare his love, and they snuggle and banter (well, Jane banters) like young lovers. The scene where they wake up next to each other, covered in warming moss, is an intimate bedroom scene to rival anything today. Jane, in these scenes, also displays how in-charge she is. Not that Tarzan is dominated (that will come in the next movie, groan), but he is clearly the somewhat submissive one of the pair.
Anyway, Harry (still Neil Hamilton) wants to return to the elephant burial ground two years after the events of the first film, this time at the behest of a kind of jerkish fellow named Martin (Paul Cavanaugh). Harry also wants to lure Jane out of the jungle, and his ploy to do so is to bring her the latest in Parisian fashion, nylons, and perfumes. And while the first 20 minutes of film are, like the last film, spent with dangerous animal encounters and treacherous environments, they do eventually find Jane, now decked out in a skimpy, skimpy leather bikini. Jane is taken by the lovely female baubles, and she does try them on, but never gives any sort of hint that she’ll be returning to London, thank you very much. The entire second act of the film is devoted to Jane and Tarzan’s blissful life.
Martin the greedy jerk, meanwhile, actually shoots an elephant just so he can follow it to the graveyard. He also makes a deal with a local tribe called The Gaboni to take the elephant ivory out of the area. I’m proud to say that I own no ivory. In addition to the casual racism in the film, one also kind of has to turn a blind eye to some of the outright cruelty to animals. These first two films are more about protecting animals than killing them, but by the fourth film, all zebras and okapis are going to be seen as targets for white man’s bullets. You’ll also cringe at a few documentary clips of animals caught in traps or being teased. In this film, though, it’s not so bad. Martin does harvest the ivory, and makes to leave the graveyard with it, but only after shooting Tarzan out in a remote glade, and leaving him for dead; Martin doesn’t want Tarzan interfering. Jane, despondent, decides to leave with her white friends.
On the way out of the jungle, though, our heroes are beset by the Gaboni, who seem to have the power to summon lions. There’s a long and way cool shootout between our heroes and evil natives, while lions prowl about killing people. Jane, during this sequence, manages to not only fend off some lions herself, but even builds a fire on the fly. Jane, we see, is as capable of Tarzan.
Tarzan, meanwhile, is found by Cheetah, who had to brave rhinos and alligators and even hippos to find him. The local chimps team up and cure Tarzan of his wounds just in time for the climax. Tarzan, as in the first film, summons elephants. In mathematical terms, elephants are greater than lions. The elephants win, Jane sees Tarzan is still alive, Martin is busted, and the elephants take the stolen ivory in their trunks back to the graveyard. All is well.
I love this movie. It’s exciting and action-packed and has strong characters. Plus, for a 1930s movie, it’s good and violent, and plenty sexy. If you’ve been afraid of ‘30s movies, I encourage you to start with something like Tarzan and His Mate. You’ll see that, even before the word “awesome” was bandied about casually, it was awesome.
Don’t, however, start with the next film.
Tarzan Escapes (dir. Richard Thorpe, 1936)
So this was after the infamous Hollywood Code, which means the sexual elements were removed entirely, Jane is now in a much more demure outfit, and the violence was toned way, way down. And while these things could still make for an interesting story, the filmmakers decided to skew toward a story that makes your average episode of The Flintstones look deep in comparison.
So Jane is still played by Maureen O’Sullivan, and Tarzan is still Johnny Weissmuller, but their relationship is now a strained parody of regular domesticity. When we see the two of them living in the jungle, they are now dwelling in a Swiss Family Robinson-type tree house, complete with a kitchen, a special water retrieval system, a separate bathroom… essentially an average apartment building. The rooms are made to look like a regular kitchen, and they’ve even gone to the trouble of making a dining room table, chairs, flatware, dinner plates, and a ceiling fan. The fan is operated by Cheetah, who has to move a crank to make it work. I half-expected Cheetah to turn to the camera and lament: “It’s a living.”
This pained domesticity will take up most of the movie, and it’s hurtful to see Tarzan sitting at a dinner table, and Jane reduced to a kitchen queen. What felt kind of adult and peaceful before is now cartoonish. Much of the film will be a debate between Jane and Tarzan as to whether or not she should return to civilization, and Tarzan broods like a sulky teen. There are still the requisite swimming and animal attack scenes, but they’re more like filler now: indeed, most of the action shots in Tarzan Escapes are reused footage from Tarzan and His Mate. The vine-swinging, the animals, and the death scenes are all shamelessly repurposed. Watching them back-to-back, I saw just about every shot they reused. I’m willing to bet almost a third of this movie is footage from the last. Usually it takes a series a long time before they resort to such stunts (it wasn’t until the 7th Puppet Master film that they were reduced to the “Clip Show” antic).
Oh yeah. The plot: So Jane has two cousins (the wicked warden Benita Hume, and the flavorless William Henry) who want Jane back in the city so they can inherit some money or something. They have brought a “comic” friend in the form of Rawlins (Herbert Mundin), and are led by the super-ass Captain Fry (John Buckler). Buckler is the one who looked at three black men plummeting to their deaths, and comments that it was a “close call.” He also abuses animals, tortures chimps, and probably owns child pornography, although that’s not actually addressed in the film. Seriously, Captain Fry is such an evil man, he seems to start evil plots without a goal in mind. He does eventually want to kidnap Tarzan and bring him back to the city for display, but he also has some odd plot with the local Gaboni, and sells his friends out to the wicked tribe for reasons I was unable to discern.
Tarzan has spent most of the film moping over the fact that Jane is thinking about leaving him. I know they have a good relationship from the last film, but in this one, Jane, modestly dressed, seems more like a pecking biddy. O’Sullivan brings what she can to the lines, but Jane is so weakened. Captain Fry does end up trapping Tarzan in a cage, as Tarzan mopes into one of his own free will. When he sees the Gaboni, however, Tarzan manages to roll his cage down a hill, and summons to elephants to break him out. That must be the escape that the title alludes to. In now-predictable fashion, Tarzan summons elephants to break up the Gaboni, and rescue Jane.
Tarzan Escapes is just not very good. It’s recognizably cheap, the characters are changed, and the cartoon tree house is stupid. Odd that the tone and quality should dip so much in this third film after the greatness of the second. Perhaps this was all a result of the Hollywood Code. Hamstrung, the filmmakers had to show that Tarzan and Jane were not living in sin, having blissful, sexy jungle love, but had a kind of typical married relationship in a usual suburban home, albeit a parallel universe jungle version of it. In the fourth film, they’ll actually be labeled a married couple. Such a pity. Whatever illicitness their relationship had was what made it strong. Now they have an ape-powered ceiling fan. Argh.
The slippery slope, sadly, will continue. We have nine more films to go. Before we retire for the week, let’s look at…
Tarzan Finds a Son! (dir. Richard Thorpe, 1939)
Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title. And of course he finds a son. Can’t have Jane getting all pregnant from the sex. Not during the Code era.
In the previous installments, Tarzan wouldn’t appear until about 20 minutes into the film, giving him some mystery, and emphasizing his remoteness from the rest of the civilized world. In this one, he’s off-screen for less than 8. This chapter also covers the greatest span of time, as we get to see a young boy skip from infancy to age 5 or so. It’s also the shortest so far, at only 82 minutes. By the time we get to the later chapters from the 1940s, they’ll only be about 70 minutes apiece.
So, yes, Tarzan finds a son. A plan crashes in the jungle near where Tarzan and Jane (still Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan) live. Everyone on board dies except for the infant. The men’s corpses are spirited away by a local tribe called the Zambili (for a remote part of Africa, there sure are a lot of people around), and the infant is carried by Cheetah to Tarzan. Tarzan and Jane end up looking after the kid, and adopt him after a short while, naming him Boy. Boy grows into an insufferable 5-year-old Hollywood moppet (John Sheffield) who also wears a loincloth, and has his own version of the Tarzan yell. I am dismayed to learn that Boy will appear in the rest of this Tarzan cycle, with the exception of the 12th and final film Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948). However, Boy will be played by the same actor throughout, so it might be fun to see him wrestle with adolescent awkwardness. Maybe not. I don’t like the introduction of Boy. I don’t like Boy. He’s like Spritle Racer and Chim-Chim rolled together into one hellish mutant character.
Anyway, I don’t want to bore you with too much of this one, so I’ll be brief: Boy is actually the lost heir of the Greystoke fortune (his father was a Greystoke nephew – a favorite one), and a team of white people (led by Henry Stephenson, and followed by Ian Hunter and Frieda Inescort) have trekked to the jungle to find him. Again, we find the central threat of the film to be the potential breakup of the Tarzan family, and there’s a lot of weepy considerations, and broody moments. This is an adventure film, right? Why so many tears. Tarzan wants to keep Boy, as does Jane, but Jane is now torn, as she feels that modern-day London can offer Boy a better life. This is the fourth film in the series. To put a number on it, I’d say Jane has been living with Tarzan for about seven or eight years. Five of those years were spent raising a child. You’d think Jane would stick to her guns and insist that Boy is living just fine, thank you very much, and that civilization is one of her lesser interests. But no, she weeps and reluctantly agrees and then demurs and flip-flops and comes across as a ninny.
Tarzan, meanwhile, is just pissy. He breaks the white people’s guns (and good for him), and is staunch about not letting Boy go. He likes having the kid around. Lord knows why. The family, by the way, is still living in that goofy-ass tree house with the fan and the kitchen and the cutlery. There is indeed some reused footage this time around too.
Jane agrees to go with the white folks, and has to lure Tarzan into a pit to escape. What a bitch. Then, when she announces her intentions to return to the white folks, they suddenly, and without warning, reveal that they’re assholes. They pull guns on Jane, and state that they stand to inherit Boy’s fortune. Boy manages to escape, and he flees to find Tarzan to rescue Jane. Tarzan gets some elephants to knock a tree into his pit, and he climbs out in the nick of time (?). Boy returns to the fold, and our heroine returns to the jungle. Hooray.
The only thing that Tarzan Finds a Son! introduces (besides Boy himself, obviously) is the question about Tarzan’s own origins. It’s never discussed in any of the films to date how Tarzan came to be an Ape Man, how he got a knife, or how he became lord of the beasts. That was all just taken for granted. With the way Boy appears in his life, we get to see a kind of proxy of how life must have been for Tarzan as a lad. I’m glad we never discuss Tarzan’s origins in this series. It’s more fun to take him as he is.
Anyway, that brings us to the end for this week. The next eight of these films will enter some pretty bonkers territory (New York calls, there’s a Desert Mystery, and we’ll meet a Leopard Woman), so be sure to come back for the remaining two installments of The Series Project: Tarzan. We’ll see if the naughtiness comes back, if Boy remains insufferable, if Jane can stay strong, and how Johnny Weissmuller looks in a suit. Stay tuned, jungle tots. We got a lot more swingin’ to do.