Happy anniversary, Tarzan. He first appeared in periodical form in 1912, making him 100 this week.
It turns out I lied. I thought that Jane was gone from this series altogether. I was under the false (and frankly terrifying) thought that the remaining four films in the twelve-film Tarzan series with Johnny Weissmuller (which I’ve been covering over the last two weeks) were to feature only the ever-sagging Weissmuller and his mop-topped moppet charge Boy (Johnny Sheffield). And while Maureen O’Sullivan has indeed left the series for good, Jane was actually replaced in the ninth film in the series by a blonde actress named Brenda Joyce. So the familial dynamic will be back.
Hey, remember the Batman film cycle from the 1990s? That was a series that started out looking like film noir (with the Tim Burton entries), and gradually – perhaps naturally – evolved into something brighter and more colorful (with the two Joel Schumacher movies), and were soon a lot more akin to the 1966 Batman TV series than the previous entries in the more recent cycle. Tarzan has, I now see with the final four films, gone through a similar cycle. The first two films were weighty and kind of serious. Over the course of films three through six, we entered into a gentle, Lassie-like childrens’ sitcom with subdued drama and bland domesticity (as Tarzan and Jane moved into a treehouse). With film 7, the series traded hands from MGM to RKO, and they started going into a weirdo action territory (it was here that Tarzan fought Nazis in Atlantis). But even under the aegis of RKO, the series is now, once again, creeping irresistibly back to the bland Lassie sitcom that we had seen before.
From this, I think I can come to the conclusion that Tarzan, at least in this early incarnation, is only to be accepted if he’s cavorting with Boy, sharing a kitchen with Jane, and berating the naughty chimp Cheeta. We also seem to have, with these final four films, entered into a highly-populated world. More on that in a second.
When we last left Tarzan, he had just had a buggy and stupid adventure fighting sheiks in the desert, and was having a pseudo-romance with a feisty female magician. Jane was still out of town then, as she was stuck in England during the War. Boy was as insufferable as ever. Let’s see how Jane turned out, and pick back up with…
Tarzan and the Amazons (dir. Kurt Neumann, 1945)
So in the first eight films in the series, I got the impression that Tarzan, having been raised by apes after all, was living in a vastly remote part of the jungle, where even the sparse natives feared to tread. Also, that he had little contact with other people, making him a gentle Manimal himself. The second notion was kind of undone by Tarzan’s New York Adventure (film number 6) which revealed Tarzan (Weissmuller) as a man unimpressed with clothing and civilization; He is never once astonished at the huge number of people around him. Along all of the films so far, we have been exposed to several local tribes, all of whom are intimately familiar with Tarzan. He may be remote, but he’s not that remote. In Tarzan Triumphs (the seventh film), we learn that Tarzan is also in intimate contact with a lost civilization living in remote splendor deep in the wilds of The Congo.
Well, with Tarzan and the Amazons (along with a few other of the next films), we’ll see that there are myriad lost cities lurking in the jungle, all of which are populated by white people, and all of which are seemingly peaceful, but largely insidious. I was operating under the misapprehension that the central appeal of Tarzan was his autonomy from the workings of most humans. He fulfilled a peaceful isolationist fantasy. That central appeal is all but gone by the time we get to film nine, and is completely erased by Tarzan and the Amazons.
The Amazon basin, in case anyone needs reminding, is in South America. Which is not Africa.
So Jane (Brenda Joyce) is back from England, although her English accept is pretty much gone. Jane is less the borderline wildwoman she was before, and is in full-tilt domestic mode again. Joyce is blonde, which is a striking difference from the brunette O’Sullivan we’ve been used to. Joyce is fine, I guess, but completely lacks the sexual tension that O’Sullivan brought to the role. O’Sullivan seemed to be genuinely in love with Tarzan and with jungle life. Joyce is just a bland domestic partner who kisses Tarzan but once over the course of four films. When Jane returns to Taran, they have their compulsory swim (Weissmuller was, after all, an Olympic swimmer, so the swimming scenes have not diminished). Aside from that, there didn’t seem to be any joy in their reunion. It felt more like a plot point than a genuine moment of drama.
Yes Boy (Johnny Sheffield) is still around, and he still looks like Clint Howard, although he is clearly aging. We’ll hear his voice begin to crack before too long.
The story for this one: There is yet another lost city in The Congo. This one is called Palmyria, and is populated by women who wear leopard-print onesies and gold flats. One of the women, named Athena (Shirley O’Hara) has been curious about the world outside Palmyria, and treks into Tarzan’s jungle, where he is nearly mauled by a wild animal. Oh, by the way, the footage of the wild animals is still in full force, and there are plenty of shot that are used (and re-used) via stock reels. Tarzan knows of Palmyria, and asks that Boy stay in the jungle while Tarzan carries the injured woman back to her city. Boy defies Tarzan, and learns the location of Palmyria. Palmyria is all ladies (or perhaps aaaaaawwl ladies) who worship a sun god, and are ruled by a stern and cautious queen (Mme. Maria Ouspenskaya).
At the same time, a scientific expedition arrives with Jane. The expedition, led by the benevolent man of science Sir Guy (Henry Stephenson) is interested in mapping out the area. Tarzan is suspicious of white men as usual, although Guy seems to be a genuinely harmless guy. It’s the greedy violent bastards in his retinue that we’ll have to keep an eye on. Sure enough, when the retinue learns that there be gold in them thar Amazonian (?) village, they quest to find it. Boy, being the naïve little pusillanimous moppet that he is, is the one who revealed a gold bracelet that Athena dropped. It will be he who eventually leads the white men to Palmyria, interrupting their idyll. I guess since Tarzan is so easily accessed these days, the only threat civilization now poses is to a another secret society.
Did I mention I hate Boy? Now he’s the one leading bad men to a secret village, which he knows should remain a secret. Tarzan tells him on numerous occasions that Palmyria should not be discussed. Dip that, he says. Sir Guy and his retinue are confronted by the queen, and they realize they’ve all trespassed ina very secret and very sacred place. The usual punishment for such a thing is death, but after Sir Guy gives an impassioned speech about merely wanting to observe, and promising not to reveal any of what he sees to the outside world, their lives are spared. Instead? They’ll be forced into a work camp where these Amazons keep all the men. Oh yeah; we never see any men in Palmyria. Not even eunuchs. The men are sent to prison. Cheeta goes to get help. That is Cheeta’s primary function in these movies: she gets help. Despite what my mother says, Cheeta is a girl.
The men break out of prison, rob Palmyria blind (they even take the sun god’s sacred olive branch, those fiends), shoot Sir Guy (!), and are then all pretty much slaughtered by the Amazons. This is the second most violent Tarzan movie, right after the Nazi-killing one. The only one who survives is Boy, and he’s forced back to the Amazon village, where he’ll be put to death with a cup of hemlock. If I ever am to be executed, and I can’t be chased off a cliff by a band of topless women like in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, then I want to be forced to drink hemlock. There’s just something so classical about it.
And then Tarzan appears, and Boy is redeemed. The end. Really. Boy doesn’t learn a lesson, he doesn’t get a talking to. Indeed, Tarzan doesn’t even make any kind of appeal. He just shows up, and that’s enough for the movie. It just sort of ends there.
Tarzan and the Amazons, aside from its frustrating lack of, you know, actual Amazons (I would argue that “Amazonian” is a good word to describe any large, jungle-bound warrior woman, but calling them actual Amazons would depend on their actual geography), is a well-told story, if not a very necessarily interesting one. I like Sir Guy, the new Jane is not offensive (she’s just kinda bland), and the violence is exciting. It’s just so far afield from the previous films. Well, after Nazis and sheiks, this is a step back. The first few Tarzan movies were made in the 1930s, and the pacing was different. Now they’re beginning to look like potboilers and action cheapies. They’re only about 70-75 minutes apiece at this point too, so they’ll feel a bit more like the kind of action film’s we’re used to.
The next up in our rotating bevvy of Tarzan villainesses:
Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (dir. Kurt Neumann, 1946)
Kind of odd that Tarzan’s primary foes in three consecutive films would be wicked women. The Amazons were no cake walk, in this film, he’s going to go head-to-head with an evil Leopard Woman, and in the next film, he’ll match wits with a great white huntress. In a series that started with Jane being such a strong (not to mention sexually realized) character, this mild misogyny is a little off-putting.
So the villainess is, yes, a Leopard Woman, although I was dismayed to learn that Lea (played by ‘40s B-queen Acquanetta) was not a were-leopard, and was instead the high priestess of a violent leopard-based cult. And while she does incite her followers – a group of hunky men who dress in leopard skins, and use claw-like weapons to kill their prey – it’s actually an evil white guy who is inciting her to begin with. This film lets us have it both ways: We can vilify the woman, but we can also vilify the great white hunter. The white guy is named Dr. Emile Lazar. I seem to recall that his motivation was a dark mirror to Tarzan (Weissmuller, looking even saggier than before); Lazar wanted any and all “civilized” people out of the jungle once and for all, and would use the leopard assassins to scare them off.
Tarzan and the Leopard Woman also features an evil twin for Boy (Johnny Sheffield), in the form of the swarthy Kimba (Tommy Cook). Kimba is the polar opposite of Boy. He is tough, he is intense, and he’s kind of a badass. He lies and manipulates regularly. Kimba is a young man who is attempting to gain acceptance into the leopard cult. Initiation is kind of hard: you have to present the high priestess with a human heart. Echoes of Aztec sacrifices there. And if Tarzan has Lazar, and Boy has Kimba, and Jane has Lea… well we’re looking at a classical domestic inversion, folks. Good on the writers for thinkin up something so sophisticated. Well, it’s relatively sophisticated, given what we’ve had from most of these Tarzan movies.
What’s more, the film is staged as a murder mystery. A caravan is being repeatedly attacked, and everyone thinks it’s leopards. Only Tarzan, with his jungle instincts, knows that it couldn’t be leopards. O.k. We know all the players, so it’s not much of a mystery, but there is a mild flavor of whodunit to the affair.
Good script, good villains… You know, I kind of have a problem with both this film, and the following one: They’re actually pretty good, but they’re good in such a way that I have little to say about them other than to recount the plot, and the few elements I kinda liked. The Cheeta antics are kept at their usual level, Jane is the same level of blandness, Tarzan is his usual efficient self… That it: These films are merely efficient. And, given the nature of the inter-film continuity at this late stage in the series (i.e not so string), you could easily pick up on the series here. You’d see all the trademark Tarzan stuff. Well, there’s less vine-swinging and animal mayhem in this one. Maybe you’d better see this one… third. See this one third, and you’ll be fine. It’ll seem familiar to you by then. Well, you may be put off by Weissmuller’s age. Weissmuller is 42 at this point, and doesn’t have the dashing sparkle he had in some of the earlier films. Again, though, I would kill for his 42-year-old swimmer’s physique on my body at 21. He’s still got his nice chest. But his face looks 42 years old.
And that’s it. An efficient 72 minute Tarzan flick. It’s fun, and it’s got claw attacks. In fact, I think it would be fun to have one of those assassin’s outfits. It’s a leopard skin with fist-claws built in. You drape it over your head, and wrap your hands around the razors. I’ve seen goofier superhero costumes.
My commentary on the next entry will be short, I’m afraid…
Tarzan and the Huntress (dir. Kurt Neumann, 1947)
I need to see more of this Neumann guy’s stuff. Like the last, Tarzan and the Huntress is a slick and efficient little film. To the point where that’s all I can say about it. I has a cool villainess with a fun motive, and the usual Tarzan antics. Cheeta does funny stuff. Jane (still Brenda Joyce) is still as exciting as a pint of plain yoghurt. The most interesting facet to this film is the coming of age of Boy (Johnny Sheffield, making his last Tarzan appearance, and now a mannish 17 years old).
Since Sheffield has played Boy for many years now, we’ve seen him grow up. And, since he’s been shirtless this whole time, we’ve also seen him fill out. In the last film, he started to gain some muscle tone, and his voice had dropped a little. In this one, he’s got a full-fledged stud physique, and real pecs. His voice has turned into a nice baritone. And, while I’ve made it a habit of hating Boy, I actually found him to be way less insufferable in this film. The film’s central story arc, indeed, has to do with Boy’s maturity. I’m pretty sure no one thought the series would last this long, and that Boy would eventually no longer be a boy. Clever then that the filmmakers should think to so a story like this.
So the evil huntress of the title is a white woman from England who is looking to kidnap the local animals for her zoo back home. The old zoo animals, you see, were killed in the War, and now we need some more. The huntress is Tanya Rawlins (Patricia Morison), and she’s actually a spunky and fun villainess. She doesn’t thrash about or scream, but calmly and coldly does harm. She’s kind of a badass. At first Boy wants to help (he’s always enamored of white folk), but soon becomes wise to her kidnapping plan, and decides to fight her. Tarzan had been pleading with Boy this whole time, but it’s not until near the end that Boy becomes a Man. Yes, it’s a coming of age story for Boy. Sadly, this leaves little for Tarzan and Jane to do. They seem like elder parents in this film, looking on boy with a wise, doting air. Tarzan does kick some ass, but he’s more like a dippy dad at this point, chiming in when necessary. “Boy become man now,” he’ll eventually declare.
So, yeah, it’s a pretty cool one, Tarzan and the Huntress. I didn’t expect a little surge in quality like this near the end of the series (we only have one to go, my lovelies), so I am unprepared to comment. See this film fourth.
This is the way the series ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper:
Tarzan and the Mermaids (dir. Robert Florey, 1948)
The twelfth and final film in the Weissmuller Tarzan cycle is also, quite easily, the worst. It’s worse that the domesticity of the early films, and worse than the bizonkers weirdness of the mid-series Nazi-fightin’ films. It has a shabby plot, Weissmuller is looking particularly used up, and it has replaced Boy with a demon even more insidious than Spritle Racer. In this film, we are treated to the horrors that is… Benji.
Yes Benji (John Laurenz). Benji the terrible. Benji the insidious. Benji the living gag reflex. Benji is like that creepy drunk who lives on the beach, but who *ulp* sings. He wears a shabby straw hat, flip-flops and jams. He looks exactly the way a beach-dwelling child molester might look. Benji is friends with Tarzan and Jane (Weissmuller and Joyce), and he appears in their lives to deliver mail, and then serenade him on his ukulele. His lyrics are lilting and ululating descriptions of the things around him. Then finished up with a couplet of self-aggrandizement. He’s like a gentle white rapper extruded through a Play-Doh Fun Factory made of Don Ho. He grins greasily, and makes eyes at Jane, and it made me want to vomit my face off. He couldn’t be less appealing if he was spewing chewed up slugs onto her face.
And all the characters seem to enjoy what he does! What the f*ck is wrong with them?! Do they not see the greasy troubadour that I’m looking at? Joyce and Weissmuller must have either been paid well, or are better actors than I gave them credit for. Tarzan and the Mermaids is a mere 68 minutes, and I think a full third of screentime was devoted to Benji singing. Gross. Oily. Smeary. Bad.
The rest of the movie is devoted to a trip plot about a runaway Polynesian woman named Mara (Linda Christian) who ends up in Tarzan’s care after she flees an attack by her local god (!). Heck, if Tarzan can live next to several “hidden” cities, and is only a hop, vine, and jump away from deserts and cities, why not also move Polynesian islands close to The Congo as well? I suspect if the series had continued long enough, most of the world would have shifted to be closer to Tarzan. It wouldn’t be long before Tarzan would live in the Eiffel Tower. Anyway, Tarzan goes to investigate this naughty Polynesian god, and finds that, like in Leopard Woman, the local priest is in cahoots with a white man, who recently moved to the islands and taken the guise of the deity there. Eventually Tarzan will expose the bad guy, and the people will have a party.
Yeah, that’s about as quickly as the plot resolves. Indeed, the plot resolves about 15 minutes from the end, and the finale is a party sequence with dancing, cliff-diving, and a lot of pineapple. Keep in mind, this was 1948, only two years before Hawai’i was to become a state, so the nation was kind of island happy at that point. Why do you think there were so many Tiki bars in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s? And while the island nation in this film isn’t explicitly Polynesian (It’s called Acquitania), that’s clearly what the filmmakers were going for.
One cool thing: Linda Christian is the hottest woman we’ve had in a Tarzan movie yet. She looks like a fetish model of the modern age, what with her sultry lipstick, and impeccably coiffed hair. I’m sad to report that the Mermaids of the title only refers to beach-dwelling people, and not magical fish ladies. C’est las vie.
Then BENJI SINGS US OUT. And I punch a hole in the wall. And I bid an angry farewell to Tarzan.
So, as far as I have discovered, the Weissmuller Tarzan series went through several cycles. Let me lay them out.
Cycle 1: The Great Cycle
The first two films are legitimate pre-code classics that everyone should see. The second especially, is way fun.
Cycle 2: The Lassie Cycle
Films three through six are all painfully focused on Tarzan’s domestic life, his acquisition of a child, the Boy’s new life in the wild, and are all way too bland for their own good. I compared them to episodes of Lassie. Even the one where Tarzan goes to New York fits in here.
Cycle 3: The Bonkers Cycle
Films seven and eight were the ultra-violent ones (with no Jane) where Tarzan fights Nazis and sheiks. You’ll be baffled and incredulous. You may like them.
Cycle 4: The Villainess Cycle
Films nine through 11, as you just read, feature the return of Jane (now a different actress), and will have Tarzan fighting a different villainess each time. These are fun and efficient adventure films, although not nearly as good as Cycle 1, or as fun as Cycle 3.
Cycle 5: The “F*ck You, Benji” Cycle
The final film features Benji. F*ck you, Benji.
Many series I’ve covered in The Series Project will eventually wear me down. I may not love all the films I’ve seen, but I’m going to miss the journey. I’m going to miss living with Tarzan and Jane. They’ve been my friends for weeks. I’m not going to hold them as closely as I did the L.E.T.H.A.L. Ladies, but I will hold them dear. I encourage you to take the journey as well someday. But, choose the cycles you like. Then report back to me. We can reminisce about Johnny Weissmuller’s asymmetrical nipples together.