Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tarzan Week: Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941)

A white expedition enters the Great Escarpment and learns from Boy (John Sheffield) of the gold nuggets found at the bottom of a river near Tarzan’s family compound.

The white hunters, Vandermeer (Philip Dorn) and Medford (Tom Conway) hold Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Boy hostage, to make certain that Tarzan will take them to the gold.

Meanwhile, a villains and their captives are captured by natives, necessitating a rescue by Tarzan.  The hunters meet their fate, when eaten by crocodiles…

Well, this is my least favorite of all the MGM Tarzan movies.

Tarzan’s Secret Treasure adds almost nothing new to the film series, and recycles key stock footage scenes from earlier entries. These include the underwater battle with the crocodile, and the rhino attack on the plains.

Even Tarzan’s family dynamics, with Jane and Boy don’t go in any interesting or fresh directions.

Basically, the plot here is that avaricious white men come to the Escarpment and, via their greed and guns, endanger Tarzan’s family. 

That has been, roughly, the plot of every movie since Tarzan and His Mate (1934). The gold nuggets in the river are the only new wrinkle. And honestly, those gold nuggets are put to better use in the last MGM Tarzan film, set in New York.

Even the film’s comic-relief character, Mr. O’Doule (Barry Fitzgerald) plays like an inferior version of Mr. Rawlins (Herbert Mundin) from Tarzan Escapes (1936).

Johnny Weismuller was always fit and impressive as Tarzan, but he is much wider and bigger here than in his previous outings. It’s not that he’s flabby – he’s not. It’s that he simply no longer possesses the right body type to be a believable Tarzan. He simply doesn’t look lean. 

I guess married life and fatherhood agrees too much with Tarzan.

This is a shorter review than most I write here because there’s simply not much to talk about. 

Tarzan’s Secret Treasure is a clunky, familiar, tired movie. Nothing new or fresh happens, and the franchise doesn’t find any fertile new ground.  This is the most forgettable and tired of all the Weismuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan entries.

Fortunately the last film in the series is much better.  I'll review it here tomorrow!

Movie Trailer: Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941)

Tarzan Week: Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)

A plane flying to South Africa crashes near the Great Escarpment, and the only survivor is a male baby. 

Cheetah rescues the baby from a pack of hyenas, and brings him to Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan).  

They name him “Boy” (John Sheffield) and adopt him.

Five years later, the boy’s family -- the Lancings -- arrive in the jungle, in search of him. Tarzan steals the safari’s guns, throws them into a lagoon, and refuses to give up his son.  

But Jane boasts concerns about what kind of life she and Tarzan can provide for Boy in the jungle. 

After distracting Tarzan, by telling him to retrieve the guns he took, Jane takes Boy to the safari and tells Lancing to take him. The party is then attacked by natives called Zambeli.  Jane takes a spear in the back while helping Boy to escape.

Boy brings Tarzan, and a wounded Jane realizes that her son will always be safe, as long as Tarzan is nearby.

Tarzan Finds a Son (1939) continues the domestication of Tarzan process that I called-out in my review of Tarzan Escapes (1936). 

Here, Tarzan and Jane get a child, Boy, and arrive, essentially, as a full-fledged nuclear family. 

It sounds pretty desperate from a creative standpoint, adding a child to this Garden of Eden setting, but the scenes of Tarzan and his son in the film, swinging vines together, are actually pretty affecting.  Tarzan clearly loves his son, and would do anything for him.

This film adds some other notable dimensions to the franchise. 

First, Jane makes a terrible mistake – and deceives Tarzan. 

Originally (at least before preview audiences), she was to die for this trespass, via that pointy native spear in her back. Fortunately, that harsh ending was re-considered and Jane allowed to live, but still, Jane acts dreadfully towards Tarzan, capitalizing on his innocence and loyalty to trick him.  

In a later film, Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), she makes another mistake regarding the boy that nearly costs the family custodianship of him.  It’s almost like the producers of the series are trying to undercut or back-peddle the "strong and capable" character that Jane was, from the start, from 1932.

The second factor to consider -- which recurs in the series -- is Tarzan’s hatred of guns.  Every time he encounters a white safari party now, his first act is to smash or steal their guns. 

I won't mince words. I love that this heroic, courageous, iconic man has no time or patience for guns, because they are just used to “kill animals.”  Once more, Tarzan seems far more evolved than many people do today, who want to carry guns in airplanes, in schools, and in church.  Tarzan seems to get the idea that once a gun is in the picture, chaos erupts. Adding guns to an unstable situation rarely makes that situation more stable.

The price of white people carrying guns is also made visually plain in the film.  

A white man shoots a mother elephant. Tarzan exclaims with anger: “Guns! White people!” and then must watch as the mother elephant leaves behind her child, alone in the jungle, for the elephant graveyard.  

The implicit message here is that guns too often separates mothers from their children, and have no place of value, even in the jungle.

John Sheffield makes for a fun addition to the Tarzan cast, and is never an annoying kid figure, in any of his three appearances in the MGM films. 

Rather, he seems quite physically-adept, and has an easy grace on camera.  Sure, “Boy” is a device to get Tarzan into trouble, but one could make the same argument of Cheetah, or Jane for that matter, I suppose.  It's sort of lame that the studio thought Tarzan needed a son so soon, but if he has to have a son, he could not have a better one.

At 81 minutes, Tarzan Finds a Son! is the shortest Tarzan movie in the MGM line-up yet, and the end does boast a certain abruptness. 

Jane pops up from her bloody back wound, and kisses Tarzan.  All is forgiven, and off they go, with Boy on their elephants. 

Domestic life is rarely that simple, or neat, though, is it?

Movie Trailer: Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)

Tarzan Week: Tarzan Escapes (1936)

The cousins of Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) -- Rita (Benita Hume) and Eric (William Henry) -- are brought to the Great Escarpment by safari master Captain Fry (John Buckler). 

Their mission is to convince Jane to return to England with them, so that she can claim a vast financial inheritance on all their behalf.

Jane is happy to see her cousins, but Tarzan is deeply disturbed by the fact that Jane will have to leave the jungle, even for a while. 

Fry sews further discontent, claiming that Jane has grown tired of Tarzan and that if he loves her, he should let her leave.

Fry then arranges to capture Tarzan in a cage, and put him on display in England.  At the same time, he plans to sell Rita, Eric and Jane into slavery to a local tribe.

With Cheetah’s help, Tarzan escapes, and attempts to rescue Jane and her cousins.  Fry, meanwhile, meets an unpleasant end in a bog…

The domestication of Tarzan begins in earnest with Tarzan Escapes (1936), an enjoyable and solid entry in the MGM franchise. Not only is Jane wearing a much less revealing dress in this film, she and Tarzan are now playing ‘house.’

We see, early in the film, a vast tree-house compound that Tarzan has constructed for the family.  There’s an elephant-powered elevator to the house, for example, a water-wheel pumping pond water up to the kitchen area, and even a ceiling fan. Tarzan and Jane’s bedroom is reachable by a suspension bridge.

Home sweet home...in the jungle.

Clearly, the film series is moving towards the ideal of a “nuclear family,” and the next film in the cycle, Tarzan Finds a Son (1939) goes further down this road.

Alas, at the same time that Tarzan Escapes makes a Tarzan a family man with a family home (and an honest woman, I suppose, of Jane), it succumbs to formula.  

By now, many ingredients featured here have become quite familiar. 

For example, in all three of the Tarzan movies produced thus far, a character falls from the Great Escarpment’s mountains, and dies. In all three movies thus far, we hear Tarzan’s yell before we see him. 

And in all three films, we get a climactic encounter with a hostile/dangerous tribe. The creative formula or equation is locked in cement.

Unfortunately, Tarzan Escapes also features much stock footage, as though the production could not afford new animal encounter scenes.  Exhibit A is Tarzan’s battle with the crocodile in the river, from Tarzan and His Mate (1934). It is rerun in its entirety here.

Similarly, the footage of Tarzan killing an animal and cutting it for purposes of cooking meat, is also rerun footage, but from Tarzan the Ape Man.

Like all the MGM Tarzan movies, Tarzan Escapes also involves duplicitous white civilization. 

In this case, Eric and Rita are both liars. Although they are pursuing their acquisition of wealth (as was the case with Arlington in the previous film), Jane need not return home with them, as they claim.  

Fry is also duplicitous, seeking personal wealth. He tries to trap Tarzan and rid himself of Rita, Eric and Jane in the nastiest way imaginable; selling them into slavery to a local tribe.

Needless to say, the events of Tarzan Escapes probably don’t make Tarzan feel particularly good about white civilization. 

On every occasion of intersect, the white people try to trick Jane into leaving Tarzan, and kill or capture him so as to acquire that elusive and invisible thing they term “wealth.” It is no wonder that, at first, Tarzan forbids Jane to see the white people.  

They universally bring strife.

Some aspects of Tarzan Escapes are authentically impressive. I love the shot, for instance, that introduces Tarzan to the movie.  We move back, beyond a high tree branch, and see him silhouetted there, watching Eric, Rita and Fry from above. 

He has been there all along, observing their actions, but has remained silent. This shot beautifully captures his stealth, intelligence, and also his status as outsider.

I also love that shot of Fry dying in the bog, his hand slowly sinking below the surface.

Tarzan Escapes is still a top-flight adventure film, but one can't help but to long for a bit more of the Tarzan and Jane dynamic, and some fresh plot lines.

My favorite scene here is the one in which Jason and Tarzan reckon with saying goodbye, and Jane informs him exactly how many passages of the moon will occur in the sky before her return. Weismuller and O'Sullivan still make magic together.

Movie Trailer: Tarzan Escapes (1936)

Tarzan Week: Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is the finest of the Johnny Weismuller/Maureen O’Sullivan MGM Tarzan movies.  It is (shockingly…) frank in its sense of eroticism, and -- for the first time -- brings into sharp focus the franchise’s ongoing central debate or argument about the real nature of white “civilization.”

In this film -- as in all succeeding MGM Tarzan movies -- white hunters enter the jungle and bring corruption, avarice and violence with them. They steal, they lie, and they kill. 

And so, finally, audiences come to agree with Tarzan’s assessment: they can’t be considered truly civilized. They don’t live in harmony with nature, and they seek to plunder it for some non-existent thing called “wealth.” 

For Tarzan, by contrast, “wealth” is his companionship with Jane, the river from which they get their abundant water, and the sun that warms their skin. He can’t understand civilization’s focus on material things, like the ivory of the elephants at the sacred graveyard.

It’s strange how the film’s two ideas work hand-in-hand so well.

Jane and Tarzan share a very erotic, natural, innocent (but clearly sexual…) relationship, and the film depicts them in bed together, actually, at one point.  That sense of innocent joy in one another is contrasted with the white interloper’s sense of greedy avarice.

That interloper kisses Jane against her will at one point, and ogles her, by light of lantern, when she strips down in a jungle tent. 

Where Tarzan sees Jane as someone he truly loves, Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanaugh), the aforementioned interloper, sees her as another resource of the jungle to use and “own.”

Tarzan and His Mate also features an amazing -- even by today’s standards -- siege-style conclusion. 

Martin’s safari, with Jane in tow, comes under attack by a tribe of lion men who send man-eaters to kill them.  The lions charge and leap, most convincingly, as the white hunters (including Holt and Jane) take refuge on a rock formation. That formation is soon breached, and the scenes of lions battling men (and one woman) look remarkably convincing.

Action-packed, legitimately erotic (but not cheaply so, like the Bo Derek Tarzan [1981]), and featuring a social commentary that questions what the word “civilization” really means, Tarzan and His Mate is the greatest of all Tarzan adventures, and a film that has lost surprisingly little currency in the eighty-some years since it premiered.

“These are animals. They are not human. It’s different.”

A failed businessman, Martin Arlington (Cavanaugh) joins with hunter Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) to go beyond the Great Escarpment in search of the legendary elephant graveyard, where he can gain riches by taking the ivory found there.  

When, another expedition, belonging to a hunter named Van Ness, gets a head-start, Holt and the bankrupt Arlington realize that they need the help of Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller).  

They seek out Jane’s (Maureen O’Sullivan) help, hoping she can convince the lord of the jungle to lead them to the graveyard. To convince her to do so, they have brought with them perfume, lipstick, and apparel from England.

Tarzan is not happy with the idea of men robbing the elephant graves, and he and Arlington clash almost immediately. 

Arlington attempts to kill Tarzan, and believes he has succeeded. While Cheetah and other chimps nurse him back to health, Harry and Martin convince Jane to return to England with them.

After looting the elephant graveyard, however, Martin’s safari is confronted by a hostile tribe, and an attack by man-eating lions.  

An injured Tarzan rouses himself for battle, even as Jane, Martin and Holt struggle to fend off the attacking beasts.

“Tarzan knows nothing about money.  That wouldn’t mean anything to him.”

In Tarzan the Ape Man, James Parker (Jane’s father) and Holt (Hamilton) were seen as good men who were, essentially, out of their element in wild Africa. They ultimately forged a peace with Tarzan.  

Tarzan and His Mate takes a hard turn away from that paradigm and gives the franchise its first fully-formed white villain: Martin Arlington. He won't be the last character of this type in the series, either.

The film was released in 1934, when America was still recovering from the stock market crash of 1929, and in the throes of the Great Depression. Accordingly, Tarzan and his Mate opens with Arlington explaining his financial woes to Holt, and his last chance to be rich. 

His “shot” involves the theft of the ivory in the elephant graveyard.  So though he has lost his fortune, Martin has learned nothing.  His agenda is to climb back to the top of the pack, as soon as possible; at least from an economics standpoint.

Arlington is defined, in Tarzan and His Mate by his repetition of extreme violence to achieve his ends. 

First, he shoots dead an African worker who refuses an order, making an example of him to others.  

Then, he shoots an elephant in the foot, so that it will instinctively lead him to the graveyard.  

And finally, he shoots Tarzan so that the jungle man will not stand in his way collecting the ivory. 

Arlington believes, then, that this technology gives him the means to control others, and that his designation as “civilized” gives him the right to command and manipulate others.

Martin also attempts to steal Jane from both Tarzan and Harry, proving that he boasts no moral code at all.  He also leers over Jane, when seeing her disrobe in a tent.  He is a man of endless appetites who believes that his privileged upbringing gives him the right to lie, cheat and steal if it keeps him in power.

Tarzan does not think so obsessively about himself. 

He thinks, instead, of the elephants, who have the right, he believes, not to have their graveyards desecrated. He also is tender and sweet with Jane upon visiting her father’s grave. Although he is powerful and strong, he is also gentle and caring for others in a way that the so-called “civilized” Martin is not.

Tarzan and His Mate is a great adventure, but it is more than a kid’s matinee movie, for certain.  

Early in the film, the adult Cheetah dies to save Jane from a rhino attack. The ape’s child, young Cheetah, mourns her death, and the film doesn’t whitewash this stark moment.  Death is part of life in the jungle.  Wickedly, the movie also builds suspense by having the young Cheetah encounter a rhino later. Because of the earlier, emotional encounter, this moment gets viewers to the edge of their seats.

And, of course, though Tarzan and Jane are true of heart, their interest in each other is also, well, adult.  

Throughout the film, Jane wears an outfit that leaves her nude from midriff to toes, at least from certain angles.  

And there is a delightful and revealing swimming scene here in which Jane swims completely in the nude. This is most unexpected, but the moment reminds one of Adam and Eve in the Garden.  In any such comparison, Martin would be the snake, bringing lies and deceit to the couple’s world.

As I’ve noted, the eroticism is both surprising and, intriguingly, related to the film’s overall viewpoint about civilization.  

It is natural for Jane and Tarzan to be in love, and to express romantic (sexual) love.  Arlington’s ardent desire for Jane looks perverse in comparison.  The equation in these films is that Tarzan and the jungle represent a kind of innocence and moral code, and that white civilization interferes with that innocence and moral code.

The great thing, of course, is that while these deeper ideas are apparent to adults (and film critics too), the kids in the audience can focus on the thrills provided by rhino stampedes, crocodile attacks and the aforementioned -- and amazingly choreographed -- siege by lions. 

Tarzan and His Mate is my favorite -- and perhaps the best made -- Tarzan movie in cinema history.

Movie Trailer: Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Monday, June 27, 2016

Late Night Blogging: Tarzan in Pop Culture

Tarzan Week: The MGM Tarzan Movie Matrix

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
Tarzan Escapes (1936)
Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)
Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941)
Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)
A character falls to death from mountains of Great Escarpment
The movie opens in the Residency
Someone Tries to Convince Jane or Boy to return to Europe
Tarzan and Jane go for a swim
White society is Corrupt
Not Entirely
Yes: Arlington
Yes: Frye
Yes: Thieves
Yes: Circus Owner
Rhino attack
Climactic Battle Against Hostile Tribe
Yes: Pygmies
Yes: Zambeli
We Hear Tarzan’s Yell Before We See Him
Elephant Grave Yard
Fish Out of Water
Yes (Jane)
Yes (Tarzan)