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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
An injured Tarzan rouses himself for battle, even as Jane, Martin and Holt struggle to fend off the attacking beasts.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tarzan and His Mate is my favorite -- and perhaps the best made -- Tarzan movie in cinema history.