Tuesday, June 28, 2016

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?

1 comment:

  1. This one really surprised me because I was expecting Sheffield to be annoying and overly sappy. But as you said, he really comes across as likable and fits in well with Tarzan and Jane. You really feel like all three of them bonded and it shows in the film.

    Yeah I don't get the backpedaling on Jane either. She is so strong and assertive in the first two films, but the really undermine her with each installment. The later RKO films go even further, with Jane pretty much being a typical housewife to a very domesticated Tarzan. I think this may have been a result of post war Hollywood trying to put everything back into familiar territory... even the king of the jungle.