Thursday, June 30, 2016

Tarzan Week: Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984)

First things first. Director Hugh Hudson's cinematic follow-up to his Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981), Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) is not particularly faithful to the events depicted in his source material, Edgar Rice Burrough's 1914 novel, Tarzan of the Apes.

For instance, in this 27-million dollar movie adaptation, Tarzan (Christopher Lambert) does not meet Jane Porter (Andie MacDowell) in the jungle; nor return for her later in the United States; in Baltimore, and then Wisconsin, specifically.

The film also largely omits Tarzan's varied (sometimes playful) interactions with a local village/tribe in Africa, plus his attempts to learn to read English himself.

And the film's climax -- in which Tarzan returns to the jungle, leaving Jane behind (ostensibly forever...) -- is also not exactly canonical; though it can certainly be rationalized in movie terms, since everyone involved in the production was no doubt thinking/hoping "sequel."

Importantly, however, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, does, in very welcome fashion, get at the human "truth" of the popular, often-told Tarzan story. Specifically, the film offers a realistic and believable excavation of that which Burroughs first imagined: the story of an orphaned human boy raised by apes in the wild, and his interactions with so-called human civilization.

If the Richard Donner Superman: The Movie of 1978 was all about "you'll believe a man can fly," then this careful, painstaking iteration of Tarzan is, perhaps, "you'll believe a man can swing on a vine."

And actually, that's no small achievement.

Over the long decades, the silver screen Tarzan has been involved in the hunt for gold (Tarzan's Secret Treasure [1941]), battled Nazis (Tarzan Triumphs [1943]) and faced down evil cults (Tarzan and the Leopard Woman [1946]). 

By deliberate contrast, Greystoke is a back-to-basics approach, focusing on the man and his identity rather than the pulp-styled enemies or cliffhanger challenges the character so often faces.

Crafted with meticulous care -- with talented actors, gorgeous locations and Rick Baker's still-impressive ape make-up -- Greystoke was widely welcomed in theaters in 1984 as "one of the best movies" of the year. Joseph Gelmis wrote in Newsday (March 30, 1984, page 7) that it is a "serious movie, a thinking man's Tarzan. It is also ravishingly beautiful, provocative" and "profoundly moving."

Much of that "profoundly moving" part arises from the considerable efforts of Christopher Lambert, an actor who is, in many ways at his absolute finest here. I also admire Johnny Weissmuller, one of Lambert's more prominent predecessors in the role of Tarzan, but Weissmuller's interpretation was a product of a different, more artificial/theatrical age in movie history. Weissmuller was a sort of muscle-bound body-builder-type, which today seems wrong for Tarzan. He was also a bit too clean-shaven and civilized to seem a believable man of the jungle.

Greystoke knowingly adopts a more natural approach, and Lambert is absolutely believable as an animalistic figure, one almost constantly in motion. His Tarzan is a creature of instinct, curiosity, and barely-contained energy. Lambert doesn't look like a body builder, either. His Tarzan is a lean, strong man who has flourished in the wild, sustained by that which nature provides. 

And much of Lambert's focused performance -- the character's sense of cunning and intelligence -- arises in his penetrating eyes. Lamberts' eyes are like lasers here, targeting objects and, in an instant, assessing them as threats or non-threats. Lambert also carries all of the character's emotional pain in his eyes, and at times, this is a powerful choice. It's an accomplished performance.

Jack Kroll in Newsweek described Lambert's Tarzan well, (March 26, 1984, page 74), calling him "a supple, feral creature, not an over-muscled hulk, whose animal grace becomes a human virtue and whose eyes, piercing but gentle, shows a keenness and clarity that over-civilized senses have lost."

This description really nails the Tarzan persona of Greystoke. Tarzan is not a super-human "hero" in any way, though he boasts the survival skills of his adopted family, the apes. Instead, the movie finds the character's vulnerable, human core.

Much of what Greystoke dramatizes is, in effect, Tarzan's sense of powerlessness in the face of mortality. 

As a baby, he is unable to prevent the death of his biological parents, the noble Claytons. 

As a teen in the jungle, he loses his ape mother, Kala, and is again. powerless to prevent death. 

Finally, upon return to civilization, Tarzan loses his kindly grandfather (Ralph Richardson) and even his ape father, who has been shipped to London to be studied. 

Thus life for Tarzan, as depicted in this film, is but a series of terrible losses; grief experienced and re-experienced.

This viewpoint, I submit, helps to explain Tarzan's final choice to return to the jungle at the film's climax. When life is so short, when death lurks around every corner, we cling to "home," to the place that helps us remember those loved ones that we've lost. For Tarzan, that place of happier memories is the jungle.

Unlike many Tarzan adventures of the silver screen, Greystoke also focuses explicitly on the differences between man's "modern" world and the primitive ape world of the jungle. Howard Kissel, writing a review in Women's Wear Daily (March 28, 1984, page 27), noted that Burroughs' book was written "when Darwinism and its social implications were still a dominant intellectual force." 

He goes on to suggest that "the book was aware of man's dual nature - simultaneously primitive and civilized." 

Greystoke gets at this point ably. It spends a little over half its running time in the jungle, as Tarzan ascends to the leadership of a local ape tribe, and about an hour in staid England, where instinct is derided and manners are treated as a paramount consideration.

Here's the difference as I see it: In the ape world, nobody tried to control Tarzan. Or if they did...he confronted and dominated (or even killed) them. In England, Tarzan becomes a pawn of sorts, one who is supposed to "represent" something, perhaps, like the innate superiority of man over beast. "You must overturn what has happened to you," Phillippe D'Arnot (Ian Holm) suggests. at one point. But Tarzan isn't interested in being a case study. He doesn't need to be "greater than the accident of his childhood," or a triumph of the "Imperial Science."

On the contrary, Tarzan is "what the jungle has made him" and just wants to be free 

As much as Tarzan loves and admires his grandfather, he knows that the land is not his to "sell" or "keep." His wisdom is different from the conventional wisdom of Darwin's England, and this also makes him a perpetual outsider.

The duality of Tarzan 's nature -- part man/part ape -- is often expressed in Greystoke through shots involving a mirror (or a reflection). "Mirror" is one of the first English words Tarzan learns, for instance. 

Early in the film, while sitting lakeside with another ape, Tarzan also spies his own reflection in the water and can detect, for the first time, how different he is from those around him. Later, he discovers the hut where his parents died and -- again -- gazes into a mirror, expressing a half-remembered familiarity with the alien world of human civilization.

Finally, when Tarzan courts Jane, Hudson shoots almost the entire scene inside the frame of a mirror, in a reflection. 
he inference is that by accepting Jane, by loving her, Tarzan fully enters the world of civilization, perhaps. 

There's a subtle message about human relationships here, as well. Jane loves Tarzan because he is not like the mannered buttoned-down men of the aristocracy, the men who are all around her. And yet, still, she wants to change him. As much as she admires him for what he is, she knows that in this state he is not an acceptable husband. Eventually, in a scene showcasing the nobility of women, Jane chooses Tarzan's happiness over her own.

Greystoke is made with great care and love (from a script by Robert Towne, under a pseudonym). For example, I admire the beautiful book-end views of the jungle that open/close the film, a reminder that the life of Tarzan -- indeed all our lives -- is but a blip in the life of the Earth. 

The ape-suits by Rick Baker hold up remarkable well today, nearly thirty-years after the film's production. And the performances are particularly strong, with Lambert providing a strong, sympathetic anchor. Richardson and Holm also do great work, creating very sympathetic "father figures" for Tarzan.

But two aspects of the film may prove troubling to some. The first is a technical issue. Andie MacDowell (playing Jane) is dubbed throughout the entire film by Glenn Close. Every time the young character speaks, there's an emotional disconnect between MacDowell's youthful appearance and Close's line readings. You can just tell something is off, and this fact diminishes the relationship between Jane and Tarzan in some critical, under-the-surface fashion. American accent or no American accent, MacDowell's line readings should have stayed in the film. Americans Kevin Costner (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), Keanu Reeves (Bram Stoker's Dracula) and Julia Roberts (Mary Reilly) have all played British characters and were not dubbed in their roles, and MacDowell deserves the same courtesy.

Secondly, Greystoke seems to go out of its way to not include or verbalize the name "Tarzan" in relation to Lambert's character. He is called Clayton, Jack, or simply Greystoke. I understand why this decision was made. It's another attempt to distance the character from his pulpy movie past and make this film a serious, believable interpretation of the legend. But Tarzan must be can't hide his name any more than you can hide the name "Superman" (like Man of Steel attempted...) or "Batman." This movie very much wants to be about who Greystoke is -- his very identity -- and yet the name Tarzan ("White Skin") is a crucial part of that identity. The movie should have taken the name back for Tarzan, not ignored it.

My feeling about Greystoke is that it is a great first movie in a franchise that, unfortunately, never arrived. 

The movie accomplishes the difficult task of taking Tarzan's world seriously; of making the character and his environs believable and authentic to a degree never before seen. I just wish there had been a second film in the franchise, one which captured a little more of the pulp; a little more of the adventurous spirit of the Tarzan stories we know from our pop culture. Rex Reed wrote In The New York Post (March 30, 1984, page 39) that Greystoke boasts "lavish detail," "opulent sets and splendid canvases of Scottish life on the heath" but "the second half resembles all too often a boring Masterpiece Theater production on Public Broadcasting."

I wouldn't go that far, perhaps. 

Greystoke is a lush and enchanting character piece that gazes at the beating heart of Tarzan. It succeeds on those grounds. But I too -- particularly as the movie rounded out its second hour -- wished for a little more excitement, a little more action

After all, what's the point of being the Lord of the Jungle if you can't rescue Jane from a few perils like quick sand, giant snakes, or rampaging elephant? Right?

Greystoke remains a gorgeous and powerful movie, featuring perhaps one of the greatest Tarzans in film history (thanks to Christopher Lambert's performance.)  Yet when its over, you do wish the movie had also let Greystoke be the Tarzan of our popular imagination, at least for a little while.

I also would have enjoyed, I guess I'm saying, seeing a sequel with Lambert's Tarzan...fighting Nazis, Ant-Men and unearthing golden cities.

Tarzan Week: Tarzan the Ape Man (1981)

"We're here for your pleasure. Not ours," states Bo Derek (as prim and proper Jane Parker), in her husband (John Derek's) sexual-skewing interpretation of the Tarzan mythos, Tarzan the Ape Man (1981).

Naturally, she's talking about the reasons why women are put on this Earth (for men's pleasure; not their own...), but she might as well be discussing the reasons this film looks the way it does.

Tarzan the Ape Man was produced -- seemingly -- entirely for male consumption and pleasure. After all, the film is a lingering, loving tribute not to Edgar Rice Burroughs' seemingly immortal jungle man character, but to Derek's legendary and statuesque, perfectly-sculpted body and her character's tantalizing sense of sexual "innocence."

I realize the purists -- and just about everybody else, too -- hated Tarzan the Ape Man when it was released back in the early 1980s, but perhaps it is not as far off the mark as many have insisted.  If one considers the sexual allure of Maureen O’Sullivan, in Tarzan and his Mate (1934), for instance, one could see this film as honoring, perhaps, that heritage.

The basic idea of this "re-imagination" is a depiction of the Tarzan story re-framed and re-parsed from Jane's naive perspective; and as a sort of soft-core travelogue across gorgeous, picturesque, wild Africa.

Accordingly, the film's photography (of both naked bodies and exterior locations...) is never less than beautiful (some might say stunning), and there's no studio fakery to break the illusion of a sojourn into the bush, so-to-speak.

In terms of bad movie history, the torch of bad-actors starring in soft-porn genre films is passed from John Phillip Law (Barbarella), here playing a photographer named Holt (Neil Hamilton’s character in 1932 and 1934), to chiseled Miles O'Keeffe, portraying Tarzan. That baton-passing alone is a cinematic milestone, I'd estimate.

Richard Harris (who also starred with Bo Derek in Orca back in the disco decade), plays Jane's father in this version of Tarzan, and he takes his performance way over-the-top. Mr. James Parker is a central character in the screenplay, however, which concerns Jane's journey of self-discovery. Yes, she must select one of the two Alpha males in her life: either bad old Dad or hunky, heroic Tarzan.

Since this battle of the -- ahem -- larger-than-life men is the crucible of the narrative, both male characters are depicted by director John Derek in - how shall I say this? -- phallic terms.

For instance, Mr. Parker informs Jane that her mother almost died "during conception." 

You read that right. Not child-birth, mind you, but conception. That the act of love-making. 

"I held her too long; I loved her too hard," he explains regretfully, providing way too much information about a scene I don't want to envision.

Later, Holt (a milquetoast) explains to Jane that it takes a very "big" (!) man -- her father -- to go into wild Africa in search of a mythical inland sea, which is tucked secretly away behind a giant stone protrusion in the land, an outcropping of insurmountable rock that Bo and the others must scale. 

Uh oh. A big man to climb towering outcroppings of rock hard stone.  Got it.

Finally, there's an absolutely incredible, shameless, downright brazen composition in which Harris is seen to be polishing a large chrome cannon (placed in the frame around his crotch level).

The cannon, not surprisingly, is pointed due north.

When Bo Derek approaches Harris and his gleaming cannon, she arrives from the submissive position in the frame, from below...studying the shining cannon wide-eyed...

Even Richard Harris (who regrettably plays his first scene without pants...) and his silver cannon, however, can't compete with Tarzan in the phallus department. The Ape Man (always wearing a tiny loin cloth...) reveals his worthiness by freeing Bo not just from another phallic symbol -- a gigantic boa constrictor -- but by rescuing her from a deflowering at the --errh-- hand of a savage local who had planned to make Jane his bride.

The set-pieces in Tarzan The Ape Man are not really what you would expect of a Tarzan movie; confirming the fact that this movie is really about sex, not adventure. The few action sequences are filmed in agonizing slow-motion and look more like coitus than combat.

Take the snake scene: it's an over-long montage in slow-motion photography, with close-ups of Bo and Miles writhing, gasping and twisting in muddy water. Foreplay never looked so great. But it takes too want to get to the main event.

There's also an incredible scene in the middle of the film, one set at an "inland ocean" in which Jane decides - out of the blue -- to take a bath. 

We are then treated to a lingering scene of Bo Derek swimming in a shiny blue sea; the waves lapping against her flesh. She poses in the sand, her clothes clinging transparently to her flesh. It's quite intoxicating...until a wandering lion shows up.

Tarzan shows up too, and a love story (of sorts) commences.

Harris, who actually gets to voice a line of dialogue I've always wanted to say to my wife ("I wallow in me. I enjoy every syllable I say."), soon confronts daughter Jane over her new interest in the hunky ape man. "Do you understand what he wants?" He asks.

Yeah Dad, I think she understands.

Later, Tarzan abducts Jane and one of his chimpanzee entourage tosses her a banana at a well-timed moment. Clutching the banana close to her mouth, doe-eyed Jane says "I'm still a virgin."

Later in a film that feels like all promises and no delivery, Jane teaches Tarzan to smile. She puts her fingers to his lips. He responds in kind. Then, as if he was born to it, Tarzan reaches quickly under Jane's (see-through) shirt and begins to vigorously massage her breasts. Wow.

The film climaxes (if you'll pardon my choice of phrase), with Bo Derek topless again, covered head-to-toe in glistening white paint; rescued in the nick of time by Tarzan from the aforementioned "savage." As for poor Daddy, he's finally undone by the King of Phallic Symbols: gored by an elephant tusk.

As he dies, he continues to blabber endlessly. "Your life is going to be a marvelous adventure," old Dad says to his daughter, just as she is about go off and be deflowered by Tarzan.

Then, as the end credits roll, we are treated to the oddest threesome in cinema history. Tarzan, Jane and an eager orangutan frolic and wrestle at length, their limbs and bodies intertwined.

Well, whatever floats your banana, Tarzan.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tarzan Week: Ranking the MGM Tarzan Movies - Best to Worst

I enjoy and deeply admire all the Weismuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan pictures from MGM, and this is how I would rank them, best to worst. 

I would say that at least two of them (1932 and 1934) editions are cinematic classics.  Tarzan and His Mate is an undisputed work of art (erotic and pointed) and only one of the films, Tarzan's Secret Treasure, is truly underwhelming.

MGM Tarzan: Best to Worst

1. Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

2. Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

3. Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)

4. Tarzan Escapes (1936)

5. Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)

6 Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941)

Tarzan Week: Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942)

A plane lands in the Great Escarpment with circus employees aboard. They have come to capture lions for their show in New York, but Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) destroys their guns, and orders them to leave by sun-up the next day.

Boy (John Sheffield) encounters the hunters before they leave, and Buck Rand (Charlie Bickford), circus owner, sees how Boy has trained his elephant wards to perform tricks.  He realizes they would make a great act in the Big Apple.

A tribe of natives attack after Boy saves one white man from a lion, and the interlopers retreat to the plane, taking Boy with them.

Cheetah tells Tarzan what has occurred, and so the Lord of the Jungle and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) make plans to get him back, even though it will mean leaving the jungle.

With Cheetah in tow, they make it to New York City, and try to track down Rand and his circus. Jane implores Tarzan to let the law act, but a custody trial goes awry.  

Tarzan swings into action in the “stone jungle” to get his boy back.

Critics have not been kind to this Tarzan film, the last of the run before a studio switch to RKO.  But I have a different opinion. 

Tarzan’s New York Adventure is actually The Voyage Home (1986) of the MGM Tarzan series. The movie is filled with humorous fish-out-of-water scenarios as Tarzan reckons with city life, and the movie features abundant heart and suspense too. 

Nothing less than Tarzan’s family is on the line here. But despite this fact, the film includes gag after gag, for both Weismuller's Tarzan and the mischievous Cheetah.

I was not the world’s biggest fan of Tarzan’s Secret Treasure because it seemed content with the status quo, and felt tired.  

This movie, by contrast, feels invigorated by the new setting and new situations.  

Yes, broadly speaking, we get the same plot we’ve seen before, on numerous occasions.  White capitalists arrive in the jungle and threaten the family with their greed.  

But in this case, Tarzan’s rescue involves a trip into modernity, where he grapples with tailors, lawyers, hat-check girls, opera singers, and policeman.  And when he swings into action, he climbs skyscraper ledges, or dives from the top of the Brooklyn Bridge.  

These are all fresh spins on the standing scenarios of the Tarzan franchise, and are a lot of fun.  I particularly lie how Tarzan takes a shower with his clothes on, at one point, and Jane must step in.

Basically, we learn a lot about Tarzan here by the way he navigates our world, and audiences will feel more affection for the character than ever before. 

Also -- it’s impossible not to note it -- but white civilization gets some redemption here, for the first time since we said goodbye to Jane’s father in Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932.  

The judge in Tarzan’s case is eminently fair-minded and decent, for example, and so is his lawyer.  One would expect the film’s criticism of the modern age to kick into high gear in this film, but instead the film relies on humorous aside and jibes.  It’s a sweet, amusing movie, never a strident one.

Tarzan's New York Adventure isn’t bad, structurally-speaking, either. 

The film’s book-end swimming scenes achieve a lot, with very little.  Tarzan, Boy and Jane start and end the movie by swimming together -- as a family -- in the jungle river.  These moments showcase order, and, finally, the restoration of order.  Also, this is our last view of Weismuller, O’Sullivan and Sheffield in their trademark roles.

I suppose the MGM series could have ended in a variety of ways, but Tarzan’s New York Adventure possesses a fine sense of humor, and a sense of visual distinction that separates it from the other Tarzan films.  

Tarzan's New York Adventure stands out in the memory, and is a strong closing chapter to this particular cinematic Camelot.

Movie Trailer: Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942)

Tarzan Coloring Book (Saalfield)

Halloween Costume of the Week: Tarzan (Ben Cooper)

Tarzan Cartoon Kit (Colorforms)

Comic Book of the Week: Tarzan (Gold Key Edition)

GAF Viewmaster: Tarzan

Model Kit of the Day: Tarzan (Aurora)

Board Game of the Week: Tarzan to the Rescue (Milton Bradley)

Trading Cards of the Week: Tarzan (1966)

Add caption

Lunch Box of the Week: Tarzan

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Late Night Blogging: Tarzan in Commercials

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 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.

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