Tuesday, April 16, 2024

90 Years Ago: 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 90 year old 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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