Friday, August 3, 2012

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: Tarzan Takes Manhattan


Frequent visitors to this ‘umble scrap of the blogosphere I call Thrilling Days of Yesteryear know that I am sort of an anomaly in my family because of my passion for classic movies/TV.  My sister Kat derisively refers to my lifelong love as “my black-and-white,” and my father feels the same way: he has been lecturing me since 1976 (the year we finally got a color television) that after whining about my friends getting to watch TV in color and his finally doing something about it, I went back to watching shows and movies in monochrome.  (I suppose he’s got somewhat of a point—he should wear a hat and keep it covered—except that I would have to concede “black-and-white” is a bad thing, and that I simply will not do.)

If I have an ally in my choice of programming, it’s my Mom.  She doesn’t completely share my dedication to the monochromatic arts (she once told me she never cared for The Dick Van Dyke Show or The Twilight Zone…and yesterday she asked me out loud why I insisted on watching The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis on Me-TV) but there are a number of classic films she can number among her favorites.  She positively adores the Universal horror movie franchise: not only the classics like Frankenstein and Dracula and The Wolf Man, but their sequels and spin-offs and such, regardless of how cheesy they might be.  (She’d probably enjoy watching Svengoolie with me on Saturday nights if Sven wasn’t on past her bedtime.)

She’s also a huge fan of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie series.  Many years ago, when I could spend money like a drunken sailor on DVDs, I invested in all of the Sherlock Holmes collections put out by MPI Home Video.  Mom thought they were amazing.  When we left Savannah to move to Athens, and she and Dad moved in with sister Kat while I acquired bachelor quarters of my own, I sort of lost the Holmes DVDs in a “custody battle.”  I regained control of them a Christmas or two back when she agreed to let me have them if I agreed to extend my holiday stay with them at sister Kat’s (my original plan was to head back to my place and record them off TCM), but now they’re back in her hands again…and I think that may have been her plan all along.

Today on TCM’s Summer Under the Stars presentation, the channel is going to present a tribute to Olympian swimmer/actor Johnny Weissmuller with what friend Stacia humorously calls “21 hours of Tarzan movies and three hours of non-Tarzan movies.”  My mother is a sucker for a Tarzan flick.  She’s seen all of the Weissmuller Tarzans, and enjoys the hell out of all of them.  Now, Weissmuller wasn’t the first actor to play Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous literary creation (that honor belongs to Elmo Lincoln) but he was probably the best known; author Burroughs genuinely liked Weissmuller as the jungle man despite his frustration that the Tarzan of filmdom deviated from his cultured Lord Greystoke by being transformed into a noble savage who spoke pidgin English.

With his first starring film, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Weissmuller became a movie sensation and appeared in five additional Tarzan films for M-G-M, with TDOY fave Maureen O’Sullivan as his co-star (playing the role of Jane).  TCM has scheduled the Weissmuller Tarzans in reverse order, beginning with his last ape man appearance in Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948) at 6am, so you won’t get to see the M-G-M Tarzans until 2:30pm today, when one of my favorites in the franchise gets an airing: Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942).

Tarzan’s New York Adventure certainly isn’t the best film in the series (that would be 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate, a rare example of the sequel being better the original) but I always find myself watching it if it’s on because it’s one of the most unconventional.  Here’s Tarzan 101: you have a guy schooled in the ways of the jungle by its animal inhabitants after he and his parents were marooned in equatorial Africa; his parents end up cashing in their chips, and he’s subsequently adopted by apes.  Tarzan is one of the all-time great rugged individualists; he shuns the trappings of civilization and just wants to do his own thing in the jungle—he doesn’t bother people, and they shouldn’t bother him.  But there’s only so many lions and crocodiles the guy can fight, and only so many evil greedheads out to plunder the jungle for treasure and glory that he can pummel before a feeling of “I’ve seen this all before” sets in.

By the time Adventure premiered on movie screens, Tarzan and Jane (O’Sullivan) had set up light housekeeping in the jungle (they have a cool-looking treehouse and every thing) and to appease the morality police who kept bringing up the uncomfortable fact that the couple was living in sin (aka not married) they adopted a kid in 1939’s Tarzan Finds a Son!—a tyke (Johnny Sheffield) who would answer to “Boy” (my, that’s original), and whose circumstances were similar to Tarzan’s (his parents perish in a plane crash, and as the sole survivor he’s also heir to a gi-normous fortune which figures later in the film).  The character of “Boy” was actually brought in because actress O’Sullivan had planned to call it quits as Jane, and in Son! she was supposed to die from a poisonous spear…but negative reaction to this from preview audiences (and author Burroughs, who wasn’t going to let the Tiffany of film studios croak his creation) prompted M-G-M to pardon Jane at the end of the film (you’ll notice she recovers rather quickly from the wound).  (O’Sullivan also benefited from a nice little salary heft to insure her continued participation.)  The Tarzan family got so adoption happy that in the fifth film, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941), the Tarzans encounter a native boy (Cordell Hickman) who, it is implied at the end of the movie, is also welcomed into the family fold.  (Amusingly, that’s the last you ever hear about the kid.)

So on to New York Adventure.  Tarzan and his fam are enjoying the good life on the “escarpment” when three men—big game hunters Buck Rand (Charles Bickford) and Manchester Mountford (Chill Wills), with pilot Jimmie Shields (Paul Kelly)—touch down in Tarz’s domain by plane, with the intention of capturing lions for a fleabag circus back in the States.  Tarzan doesn’t want them around, and tells them in his own imitable jungle fashion to take a hike…but Rand ignores his request.  Boy, unfamiliar with the whole airplane thing (what Tarzan calls “iron bird”), wants a closer look at Shields’ setup and pays the group a visit the next morning despite Tarzan’s objections.  The men have been instructed to leave that day, but after watching Boy perform various tricks with his elephant pals, both Rand and Mountford get dollar signs in their eyes, knowing they could earn a ton of loot making the kid the star attraction in a circus.

Because Shields isn’t quite as big an asshole as Rand and “Mountie,” he warns Rand he wants no part of their plans to kidnap Boy.  But he doesn’t have much of a choice—the group is attacked by hostile natives, and when Boy gives a shout-out to Tarzan to come save his keister, Tarzan and Jane wind up unconscious on the jungle floor…which the natives have set ablaze.  Thinking that both of them are dead, Shields must reluctantly take Boy along as the safari party beats a hasty retreat via plane from the advancing natives.  Thanks to that lovable chimp scalawag Cheeta, however, Tarzan and Jane are brought to and rescued before being barbecued by the fire.

Cheeta chatters to Tarzan that the men have put the snatch on Boy, so it will be up to Jane and her jungle man to fly to America—specifically New York—to try and locate pilot Shields, who in turn can lead them to their missing son.  It’s a whole new experience for a man who’s spent most of his life swinging from vine to vine, and he’s going to have to depend on Jane’s knowledge of civilization (or “her jungle,” as she puts it) to get the job done.  “We are going into places where men's minds are tangled worse that the worst underbrush in the jungle, and I'm afraid,” Jane explains to Tarzan.  “More afraid than I've ever been in my life.  Everywhere we'll be met with lies and deceit.  Your honesty and directness will only be handicaps.”

Tarzan is ready to put his trust in Jane.  “Jane lead way.  Tarzan follow always.”

Arriving in the Big Apple, Jane and Tarzan are tipped off at the airport that Shields stays at the Gloucester Hotel when he’s in town.  They get little help from the front desk clerk (Hobart Cavanaugh), but a friendly bellhop (George Offerman, Jr.) lets them know that Shields has a girlfriend (Virginia Grey) named Connie Beach who’s a vocalist at a nearby nightclub, the Club Moonbeam.  Beach tells them that Shields attempted to post an immigration bond for Boy when they arrived in New York but that she and Jimmie couldn’t raise the money.  So Boy’s bond was paid by “Colonel” Ralph Sargent (Cy Kendall), the evil owner of a Long Island circus.  Tarzan and Jane attempt to wrest Boy away from the Colonel, but he’s got the kid under wraps…so Jimmie suggests to them that they duke this out in court.

Tarzan and Jane get a sympathetic adjudicator in Judge Abbotson (Russell Hicks), but Rand and Sargent have hired scumbag lawyer Gould Beaton (Charles Lane), who is able to get Jane to admit on the stand that she and Tarzan aren’t technically Boy’s real parents (the whole-real-parents-died-in-a-jungle-plane-crash thing).  It doesn’t look promising for Tarzan and Jane to regain custody of their son, and in anger the ape man goes a little nutso, throwing attorney Beaton into the jury box and threatening to break Rand’s neck.  Jane admits to Tarzan that her ways are not his ways, and that a jungle man’s gotta do what he’s gotta do—so Tarzan leaps out a window and makes like Harold Lloyd on various buildings and structures as hapless cops look on in astonishment.

Tarzan finds his way back to the circus, where Rand and Sargent are already making plans to let out with Boy (they’re going to sell him to a bigger outfit), and in trying to rescue his son is trapped in a net by several circus roustabouts (one of whom is played by the first cinematic Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln) and squirreled away in a cage.  The ape man calls on a number of circus elephants to help him escape, while the remainder of them start rompin’ and stompin’ around the circus grounds, preventing Rand and Sargent from driving off with Boy.  Tarzan is able save Boy in the nick of time, as the car overturns and crashes with the two men (rendered unconscious thanks to Tarz) inside.  Back at court, despite Tarzan’s previous outburst (and also the fact that Tarzan and Jane are not Mr. and Mrs.), kindly Judge Abbotson awards custody to the couple…and plans to pay them a visit soon to get a little fishing in.

The culture clash between Tarzan’s jungle and the unfamiliar “civilization” of NYC provides much of the entertainment in New York Adventure; there are several comedy scenes involving the ape man being fitted for a suit (which is amusing, though the comic relief provided by Asian tailor Willie Fung will make a few folks wince) and his first encounter with indoor plumbing (“Big rain good!”).  My favorite sequences in the film involve Tarzan’s escape from the court and his acrobatics in the urban jungle, which culminates in his being trapped on the Brooklyn Bridge by the gendarmes…and which necessitates his 250-foot plunge into the water below.  (Jane’s reaction to this is priceless; she doesn’t bat an eyelash, knowing Tarzan’s the only guy who could execute a dive like that and live.)

Not to say that New York Adventure doesn’t have its flaws.  I’m no fan of the extended “monkeyshines” courtesy of Cheeta which would take up more of the films’ running time as the Tarzan series progressed (though I did kind of snicker at the monkey’s trashing a hotel room like a rock star)—those stretches can be painfully slow at times.  The villainy is a little on the cartoonish side, and I have a little difficulty buying into Judge Abbotson’s decision to allow the unmarried Tarzan and Jane spirit Boy back to Africa (not that I don’t root for such an outcome—I just don’t think a real judge would rule in such a fashion).  There is also a lot of stereotypical humor common to films of that era; one sequence involves TDOY fave Mantan Moreland (playing the nightclub janitor) having a conversation with the wacky Cheeta that was often snipped for TV showing for understandable reasons.

Still, there is much to enjoy in this movie.  Weissmuller was certainly no Olivier, and yet his reactions to “civilization” (like hearing an operatic soprano on the radio—he thinks she’s sick and that they should contact the witch doctor) are hilarious; I also think the film demonstrates how integral Maureen O’Sullivan was to the franchise because I find her positively luminous as Jane.  O’Sullivan sat out making films for about six years after New York Adventure (she wanted to devote more time to her family) and for the next Tarzan vehicle, R-K-O’s Tarzan Triumphs (1943), they brought in Frances Gifford as the female lead (not playing Jane, but as a member of a lost city conquered by Nazis that Tarzan ends up rescuing), which was sort of amusing in that Gifford played the titular role in the classic serial Jungle Girl (1941), based on another of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creations.  (“Jane” wouldn’t return to the franchise until 1945’s Tarzan and the Amazons, and was played in the next five Tarzan films by Brenda Joyce.)

The Tarzan series moved to R-K-O in 1943 for six more go-rounds with Weissmuller, then Johnny was replaced by Lex Barker (for Tarzan’s Magic Fountain [1949])…and Weissmuller soon found a home at Columbia starring in the Jungle Jim series (some of which will comprise the other three hours of “non-Tarzan films”).  With the exception of bit parts in Glorifying the American Girl (1929) and Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) plus a starring role in 1946's Swamp Fire (a non-Tarzan/Jungle Jim flick co-starring another Olympic champion, Buster Crabbe), Weissmuller’s film career consisted of three roles: Tarzan, Jungle Jim and himself (he played “Johnny Weissmuller” in the last three Jim features because producer Sam Katzman had already sold the character rights for a TV series).  Not bad for a guy who spent a lot of time in the water…and he’s still a fixture here at the House of Yesteryear—my Mom was up at 6am to get her Tarzan fix.

The preceding essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon, currently underway through the month of August and hosted jointly by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on FilmThe two blogs are also having a honkin’ big giveaway to celebrate SUTS, the details for which can be found here.

6 comments:

Kevin Deany said...

The scene with Tarzan yelling in the shower is one of my all-time favorites in the series. I'm laughing now just thinking about it.

Rich said...

Why did they have Tarzan speak in monosyllabic grunts anyway? Did they think it was somehow more "realistic" than having him speak perfect English?

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Why did they have Tarzan speak in monosyllabic grunts anyway? Did they think it was somehow more "realistic" than having him speak perfect English?

I'm purely speculating on this, but it makes sense that if M-G-M eliminated that portion of Tarzan's background (from Burroughs' original novel) that had him returning to England, going to school and all and then rejecting civilization...people would start wondering why a guy who's lived in the jungle all his life sounds like Ronald Colman...hence the "Tarzan good" nonsense. That's just my take on it.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

The scene with Tarzan yelling in the shower is one of my all-time favorites in the series.

Mine, too. I watched the movie a second time yesterday and my father sat there stone-faced throughout the presentation. Anyone who can't laugh at something like that simply is not right.

Yvette said...

This is one of my favorite Tarzan films too, Ivan. Thanks for writing about it and for doing your usual great job. (No surprise there.)

I always remember the dive off the bridge best. Jane's reaction: priceless.

Of all the films my favorite is TARZAN AND HIS MATE which I never get tired of watching. And in that one, Jane urges Tarzan one fine morning to refer to her as 'his wife'. So I simply assumed some itinerant preacher had scaled the escarpment and married them.

I found a Burrough's Tarzan book in an antique shop, bought it and tried to read it, but I just couldn't get used to Tarzan talking like he'd been to school at Eton. Very disconcerting.

Jill said...

Ivan--

As always, this is a most interesting, well written piece.

I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of the Tarzan series, but you've made me one to seek this film out.

As for Jungle Jim movies? I caught a little bit during the "three hours of non-Tarzan movies.”

Very...interesting.

Anyway, thanks for a wonderful piece!