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.)
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.
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 , so you won’t get to see the M-G-M Tarzans until today, when one of my favorites in the franchise gets an airing: Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942).
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
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.
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.)
Tarzan is ready to put his trust in Jane. “Jane lead way. Tarzan follow always.”
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.)
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.)
Tarzan’s Magic Fountain )…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 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 Film. The two blogs are also having a honkin’ big giveaway to celebrate SUTS, the details for which can be found here.