Friday, June 27, 2014

The MGM Blogathon: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure(s)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The MGM Blogathon, currently underway from June 26-29 to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the “Tiffany’s of movie studios” and hosted by Silver Scenes.  For a list of the participating blogs and the topics/films discussed, click here.

In 1912, the most famous literary creation of author Edgar Rice Burroughs made his debut in the pages of a pulp magazine entitled The All-Story.  The son of a British couple marooned on an island on the Atlantic coast of Africa by mutineers, Tarzan of the Apes obtained the “of the Apes” portion of his name since he was raised by those very same island inhabitants after his ma died of natural causes and his faddah was croaked by the leader of the ape tribe that would later raise him to manhood.  Tarzan, identified as John Clayton in Burroughs’ novel, eventually made his way back to civilization for book larnin’ and to claim his heritage (his title was the Viscount Greystoke, or Earl of Greystoke, depending on which novel you’re immersed in).  He would later return to his jungle home after marrying a young Ballimer woman named Jane Porter after becoming somewhat disenchanted with civilization.

Burroughs’ Tarzan has gone on to become one of the best-known literary characters in the world—and a true pop culture icon having appeared on radio and television and in comic books and comic strips.  Of course…we can’t leave out the movies; with his feature film debut in 1918 (Tarzan of the Apes, the lead played by Elmo Lincoln), Tarzan has been the subject of nearly 200 movies, according to the (always reliable) IMDb.  Of the many actors to don the loincloth—including Buster Crabbe, Bruce Bennett, Lex Barker and Gordon Scott—it’s former Olympic swimming champ Johnny Weissmuller who stands out in the minds of classic movie fans as the definitive ape man…even though his debut film, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), didn’t necessarily please creator ERB.  (Burroughs liked Weissmuller well enough…he just didn’t care for the filmmakers revamping his Tarzan into a noble savage who spoke Pidgin English.)

Despite his lengthy movie resume, MGM’s original game plan for Tarzan was to feature him as a character in a sequel to the studio’s previous jungle movie success, Trader Horn.  MGM had a buttload of stock footage left over from that film, and it seemed a shame not to waste it.  It was ERB’s general manager who proposed the Tarzan-Horn merger, but the studio eventually decided that Tarzan would go it alone.  (Not to worry—they still used the Horn footage early and often.)  Weissmuller had a couple of brief movie appearances to his credit when MGM awarded him the role of the Lord of the Jungle—he not only beat out Crabbe and Bennett (who, as noted, got to play Tarzan in other ventures) but actors Joel McCrea and Clark Gable.  (I always break up when I think of a Gable Tarzan).  Then MGM hit a snag with their Weissmuller plans—Johnny was under contract as a model with BVD, the underwear people.  The studio was eventually able to work around this by agreeing to feature studio stars like Greta Garbo and Marie Dressler in the company’s ads (sorry about putting the image of Dressler in her skivvies in your head, by the way).

I can’t state this for certainty but I’ve long suspected that the reason Weissmuller’s Tarzan was portrayed as a monosyllabic sort was due to his limited thespic range.  Check out any of his later Jungle Jim movies (once memorably described by a critic as “Tarzan with clothes on”) and you’ll see what I mean.  Finding Tarzan’s “Jane” was a bit more daunting—it proved quite a task to locate an actress capable of projecting the right amounts of sophistication and innocence…but when the casting director got a gander at a photo of a young Irish actress named Maureen O’Sullivan, the search was over.  Tarzan the Ape Man would be Mo’s introductory MGM film.  Also making its debut was the ape man’s famed “ahh-ee-yahhhh-ee-yahhhh” call, the origin of which remains a mystery to this day.  (Weissmuller often claimed that it was inspired by a yodeling contest he entered as a boy—other sources report it was the work of studio technicians or an operatic tenor; the speculation is never ending.)

Tarzan the Ape Man sends treasure hunters James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) into the African jungles on a hunt for the famed elephant burial ground, with James’ daughter Jane (O’Sullivan) along for the trek.  Their party meets up with the titular jungle protector (Weissmuller) and his ape pals, with Tarzan kidnapping Jane and the two of them gradually becoming quite smitten with one another.  When Tarzan says “not a chance” to returning to London with Jane, she elects to stay behind with him…well, you can’t really blame her—there’s nothing for her back there once her Dad snuffs it.  Before the credits roll, we see Tarzan, Jane and his chimpanzee pal Cheeta (Jiggs) serene and content in their jungle paradise.

Tarzan the Ape Man was a surprise hit for MGM, and the studio decided to follow it with an example of that rare sequel that managed to be better than the original.  (Ape Man is entertaining, but there are some draggy spots in that thing.)  In Tarzan and His Mate (1934), Jane’s ex-fiancé Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton again) returns to the jungle with partner Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh) to take another whack at that elephant graveyard again…and Harry is reunited with Jane, who has “gone native” in a big way.  Mate is in many way a bookend of the first film; Tarzan the Ape Man tells the tale of the titular character while Mate concentrates on Jane’s experiences since deciding to stay with her jungle man.  (Spoiler warning: Arlington is a bit of a rotter, and winds up getting Holt and himself killed by lions while at the same time placing Jane in great danger.)

Tarzan and His Mate’s cult status stems from its rather frank presentation of “Jane of the Jungle,” including a notoriously racy skinny-dip sequence featuring our heroine swimming in the altogether with her “mate.”  (O’Sullivan was actually doubled for this, by Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim.)  It’s curious that the rather straitlaced MGM studio would allow these kind of shenanigans (perhaps they took one too many swigs from their cough medicine) although there were in actuality three different versions of the swimming scene (nude, half-nude and clothed); but the nude version didn’t make it to home video until 1991.  Most of the time, Jane is clad in a tiny halter top and loincloth that doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination…if you know what I mean, and I think you do.  Her choice of clothing seems to symbolize a sort of sexual freedom, and it’s also telling that MGM credits O’Sullivan’s role as “Jane Porter” to emphasize that she and Tarz are canoodling despite not being lawfully wedded.

This adult take on Tarzan disappeared with the third film in the series, Tarzan Escapes (1936).  With the Production Code in effect, the steamier aspects of the Tarzan franchise had to go away to live with relatives…so the decision was made to ramp up the violence content instead.  Originally filmed as Tarzan Returns, the story revolves around two of Jane’s relations, Eric (William Henry) and Rita (Benita Home), who have commissioned Captain John Fry (John Buckler) to take them to the escarpment that’s home to Tarzan and Jane.  The cousins inform Jane of an inheritance due her, and Jane is able to persuade her jungle man to allow her to return to London and settle the estate.

Unfortunately, Captain Fry has his own agenda: he wants to capture Tarzan and put the jungle oddity on public display…and he succeeds in caging the Lord of the Apes, but winds up in trouble when the natives that he thought he made a bargain with pull a double cross.  To add insult to injury, Tarzan eventually escapes from his cage prison…and he’s not a happy camper.  Premiering in October of 1935, audiences did not respond well to the film, what with its killer pygmies and torture murders (there was also a sequence involving vampire bats that went over like a fart at a funeral), so MGM took it back into the shop for some major tweaking.  The new picture, Tarzan Escapes, was released a year later and performed so well at the box office it was able to absorb the expense of shooting both films.

Jane’s outfit in Escapes—several sizes larger than her wardrobe in Mate—signaled the “family” direction the series was now taking…and the fourth film in the series, Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939), was the signet-ring-and-sealing-wax on the franchise.  Tarzan and Jane rescue an infant from a plane wreck in the jungle, who matures (in five years) into a character called Boy, introducing child actor Johnny Sheffield to the series.  A safari party, consisting of Boy’s uncle Sir Thomas Lancing (Henry Stephenson) and a pair of conniving relatives in Mr. and Mrs. Richard Lancing (Ian Hunter and Frieda Inescort), arrives in Tarzan’s domain; the Lancings persuade Jane to help them take Boy back to civilization and his considerable inheritance.  (Mostly the inheritance.)  Jane unwittingly betrays Tarzan…but he doesn’t hold a grudge; he and Boy rescue her from a murderous native tribe and everyone lives happily ever after.  (More or less.)

Tarzan and Jane’s adoption of Boy was meant to give the franchise a bit more family appeal (and was in part dictated by those tongue-waggers still worked up about the couple’s rather libertine jungle lifestyle)…but for a brief moment, it looked as if Tarzan might have had to soldier on as a single parent.  Maureen O’Sullivan was great with child while Tarzan Finds a Son! was in production, and she had intended for this movie to be her last; Jane would die from a spear wound and make tracks for that big jungle treehouse in the sky.  There are two different versions on the changing of that outcome: one has creator Burroughs strongly objecting to the killing off of a character he created, so MGM wound up offering Mo a little more money to stay with the series.  The more plausible explanation involves the negative audience reaction to Jane’s demise in the preview, and the studio bowed to public pressure; whichever version is true, the filmmakers tacked on a happy ending with Jane surviving the spear incident and all involved moved on to the next film.

Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941) was the fifth film in MGM’s Ape Man franchise.  Once again, strangers—this time in the form of Reginald Owen, Barry Fitzgerald, Tom Conway and Philip Dorn—insist on mucking about the escarpment, where they learn about a fortune of gold from gullibly innocent Boy.  Conway and Dorn wind up abducting Jane and Boy in order to force Tarzan to tell them where the gold is…and on cue, they are in turn captured by natives—paging Tarzan of the Apes (Ungawa!)!  Treasure is unquestionably the weakest of the MGM Tarzans, though Conway is a memorably slimy villain and Fitzgerald manages to steal scenes from Cheeta—not an easy task.  The interesting aspect of Treasure is that in the course of the film, Boy befriends a native kid named Tumbo (Cordell Hickman); an orphan who ends up adopted by the Tarzans at the end of the film.  (Before you cheer on this enlightened attitude—particularly in light of the fact that the Tarzan films have often been criticized for their racist overtones, and rightfully so—I should point out to you that if you’re looking to see Tumbo in the next movie you’re doomed to disappointment.)

MGM decided to close the Tarzan series with a winner—and one of my favorites, which I talk about in detail here—in Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), an entertaining entry (which has some falling-down funny moments mixed in with the serious drama and adventure) that finds Boy kidnapped by two big game hunters (Charles Bickford, Chill Wills) after they witness what the little tyke can do in the jungle.  They take the kid to the U.S. of A., where they sell him to a skeevy circus owner (the one-and-only Cy Kendall).  Jane and Tarzan take after them, and Adventure offers an interesting variation on the Tarzan mythos where Tarzan is the stranger in a strange land, and must receive lessons on surviving civilization from his worldly wife.  Jane and Tarzan ultimately succeed in rescuing Boy and convincing a judge (Russell Hicks) to let them take Boy back to the jungle (this part of the movie, granted, is a bit hard to swallow) and once again the Tarzan Family triumphs over the forces of eevill.

Maureen O’Sullivan had had enough (she was thrilled that the final Tarzan movie took place mostly outside the jungle, which she described in later years as a miserable experience), and she left the movie business briefly to look after her seven children (she would not be seen in another film until 1948’s The Big Clock).  Though the Tarzan series continued to be a most profitable one for MGM, the studio was concerned about slow returns in some of their foreign markets (particularly with the Second World War in full swing) and so decided not to renew their option on Tarzan when it lapsed that same year.  Tarzan would find a home at the budget-minded RKO the following year, with Weissmuller and Sheffield appearing in six more vehicles before Little John became Bomba, the Jungle Boy and Big John Jungle Jim.  For Tarzan fans, however, the MGM series still represents the high water mark of the Ape Man’s onscreen adventures…entertaining both old and new fans through the magic of home video and, of course, The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™.


Unknown said...

Tarzan's New York Adventure is my favorite of the series. Some really wonderful stuff in that one.

Caftan Woman said...

Oh how my childish heart broke when Jane died. I was so glad I was wrong. I could sure get worked up about my movies. Still do. Only now I think how story-wise they should have stuck to the demise.

I am not and never have been an outdoorsy jungle sort of person. The thought of all the bugs in those leaves gives me the creeps. But just try to keep me away from a "Tarzan" flick!

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Our Lady of Great Caftan spoke:

I am not and never have been an outdoorsy jungle sort of person. The thought of all the bugs in those leaves gives me the creeps.

We were watching one of the Mike Henry Tarzans (memory says it was Tarzan and the Great River) and my sister Kat, who was probably five years old at the time, remarks as Tarzan is hauling ass through the jungle: "There are a lot of 'stickers' in the jungle, but Tarzan doesn't seem to mind since he runs barefoot."

grouchomarxist said...

Wasn't TatGR the one where Mike Henry almost had his face ripped off during filming by the chimp playing Cheeta? Talk about suffering for your art ...

Tarzan's New York Adventure has always been a favorite of mine, too. And I was just as upset as Caftan Woman when Jane appeared to die in Tarzan Finds a Son.

Although when it comes to the RKO series, I do have a certain fondness for Tarzan's Desert Mystery. How could you not love a Tarzan movie featuring Nazis, giant spiders and dinosaurs?

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Ivan, I love this nifty review of the Weissmuller-Sullivan TARZAN films. I think my fave is TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE, which was a well-done croc-of-water story. As you wrote, there are very funny moments and they are well-integrated into the story. Sullivan left the series at the right. The other movies are watchable, but just not as memorable. BTW, I liked Jungle Jim, but as for Bomba...yeesh!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful posts. Clearly there were lots of gaps in my Tarzan knowledge! New York Adventure is one of my favourites though, and I certainly agree with Maureen O'Sullivan's sentiment, Tarzan works much better outside the jungle!

The Metzinger Sisters said...

Holy monkey Batman! I've been watching Tarzan all these years and never knew his name was John Clayton. Was Tarzan named after Earl Grey tea, or vice versa?

Like most true Tarzan fans, the NY Adventure is my favorite. Thanks for an entertaining read and a swell entry in the blogathon!

P.S : Do you think you could scrounger up an old BVD ad of Dressler, for humor's sake?