Judge Dan Mancini looks positively smashing in a loincloth.
Tarzan: Tarzan…Jane…hurt me…boy…love it…Jane.
Jane: Darling, that's quite a sentence.
In the heart of Africa, tribal legend tells of a great white ape who lives atop the impenetrable Mutia Escarpment. He commands elephants, wrestles rhinos, and kills lions and crocodiles with his bare hands. His victory cry turns the blood of the bravest men cold.
He is juju.
His name is Tarzan.
Facts of the Case
From 1932 to 1942, MGM made six Tarzan pictures starring Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane and five-time Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller as the loinclothed King of the Jungle. Tarzan's creator, pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, was always friendly to the idea of Tarzan on film, so there had already been a string of silents and serials prior to MGM's go at the character. Producer Sol Lesser had a series of films that ran concurrently with MGM's, starring Buster Crabbe of Flash Gordon fame as the King of the Jungle. Tarzan has also found his way to big and small screens time and time again in the decades after MGM gave up on its franchise. To this day, though, it's Weissmuller's and O'Sullivan's interpretation of Tarzan and Jane that has proven indelible. The six films they made together have now been gathered in one stylish four-disc boxed set:
• Tarzan the Ape Man
Once they've made the peak, they encounter the legendary ape man Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller, Jungle Jim), who steals away with Jane. Terrified at first, Jane is quickly won over by her captor's…umm…unadorned masculinity. When she returns to the safari, the group is captured by a tribe of dwarves and faces certain death until Tarzan's chimpanzee buddy, Cheeta, sounds the alert and the Lord the Jungle arrives with a herd of elephants to save the day.
• Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
Holt hopes to convince Tarzan to lead them to the graveyard, but is ready to kindly give up the expedition when the ape man rejects their idea of ransacking the dearly departed pachyderms. Arlington, however, doesn't take no for an answer, betraying Tarzan and shooting an elephant so it will lead him to the graveyard. His journey takes the safari through hostile Gaboni country where only Tarzan, Cheeta, and the elephants can save them.
• Tarzan Escapes (1936)
While Jane struggles to figure out how to make Tarzan understand she's only leaving the jungle temporarily, the safari's leader, Captain Fry, hatches a scheme to take Tarzan back to civilization and exhibit him for profit. Fry bargains with the Gabonis to help him capture Tarzan, but finds he needs the ape man's help when the safari is waylaid by the Hymandi tribe.
• Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)
Five years later, Boy (Johnny Sheffield, Bomba, the Jungle Boy) has grown into a precocious and fairly jungle-savvy kid, though he's constantly having to be rescued by Tarzan from the savage wildlife around him. Jane's worries about raising a child in the jungle are exacerbated when a safari arrives looking for the crash site. Sir Thomas Lancing and his nephew, Austin, have ventured into the jungle to confirm the fate of their relatives who were on the plane. Boy, it turns out, is the junior Richard Lansing, heir to the Earl of Greystoke. A fortune awaits him in London. Tarzan has no intention of giving up the child, but Jane decides civilization is in Boy's best interest and assists the safari in getting the kid away from his monosyllabic adoptive father by trapping the Lord of the Apes in a grotto.
Jane's scheme turns sour, however, when Austin Lancing is revealed as a jerk who wants to steal Boy's fortune. Matters go from bad to worse when the retreating safari—Jane and Boy in tow—are waylaid by the Zambele tribe. Jane knows the expedition's only hope is for Boy to escape capture and rescue Tarzan from the grotto. Once free, it's entirely likely the King of the Jungle and his trusty herd of elephants will save the day by laying a smackdown on the hostile tribe.
• Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941)
The group—led by Professor Elliott and Mr. Medford—is on a scientific expedition to discover a lost tribe called the Van-usi, but Medford's agenda swiftly changes when he learns from Boy that the river in which he and Tarzan and Jane regularly swim is loaded with gold nuggets, and that Tarzan claims to know of a huge vein in a nearby mountain. Tarzan doesn't care a whit about the gold, but doesn't want to reveal its location to the white men because he knows they'll return with excavation equipment and ruin the escarpment. Medford kidnaps Jane and Boy in order to blackmail Tarzan, but the safari stumbles into Jaconi country in its hasty retreat toward Nairobi and is captured. All will be lost unless Tarzan, Tumbo, Cheeta, and the herd of elephants can save the day.
• Tarzan's New York
Realizing Boy's been stolen, Tarzan, Jane, and Cheeta head for the Big Apple. They locate Boy, but things are complicated when they learn a circus owner named Sargent has an immigration bond that grants him legal custody of the kid. They go before a family court in order to win back custody of Boy, but their case is weakened when Jane accidentally lets slip that he's not their biological son. When it appears civilized law is going to fail them, Tarzan determines to secure Boy's return by the law of the jungle.
Tarzan the Ape Man began as a relatively low-budget follow-up to a lavish MGM spectacle set in Africa called Trader Horn. Bringing Edgar Rice Burroughs's character to the silver screen allowed the studio to cash in on the exotic mystique of their previous hit, while saving a bundle by using wild animal footage shot on location for Horn but left on the cutting room floor. That Tarzan the Ape Man proved an even bigger hit than its predecessor can probably be attributed to its crossover appeal to women. After all, super-athlete Johnny Weissmuller was the one swinging around in a tiny loincloth, not Maureen O'Sullivan. Like the original pulp novels, MGM's first two Tarzan films offer charged sexual fantasies suppressed beneath a veil of violence, exotica, and derring-do. Tarzan the Ape Man is a sort of gentle rape fantasy. Jane Parker arrives in Africa and is courteously pursued by the proper British gent Harry Holt until this specimen of the perfect (and essentially naked) male physique snatches her from the safari and takes her away to his home, high above the jungle floor. Soon enough, she discovers Tarzan's no feral beast, but a man whose perfection goes beyond the physical: he's unconcerned with status (though he is King of the Jungle), he doesn't lie or cheat, and he doesn't have ulterior motives. On top of all that, based on Jane's morning after demeanor, it appears the ape man is wildly adept in the sack.
The big-budget sequel, Tarzan and His Mate, is even more sexually frank. Tarzan and Jane are now husband and wife, living in a kind of prelapsarian connubial bliss. Jane sleeps and swims in the nude, and Tarzan eagerly caters to her every desire ("Go on," she tells her husband one morning, "go get my breakfast." But he's already anticipated her request and fetched the fruit while she was sleeping). You see, despite the fact these are "Tarzan" movies, Jane is in many ways the lead character. She's certainly smarter than her husband—because of Weissmuller's limited acting abilities, the ape man's English never blossoms beyond monosyllabic basics, regardless of his years spent with Jane. She's also the character to whom most of us living in civilization's sometimes soul-numbing thrum—male and female alike—can best relate: she's our surrogate, as enthralled by Tarzan's earnest prowess as we are, and ecstatic over her vacation from the convoluted and phony human society in which she was raised. And nearly all of the action in the series's early films is driven in one way or another by Tarzan's consuming passion for her. He's always having to rescue her, of course, but the romance also delivers believably poignant moments like Jane's anguish in Tarzan Escapes over trying to find a way to make her husband understand that her trip to England will only be temporary even as Tarzan despairs over the idea of their being separated for any length of time (Jane's cousin Rita reminds her at the end that the jungle man is "dedicated to making your life beautiful"). This sense of romantic intimacy bolsters and is bolstered by the sexuality we find so unexpected in pictures of the 1930s. The "marriage" of Tarzan and Jane doesn't come off as a phony movie contrivance; it's got surprising emotional texture considering its fantasy context and B-movie scripting. The result of it all is that rare action movie with a female lead who is more than a wilting flower or ankle-twisting stumbler (though Jane does her share of both), an actioner that appeals to men though it has an essentially female sensibility about it.
One can't talk about sex in the Tarzan films without mentioning Tarzan and His Mate's infamous nude swimming scene. The Hays Code—the film industry's self-censorship guidelines—were loosely enforced at the time the movie was shot, but a Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America regime change saw new the Code Administrator, Joseph Breen, taking a more aggressive stance to questionable content by the time of its release. As a result, the scene was cut from original release prints and lost entirely until the 1980s. This DVD release restores the original scene, which consists of a loinclothed Weissmuller engaged in underwater acrobatics with Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim, O'Sullivan's fully nude stand-in. The sequence is beautifully shot, sensual, and sexual without being particularly titillating. Frankly, it's tame by today's standards, shocking only because we've come to believe such things were never committed to film back in those days. There's no denying the scene has artistic merit visually, but it also serves to heighten our sense of the pure and somehow innocent passion of the duo's romance. The picture suffered in the scene's long absence.
The hyper-obvious sexual subtext in Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate was anything but when I watched the films on television as a kid. That stuff flew right over my head (granted, the swimming scene wasn't in there). Part of the magic of these pictures is they work well as straight-ahead adventure flicks, too, creating distinct moviegoing experiences for adults and kids. Viewed from the vantage point of the 21st century, one must take into account that the films' original audiences didn't have televisions, let alone National Geographic nature specials, so the pictures are padded with stock footage of rhinos, hippos, elephants, lions, hyenas, and other African wildlife—exotic and mesmerizing stuff for people who had probably only seen still photos of such animals. And some of the more outrageous action sequences are shamelessly recycled from picture to picture, making the later films far less satisfying than the first two—remember, audiences in the '30s couldn't rush out to buy the DVD six months after the movie was in theaters. Still, the flicks were special effects marvels for their day, and hold up pretty well today if one goes in with the right attitude. Tarzan and His Mate, which was the most lavishly budgeted of the six, is especially impressive, offering an underwater battle between Tarzan and a giant crocodile that is fast-paced, dynamic, and bloody. I'll join the chorus of critics who've proclaimed Tarzan and His Mate the pinnacle of the series. I don't know if it's the best Tarzan movie ever made, but it's the best Tarzan movie I've ever seen. Made as a response to RKO's King Kong, it's as epic and exotic as that picture, violent, provocative, and genuinely entertaining.
Starting with Tarzan Escapes, the series turned into a more chaste and traditional domestic romance. In addition to a less revealing costume for the Queen of the Jungle, the third film saw the introduction of Jane's treetop townhouse, outfitted by Tarzan with jungle versions of all manner of modern conveniences: a refrigerator powered by cold water, hand-cranked running water, ceiling fans and dishwashers powered by Cheeta, and an elevator run by Timba the elephant. It's corny as hell, but predated The Flintstones by decades. Demonstrations of Jane's clever household appliances were eagerly anticipated by audiences, like the Q scenes in James Bond films.
If Tarzan and His Mate is the zenith of the series, Escapes is its nadir. Originally envisioned as an actioner built on lurid violence, including a swamp attack by huge vampire bats, the original film so turned off MGM executives it was almost entirely reshot from scratch. The first try is lost, and there's no telling how much better it may have been than the release version. The Tarzan Escapes we're left with feels like a rehash in almost every way. For one thing, the producers and screenwriters returned once too often to the plot scenario of a white safari intruding on Tarzan's and Jane's isolated paradise with the intent of taking Jane away. The muted sexuality, retread plot, and recycling of the giant croc fight make the film feel mostly flat. On the plus side, O'Sullivan's charm and beauty is still abundant, and Weissmuller—who'd begun beefing up prior to production on Tarzan and His Mate—is probably at his most physically impressive in Escapes, lean and towering but well-muscled.
Tarzan Finds a Son! freshens the formula with the addition of Boy, the adopted child of Tarzan and Jane. His presence cements the mundane domestic romance-angle of the previous film, but nine-year-old Johnny Sheffield does a fine job as Boy and the series actually finds new life (skewed toward a younger audience), despite the fact the film and its successor, Tarzan's Secret Treasure, fall back on the now threadbare invading-white-safari conceit. Finds a Son! and Secret Treasure are pure fluff, with none of the cinematic quality of the first two films, but they're still fun. Viewers with a nostalgic attachment to the flicks will find they hold up well as light entertainment.
Tarzan's New York Adventure makes a surprisingly fitting conclusion to MGM's foray into the adventures of the Lord of the Apes. It plays the fish-out-of-water scenario of a wildman in civilization to far less grating effect than, say, Crocodile Dundee. The premise is paper thin, but the film is short enough (71 minutes) that it doesn't overstay its welcome. Plus, it affords O'Sullivan the opportunity to dress in the height of '40s fashion, and Weissmuller looks dashing in a suit. The picture is mainly a boon for Cheeta fans, though, as the chimp's comic antics are ramped up considerably in the big city setting.
After New York Adventure, MGM sold the waning Tarzan franchise to RKO, and Weissmuller and Sheffield went along for the ride. Without O'Sullivan, the half-dozen or so entries the duo made under the new studio banner paled in comparison to the pictures made for MGM. Maureen O'Sullivan is cinema's definitive Jane, just as Johnny Weissmuller is its definitive Tarzan. That the six films they made together have been gathered up into one DVD boxed set is cause for Tarzan fans to celebrate. Warner has treated the films with much respect, delivering top-notch transfers of each. Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate look the worst since they're the oldest and were shot on the inferior stock typical of the early sound era. Still, the flawed sources are presented in the best fashion possible. Is the image a bit grainy and soft? Sure, but they still look better than television broadcast versions. The remainder of the pictures take a leap forward in image quality. Each is typical of a major studio production of the late '30s and '40s. They display isolated damage, and rear projection special effects shots are understandably riddled with grain. Otherwise the pictures are sharp, clean, and beautiful. It's difficult to imagine how Warner could have done much better.
The mono audio tracks represent a strong presentation of limited sources. The sound on the first two films has a lot more hiss, but not an unreasonable amount considering the sources. The remainder of the films offer impressive audio mixes that are clean and free of distractions.
The boxed set contains a total of four discs with the six films spread over Discs One through Three (because the first two films have the longest running times, the pictures are presented out of order with Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan Escapes on Disc One, Tarzan and His Mate and Tarzan Finds a Son! on Disc Two, and Tarzan's Secret Treasure and Tarzan's New York Adventure on Disc Three). Disc Four houses a decent, if underwhelming, array of extras. The primary supplement is an 80-minute documentary called Tarzan: Silver Screen King of the Jungle, produced especially for this DVD release. It features movie experts Rudy Behlmer and Robert Osborne, Burroughs biographer Scott Tracy Griffin, an archive interview with Maureen O'Sullivan, Johnny Weissmuller Jr., and one of the original Cheetas (71 years old during the doc's production), among others. The piece provides a gloss of the literary Tarzan, his earliest appearances on film, and the production of each of the MGM films, with special attention paid to Tarzan and His Mate.
Schnarzan the Conqueror is a two-minute trailer parody starring Jimmy Durante as an alternative King of the Jungle. It's silly fun, though I'd have died just as happy had I gone through my entire life without seeing Jimmy Durante in a loincloth.
MGM On Location is an 11-minute behind-the-scenes piece for Tarzan Finds a Son!. Its greatest asset is footage of how the film crew captured the series's many underwater scenes. Action is accompanied by a narrator. There is no location sound, so there's no interview footage with Weissmuller, O'Sullivan, or the other actors.
Rodeo Dough is a short film from 1940 about a couple of dames (one of whom is character actress Mary Treen, who can be seen in It's a Wonderful Life and The Snake Pit among other A films) trying to hitch their way from Hollywood back home to Kokomo, Indiana. Johnny Weissmuller makes a brief and wordless cameo as himself, when he picks the duo up in his convertible.
Finally, Disc Four houses theatrical trailers for all six of the Tarzan pictures. There are two trailers for Tarzan Escapes: the one for the finished film, and a preliminary one constructed of pulp paintings of the jungle hero, probably produced while the movie was being reshot.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you've never seen MGM's Tarzan movies, or haven't seen them in a long time, be forewarned: for all their fun, they aren't exactly racially progressive. There are basically two varieties of Africans in these movies. The first is the pack-bearing flunkies on the safaris. They're wide-eyed with superstition, and serve roughly the same purpose as red-shirt ensigns on Star Trek: they're attacked by wild animals; plummet off the cliffs of the Mutia Escarpment; and are violently murdered in the tribal rituals of their savage brethren, providing the white characters a little glimpse of what they have coming if Tarzan doesn't show up to save the day. Their deaths are of little concern to their white masters, who actually beat them when they're paralyzed by fear upon hearing Tarzan's cry in the earliest pictures.
This repulsive racial stereotyping is somewhat mitigated by our identification with Tarzan and his complete rejection of the white safariers, their values, and especially their utter disdain for human and animal life. Gun violence, in particular, is aggressively condemned in the movies (by the third film, Tarzan takes to smashing any gun he sees against the nearest tree). The vile, double-dealing behavior of the "civilized" white characters changes Tarzan from a wary wildman in the first couple films to an openly hostile aggressor against any white interlopers who cross his path in later entries (upon finding an injured elephant in Tarzan Finds a Son!, he angrily exclaims, "Guns! White people!"). As awful as the expeditioners treat the Africans, it's bearable for us as a modern audience because our sympathies are aligned against most of the white characters anyway. Their racism is just another reason to dislike them.
Still, it's quite clear that in the eyes of the filmmakers, it's the King of the Jungle's whiteness that sets him apart and above (both literally and figuratively) the second group of Africans in these movies, the tribesmen. Though he lives in the jungle, Tarzan has no relationship with the local tribes (the closest we get is Boy's friendship with Tumbo, though the Ubardi tribe from which the African boy comes is as hostile as any of the others). The tribes fear Tarzan, and that seems to be the way he likes it. Moreover, they act as the pictures' deus ex machina, always capturing the white expeditioners with the intent to do some horrible, violent thing to them for no reason other than their own savagery and that it's an excuse for Tarzan and his elephants to charge in and save the day.
The Tarzan movies don't approach the sort of violent racism one finds in D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, but their racial sensibilities are far from modern. Isolated moments are bound to make you squeamish, and some may rankle.
Even with the relatively unimpressive offering of extras, The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weissmuller is an impressive box whose contents are a walk down memory lane for those who enjoyed these films as children—and just look at that stylish, pulp-inspired cover art. Passing up this set is juju for any Tarzan fan.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Tarzan: Silver Screen King of the Jungle Documentary
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