Judge Dan Mancini once had an impressive loincloth collection, but he sold it on eBay.
"What's all this hooey about an Ape Man?"—Nick the evil safari guide
Billed as Volume One of their Loincloth Collection, this disc from Roan Group offers a double-feature of two lesser-known, non-Weissmuller Tarzan pictures from the 1930s. Let's swing into action.
Facts of the Case
• Tarzan the Fearless (1933)
• Tarzan's Revenge (1938)
In 1931, producer Sol Lesser found himself in the enviable position of having MGM over a barrel. The studio had begun production on Tarzan the Ape Man not knowing Lesser owned the film rights to Edgar Rice Burroughs's pulp creation. Like the best B-movie producers, though, Lesser was a pragmatist with an innate understanding of the modern marketing concept of synergy. He allowed MGM their franchise (for a small amount of cash, of course), but maintained the right to produce his own Tarzan movies independently. After Tarzan the Ape Man exploded into a box office hit, Lesser produced a serialized story about the King of the Jungle. Tarzan the Fearless was released as both a 12-part adventure and a slimmer feature comprised of the serial's first four chapters, plus some scenes from chapters five and six. The shorter version rode the MGM franchise's coattails to modest success, while the full serial has faded into obscurity.
As a feature, Tarzan the Fearless maintains many of the rhythms of a serial, and that's its biggest problem. The story shifts (sometimes radically) every 20 minutes or so, and there's little sense of a coherent narrative through-line. One can claim (as I have above) that it's a movie about Tarzan helping Mary rescue her father, but in truth it's a loosely-organized series of jungle adventures that happen to culminate in our hero needing to rescue Brooks from Zar's evil followers (English-speakers in elaborate Egyptian headdresses who look and act like campy villains in pulp serials and appear entirely out of place in the jungle setting). The film moves herky-jerky toward a finale that doesn't feels less like a finale than the end of the last of a series of tangentially related adventures.
In lieu of Johnny Weissmuller, Lesser cast his own Olympic gold medalist swimmer, Buster Crabbe, as the world's most famous vine-swinger. The results are mixed at best. Crabbe looks more powerful than Weissmuller without being muscle-bound, and the action sequences are generally more dynamic—the athlete/actor wrestles trained lions himself. But he plays the role almost entirely in pantomime (he doesn't even speak the pseudo-Swahili that passes for Tarzan's animal language in the MGM series) and when he's pressed to communicate, usually comes off as a dolt—his interactions with Mary, which consist mostly of giggling, are especially goofy. In addition, Crabbe's chiseled features and shock of curly hair are just too pretty for a feral wild man of the jungle. Weissmuller's animal wariness is replaced with glimpses of a wry gleam in the eye that make one wonder if Crabbe isn't thinking this is the stupidest thing he's ever done in his life.
By the time Lesser produced Tarzan's Revenge five years later, Crabbe had moved on to greater fame as science fiction flyboys Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, so decathlon Olympic gold medalist Glenn Morris was hired to step into the loincloth. Revenge proved one of the least satisfying and least successful of the Tarzan films (still exponentially better than John Derek's sorry attempt), and probably would've marked an end to Lesser's jungle adventures except he found himself in control of practically the entire Tarzan cinematic universe when MGM sold its franchise to RKO in 1943 and he was brought on to produce another six pictures starring Johnny Weissmuller.
Even with the benefit of having been planned as a feature film, Tarzan's Revenge somehow manages to be more flaccid than Tarzan the Fearless. The plot again meanders (Eleanor is kidnapped 56 minutes into the 69-minute flick) and has nothing to do with revenge. Though he looks the role, Morris proves Crabbe's lesser both as an action hero and an actor, and the filmmakers compensate by making Eleanor Holm the true lead (a non-actor herself, she does a reasonable job carrying the picture—too bad it's not a picture worth carrying in the first place).
Tarzan's Revenge suffers most from its conscious emulation of the MGM pictures. Tarzan's chimpanzee buddy is there for comic relief—he's never called Cheeta as that was an MGM creation, but it's clear we're to assume that's who he is. Tarzan and Eleanor have their own little "Tarzan—Jane" moment, clunking each other roughly on the shoulders as an introduction. And there's more romantic spark between Tarzan and Eleanor than there was between Tarzan and Mary in Fearless, since the Tarzan-Jane romance had proven central to the larger series's appeal. There's even a swimming sequence between the duo—always a highlight of the MGM films—though it's not particularly balletic and the underwater shots suffer from cramped framing and hazy water. In trying to be more like MGM's films, Tarzan's Revenge only succeeds in emphasizing its inferiority to them.
In terms of technical presentation, Roan Group's DVD is pretty rough. Neither film underwent any serious restoration and they're packed onto a single dual-layered disc along with a couple lengthy extras. Due to its age, Fearless comes off slightly worse than Revenge, but only slightly. Both pictures are riddled with grain and minor damage, and each is a little shaky in the gate. Scene transitions are especially bad in the earlier film. Revenge has a slightly sharper image with better contrast, but that's not saying much considering how muddy Fearless is and how narrow its grayscale. On the plus side, neither film exhibits much major source damage. Audio on both is loaded with buzz, hiss, and crackle. Fearless's dialogue is often fuzzy and sometimes overblown, and its score—the relentlessly galloping scale runs of stock serial music—is riddled with distortion. Revenge offers much cleaner dialogue, but all the hiss and crackle is still there.
Supplements include extremely brief, text-based production notes on Tarzan the Fearless, as well as the first chapters of Radar Men from the Moon and Undersea Kingdom, two serials available on DVD from Roan Group. The chapters run 20 and 31 minutes, respectively and, sadly, look and sound better than either of the features.
These lackluster films may be curios for the fervent Tarzan fan, but they're bound to prove an endurance test for anyone else. The poor DVD presentation seals the deal: steer clear of this stinker.
Guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice, Tarzan The Fearless
Perp Profile, Tarzan The Fearless
Studio: Roan Group
Distinguishing Marks, Tarzan The Fearless
• Film Background
Scales of Justice, Tarzan's Revenge
Perp Profile, Tarzan's Revenge
Studio: Roan Group
Distinguishing Marks, Tarzan's Revenge
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