TARZAN FINDS A SON! (1939)
Yes, the exclamation mark is part of the title.
Hi folks. Back again to continue my project of watching and commenting upon all of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan pictures, in order. Next up is the fourth entry in the series which finds Tarzan becoming more domesticated by the day. Notably milder than the Pre-code installments discussed last time, this one still packs a bit of a punch when we get to the captured-by-cannibals sequence.
The film begins with a plane in trouble over the jungle. Its passengers are the doomed Lansings, from England, and their infant son. In a nod to the Tarzan book series, it is noted that the Mr. Lansing and his son are heirs to the house of Greystoke. For the uninitiated, the literary Tarzan was actually the son of Lord Greystoke. This may be the only time that the name is mentioned in the film series, but I'll let you know. After the inevitable plane crash, a pretty nice looking miniature effect, the baby is rescued by some passing chimps shortly before villainous natives discover the wreck. The boy ends up in the hands of Tarzan and Jane who take him to raise, naming him "Boy."
Tarzan's lavishly appointed tree house with its elephant-powered elevator and other Flintstone-esque amenities actually had made its debut in Tarzan Escapes (1936) but is given even more attention here as the series begins its slow turn into a more family-friendly fantasy. The comic relief antics of Cheetah aren't given quite as much time here as they will be in later pictures, but you can see it coming. There had actually been a three year gap between this and the previous film as MGM's interest in the series had waned and the studio's option on the Tarzan character had been allowed to lapse. In the interim, the decidedly B-level independent feature TARZAN'S REVENGE (1938) had been produced by Sol Lesser, from whom we will hear again later. That film featured Olympic Decathlon champ Glen Morris as Tarzan. Morris is known to have had exactly three total acting credits in his lifetime, including this one, which should tell you something about his success filling Weissmuller's....uh...loincloth. But, hey, he was an Olympic champion and was later seriously wounded in action during the war, so maybe we should cut him some slack on his acting chops. Eventually, MGM decided to have another go at the franchise and the result was this very respectable entry in the saga.
After a five year jump in the story, the Tarzan Family's peace is disturbed by a safari led by Boy's cousins who stand to inherit a million pounds if they can prove that everyone in the plane died. Tarzan and Jane do not disabuse them of this notion, claiming Boy as their own child. Eventually, of course, the greedy Brits figure out who Boy is and instead of leaving him with Tarzan and Jane, who would be happy to support their subterfuge, and returning to England to collect their cash, they decide to take Boy back to civilization and become corrupt executors of his trust fund, or something. Anyway, they manage to convince the ever innocent Jane that this will be in the child's best interests. Tarzan is violently against the idea, however, so Jane gets him out of the way by trapping him in a deep ravine before heading out to guide the party back to civilization. In trying to avoid the terrifying Gabonis who have plagued the previous three pictures, the safari runs afoul of the not-much-better Zambilis and in short order find themselves prisoners awaiting sacrifice.
Like the Gambonis, the Zambilis have a pretty dark fate in store for their guests. The victims are taken one by one to a ceremonial hut filled with chanting natives where they are trussed to an alter; unspecified organs are removed with big curved knives and held aloft while the victim squirms and gasps and then a big stone hammer-like thing swings down and bashes out their brains. Pretty dark stuff for a picture from 1939. The film manages to depict this in just enough detail that the viewer understands what is happening without seeing the actual gore. Bravo. As you might suppose, Tarzan gets out of his predicament and storms to the rescue with a herd of elephants and a few chimps, some of whom are clearly Little People in costumes. Here the film tries to shake off the horrors of the last few minutes with some comic relief involving chimps battering Zambilis and even an old Three Stooges-style gag where Boy bops the natives on the head with coconuts as they run past one-by-one.
In the melee, Jane has taken a spear to the back and as she fades away in Tarzan's arms, he forgives her betrayal and begs her not to die. And she doesn't. As a matter of fact, Maureen O'Sullivan had not been at all keen on continuing the role of Jane and the script called for the character's graceful demise at this point. Apparently, however, MGM and/or test audiences found this ending to be such a bummer that Jane got better with a quick reshoot. O'Sullivan would ultimately be convinced to play Jane two more times before she, and MGM, left Tarzan behind forever.
Here's a nice shot from the sacrificial hut.
Boy is played by the cute and charismatic Johnny Sheffield, who would return seven more times in the series. Sheffield had appeared in a few small parts prior to this and explained later that he would never have gotten this plum role if Weissmuller hadn't taken the boy under his wing and coached him in the swimming skills the part called for. The film does include a good deal of swimming and one pretty impressive scene in which the 7 year old keeps pace with the Olympic champ (and a baby elephant) during an underwater swim. Boy does a lot of running, leaping, swimming and swinging in this picture and I never detected a stunt double, though I'd be surprised if their weren't one in there somewhere. Sheffield's athletic prowess stuck with him pretty far into adulthood and he enjoyed a post-Tarzan career fairly similar to Weissmuller's, playing Bomba the Jungle Boy in a string of twelve kiddie matinee pictures, another series I need to catch up with. Sheffield did just fine as Boy and while a lot of purists prefer the earlier, darker Tarzan films, before he acquired a family and a tricked out tree-house, the emotional dynamics between the three are quite effective, at least in this picture. The boisterous father/son affection between Tarzan and Boy comes across as quite genuine, perhaps because, as Sheffield later claimed, Weissmuller was an important father figure and mentor to the child in real life. And I challenge any parent to watch the scene in which Jane encourages Boy to squeeze through a small gap in the stockade fence and "never look back," while she remains behind to face the sacrificial altar, without getting just the tiniest bit choked up.
That's it for now. Up next--TARZAN'S SECRET TREASURE