Sunday, January 26, 2014

Project: Weissmuller!

One of my viewing projects of late--one among many--is an attempt to watch the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series from the 30s and 40s.  My goal is to watch the entire series from start to finish and present my impressions here.  That's a tall order as Weissmuller did 12 of these pictures over 16 years, 6 fairly lavish studio productions at MGM followed by 6 mostly B-level features for RKO.  As an aside, once he no longer looked good in loin cloth, Weissmuller donned a safari outfit and pith helmet and starred as Jungle Jim in a series of 16(!) kiddie matinee level programmers in the late 40s and early 50s.  Jungle Jim was a popular comic strip of the day which depicted the adventures of a safari guide with a lot of animal friends.  That series had its moments and perhaps I'll try to get through it once I've finished the Tarzans, but it's an extra-low budget affair.  The budget was so low in fact that when the producers' license to use the Jungle Jim character ran out, they made a few more pictures with Weissmuller in the same costume, doing the same stuff, but now just called "Johnny Weissmuller." Nobody noticed.

But I digress.

Weissmuller was a former Olympic swimmer who was tapped for the part primarily for his physique and  athletic ability.  Fortunately, he turned out to be something of a natural actor in this particular role,  conveying pathos, anger and affection for his mate quite effectively through facial expression and body language when the script called for it.  20-year old Maureen O'Sullivan would take the role of Jane Parker and continue in the part for the remaining 5 MGM pictures.  Venerable British character actor C. Aubrey Smith would play Jane's father in the first film.  Finally, the cast was rounded out by Neil Hamilton as Jane's conflicted-but-decent suitor, Harry Holt.  Hamilton would become most well-known for the role he played 34 years later as Commissioner Gordon on the BATMAN television series.

TARZAN THE APE MAN was released in April, 1932 and performed splendidly at the box office.  As an exciting adventure picture, it holds up pretty well today with a number of exciting sequences and a sometimes grim tone that still packs a punch.  The film, like much of the series, is definitely politically-incorrect in both its depiction of the African population and the callous attitude toward African wildlife shown by the white safari members.  If you can get past these artifacts of the times, the films in the series, particularly the early ones, carry a persistent theme of conflict between frequently corrupt and hypocritical "civilized" Brits and Americans and the purer, natural lifestyle of Tarzan and his mate. Jane and the couple's son, Boy, are repeatedly tempted by the technology and amenities brought to the jungle by Western expeditions, to the point of lying to Tarzan or betraying him "for his own good" on several occasions.  These situations always end up with the safari and Tarzan's family in the clutches of the local cannibals, in need of dramatic rescue.

In the first film, the climactic rescue comes about because Jane, her father and Harry have been captured by a tribe of vicious dwarves (NOT pygmies, Harry points out) who are preparing to sacrifice them to a hideous ape-god thing kept in a pit.  Of course, Tarzan shows up to do battle with the thing and the fight is one of the gorier episodes you'll find in a 30s studio picture.  In fact, the first two Weissmuller films were produced during the "Pre-code" era--the period from the inception of the talkies to about 1934 when Hollywood studios grew very lax in the enforcement of their rules concerning violent and sexual content.  As a result, films from this period frequently feature surprising amounts of sexual frankness, even nudity, as well as a level of violence and moral nihilism that wouldn't be seen in Hollywood pictures again until the late 60s.  TARZAN THE APE MAN contains several violent episodes, culminating in the gory battle with the ape-god which includes eye-gouging and throat-slitting with plenty of blood and grue.  The gorilla suit used in this sequence is not one of the more realistic I've ever seen, but it adds to the impression of the creature as some kind of crude, corrupted monster, rather than just a regular ol' gorilla.

If TARZAN THE APE MAN took advantage of Hollywood trends to up the ante on violence and general grimness, the next film took sex and violence to a whole new level.  Produced two years later, as the Pre-code period was winding down, TARZAN AND HIS MATE pushed the content boundaries in every way possible, particularly in terms of nudity and frightening, explicit violence.  TARZAN AND HIS MATE may be the pre-codiest Pre-code ever produced by a major Hollywood studio.  (Cecil B. DeMille's THE SIGN OF THE CROSS is another strong contender for this title.)  MATE contains so many instances of nudity that I lost count.  The most famous of these is Jane's four minute nude underwater swimming sequence (performed by a body-double).  The film also contains a lot of National Geographic-reminiscent instances of topless native women--except this isn't stock footage of actual Africans, these are California actresses carefully placed around the studio sets topless to add spice to the village scenes.   Even actor Paul Cavanagh, who plays the white villain of the piece, has a carefully composed nude scene climbing into a bathtub.  Lest you think it's all about nudity, you'll also see plenty of explicit violence with knives, spears and arrows piercing flesh Friday the 13th-style, right on camera.

TARZAN AND HIS MATE has a lot more going for it than just explicitness.  It's one of the most exciting jungle adventure films ever produced.  Once the action gets rolling, it seldom lets up.  The film also introduces the Gabonis--a cannibal tribe with white face paint who would menace Tarzan and his associates in several more pictures.  The depiction of the Gabonis is quite frightening and effective--heralded by distant rhythmic ceremonial chanting, they emerge from the jungle in a remorseless swarm, slaughtering safari members quickly and ruthlessly.  The Gabonis have no apparent motivation other than a desire to kill and nearly push the film into the horror genre whenever they appear.  TARZAN AND HIS MATE culminates with Jane and Harry trapped, pinned down by a contingent of spear-hurling natives and a pack of lions in a loud, roaring, frenzied set-piece.  The film is almost universally acknowledged as the best of the series.

The next installment, TARZAN ESCAPES (1936), works quite well as a standalone film but pales in comparison to its predecessors in nearly every way. Actually produced in 1935, the film was then re-edited and partially re-shot, in part to tone down a number of violent and frightening scenes that were no longer felt to be acceptable under the new Hollywood production code that had gone into effect shortly after the release of the previous film.  A comedy relief cockney fraidy-cat character was added and the film was generally made more family-friendly.  When watching the films in sequence, it becomes painfully obvious that a number of animal attack and Gaboni sequences have been lifted whole from MATE and dropped into this film.  The plot of ESCAPES is also rather familiar; again Tarzan comes to the rescue of a safari group, this time led by a two-faced villain who has been trying to capture the ape man and put him in a freak-show.  A number of borderline Pre-code elements remain in the picture--the Gabonis are still frightening and violent and their method of executing prisoners--a contraption which basically rips people in two--is depicted in a way that really pushed the newly-installed boundaries. This is the first of the series with borderline fantasy elements--if you don't count Tarzan's ability to communicate with animals--as the safari encounters the threat of giant lizards while crossing a primordial swamp.  Reportedly this is one of the sequences which was toned down, as the original lizard attacks were apparently quite gory.  Unfortunately, another sequence in the swamp was jettisoned from the film entirely--an attack by a swarm of giant vampiric bats!!  The excised footage from TARZAN ESCAPES is most likely gone forever but a restored "Director's Cut" of the picture remains a cherished film buff fantasy, keeping company with the lost KING KONG "Spider-Pit" sequence.

One more bit of business about TARZAN ESCAPES:  One of the added comic relief scenes involves cockney character actor Herbert Mundin doing a double-take at an odd jungle creature he spies.  The sequence is pretty short, but sharp-eyed classic horror film buffs may recognize legless performer Johnny Eck from MGM's notorious Pre-code FREAKS (1932) wearing a modified version of that film's "duck woman" costume that someone must have dug out of the wardrobe storage bins.  It's a welcome little Easter Egg for classic genre fans.  TARZAN ESCAPES was my favorite of the Weissmuller films for years, but probably only because I'd seen it several times before I ever saw TARZAN AND HIS MATE.  Now I recognize it as fine but flawed. 

Here is a Mexican lobby card with an interesting looking scene from the swamp sequence which did not make it into the final cut.

How I wish they hadn't messed with it.

That's it for now.  I'll be back with a look at the next three MGM pictures.

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