Review – The Tarzan Collection (Well, the last half, anyway)

TarzanCollThis DVD collection include six movies: Tarzan the Ape Man, Tarzan and His Mate, Tarzan Escapes, Tarzan Finds a Son, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure and Tarzan’s New York Adventure. These comprise all of the MGM Tarzan films, filmed between 1932 and 1942, which starred Olympic Gold Medalist Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane Parker. (Ms. Parker was an Englishwoman, unlike her namesake from the books, Jane Porter, who was a Balmer gal, the daughter of a Hopkins professor, as I recall.)

I’ve had this sitting on my shelf for a while, and had only watched the first three films. I stopped short of Tarzan Finds a Son some months (probably years) back. I suck at time sense. My kids tell me all the time. Or are they my grandkids? Hmm…

I stopped short of the introduction of “Boy” for a couple of reasons. First, as one of the reviews on the excellent ERBZine site notes, because his arrival in the fourth film of the MGM/Weissmuller Tarzan series marks a change in tone for the films. It was, as that reviewer noted, something of an erotic fantasy when it was just Tarzan and Jane sitting in a tree. With Boy arrived a split-level tree house and a change to a caricature of suburban lifestyle for the Jungle Lord. (Although I should point out that, in 1939, suburbs were not yet a going concern in the United States, even though the term “suburb” apparently dates back to 1380(!)) I’d always thought of the post-Boy Tarzan films as real kid-stuff, so I wasn’t in a hurry to get to them.

Further, I must admit I’ve long resented poor Boy. You see, Korak, nee Jack Clayton, introduced in The Beasts of Tarzan and starring in Son of Tarzan, was the son of Tarzan and Jane in the books, and is my favorite character in all of the many novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. That’s saying something, because Burroughs created a lot of memorable and likable characters. Korak is brave, inventive and tenacious like his father, but, like his mother, has been raised in civilization as the son of nobility. He leaves this lifestyle behind only partially by chance, and takes up with his father’s tribe of Great Apes. He leaves behind soft, young Jack Clayton and becomes, in the language of his new tribe, Korak the Killer. I would imagine it’s harder for a child of privilege to become a jungle lord than it is for a boy actually raised by apes, so I think Korak arguably outshines his father by conquering jungle life. And, while he enjoyed his life in the jungle, it wasn’t all about playing with chimps and teasing lions, knowing Dad would swing in and save him if he got in trouble. Because his parents, still living in England, didn’t know he’d been kidnapped to Africa, Korak had to survive, alone, and he did.

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Boy, as envisioned by MGM, pretty much was just a way to get kids to like Tarzan even better by giving them a fantasy self through which to enjoy the adventures. “You too could be Tarzan’s adopted child! Get into all the trouble you want, then give your best Tarzan(tm) yell, and the Jungle Lord will swing to your rescue!”

Yeah. Like that. Not even enough to really be called Korak-Light. Boy was created as an adopted son because the just-installed Hays Code of film censorship would not allow Tarzan and Jane to have a child naturally. They lived miles away from a courthouse or a church, and the film-version of Tarzan was established as someone who would have to be dragged kicking and screaming by elephants to such an establishment. He certainly wouldn’t go into one willingly to do something as silly as get married. So the censors said this unmarried couple couldn’t have a kid the usual way. They had to find one in the jungle. As fate would have it, a plan crashes on the escarpment where Tarzan and Jane live, and the only survivor is a baby boy. (Whom longtime readers will immediately know is Tarzan’s cousin, although the script never connects the dots for the audience.) Boy doesn’t grow up in the jungle on his own, because Jane and Tarzan are there with him. He just moves into an extra room in the tree house and, as the years pass, grows up as second banana to a chimp.

Watching the last three films in MGM’s series, though, I see I was a little unfair to poor boy, and to the Tarzan films in general. I’ve watched several over the years, but I’ve long dismissed them because the movie Tarzan, no matter who plays him, is usually something of a brute who speaks in broken English. He comes off a bit dumb. (There have been exceptions: Herman Brix, I believe, played an eloquent Jungle Lord. I recall that Gordon Scott did as well, and so did former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Henry.)

Truth is, these films are actually very entertaining, and their characters, although different from their literary equivalents, are likable, their relationships emotionally satisfying.

Tarzan Finds a Son, once it’s placed Boy in custody of Mr. and Mrs. Tarzan and lets him grow to be six or so, chronicles something of a custody battle. Boy’s kindly old great Uncle comes searching for him, along with a couple of disreputable cousins. Their secret wish is to prove that the heir to the family fortune is dead so that they can have it. When they realize, despite Jane’s attempted deceptions, that he’s alive, they want to control him, and, by proxy, his money. Tarzan yells “Get off my lawn!”, but Jane decides it’s best for her little son to go back to civilization and be rich and powerful. She smuggles Boy out of the tree house so he can go with his relatives. Bad decision. Hilarity ensues. (Actually, the script called for Jane, having betrayed Tarzan, to die in his arms. Viewers protested, and Jane recovered, apologized to Tarzan, assured him he knew best all along, and lived to make more mistakes.)

In Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, Boy runs away for a day or two to see what “civilizashun” looks like. He saves a young native from a lion, but then is almost killed by his new friend’s fellow villagers before he’s rescued by a  “scientific expedition.” The rescue is botched, and Tarzan has to save them all. Then he takes the whole group back to his tree house where, inevitably, he turns to the visitors and yells, “Get off my lawn!” But they stay, because Boy has told them there’s gold in them thar hills. Then he catches the plague. That’ll larn him. The “scientists” trick Jane into believing that Boy is going to die because Tarzan’s native cures don’t work. She begs Tarzan, in the name of his love for her, to go fetch a “real” doctor. Tarzan’s cure has worked just fine. With him gone, Jane and Boy are forced to accompany the bad guys on a gold hunt. The party encounters more angry natives and some people die in a really grisly manner. Tarzan rescues most of them, and Jane apologizes to Tarzan, assures him he knew best all along, and they swim off into the sunset so she can make more mistakes. (“Jane? You got some ‘splainin’ to do!”)

Tarzan’s New York Adventure is one of the most popular Tarzan films ever made. An unscrupulous hunter / impresario comes to the jungle looking for animals for the circus. He finds Tarzan, Jane and Boy. Tarzan yells, “Get off my lawn!” Boy, however, thinks the aeroplane the strangers brought is really cool. (You’d think he’d learn. His real parents died in an aeroplane. The “scientific expedition” promised him he could buy an aeroplane of his own if he led them to gold. That didn’t end well. But no… here he goes again… ) Wanting to impress his new friends, Boy shows them how well he can talk to animals and get them to do tricks. So they take him back to New York to work in their circus, telling him his parents have died in a fire. Tarzan and Jane track him to the city. Hilarity ensues. Jane tells Tarzan to let her do the talking while they’re in civilization, because it’s “her jungle.” They wind up in a real custody battle this time, charged with being unfit parents by the impresario’s lawyer, played by the wonderfully annoying Charles Lane. It doesn’t go well. Jane apologizes for trying to call the shots, assures Tarzan he knew best all along, and sends him out to swing from building to building in search of Boy.

Along the way I did find myself wondering how Jane could be so gone on this guy. He’s brave, yeah, but he’s kinda dumb. But there’s real feeling behind Weissmuller’s broken professions of love for the lady. They have fantastic chemistry. And, after all, he puts up with her being wrong all the time. You just have to be willing to suspend disbelief and accept that Jane is far smarter, but Tarzan is always right anyway. That’s how heroes work. It’s not a bit feminist, but these were the 30s and 40s.

Johnny Sheffield as Boy was really very engaging. Sometimes his acting lags a bit. He evoked absolutely no pathos in the scenes where he believes Tarzan and Jane have died. But his enthusiasm never wanes, and, on the whole, he’s a likable little cuss.

Maureen O’Sullivan left the series after “New York Adventure,” and the rights were sold to RKO. Weissmuller would make six more Tarzan films there, three with Sheffield as Boy. I haven’t watched any of those later entries yet. I think, without O’Sullivan, they don’t stand too much of a chance.

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