Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Every now and then I lose all hope for the entire human race and I need a dose of the unwavering moral certainty put out by superheroes and what they represent, especially the pre-1960’s variety of good guys. Back in the days there were no real shades of gray to our heroes; you were either a good guy or a bad guy, it was that simple. Some were more violent and cynical in their methods than others — the Shadow and the pre-Robin Batman spring immediately to mind, since both did not hesitate to send villains to join the Choir Invisible — and others handed out ass-kickings that came from a more primal, earthy standpoint, such as Conan, Billy “The Mucker” Byrne, and Enkidu, co-star of the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh (how can you not get with a superhuman wildman who is civilized in no uncertain terms by the twin influences of friendship and serious pussy?). But none of those resonate in my estimation quite like Tarzan of the Apes, so today I went out and finally got my paws on the boxed DVD set of the first six MGM films about him.
I have absolutely fucking loved Tarzan for as long as I can remember, one of the very few things my father and I had in common, and I still smile at the memory of my dad telling a five-year-old Bunche about how the word “Umgawa” was the jungle lord’s all-purpose word that could literally be applied to any situation whatsoever and work like a charm, a fact proven time and again throughout several of his films from the early 1930’s through around 1948. Perhaps my father’s one positive lasting influence upon me was spurring my interest in the heroes of his youth, especially Tarzan and Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century, both of whose comic strips amazingly launched on the very same day in 1929 (although both had first debuted in pulp magazines years earlier)…
But I digress.
Moving to the hostile and racist land of Westport, Connecticut in the summer of 1972 — I had just turned seven — I had no real friends save the little blonde girl across the street, Nora, would play with me in the vast, untamed swamp near I-95, and our favorite game was “Tarzan and Jane,” a much more interesting variation on “House.” I remember Nora in her Jane persona loving the idea of having a husband who was some wild jungle guy and a “child” who was a stuffed bear who also doubled as “Cheeta" the chimp, and complaining about how she and her mate were always more or less naked, and noting her strange interest in nudity in general, but we were clothed throughout all of this innocent kiddie role playing; without even intending to explore its meaning we had hit upon one of the most intriguing elements of the cinematic Tarzan/Jane dynamic, namely that the two were primal, sexual creatures whose relationship was in no way prurient, just fun, innocent and utterly natural. Sadly, Nora moved away a few months later and I would not have any friends who had any kind of imagination for several years to come (plus I would have loved to have borne witness to the beauty that I’m certain she became).
During the 1970’s in the Connecticut area kids got their education on Tarzan from weekly Sunday afternoon screenings of films about him on New York’s Channel 5 — and the seldom seen reruns of the Ron Ely television series from the 1960’s which was pretty good — and I can honestly say I saw all of them, but the details of many of the earlier entries faded from my childhood memories and were only awakened and really understood when seen again from a grownup perspective. Cases in point: TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932) and even more so TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934), both films from before the hypocrisy and bullshit of the Hayes code (look that one up on Google; way too much to cover here).
The first two of the MGM Tarzan flicks are violent as hell, politically incorrect to an alarming degree for modern viewers (depictions of Africans back in those days were less than flattering, to say the least), and surprisingly hot when it came to the Tarzan and Jane romance. What really blows me away upon seeing the MGM entries nowadays is how wrong I was in my original assessment of the films; as a child I loved them but upon getting older and reading creator Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels I was shocked to find the jungle lord was extremely articulate, fluent in several languages (French was his first non-simian tongue), and that Jane was a blonde American rather than the British brunette of the movies, and I perceived those deviations from the source material to be both insulting and a flagrant example of dumbing down some really great stuff. Well lemme tell ya, sometimes things that are altered for the movies can work out to be exactly right for the onscreen medium.
The casting of non-actor and badass of the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, Johnny Weissmuller, proved to be brilliant since his Tarzan exhibited an animal wariness and athletic physicality that I honestly do not believe could have been gotten across by a stage or screen thespian. And don’t get me started on the absolute perfection of Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane; here was a love interest who was not only utterly lovely, but she was every bit as savvy and fearless as Tarzan (once she said “fuck civilization” and started swinging through the trees), and was also the kind of lady that guys just plain love and unless some ass-kicking on a rubber crocodile or rallying of an elephant herd was needed, Jane was pretty much the brains of the operation. Pretty radical for the 1930’s, I think.
The first two of the MGM Tarzan flicks really focus on Jane and her rebirth as a “natural” woman after accompanying her father on a quest for the mythical “Elephant’s Graveyard,” a site that exists on a remote African plateau that also happens to be the home of Tarzan. In TARZAN THE APE MAN our nature boy abducts Jane from the safari, strictly out of innocent curiosity, and when he hauls her up to his tree home Jane is terrified — as is the audience — when it appears that Tarzan’s rough attentions are a preamble to rape rather than a desire to check out someone who is obviously different from him, different in a way that he has never encountered since he is the only human where he resides (or so we are supposed to believe, despite an abundance of black people all over the goddamned place). Jane soon realizes that she is in no danger, and begins to warm to the ape-man, openly voicing how hot she thinks he is and her relief at the fact that she can make such statements since he can’t understand her nattering in English. The smoldering gazes between the two are volcanic in their heat, and pretty soon Tarzan scoops Jane into his arms, looks up at his tree and nods to her as if to ask “Are you feeling this too?” Jane buries her face in his neck in silent agreement and the two retire to the arboreal love-nest, at which point the scene fades out and the screen goes dark for a surprisingly long time…
When next we see Jane, she is unusually relaxed for a 1930’s movie heroine and embraces the Big Guy while blatantly expressing her obvious pleasure in his unrefined charms. It’s plain to even the most obtuse member of the audience that the Beast With Two Backs has been made, and by the time the story winds up Jane has ditched both the British stiff who digs her and the British notion of modest social propriety in general for the wild life with her loincloth-clad Lothario (and his chimp companion Cheeta).
The sequel, TARZAN AND HIS MATE, is considered by many — including your humble Bunche — to be the best Tarzan movie ever made, and is chock full of all the excitement, sex and violence that one could want in a movie even by today’s standards, so when it came out back in 1934 it raised a major ruckus. This time around, a party of irritating British shitheads arrive at Tarzan’s escarpment with the intention of returning Jane to England since there is no way that any sane white woman would enjoy being out in the wilds of Africa, what with all the animals, heat, negroes, and that smelly, yodeling white guy in the leather banana-hammock. Well, they are in for a big shock when after hiking up the dangerous mountain face for the first half-hour of the movie, they find Jane not only happy to the point of lunacy, but also clad in as little as Hollywood would permit in 1934, an immodest state that she doesn’t even notice since she’s having the time of her life and has absolutely no intention of fucking up such a good thing by going back to Blighty (I told she was smart!).
On the other hand, Tarzan is proven to be an attentive, playful and considerate lover, and since he does not bear the taint of uptight Western bullshit-as-values he is not jealous of the former suitor of Jane’s who has lead the expedition to find her since he knows that they are perfect mates and that nothing short of death could part them. Tarzan’s almost entirely silent love for his woman is truly powerful to behold, and when both characters are looked at as archetypes for both genders — the non-verbal he-man type and the talkative nurturer — their enduring appeal can be readily understood, an appeal made that much more interesting by the plainly illustrated fact that Jane is obviously the real power in their dynamic.
The thing really stuns modern viewers when they see TARZAN AND HIS MATE is the obvious sexual and loving relationship shared by the protagonists, and the fact that such a situation was seen in a major Hollywood film from 1934. There are a couple of scenes wherein we encounter our heroes after a night of flaming osh-osh and Jane is sexily nude under some sort of animal skin, lovingly gushing to Tarzan, and let us not forget the infamous nude swim scene in the river where we see a crystal clear bare-assed Jane (another Olympic swimmer doubling for Maureen O’Sullivan) and the lord of the jungle innocently frolicking together in the same way that couples do if they happen to be nude and not engaged in the aforementioned flaming osh-osh. I could go on about all of this, but I’d like to let the following user comment from the Internet Movie Database say it all for me:
Author: (firstname.lastname@example.org) from Lincoln, Nebraska, 2/2/2005
“Subversive in 1934: A Liberated woman and a man who loves her.
Hard to believe, perhaps, but this film was denounced as immoral from more pulpits than ANY OTHER FILM produced prior to the imposition of the bluenose Hayes Code. Yes indeed, priests actually told their flocks that anyone who went to see this film was thereby committing a mortal sin.
I'm not making this up. They had several reasons, as follows:
Item: Jane likes sex. She and Tarzan are shown waking up one morning in their treetop shelter. She stretches sensuously, and with a coquettish look she says, "Tarzan, you've been a bad boy!" So they've not only been having sex, they've been having KINKY sex! (A few years later, under the Hays Code, people weren't supposed to be depicted as enjoying sex, especially women.)
Item: Jane prefers a guileless, if wise and resourceful, savage (Tarzan) to a civilized, respectable nine-to-five man (Holt). When Holt at first wows her with a pretty dress from London, she wavers a bit; when Holt tries to kill Tarzan, and Holt and Jane both believe he's dead, she wavers a lot. But when she realizes her man is very much alive, the attractions of civilization vanish for her. And why not? Tarzan and Jane's relationship is egalitarian: He lacks the "civilized" insecurity that would compel him to assert himself as "the head of his wife". To boot, he lacks many more "civilized" hang-ups, for example jealousy. When Holt and his buddy arrive, Tarzan greets them both cordially, knowing perfectly well that Holt is Jane's old flame. When Holt gets her dolled up in a London dress and is slow dancing with her to a portable phonograph, Tarzan drops out of a tree, and draws his knife. Jealous? Nope. He's merely cautious toward the weird music machine, since he's never seen one before. Once it's explained, he's cool.
Item: Civilized Holt is dirty minded. Savage Tarzan is innocently sexy. As Jane slips into Holt's lamp lit tent, Holt gets off on watching her silhouette as she changes into the fancy dress. By contrast, after Tarzan playfully pulls the dress off, kicks her into the swimming hole and dives in after her, there follows the most tastefully erotic nude scene in all cinema: the pair spends five minutes in a lovely water ballet. (The scene was filmed in three versions--clothed, topless and nude--the scene was cut prior to the film's release, but the nude version is restored in the video now available.) And when Jane emerges, and Cheetah the chimp steals her dress just for a tease, Jane makes it clear that her irritation is only because of the proximity of "civilized" men and their hang-ups. Where is the "universal prurience" so dear to the hearts of seminarians? Nowhere, that's where. Another reason why this film is sinful.
Item: The notion that man is the crown of creation, and animals are here only for man's use and comfort, takes a severe beating. Holt and his buddy want to be guided to the "elephant graveyard" so they can scoop up the ivory and take it home. They want Tarzan to guide them to said graveyard. You, reader, are thinking "Fat chance!" and you're right. He's shocked. He exclaims "Elephants SLEEP!" which to him explains everything. Jane explains Tarzan's feelings, which the two "gentlemen" find ridiculous.
Item: Jane, the ex-civilized woman, is far more resourceful than the two civilized men she accompanies. Holt and buddy blow it, and find themselves besieged by hostile tribes and wild animals. It is Jane who maintains her cool. While the boys panic, she takes charge, barks orders at them and passes out the rifles.
Item: Jane's costume is a sort of poncho with nothing underneath. (The original idea was for her to be topless, with foliage artistically blocking off her nipples, which indeed is the case in one brief scene.)
Lastly, several men of the cloth complained because the film was called "Tarzan and His Mate" rather than "Tarzan and His Wife." Maybe that was the whole point of the title!
Of course, Tarzan, who has been nursed back to health by his ape friends, comes to the rescue, routs the white hunters, and induces the pack elephants and African bearers to return the ivory they stole to the sacred place whence it came. The End.
So there you have it. An utterly subversive film. Like all the other films about complex and interesting women (see, e.g., Possessed with Rita Hayworth and Raymond Massey) which constituted such a flowing genre in the early 30's and which were brought to such an abrupt end by the adoption of the Hays Code.
The joie de vivre of this film is best expressed by Jane's soprano version of the famous Tarzan yell. A nice touch, which was unfortunately abandoned in future productions.
Let's hear it for artistic freedom, feminist Jane, and sex.”
Very eloquently stated, I think, and how can you not immediately want to see a film condemned by The Church?
So yesterday, after having a great non-barbecue lunch at the lower East Side’s esteemed Crif Dogs (a repast of two chili dogs and a side of tater tots), I bought the Tarzan DVD set and have set about enjoying my two days off by watching Tarzan flicks until I go mad in an effort to restore my faith in humanity; it is now 4:07 AM on Tuesday morning, and I’m still at it, and ya know what? These journeys to that otherworldly cinematic Africa are doing me a lot of good, and I hope to someday find the right Jane to complement my own inimitable Tarzan.
Wish me luck.