NOTE TO LONGTIME READERS: parts of this post are cribbed from an earlier piece on Tarzan flicks that ran a couple of years ago and are used here as a time-saving means by Yer Bunche, so if some of this seems familiar give yourself a fish.
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.
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 twelve of his films ranging from the early 1932 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.
In the Connecticut area during the 1970’s, kids got their education on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ seminal pulp hero, Tarzan the ape man, 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 MGM 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.
1932's TARZAN THE APE MAN: not the first of the Tarzan flicks, but the one that helped define the genre and its elements/clichés.
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 — the inaccessible Mutier escarpment — 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 before long 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 (Neil Hamilton, the guy who some thirty-odd years later would go on to play Commissioner Gordon opposite Adam West as Batman) 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 Yer 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 — short of up-close-and-pink imagery of Jane getting righteously plowed by the jungle lord — so when it came out back in 1934 it raised a major ruckus. This time around, a party of irritating British shitheads (including kicked-to-the-curb Commissioner Gordon) 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 escarpment face for the first half-hour of the movie, they find Jane not only happy to the point of near-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 you she was smart!).
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 bare 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 (Maureen O’Sullivan doubled by an Olympic swimming champion) 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 the simple fact of the matter is that we are witness to this couple’s charming and prurience-free intimacy and the plainly expressed joy they take in each other’s company, something that religious figures at the time had a real problem with and actually told their flocks that they’d go straight to Hell if they mustered up the temerity to see such a work of vile filth.
Also causing ire was the fact that the film was entitled TARZAN AND HIS MATE, seemingly rubbing the viewer’s nose in the fact that Tarzan and Jane were — shock and indignation!!! — not married. Well the nay-sayers can fuck themselves in the ear; what the two have is what students of myth call a “sacred marriage,” a joining that needs no sanction by a church because it’s pure and right in the first place, and more often than not a union of a deity and a mortal. While not explicitly stated to be a deity, the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan is a presence at one with nature in a way that’s about as close to mystical as you can get, and is in many ways a personification of the essence of “Man,” and unlike his literary source apparently has no origin; Weissmuller’s Tarzan lives in a mountainous plain that’s nearly impossible for outsiders to reach, yet has all the same flora and fauna of the Africa of our world and may be that Campbellesque mythic realm into which heroes must venture to be tested and forged before they can return home and use their new-found skills for the benefit of their people. But this Tarzan has no people (unless you count his legion of loyal animal peeps), and the local natives accept him as having simply just been there like some force of nature, so for all we know he could be some solitary equivalent to the forest spirits found in many of the world’s myth systems, and Jane is his human bride, the element that serves as a bridge between himself and the “civilized” world, whether he likes it or not. As we shall see in subsequent films, outsiders are constantly showing up atop the escarpment to fuck up Tarzan and Jane’s — and later Boy’s — isolationist paradise, and those douchebags usually come out of it much the worse for wear.
Sorry, again I digress. I’m starting to over-analyze movies that are meant to be no more than fun, escapist entertainment, so I’ll cut that shit out right now.
So, by way of critical assessment, I’d have to steer you straight toward TARZAN AND HIS MATE, a film that is in every way the Tarzan movie equivalent to what THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was to the original STAR WARS flick. It’s more or less a remake of its predecessor, only with a bigger budget and just plain more of everything that made the original work. Also TARZAN AND HIS MATE is just a little further removed from the silent movie era and its style of filmmaking, so gone are the loooooong pauses between some of the dialog, and the acting isn’t quite as arch. It’s quite suspenseful, graphically violent and sexy as well, so what’s not to like? And while it’s not a bad film by any means, TARZAN THE APE MAN is worth seeing nowadays solely to see the debuts of Weissmuller and O’Sullivan’s indelible takes on their characters, and for the great sequences of Tarzan and Jane first getting to know one another. But TRUST YER BUNCHE and experience them back-to-back in order to note how far apart the two films are in the way they’re crafted. Considering that scarcely two years had passed between the release of the original and the sequel, there’s marked improvement evident. UMGAWA!!!