Last year the character of Tarzan celebrated his 100th year in print. A serialized version of the story first appeared in 1912. A hardcover collection of Tarzan of the Apes first appeared in 1914. Being in the middle of the Tarzan centennial period it’s an opportune time to (re)visit many of the screen renditions of the character. Previous posts in this and other series can be found here.
Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943)
In many ways this was the title that inspired not only a chronological viewing of the Weissmuller titles but much of the impetus behind the entire series. I had heard good things about this and/or Triumphs so I was anxious to see this one a first time. Sure enough whether you come into the title cold, or you watch it in its rightful place in the series is a joyous revelation to behold. Not only does Tarzan’s Desert Mystery firmly embrace a B movie ethos here, and feel more firmly in an RKO mode than any other title, but if you follow the entire series it either repurposes tropes or uses them to maximum effect in this film. I lost track of how many times while watching it I saw a seemingly familiar instance or set-up not only followed-through, but done so in a beautifully satisfying manner.
One of the main sins of the series that is rectified here is that it hardly wastes a second through the entirety of the feature. The late-MGM and early RKO films were shorter as a rule but still had the same fillers, not so here. Perhaps it was destiny that this was the one that would work the best since the initial Wiessmuller trilogy. The studio took a flyer on writing Jane out: she is still nursing wounded soldiers at war, but the MacGuffin (Yes, there’s a MacGuffin in this film) is a journey by Tarzan and Boy for medicine.
One of the principal causes of wasted screentime in the past was Cheetah. However, in this film Cheetah not only comes to the rescue at a crucial point but is instrumental throughout. Rather than just being a kleptomaniac, and a bit of comic relief; Cheetah more frequently is an active participant in a Lassie-like mold and aids the heroes of the tale.
With some subdued conflict this film also addresses the father-son dynamic of Tarzan and Boy fairly well. Boy’s lie here is that Jane insists he go on the trip, though Jane is instructing he should not. Boy being the one who can read tries to use that to his advantage. Tarzan, knowing Jane and what she thinks is best for Boy, tries to keep him home. Eventually Boy’s will wins out and that is a great thing for the film also as it doesn’t split time having him chase down Tarzan or getting in some other bit of trouble. They start out on the same footing as equals.
Another massive boon to the film is Nancy Kelly in the role of Connie Brice. While she’s introduced in the only scene that feels it’s going to serve next to no purpose save for showing off a magic trick that, too, is quickly fixed. She plays the archetypal fast-talking dame and has other qualities that make her character, and her interpretation thereof, a wonderful addition to the film. The amount of intrigue she adds to the plot is spectacular. Not to mention that the conniving plots of the villains never really take a backseat and is always a real and present danger, and of impact in the story.
Nothing is out of place in this film. Even when there’s something weird and seemingly frivolous like a seemingly poorly scaled rear projection image, a turban theft or a jailing, things are paid off left and right there’s clearly thought behind everything in the writing and the performances.
Not only that but this movie is ridiculously fun to watch. It’s crowd-pleasing aspects drench it and still radiate off the screen to this very day. Having traversed the series anew my expectations were corrected, but even thinking back to where they (the expectations) had been this blew those right out of the water regardless. Can I claim it’s the definitive Tarzan film? No, probably not for a lack of Jane, but in latter-day terms of the Weissmuller era there was likely little if anything that could’ve been done to better it. It’s great and will likely stand as one of my favorite older films of the year.