Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948)

Introduction

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.

Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948)

So as I alluded to in the last post Tarzan and the Mermaids, aside from being the last Weissmuller Tarzan, also changed some trends up. So what exactly is different? Well, there are a few things:

Firstly, Boy (Johnny Sheffield) is written out of this edition. “Boy is away at school in England,” Jane says to let the audience know. The problem with these writing-outs is they are paradoxically more interesting tales. Jane nursing soldiers; Boy being educated in the UK would’ve made interesting asides or cutaways. Thus, if you could’ve re-cast or convinced the actors to take smaller parts it would’ve been a great wrinkle to add to the tale.

As it happened that was the only mention though, it was very much a writing out. Coincidentally, Sheffield’s only other steady acting gig was as a Jungle Man, named Bomba (another coincidence), whom he played as many times as Weissmuller played Tarzan.

The issues with this last installment can be summarized by saying that the great Dmitiri Tiomkin’s score is the best part of this film. The smallest issues is that they’re rehashing the forbidden/secret society mold. As useful as it ends up being, there is a very long expository voice-over to start the film. It’s as if the whole production was a contractual obligation to everyone involved and Weissmuller and Joyce sought as little screentime as possible.

Whereas previously a matte painting of the escarpment was a major reveal, as the series progressed it went further and further in mapping Tarzan’s environs and neighbors. Here there is a tracking shot across a fictional map to the island in question near the start. This is a highlight, which illustrates what a wasteful experience this really is in the end.

The natives finally all seem to be “of color,” which is an amazing advance, and the heroics are helping the two star-crossed lovers from the island find each other again. So how can that be bad? Well, throw in a singing postman who seemingly just flew in from Latin America to sing really long “impromptu” songs about things he sees. No, this isn’t a Family Guy joke, this really happens in this film.

This film doesn’t have a second stasis but it does follow a climactic sequence with a tremendous lull that’s a failure in editorial, tonal, score-spotting and any other number of ways. It’s major lag in the third act acts as false denouement and puts the exclamation point on the complete and total mess this final installment is. It’s rare to see what ended up being the last film in a series so definitively feel like one and so richly deserve to be one. So far as this group was concerned it felt this series was over before this one even really started. And unlike other three-film segments in the series there was no feeling of finality, this film just ended like it started suddenly.

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