Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan Triumphs (1943)

One thing that you can more readily see in hindsight is what I’ve been examining most consistently through the course of this series of posts is the shape of a franchise. With Tarzan’s Secret Treasure what RKO seemed to be trying to do was as closely emulate the MGM Tarzan films as they could. What occurred in Tarzan Triumphs is that they were much closer to making it an RKO film. Now, it has been widely reported and agreed upon that RKO, unlike, say MGM and Warners, did not have a signature style in the studio era; so I suppose what I really mean is that they came closer to making it a well-crafted B-Film that had as much if not more fun than MGM packed in and less shimmer.

One shrewd move that RKO made when assuming the mantle of the series was to put off re-introducing a re-cast Jane. Ultimately the new actress playing Jane was put behind the eight ball by the parts written for her. The fact that she was not Maureen O’Hara, or even a reasonable facsimile, also hurt greatly.

So the transition to a more RKO-friendly formulation was as of yet imperfect and would be bettered for the next installment. The quickening pace of production also became even more apparent here as this is one of two releases from 1943. Weissmuller assumed the role from 1932 to 1948 and this was the only year in the whole run when there were two releases in a calendar year.

Tarzan Triumphs (1943, RKO)

So, yes, this is the (in)famous installment when Tarzan does do battle with the Nazis. As silly as that can be, as inconsistent as the German and/or English accents, as vaguely as said Nazis are clad; those aren’t the biggest issues. Some of the biggest troubles are the same as they ever are. 10 minutes in, and what has actually happened? They met a new character but no inciting incident really occurs. An “Iron Bird” makes its ominous appearance but they everything is OK for another minute or two.

To this film’s credit, it does accurately portray Tarzan. He more often than not in the series wants to just live and let live. He doesn’t want outsiders in his land and also doesn’t want to fight just because. “Why Tarzan kill Nazis?” In a propaganda era the temptation to have him forget these ideals may prove too large. However, they stood firm. Tarzan only fights when Boy is taken, “Now Tarzan make war.”

Yet, through that consistency there are some odd changes. Namely the instances in the two-film absence of Jane there are some awkward, uncomfortable sequences where Tarzan must ally himself with a woman from another tribe, which is handled fairly platonically, until for reasons unknown, Boy prods Tarzan to swim or engage in other activity that’s fairly flirtatious, especially during the Code. This being the same Boy who’s been raised believing Jane has been his mother. It’s quite odd to say the least.

Tarzan Triumphs (1943, RKO)

The film ultimately falls into a sequel trap wherein the writing seems to try to shoehorn in things the audiences like and expect. What do we do now? What do they want it, and how do we give them more of it?

While it is good that here Tarzan does start to have friendly interactions with other tribes, and is not always keeping “unruly savages” in check. An odd habit does develop of casting other caucasian actors, not making any attempt to disguise their ethnicity in make-up and simultaneously giving them no backstory, or even making comment as to why they’re in the jungle. Particularly when Tarzan battles Nazis this is a missed opportunity and more than a bit unfortunate. It’s hard to believe that the next film would be RKO’s zenith but sure enough it was, even after all this.

Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)

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. Previous posts in this and other series can be found here.

Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)

From reading some on the series, not exhaustively mind you, but I have seen mention that Maureen O’Sullivan was known to be playing Jane for the last time in this film, which is understandable. It’s understandable that an actress of her talent would want to move on to something else – in this case to devote time to her actual family offscreen. For as well as she played Jane, and as well as the writers consistently crafted her part, the need for a change can be tolerated. Similarly, the need to change venue from the escarpment can be accepted. It’s almost like airing out a play when adapting it for film. A play tends to be mostly interiors and focused on having a unity of time and space as much as possible dating back to Ancient Greece. Film by its nature needs more room in time and space.

However, it’s what done in light of these facts that isn’t all that great, along with some ancillary fumbles that take an idea with potential and makes it a sad miss. Most notably the sequences in New York don’t do great with the fish-out-of-water aspect, and introduce maybe more unfortunate racial attitudes than were ever displayed in the jungle. Even if you’re inclined to let that slide understanding it came with the time, it’s further jarring because, at least when O’Sullivan played her, Jane was a very progressive woman for the era, living in the jungle and all she willingly left behind – so being shown other antiquated attitudes stands out more.

Which brings us to one of the few bright spots this film has and it is, oddly enough, the courtroom sequence. Here both Jane and Tarzan get to speak and stake their claim to boy. It gives O’Sullivan the chance to perhaps display more range with her character than she ever did. Seeing as how in protecting Boy’s interests she makes mistakes and reels from them. Tarzan is allowed a few philosophical insights on the stand and is prodded to the point of rage and attacking the prosecutor. It’s most definitely Weissmuller’s best turn as the character. It also marks another progression as Tarzan is now more vocal than ever in part because he has to be but that has developed well throughout.

Tarzan's New York Adventure (MGM, 1942)

However, much of the sequences outside the escarpment do nothing great or exciting. As the series grew longer the running times grew shorter, but the task of crafting a good Tarzan film didn’t get easier because it seems in some installments more filler was added rather than substance, and this film is a prime example of that.

Now, I have been purposely exploring narrative patterns and some other themes that run through the series without annotating each post with a score simply because I wanted more focus on these areas as opposed to the good or bad. Similar thoughts have come to me when I tackled other series’ in the past. The precise number I’d rate it was almost an afterthought because I wanted to discuss certain things regardless of what side of the good/bad paradigm the film fell. So without bringing it up until we get to that film: there will be another good one and this is not it.

The filler, which in this film was a lot of Cheetah alone both on the escarpment and in New York was usually just her. In the plot I only noted one occasion where Cheetah’s involvement was both necessary and helpful. In production she was most helpful as she got the three leads quite a bit of time off while the camera rolled on random monkey crap.

Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942, MGM)

The naïveté and messing up of Boy landing him in trouble rears its head again. This a well that was went back to far too often with his character being too slow on the uptake. Many of the films were very concerned with how white men would try and fool or convince Tarzan who rightly grew more skeptical as the films moved on. Boy sadly got to repeat the exact same tropes too many times over. There are rare flashes of growth in his character later on that are a breath of fresh air. To be fair, he is spirited away in the end but it’s his naïveté that gets him into the situation.

Aside from the courtroom sequence the best aspect of the film is definitely the fact that, despite Tarzan seeming more able to cope with civilization than he should, Jane most definitely take the lead in their search for Boy throughout New York.

Essentially what this film hoped was that a few different setpieces while others were re-fenestrated would be enough to make it feel truly different without the film ever getting there. Essentially it started to feel like MGM was really just churning the series out at this point and it ending there was just fine. The films not only got shorter but got less score. I remember at one point when the score came in thinking “Oh, there’s the music.” Music was far more present in the first three. At this point if the series was to continue, which it did, it turning around to RKO was not necessarily a bad thing.

Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941)

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.

With this installment of the series there are a few things at play: Most naturally this is yet another incident wherein naiveté brings the outside world in. Now here Boy is fairly young and the mistake is more forgivable and understandable. As the series progresses they’d return to that theme with varying degrees of success. Now, while there is some progression with him (we see him learning to write) the evolution of the nuclear family trilogy is stunted here with the inclusion of Bomba, a young native boy, who doesn’t serve a lot of purpose and ends up disappearing. So the natural progression that occurs in the first three films doesn’t quite happen here either.

The introduction of gold to the landscape and what is says about civilization versus jungle life is a good touch and a natural choice. There were always only going to be so many stories you could tell surrounding the elephant’s graveyard anyway. What ends up plaguing the film is a lot of time divided and Bomba’s inclusion, and his tribe, is only a small part of it; there’s still the time-wasting animal play and a long stasis to start the film off wherein some strange advances in their living quarters are made such as makeshift refrigeration and caviar being eaten.

Perhaps some of the issue, as mentioned prior, was there was a greater rush to release new films now that there was a child included. There was more time between prior installments refining the respective tales.

With regards to the minute touches a few of them work out well. Finally, there is a matte painting of the escarpment introduced to give us a visual reference point, the hostile tribe is a new one. Boy is rescued by party of outsiders which bucks a tend, Tarzan’s call here changes from the one used in the beginning of the series, and Tarzan helps the outsiders out of a sense of gratefulness.

The ratio of decent outsiders is the same as ever and even the good one is quite the annoying caricature only good for the occasional punchline or set-up. There will be some later installments too threadbare to be that great, this one spilts its time to greatly with events of lesser consequence. Sadly, while the trio of Weismuller, O’Sullivan and Sheffield are together they don’t have that great closer and solidification of the family unit anew like the first three films did. And I say that in terms of quality. Tarzan’s New York Adventure plays the part of that capper but has its own failings which I will discuss. Here certain aspects and characters are up and others falter as is par for the course in the long run of these representations. Few ever run on all cylinders but one is coming down the line.

Tarzan Thursday – Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)

As I mentioned in the last post, this film begins a new chapter in the trajectory of this franchise while at MGM. There was a trilogy-style approach to consolidating Jane and Tarzan’s relationship, and now, the next step would be to throw a child into the mix. While it can be said to mirror Tarzan’s beginnings (Beginnings ignored by the MGM series, and perhaps adding allure, legend and mystique to the character), the introduction of Boy is also a fairly Code-friendly affair. He is found, and not conceived, even though he’s scarcely more than a newborn.

The appeal of the series to younger audiences was likely already clinched: there was a foreign land, action, adventure, animals, and now a reflection of their age group on screen; a presence through which the viewer can live vicariously. What this second phase of films may not have in originality and quality it tries to make up for in this added layer of identification.

With a younger character/cast member being added to the mix the production schedule ramped up, this also likely has much to do with MGM trying to get all they could out of the franchise (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) but I’m sure that having this added element contributed. The possibility of recasting at some point is dangerous, it hung like a pall over the Harry Potter series during renegotiations and production slow-downs, and a maximization of efforts are needed. Not that there appears to be as much of a master plan to the films to follow, but still the desire for more frequent output existed.

While the film adds a new element, and creates a new dynamic, the narrative framework of the film is not that unlike that in the first three. Eventually, relations of Boy’s show up. There is an inheritance plot, there is one altruistic relative who wants what’s best for him and two who are conniving.

The climactic sequences are also not that unlike prior installments: the conniving of the ‘civilized’ white folks is interfered with by native who imperil all and Tarzan comes to the rescue.

The welcome additions to the lore in this version are in the more minute details. As a whole, the bones of this story stay the same. In a certain way, the troubles that are faced by these latter installments is finding balance when a necessary new element/character is introduced. Many of the old hat time-killers (swimming, stock footage of animals, inconsequential bits of comedy by Cheetah, etc.) are still overly-present and divide time with even more principal players. Again, my having previously skipped parts and missed some may lead to finding some surprises (one of the most glaring missing titles is coming up). It just seems, in general terms, during the elongation of the series, where more creativity was needed to rise up to story challenges, what occurred instead was uninspired formula and at times apathy.

Tarzan Thursday – Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

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. Previous posts in this and other series can be found here.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Here is another case wherein I honestly am quite glad to be revisiting the series chronologically. In earlier viewings I not only skipped this film but saw later ones out of order. It’s hard for me to argue that this installment is better than its predecessor, but it is rather impressive.

It does take its time easing you in. Once again it makes its title character’s presence scarce in the first 20 minutes or so. Instead, what we are introduced to is an outside party’s trip into the jungle seeking a return to the elephant graveyard and a bounty of ivory. These two white men carry a torch for Jane and it’s her first contact with them in some time. This allows her to be rather conflicted between comforts of her old life and the happy simplicity she now enjoys.

It’s also great to find this film in this set, if not in its intended form, then closer to it than previously screened. The infamously altered skinny dip of O’Sullivan is in this cut, but overall there’s a very Pre-Code take to this tale that seems a step beyond “figuraitve literalness” to being very overt as both men make their plays for her affections quite openly.

So far as Tarzan’s character goes, while he is still written fairly monosyllabically there is an arcing toward a more vocal character and the words chosen for him are chosen well; “Always is gone” and the response at the end have a great significance and are wonderful touches.

There is the introduction of music to Tarzan’s character, but on the more visceral side the fights are better staged and the blend of actual trained animals, dummies and rear projection looks to be about as seamless as the era could produce.

The villainy sets itself up early and rears its head when it matters most and thankfully on the animal side of the equation, whereas later on Cheetah serves more as a prop, comic relief and/or distraction here his presence is vital, which is another nice touch. Most second installments to series are disappointments but the second MGM Tarzan is an exception.

Tarzan Thursday – Tarzan Escapes

Being a modern film viewer it’s at times difficult to realize that everything that’s old is new again, and that’s understandable. Especially in an Internet age we are now as film fans not only diving into the minutiae of new releases but also future releases such that patterns that developed in the past may be lost through the vast landscape of film history.

What prompts me to bring this up is that going through these Tarzan releases now in some semblance of order, as going through any series will, has brought to the forefront certain patterns. Of course, as you traverse a series you will invariably find the specific formula therein, but here there also seems to be a design that’s fairly modern. The first three films of the MGM Tarzan series for a sort of trilogy wherein the union of Tarzan and Jane is formed, then tested and finally solidified.

Now, this is going purely on narrative and not based on the studio’s intent. I’m sure that MGM always wanted to propagate the series so long as it was profitable. It’s just the master plan was not necessarily there before the release of the first. However, that hardly matters since this is the way the first three films did play out. They did end up forming a trilogy where Tarzan and Jane constantly have to battle external forces to be and stay together.

However, as the films remained popular and MGM still wanted to make them after three films they recognized the need to move on storywise, which is why in part four is where you find the introduction of Boy. As the MGM legacy progressed to amass twelve films the series would invariably become increasingly about outside forces threatening the escarpment, Tarzan’s domain and him by extension, to the extent that they nearly become proto-environmentalist tales in many cases. The series would also eventually, naturally have Tarzan leave, if only for a time, and even engage in propaganda battling Nazis, which I believe is the last of the four in this run I’ve not seen.

This installment is also perfect proof of why I didn’t want to write this series up in typical review format, because sure enough here Iatched on to a thread that illustrated the design of the franchise as opposed to how well this particular installment functioned within and without it. Having said that, it is an enjoyable albeit somewhat more predictable rendition of prior versions. There are some small wrinkles and twists that keep it fresh enough to be entertaining. However, it does become far more interesting when you see how it works in the grand design of the character’s trajectory with MGM.

Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan The Ape Man (1932)

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.

If there’s one thing that’s beneficial about viewing, and in many cases revisiting, installments in the Tarzan film adaptations it’s that by viewing the Weissmuller-starring MGM-produced versions I now get a sense for that series. Before, having skipped certain installments and gone out of order, some patterns harder to pick up on, yet some traits were easy to pick up, like the sudden vanishing of Jane’s presence as a forward-thinking character when Maureen O’Sullivan was replaced.

Now, at long last, I viewed Tarzan The Ape Man and began the series properly. I must say that I am most impressed with how this series starts off. Everything that had been intimated about Jane in sequel shorthand is firmly entrenched here. Furthermore, the commitment to building character is so strong that Tarzan, the titular character, is absent from the entire first act. His signature call is heard a few times off-screen, disembodied and creates a chilling effect for an audience that does not know the story that will unfold after his introduction.

My feelings about O’Sullivan, the writing she seemingly demanded, and the performances she gives, was solidified by seeing this entry now. Tarzan’s progression towards “Noble Savage” is very slight in this film. Jane really is the conduit to the audience’s understanding about this character’s nature. We must see and feel through her eyes and that link is so well-forged and so strong in this film that it makes for a rather engaging and emotional experience.

Perhaps what’s the biggest pleasant surprise of the film is that Tarzan, and the nature of his character, becomes the focus of the story and the MacGuffin, the mission that the hunters and/or other white men embark upon truly takes a backseat. As seen through the spectrum of this film, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the films play out, if any differently.

Tarzan Thursday – Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

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.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and copyright laws, the very first screen appearance of Tarzan is available to any and all who want it legally and free of charge. It’s also an interesting historical footnote as this was one of the earlier, quicker adaptations of very popular literature; appearing just six years after the character was introduced to the public.

Any film of a certain era can be referred to as dated. To me it’s a fairly weak, simplistic argument. Very few films are truly of the vanguard and ahead of their time. What needs to be taken into consideration is how does it function for the era and the kind of film it was. In silents, less titles are better; conversely if you feel you’re needing titles that too could be an issue.

This film gets by a lot of the time without needing them, but is sadly a little heavy on them. Unfortunately, there is also some hokey writing within them like a few references to his “little English brain” longing for things more akin to what a civilized white man would desire, when he never had any such frame of reference.

However, the version I saw was a little over an hour long, and though the titles helped it breeze through, it could’ve stood a bit more running time. This truncation only hurts minimally though as the story does ends up being a pretty brisk, entertaining and coherent origin.

Tarzan is played at two ages: by Gordon Griffith when he is young and Elmo Lincoln as a man. Griffith was one of the first young stars of the cinema and it’s clear why. He carries the first half of the film mostly on his own without any real scene partners. His expressiveness is, of course, influenced by screen acting conventions of the era, but exploits them to great effect. Similarly, Lincoln seems to have a great following among those who are great fans of the character, and it’s apparent why also.

Returning briefly to the concept of being dated, the only two times that became terribly apparent in ways that weren’t just about it being silent cinema were in one or two prejudiced/racist title cards and the very obvious (though not terrible) gorilla suits. Otherwise, it’s actually fairly easy to lose yourself in this story, and a perfect way to kick off this retrospective.