Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943)

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 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.

Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943, RKO)

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.

Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943, RKO)

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.

Advertisements

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.

Review- African Cats

African Cats (DisneyNature)

Ever since the inception of DisneyNature there has been a social awareness angle to all their nature documentaries due in part to the fact that during these films initial week of theatrical release a portion of the box office has gone support a wildlife conservation fund. This social awareness has in the previous three films crept into the narrative but this film avoids that self-conciousness, which is good. They’ve realized that almost any nature documentary has an environmental aspect now regardless of your conservationist and/or Global Climate Change stance, especially when you release the film on Earth Day.

What’s not as good is that cinematically it doesn’t stack up to prior installments. There are quite a few reasons for this.

It almost goes without saying that the cinematography in this film is great. If you’re making a nature doc and you don’t have at least a few breathtaking shots and a handful of “How’d you get that?” shots you haven’t really done your job. In some cases it could’ve been better in terms of working with the edit and clarifying action and sometimes shots were intimated at by narration that didn’t exist.

The only reason I bring the comparative aspect of it into play is that a) this is the same team that brought Earth to the screen and b) the films in this series regardless of director have shared some similar traits in construction.

One of the larger issues the film faces is balancing the amount of narration to include. It seems as if there was too much included and it makes me wonder is there was more written simply because they knew Samuel L. Jackson was going to be reading it. Many times in the film I mentally omitted extraneous portions of narration. Far too many times for it to not be bothersome.

Aside from the sheer amount of dialogue that was included there were scripting issues such as not naming any of Kali’s, a powerful lion, sons.

Perhaps this decision was made due to the fact that this is a film that was dealing both with cheetahs and lions and there were two rival factions of lions to include. The balancing act between the two, or three really, was quite precarious and the overlap was very minimal. This is unfortunate not only because the cheetah’s tale, which I found to be more interesting, got the short shrift.

This film is at times a moving an intimate portrait of wildlife on the African Savanna that only slightly miscalculated the use of some of its elements. It, while focusing on cats, did manage to include many other species that inhabit the area and convey information about their behavioral and migratory patterns.

African Cats is well worth viewing both for entertainment and altruistic purposes but it just falls short of maximizing its potential.

7/10