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.

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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 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.