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.

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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.

Once Upon a Time in the 80s: Television (Part 11 of 17)

This is a recapitulation of a paper I did in college. This is part eleven in the series to read other parts go here.

As time has moved on the line between television and the movies has become blurred. In the 90s and continuing through until today no TV show is safe from becoming a feature film at some point and with Nick at Nite and TV Land there’s no longer a as much of a generation gap because these shows can be seen by all now. 


The landscape of television changed forever in the 1980s when the Fox Network, headed by Rupert Murdoch, was launched. For a few years they were the butt of jokes but they soon went on to challenge the major networks with shocking, biting, satirical programming such as Married…with Children, The Simpsons, Martin and In Living Color and later even had their own cult phenomenon, The X-Files. Fox busted the monopoly ABC, CBS and NBC had. In the mid-90s The WB, a network by Warner Brothers, and UPN, Paramount, were born, and the WB is currently a tenth of a point out of third in the Nielsen ratings (As of this writing. The WB and UPN have since merged to form the CW). 


Cable television along with MTV, previously discussed, became a reality and by the end of the decade was commonplace in American households. HBO (Home Box Office) along with Ted Turner’s stations TNT (Turner Network Television), TBS (Turner Broadcasting System) and CNN (Cable News Network) gave cable a great appeal, particularly with Turner’s purchase of the MGM film library. HBO’s selection in the beginning was small and obscure, but they slowly began to gain an audience.


Silver Spoons (CBS)

Network television at the beginning of the decade was very interested in affluence, not nocessarily middle class America. There was Dallas, Dynasty, Silver Spoons – then there was a slight change where the rich could help the poor in Diff’rent Strokes which actually did have a social agenda that was immediately copied in Webster. 


Family programming was very important, and was at the top of the ratings for much of the decade with The Cosby Show, ALF, The Facts of Life, a family of sorts, and Family Ties. While Dallas was rolling along in 1982 along came a cross-section of America called Cheers this program was nominated for 117 Emmys during its 11 year run. 


In the later 80s we had two strong-minded and independent women burst on to the small screen in a big way. The first was Candice Bergen playing Murphy Brown; this is one of my favorite shows because of what it could do by having the protagonist be a reporter; the show was always current and always very political. In the early 90s Candice/Murphy got into a public war of words with Dan Quayle who objected to Murphy Brown having a baby out of wedlock. It was a truly intelligent show and every episode worked beautifully and the cast knew how to work as an ensemble. There was also Roseanne, starring a former stand up who described herself as a “domestic goddess,” coupled with The Simpsons she lead the attack of the dysfunctional families. On Roseanne no matter how weird things got we saw they’re just a family like any other. They have different problems and manias but they do love each other.


Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer (1985, DiC)

In the 1980s animation was practically all TV the Looney Toons and Woody Woodpecker were all relegated to re-runs and the half-hour animated program was king and there were some good ones. The always hard to categorize Jim Henson had Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies. Thames Productions brought us some of the most unique programming in this genre with Danger Mouse, a mouse who was a spy and Count Duckula, a vegetarian vampiric duck. There were, of course, mythic heroes like Thundercats, Transformers, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and his sister She-Ra. Most popular cartoon series of the 80s never made it to the big screen in the decade, He-Man did and that was miserable, there was also a Rainbow Brite film, but no Smurfs (yet) or Snorks, and most shockingly, no Thundercats, which was shot like a film with weird angles and was a precursor to the anime craze that was to follow in the 90s.


While television in the 80s catered much more to what mature audiences wanted to see, it also knew what kids wanted to see because many of these shows still air today. Television is always going to be television, you’ll get entertained here and there but you can’t watch too much without realizing it will almost always the same thing in a different package. Every few years something new will come along and really blow you away but that’s it, and sometimes it doesn’t last. TV in the 80s was better than in the 90s because there was something to reflect. There was a social point to make, and on occasion there were serious political happenings that deserved attention. The 90s were just something we made it through and the 80s were a decade people lived through. Needless, to say the best show of the 90s was Seinfeld a self-professed show about nothing a show that dabbled in the minutiae of everyday events, not that it’s not a brilliant show, but it’s also a tremendously apropos reflection of the decade.

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.

Two for Tuesday #1

OK, first of all I realize it’s Wednesday. I may find a way to write and post in anticipation of the day but in order to truly get started I want to watch films on the day of and identify my theme properly and then post. Yesterday it was just too late by the time I would’ve gotten around to it.

Anyway, the idea for Two for Tuesday is just to watch two films, no matter how different they may be. Yesterday’s choices were disparate indeed: they were Mrs. Miniver and the aforementioned feature film cut of Blake of Scotland Yard.

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver (MGM)

This is another film I watched for 31 Days of Oscar. What was frustrating to learn was that this was during a Greer Garson block on TCM wherein her five consecutive best Actress nominations were shown. This is a feat that was only matched once, by Bette Davis. It makes sense to feature Garson, however, because I, like most, am underexposed to her. With Robert Osborne doing the introduction there was much to be learned. First being that the role of Mrs. Miniver was originally offered to Norma Shearer. Shearer didn’t want to play the mother of a fully grown son, as there’s a stigma of being an aged actress attached and thus it was offered to Greer Garson who at the time didn’t want to do it either but didn’t have the clout to turn it down. The age concern was such that Garson according to the studio was 34 but in actuality was 37 at the time. Thankfully she did it and it worked out wonderfully.

This film swept away quite a few Oscars and it’s not a wonder. Suffice it to say I just thought myself brash in guessing it was nominated for 10 Oscars, I underestimated it. It was up for 12 and won six. This film also bears a stamp this time is that of William Wyler. Wyler, who despite winning three Oscars and the Irving G. Thalberg Award doesn’t seem to get as much recognition as a man who has a similar name to him, Billy Wilder. Wyler’s film’s are always well-shot and moreover beautifully framed. This film also has a quiet realistic tension to when Mrs. Miniver (Garson) is held captive in her own house by a wounded German soldier there is no scoring it’s all quite realistically handled. Then there is shockingly good sound design that also makes you flinch as you see the quiet, simple village life disturbed by air raids.

It’s also not a wonder that there was pressure on MGM to get this film released to show the American public what life in Europe was like during the war. It’s also no surprise that this film was added to the National Film Registry in 2009.

There was also the wonderfully woven in subplot of the flower show. This not only demonstrated class differences and stasis in society but as things developed came to symbolize the solidarity of a nation. As Mr. Ballard says “There’ll always be roses.” A beautifully deft and understated way of saying the world will go on and life will persist despite what may try to ravage it. I could go on elaborating the naturalistic-humanistic symbolism of the film ad nauseum but you get the idea.

However, the poetics of the film do not halt there. During one of the first air raids the Mr. (Walter Pidgeon) stay awake as their young children do manage to fall asleep and they discuss their love for, and recite the ending of, Alice in Wonderland. The words made far more haunting and beautiful due to the backdrop and wonderful example of artistic re-appropriation of material.

Christopher Severn, Walter Pidgeon and Calre Sandars in Mrs. Miniver (MGM)


There were also some notable long take and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Wyler allowed the camera to roll a bit to see what his actors did. One example of this, and the genesis of this idea for me, is when Mr. Miniver and his young son Toby (Christopher Severn) and young daughter (Clare Sandars) are looking into one of the rooms of their house after an air raid taking in the damage. they look for quite a bit of time such that it feels like the scene should end but then Toby kicks a piece of rubble over the step and laughs, forcing a smile from his father. Whether improvised or whether this long pause was dictated kudos are still in store for Wyler.

Mrs. Miniver (MGM)

The very ending is also remarkable without giving too much away. There is a great reveal of the roof of the church most of which is missing. Through the hole in the roof can be seen bombers off to another battle as the congregation sings “Onward Christian Soldiers.” You can protest as much as you like about the propagandist nature of this ending or of mixing religion and war but without even involving politics it’s a great piece of cinema that ending.

In the interest of not spoiling too much I avoided the plotline of Vin (Richard Ney) and Carol (Teresa Wright, who also won an Oscar for her role) it is a major component of the story as it is a love affair that springs from a subplot and becomes quite an important and poignant part of the film. One interesting note was that the part was originally offered to Montgomery Clift who turned it down because it came with the stipulation that he sign with MGM for seven years. Clift, and the industry apparently, felt his time would come and he stayed on Broadway in the meantime.

This movie slowly and steadily rolls itself along picking up meaning and creating a tense environment in the characters. There is no real resolution within the narrative, as they are still in the midst of war but life goes on and “There will always be roses.”

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937; theatrical cut)

One thing that could’ve been added to my manifesto is that I want to try not to be redundant. I realize that I just posted about this here but yesterday I saw this version mostly for lack of something better to do and time. I will try not to over-elaborate but merely convey how utterly gutted I found this film.

The main thing that’s off when you lop 75% off a story is pace. There are moments that are far too slow or protracted and then some that whiz by in a blur, the film ends up being shorter than it feels because of that. There are far too many characters involved in this tale for it to only run 71 minutes and taking out so much you lose clues, speculation and discovery of facts and are left with basically an inciting incident, a long chase which becomes tiresome and a final reveal that is still a surprise because you had little time to wonder who the scorpion could be and were busy trying to figure out what’s up. I had issues following it and I’ve seen the longer version twice I can’t imagine the uninitiated confusion upon viewing this mess.

The intent of this piece is to honor the original film as it was made. There were some notable players involved in this such as Ralph Byrd who played Dick Tracy in more than one incarnation, Joan Barclay who starred alongside Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho and Dickie Jones who later went on to voice Pinocchio. There’s also a lot of good story cut out: There is a big arc with the false beggar that here seems pointless, there is Baron Polinka who is oft suspected and one of his catchphrases that cracked me up (“But I’m Baron Polinka”) is missing from this, even the tertiary involvement of Scotland Yard, which is in the title here seems unnecessary.

The only thing I liked is that it made me nostalgic for the original version. This one also gave you a virtually muted soundtrack as the theme rarely played within scenes but was always played in titles which, of course, you only see once here. Due to the desire there are some weird and bad cuts including a very awkward “If you can’t solve it, dissolve it.”

As a DVD presentation it is also a failure: it looks like there are VHS tracking lines at the bottom as if this was a dub and there’s no resume play option so when I stopped I had to find a spot within the chapter.

Ultimately, this proved it’s a failed concept as you see a long but simply-told tale diluted into a short confused mess. I hope other distributors stick to full-length serials.