Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan (1999)

Introduction

In 2012 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.

As I have referenced several times in the past, there was a time when I wandered away from Disney fare but alas I have come home. In looking back it lasted maybe a decade or so. Now, having been back I am occasionally catching up. Thus, having tracked down many Tarzan titles over the past two years revisiting many and parsing them out and finding what in each typically does not work for me I figured it was time to give Disney’s rendition of Tarzan (the initial one) a shot.

As it turns out this film is a nearly unqualified success in both what it does in terms of telling a Tarzan story but also in its smooth manipulation of the standard Disney formulae. In terms of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ creation, as best as prior cinematic adaptations are concerned it distills merely one book, Tarzan of the Apes, and adapts that to tell its story. So far as Disney has been concerned there was no other blueprint to go off of because they were tackling the tale for the first time.

With an opening that is dialogue-free, save for Phil Collins’ source music; the film begins rather quietly and powerfully. The connection established between an orphaned babe and Kala, a female gorilla who rescues him and raises him as her own. The technique of animation allows for more exacting and concise editorial decisions about what needs to be shown. Since there are no live animals, but ones constantly under control of the animators, the temptation of cutting to something for cute factor is gone. Clearly, cultural mores changed over time, but the fact that this film deals strictly in an origin allows it to convey characters on a more human level, and avoid pitfalls some past films faced.

Tarzan (Disney, 1999)

Interesting from a Disney standpoint is that the characters do not sing, the music is played as part of the score. There’s one moment of instrumentation but they are not anthropomorphic chorus members this time. Tarzan’s sliding about as if strapped to an invisible surfboard through jungle trees gets a bit trite but it does add a controlled kinetic element and makes him seem superhuman. Also a stumbling block that is overcome is that of language. It takes some suspension of disbelief, but Tarzan and his family can talk to one another, but when he meets Jane, her father, and Clayton; he can only grunt at first and then he learns to parrot and eventually understand. This is well-covered with artful montages.

By getting away from certain conventions that other Tarzan movies set, and spinning the tale a Disney way, while also tweaking certain expectations of a Disney film the road to success is already paved. In a pleasurable surprise, however, the film also does manage to tug at the heartstrings like most Disney fare does – more strongly here. Also, Disney flips the script on a template established in The Jungle Book. A successful restructuring of a given pattern can be a joy to watch, conversely a failure of such an attempt is difficult to deal with.

Taking all that in mind, with so many other versions under my belt, and with the hallmark Disney delivery of the origin, this may be the Tarzan film I was looking for all along the one that combines adventure, emotion and the intrinsically fascinating things about this tale in one package.

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Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan’s Revenge (1938)

Introduction

In 2012 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 Revenge (1938)

If you page through the Poverty Row Studio books you’ll find an entry for a studio established by Edgar Rice Burroughs to bring his characters, mainly Tarzan to the silver screen the way he saw fit. Surely, Burroughs (and his estate) was not the only author ever dissatisfied with screen versions of his story, but a reason for that could be the proliferation of poor films made. Disregarding “accuracy” many of them are just not good and highly disposable works.

This particular version though produced by Sol Lesser, who was the architect of many of the character’s onscreen incarnations, was a Fox release. There’s not a lot in Tarzan’s Revenge that stands out as unique and most of it stands out as being so in a bad way. Hunting is a major plot element, and the goal of the hunt is to trap animals for a zoo.

Being at another studio there are some things that would have to be different: the love interest is Eleanor (Eleanor Holm) not Jane, the Tarzan call is different, the chimps is a quieter less insane version, and in its defense this Tarzan (Glenn Morris) is a bit more fit.

However, many of the issues from the MGM-RKO titles are here too because conventions of the day were too easily obeyed. A map of Africa plays a significant supporting role, ambiguous native, excessive amounts of exposition, Eleanor being disbelieved, lots of swimming and gallivanting.

However, there are things uniquely weird here: Tarzan is there but rather passive for a time, the battle for Eleanor’s affection is lame; the bottom line is that this is flat and unengaging.

Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan and the Huntress (1947)

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 Huntress (1947)

Probably the most unfortunate thing about Tarzan and the Huntress is that there are good things in the script, but there’s just not enough material. At times it seems like they only started with half-a-feature-length screenplay, elongated everything, shot cutaways and time-fillers to bolster the running time.

One of the switches that works really well here is that the impending threat is introduced prior to the stasis, therefore, at the outset of the film there is greater promise than there are in many of the films. The stasis is thus leant and undercurrent of tension none of the prior ones have.

What interferes with the success of this installment most is the fact that, here perhaps more so than any other film, it seems Tarzan is the only one with a memory of past interactions with white men in the jungle. Again Boy, whose youth and naivite are harder to sell the bigger and broader he gets; and Jane’s willing acquiescence to the desires of the civilized world are what causes a majority of the issues and strife.

Conflict is necessary but considering how flip the trappers are it’s hardly necessary for them to be tricked so. Tarzan attempts diplomacy bowing to the King and they cross him many times. Now, part of the issues is the concept and the writing there’s a line of the “war taking its toll on zoos.” How? Air raids, I would assume, but it that really a justifiable reason to over-poach? The greed is now underscored furthermore the animals are usually respected greatly by Tarzan and his family so Boy giving away two cubs for a flashlight is the hardest turn of events to take in the series.

The reason it feels like have a script elongated is that there is a stasis section in the middle of the film. Much like my sudden, un-segued shift to discussing it, such is that section to the flow of the film.

The conclusion of the film is not unusual and similar to others, including the fact that it’s not really earned. The next film, and the last time Weissmuller played Tarzan, would break the mold slightly but not for the better.

Tarzan Thursday: Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946)

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 Leopard Woman (1946)

If there’s one thing you can’t really knock the Tarzan movies for is that they most definitely did introduce enough tropes, setpieces and motifs such that it did give the writers the flexibility to try and break certain molds from time to time. The issues usually stemmed from trying to juggle too much and being too inconsistent in the results as it pertained to these disparate elements.

A few things change here in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman. For one we open on the other interest in this film instead of opening on Tarzan and Jane or Boy. In fact, for a few consecutive titles the opening shots were nearly identical (Boy riding an elephant). So here we learn of the Leopard people. Everyone assumes it’s a Leopard attack but we and Tarzan knows better.

There is also introduced a native doctor whose now “civilized” who plays an antagonist role and a foil to Tarzan. However, there is also the character of Kimba, who is a far more active antagonist and more two-faced as he has most of the characters fooled throughout. The last time there was an additional young character was Bomba, but he ended up being fairly superfluous. Kimba is a fairly significant character and well-portrayed by Tommy Cook.

The biggest boon to the film is that there is a different feel to it than other Tarzans without giving away too much of what happens in the latter stages of it. There’s a more insidious, subdued plotting by those who threaten Tarzan. The things that hold it back are similar to other films but those that set it apart are quite unique. It does hold some surprises and tension in the latter third that many of the titles that fall short do not. It earns a mark of distinction, if not quality, due to Jane tailspinning, time-wasting and the like.

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.

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.

What is Box Set Summer?

This post is meant as a brief accompaniment/aside to my latest schedule update. It’s meant to just further explain what Box Set Summer is and why, like other themes usually have, it may not generate posts specifically branded with the title.

Essentially most of my theme ideas are linked either to a time of the year and/or a need to whittle down my unwatched DVD pile. Box Set Summer was designed to tackle the box sets in the pile which are some of the most cumbersome in terms of viewing commitment and take up quite a bit of space too. One area you have and will continue to see Box Set Summer’s agenda reflected is in my ongoing Tarzan series. I’ve now viewed all the Wiessmuller titles and have one other box to get to before I’ve seen everything currently in my possession.

I also, in conjunction with a TCM theme, may start preparing for future Truffaut-related posts by watching and reading more of him soon. And there are a few other examples. It may not become a category but my fulfilling this mission will influence myriad posts and hopefully bring more diversity to the content offered on The Movie Rat. Thank you!

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.

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.