UNGAWA! The Weismuller Tarzan Movies
Sean Connery fans are fond of saying "There is but one James Bond" when poo-pooing the many Bonds who came after him. Likewise, fans of the countless Tarzan movies often say, "There is but one Tarzan - Johnny Weismuller." (Actually, the Connery-Tarzan connection isn't so far off: according to ERBzine, Sean Connery played a villain in the 1959 film Tarzan's Greatest Adventure and was set to play Tarzan himself in 1961 but instead took the role of James Bond in Dr. No and...you know how that worked out.)
Whatever the merits of all the Tarzan adaptations by all the various actors and studios, most critics agree that the 12 Johnny Weismuller films made at MGM and RKO between 1932 and 1948 represent the Golden Era of moviemaking for Edgar Rice Burroughs' King of the Jungle. (And of that dozen, most fans consider the 6 films made at MGM between 1932 and 1942 to be the real cream of the crop, particularly 1934's Tarzan and His Mate.) Thankfully, Warner Home Movies has released all the Weismuller films on two separate DVD box sets: The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weismuller Volume 1 contains the 6 MGM films while The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weismuller Volume 2 collects the final 6 films made under producer Sol Lewis at RKO.
Tarzan's Triumph of the Will
I'm only weighing in on the matter because I've been watching - nay, obsessing over - these escapist jungle dramas of late. Blame it on Henninger's Tavern impressario Kenny Vieth. On his advice, I checked out RKO's
1943 Johnny Weissmuller film, Tarzan Triumphs, a World War II propaganda masterpiece in which Tarzan the isolationist realizes no man is a jungle island (or Mutia Escarpment) when it comes to the evil machinations of Nazis and the Third Reich. Kenny sold me on it by telling me that even Cheeta the chimpanzee joined in the fight by grabbing a machine gun and mowing down the Jerries (how insane is that?) Actually, everyone in Tarzan's extended family gets in on the act after Boy is kidnapped, prompting Weismuller to declare, "Now Tarzan make war!": Tarzan kills Nazis, Boy kills Nazis, Cheeta kills Nazis and even one of Tarzan's elephants kills a Nazi by catapaulting a Master Racer over the edge of a cliff. (The message here is clear: Nazi's bad, Jungle good).
As Richard Schrieb commented in his excellent review of this film:
The novelty that Tarzan Triumphs offers is that at the time it was made the US was in the midst of World War II – and as a result it comes filled with some rather laughable anti-Nazi propaganda. Interestingly director William Thiele was actually an Austrian expatriate who fled to America from the Nazi regime in the mid-1930s. Perhaps reflective of Thiele’s particularly personal anti-Nazi stance, Tarzan comes to echo the US political position on the War – that of initial non-involvement when the Nazis started invading other countries and only becoming involved when the attack came close to home. It is quite a political film in that much is made of the issue of Tarzan learning the errors of his isolationist ways. To this end Tarzan is bent somewhat out of shape as a character – he initially refuses to become involved in helping the beleaguered people of Palandria after they are invaded by the Nazis (something that one finds hard to believe the Weissmuller Tarzan would do upon any other occasion if it were say White Hunters invading the jungle or enslaving a native tribe), and when he is eventually persuaded to join in does so with a good deal of enthusiastic bloodshed (again something that seems out of character) and the classic cry of “Now Tarzan make war!” There’s lots of caricatured B-movie villainy, including the infamous comic scene where Cheetah [sic] starts chattering on the radio and is assumed to be the Führer by the Nazis on the other end.
"Now Tarzan Make War!"
Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane is noticeably missing from this RKO production, her glamour slot taken over by Princess Zandra of Palandria. Zandra was played by the beautiful Frances Gifford, the younger sister of NFL great Frank Gifford, whose career was wrecked by a horrible automobile accident in 1949. (Though she tried a comeback in the early '50s, her health was so bad she couldn't make it, and she spent quite a lot of time in a mental hospital before dying in 1994 at the age of 73.) Gifford previously earned her acting stripes as Nyoka in the 1941 Republic serial Jungle Girl, another story based on an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and the first serial to star a woman (her Jungle Girl co-star Tom Neal went on to star in Edgar Ulmer's low-budget noir classic Detour).
Tarzan Triumphs is a bonafide hoot and made me seek out more Tarzan adventures. But though the Tarzan films are very enjoyable, there is one glaring omission in them that forever dooms them to be nothing more than pure Hollywood escapism. Namely, dark-skinned Africans.
Heart of Whiteness
In the imagination of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Hollywood, the continent is whiter than a Klan rally at Christmas, peopled by "civilized" European colonists, civilized - albeit sometimes treacherous & pagan - Arabs (Tarzan's Desert Mystery), and mythical all-white super races of incredibly fit Amazon women with impeccable shaved-leg hygiene (Tarzan and the Amazons), pale Palandrians (Tarzan Triumphs), and light-skinned Leopard Men who worship the pallid High Priestess Lea - played by Hollywood curio Acquanetta (above left, from Tarzan and the Leopard Woman). Black Africans seem to exist only as an expositional device - usually as sadistic pygmies/bloodthirsty cannibals or expendable safari porters who are the first to be speared by angry natives or mauled by wild animals - to which the white explorers/hunters invariably casually remark, "Poor Devil!", all the while worrying more about whatever precious supplies the Poor Devil was carrying (You could start a drinking game in which you chug a shot every time a black safari member is speared, eaten by crocodiles, clawed by panthers or jettisoned off a hillside; of course, if you really want to get smashed, simply chug-a-lug every time Tarzan shouts "Ungawa!"). Worse still, the otherwise enjoyable Tarzan's New York Adventure (1943) is marred by a blatant racist scene in which an uncredited Mantan Moreland (one of the great African-American comic actors and a regular in the Charlie Chan film series) is seen talking on the phone with Cheeta and exclaiming, "You making fun of me colored boy?"
And even when there are sympathetic Black Africans, they are shown to be subservient to the white characters. Ultimately, the "King" of the Jungle is Tarzan, whose name translates as "white-skin," and who significantly lives apart from the other "savages".
Darkness on the Edge of Town
While many of the racist attitudes in Tarzan reflect their times (a time that also embraced National Socialism's racist theories of "master races"), some of them may have hit closer to home because of Burroughs' roots. According to Wikipedia's entry on Edgar Rice Burroughs:
Burroughs' opinions, made known mainly through the narrative voice in the stories, do reflect racist and sexist themes widely held in his time. The author is not especially mean-spirited in his attitudes. His heroes do not engage in violence against women or in racially motivated violence. Still, the attitudes of a superior-inferior relationship are plain and occasionally explicit; according to James Loewen's Sundown Towns, this may be a vestige of Burroughs having been from Oak Park, Illinois, a Sundown town (a town that forbids non-whites from living within it).
I had never heard of the term "Sundown Towns" before. Researching it, I learned that sociologist James Loewen wrote his study after stopping in October 2001 at a convenience store in the small Illinois town of Anna - a name that, as a store clerk confirmed, stands for "Ain't No N****** Allowed." At first he thought Anna was an anomaly, but soon found out that there were over 440 such towns - in Illinois alone! (For a list of possible "Sundown Towns" in Maryland, click here.)
Repeat As Necessary
Another laugahable annoyance in the Tarzan series is the reuse of stock footage. I can't keep track of how many times I watched the same scenes of Tarzan fighting crocodiles, rhinos, lions and tigers over and over and over again. Basically, any time Tarzan jumps into a river, you can count on the director cueing up the one stock clip of a croc entering the water and cutting to the same clip of Tarzan battling a spinning mechanical crocodile created by the special effects team. Same with any time a lion or big cat menaces someone. I think it was in the first film that Big Cheeta was killed trying to protect Tarzan from a on-rushing rhino; the same scene was reused, cutting out the Big Cheeta collision clip, with Tarzan now saving Jane in Tarzan and His Mate. And I may have even seen it in Tarzan Finds a Son!, this time Tarzan coming to the rescue of Boy through willing-suspension-of-disbelief editing.
The MGM Six
OK, the above reservations aside, following are film by film assessments of the 6 Tarzan MGM films.
Tarzan the Ape Man (W. S. Van Dyke, 1932)
The first of the Weissmuller Tarzans is considered one of the best, but it's probably my least favorite. Inspired by and borrowing heavily from the stock footage contained in the previous year's Trader Horn, it takes a long time to get off the ground, employs ridiculously hokey rear-screen projection, features way too many scenes of Tarzan battling wild animals (which would be re-used in future films) that bog down the pacing, and is perhaps the most racially insensitive. As Stuart Galbraith IV observed in his review of the film's Political Incorrectness: "Climbing the Mutia Escarpment, one of the pack-bearers loses his footing and falls thousands of feet to his death. Before he even hits bottom, Holt crassly asks, 'What was in that pack?' When the natives begin getting restless, Holt instructs their black foreman, "Well, you've got your whip. Give them something else to think of.'" In other words, D. W. Griffith could easily have directed this one!
It does, however, establish the framework for the evolving series by introducing the setting - the mysterious Mutia Escarpment - the backstory, the Tarzan theme music, and the cast of characters that will reappear throughout the series (Tarzan, Jane, Cheeta, etc.). But I found Willie "One Take" Van Dyke's direction boring and uninpsired.
Film Facts in a Nutshell:
- The character of Cheeta was created for this film. He did not appear in the Edgar Rice Burroughs books. Though a number of chimps of portrayed Cheeta, the longest-running one is still alive and holds the Guinness Book of World Records mark as the world's oldest living (non-human) primate (born April 9, 1932), coming up on his 75th birthday this year (chimps typically live no longer than 50 years in captivity). There's a nice feature about Cheeta on the Special Features disc of Warner Home Video's The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weismuller Volume 1 DVD. Cheeta is cared for by Dan Westfall, at the Cheeta Primate Foundation in Palm Springs. Apparently Cheeta likes to paint, smoke cigars, go for drives and watch the old Tarzan movies on TV; he also used to drink beer, but now is a diabetic who drinks Diet Coke.
- Tarzan's home turf, the "Mutia Escarpment", was an MGM concoction named after Mutia Omoolu, the African native who played Rencharo the gun-bearer in Trader Horn (1931).
- The role of Harry Holt was played by Neil Hamilton, who later became famous as Commissioner Gordon on ABC's 1960s TV series Batman.
- There's no "Me Tarzan. You Jane" line in this or in any of the Weissmuller Tarzan films (it's a myth, just as James Cagney never said "You dirty rat!" in any of his pictures and Ingrid Bergman never said "Play it again, sam" in Casablanca). The actual exchyange is as follows: Tarzan: "Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane. Tarzan. Jane." Jane: "Oh please, stop!"
- The birth of UNGAWA!: Whereas Burroughs created a whole ape language for Tarzan, screenwriter Cyril Hume simplified matters via the all-purpose command "Ungawa," which could mean "up," "down," "halt" or "go." Or anything else, for that matter.
- Jungle Boogie: An unpublished piece called "Voodoo Dance," written by George Richelavie and arranged by Fritz Stahlberg and P. A. Marquandt, was used as the Tarzan theme music. At the conclusion of the film, we also hear a strain from Tchaikovsky's theme from Romeo and Juliet
- Hollywood & Vine: In addition to the the matte paintings used to represent the Mutia Escarpment, the MGM jungle that Tarzan called home was made up of the Toluca Lake region of North Hollywood, West Hollywood's Sherwood Forest (the same one used in the 1922 Douglas Fairbanks production of Robin Hood), and a faux stage landscape made up of imported tropical fruit trees, plants and other lush vegetation. Not to mention the stock footage filmed in Africa that was lifted from Trader Horn.
Tarzan and His Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934)
Everyone considers this the best Tarzan film and rightly so: it's got great pacing, non-stop action, lots of yodeling, a nude swimming sequence and Jane sporting the a "scantily-clad" outfit so revealing that it was "retired" after this one celluloid appearance.
Much has been written about Tarzan and His Mate, but my fingers are tired, so I'll let reviewer Stuart Galbraith IV take over: "If it weren't for all the routine and occasionally lousy Tarzan movies, this film would be regarded as one of the all-time classics, a picture as thrilling and imaginative as King Kong (1933). This DVD release features the complete, pre-release version, which was shorn of about 23 minutes during its theatrical release and subsequent reissues and television showings. If you've never seen this incredible film, and assume all classic Hollywood films are puritanical and tame, you're in for a shock. Set "nearly a year" after the events in Tarzan the Ape Man, the film has Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton again) joining ne'er-do-well Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanaugh) for a second expedition: to retrieve the valuable ivory found at the Elephant's Graveyard, and try to win Jane back from Tarzan and return her to civilization. Things go wrong almost immediately, as two scoundrels in their expedition steal Holt's map and are (very) gruesomely murdered and their bodies mutilated by hostile natives.
After the success of the previous Tarzan and the colossal returns on RKO's King Kong, MGM accorded Tarzan and His Mate a lavishness unequalled in a Tarzan picture until Hugh Hudson's 1984 Greystoke. The exterior sets are extremely elaborate, and the number of extras and animals used in this film is genuinely staggering. The care paid off: the film is far more atmospheric and more believably African than any other film in the MGM series.
Better still, it's a perfect blend of tense action and racy, romantic sexuality. Jane's one-shot costume (she was far more demure in subsequent films) is very revealing, and her nude swim with Tarzan is almost poetic. Part of the appeal of all the Weissmuller/O'Sullivan movies is that Tarzan and Jane clearly adore one another and have an obviously active and healthy sex life quite unusual for movies of the 1930s. The climax, in which natives and man-eating lions surround the cast, cornering them against a mountainside, is a remarkable achievement; it's incredibly tense and exciting, now some 70 years after it was made."
Film Facts in a Nutshell:
- Cedric Gibbons, who was art director on most of the Tarzan films and is credited with designing the Oscar statuette, was the original director of Tarzan and His Mate but was replaced by Jack Conroy. Still, Gibbons gets his props by having the Gamboni tribe named after him.
- Jane's Almost Outfit: Tarzan and His Mate was the most risque film of the Tarzan series, reflecting Hollywood's pre-Code sexual candor before the Hays Office got its censorship act together. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jane's skimpy outfit that was "retired" after this 1934 entry. Maureen O'Sullivan's costume was so brief that during a swimming scene, one of her breasts was exposed. This scene was included in an early edit of the film, but it was cut to appease censors.
- Skinny Dipping: Jane's famous nude swimming sequence (cut out of the film's original release but restored by Ted Turner for the film's 1991 video rerelease) was actually performed by 1932 Olympic gold medal champion Josephine McKim, who knew Weismuller from the 1928 Olympics.
- He Said, She Said: Tarzan Finds a Mate finds Jane now yodeling her own feminine version of the Tarzan yell. And boy is there a lot of it between the two of them, almost like a jungle parody of a Nelson Eddy-Jeanette McDonald musical.
- The melody at the end of the film is "My Tender One," written by Dr. William Axt for Eskimo (1933). Awl!
Tarzan Escapes (Richard Thorpe, 1936)
Some critics think this is the dud in the Tarzan MGM canon - admittedly, it it had a long, troubled production with 20-90% of the original film completely scrapped and reshot by several different directors and co-star John Buckler (Captain Fry) dying in an auto accident the week it was released - but I couldn't disagree more. Rather, it's the one I would haved entitled Tarzan Emotes. Faced with the prospect of losing Jane, Weismuller gives his finest acting performance of all the films in the series, virtually turning in a jungle version of Hamlet's melancholia ("Alas poor Jane; I knew her") and allowing himself to be captured by anti-Sierra Club white hunters when he thinks Jane doesn't love him anymore. This is Tarzan's existential moment, his mopey Morrisey phase when everyday is like Sunday (gloomy and grey), his UNGAWA! now vocal shorthand for the lyrics of Brian Wilson's "God Only Knows": "If you should ever leave me/Though life would still go on believe me/The world could show nothing to me/So what good would living do me."
The story concerns Jane's cousins, Rita (Benita Hume) and Eric (William Henry), trying to convince Jane to come back to England because they need her help to inherit a million-pound fortune. This plot would be reused, with minor tweaking in the next film (Tarzan Finds a Son!), when Jane is convinced that Boy should be reunited with his blood relations. As usual, Jane wrong, Tarzan right. When will Jane ever learn to distrust her Westernized notions of propriety and trust Trazan's primal instincts?
Film Facts in a Nutshell:
- The original version of this film, entitled The Capture of Tarzan, was shown to preview audiences in 1935 and was heavily criticized for scenes of excessive violence, especially a climax featurng giant vampire bats and friendly pygmies. MGM fired the director and ordered the film re-shot. This resulted in a watered down version meant to appeal to children. MGM got around the delay with the tagline, ""It's New! It's amazing! 2 years to produce!"
- Baltimore native and Freaks (1932) star Johnny Eck made an uncredited appearance in the original film version as Gooney-Bird, one of the Vampire Bats. But though reviewer Stuart Galbraith IV claims that "About the only thing left from the original film seems to be its a strange, bird-like creature, played by armless wonder Johnny Eck," I never saw this scene in the Warner Home Video DVD release. Apparently, this footage is lost, which is a shame. Below is a still from the original Johnny Eck footage:
- Tarzan Escapes is the film that introduced Tarzan and Jane's treehouse home, which was modeled after the one in Swiss Family Robinson, and featured an elephant-powered elevator. Later additions would include a Cheeta-operated fan, fire-heated stove and a water pump
- Remake/Remodel Redux: Stuart Galbraith IV remarks: "While all the Tarzan sequels are guilty of using stock footage, Tarzan Escapes is mind-numbingly filled with reused scenes, from the long trek up the Mutia Escarpment to Tarzan's eye-popping fight with a giant crocodile (from the previous film)."
- ERBzine notes that the film-ending melody "My Tender One" was "never more appropriate than when the jungle king sees the smoke rising from the tree-house stove and realizes, with tears in his eyes, that his beloved Jane has not abandoned him."
Tarzan Finds a Son! (Richard Thorpe, 1939)
This is the film that introduced Johnny Sheffield as Boy and introduced the Lord Greystoke theme that wouldn't be fully explored in film until 1984's Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan. And it also marked the first attempt to kill off Jane's character. Jane gets speared by the natives at the end of the film and was supposed to die, potentially setting up a free-swinging bachelor Tarzan for some new romantic possibilities in future films, but test audiences hated it and Jane miraculously recovered (through the magic of love) at the end after Tarzan protests, "Jane not go!"
From Stuart Galbraith IV's review: "Despite a title which suggests MGM sentimentality at its most stickily saccharin, this is a huge improvement over Tarzan Escapes, and full of honest, earned emotion. A plane carrying "Lord Greystoke's favorite nephew" and bound for Capetown crashes atop the Mutia Escarpment, and the only survivor is an infant child, whom Tarzan finds and eventually names Boy. The baby soon grows up to become a precocious five-year-old (and now played by Johnny Sheffield) who makes the jungle his playground. The film abounds in animal action, from some terrific underwater photography (shot in Silver Springs, Florida) of Tarzan, Boy and a baby elephant enjoying a swim, to Boy's ensnarement in a giant spider web and menaced by pizza-sized arachnids. (Spoiler, sort of...) The script was originally written with Jane dying after sacrificing herself to save Boy. This is carefully set-up early in the film as it's paralleled to the death of a mother elephant. Jane's last-second rally in the film's closing seconds rings false. Had the film actually ended as originally intended, it might have been the greatest Tarzan of them all. Even in its compromised form, Jane's last moments with Boy are quite moving, and Tarzan's sorrow at Jane's apparent imminent demise will break your heart"
Tarzan's Secret Treasure (Richard Thorpe, 1941)
From Stuart Galbraith IV's review: "This time four scientists (Reginald Owen, Tom Conway, Philip Dorn, and Barry Fitzgerald), searching for the lost Van-usi tribe, learn of a mountainside of gold, and Conway and Dorn hold Jane and Boy hostage demanding Tarzan lead them to the rich vein. An enjoyable film that's more of the same, with new underwater footage (Weissmuller impressively out-swims a fish he wants to eat for dinner), greater emphasis on Cheetah's hijinks (he gets drunk in this one), and more Rube Goldberg contraptions in the family's treehouse. (A refrigerator turns up here, a dishwasher in the next film.) And once again, footage of a charging rhino (about the fifth time we've seen this footage) and the giant crocodile is brought out of storage and worked into the action-crammed plot. In fairness, it should be pointed out that since these pictures were released several years apart, and thus were only foggy memories to casual moviegoers, the use of so much stock scenes is almost forgivable, though it becomes surreal watching them now, one movie after another.
And despite all the repetition, the film has some good ideas, such as Tarzan and Boy's introduction to the movies via a 16mm projector Fitzgerald has brought along on the safari. Theirs and the naives' sense of wonder at the projected images is something to behold. With his "never again" drunk scene, talk of the Blarney and "seints presarv us" dialogue, Fitzgerald is the Irish stereotype incarnate (all he's missing is a clay pipe and muttonchop whiskers). Nonetheless, he's also sweet as one of the few outsiders Tarzan takes a liking to.
And, most importantly, Tarzan's understated nobility and love of Jane continues to delight. In one scene he's introduced to a native boy, Tumbo (Cordell Hickman), recently orphaned after his mother contracts a jungle plague. Tarzan speaks to the boy in Swahili (or maybe Tarzanspeak) and their untranslated conversation has enormous poignancy. Later on, Tarzan and Jane enjoy a moonlight swim and reflect on their first meeting, another sweet moment. (By now, Jane's once natural look has unfortunately been replaced with standard Hollywood glamour, complete with permed hair and long, false eyelashes.)"
Tarzan's New York Adventure (Richard Thorpe, 1942)
From Stuart Galbraith IV's review: "The last of the MGM Tarzans, and the last to feature Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, is the only film of the batch that feels like a B-movie. At 72 minutes it's substantially shorter, and the production values aren't much above that of an Abbott and Costello comedy. In this entry, Tarzan, Jane, and Boy are visited by lion-trappers Charles Bickford and Chill Wills, who kidnap Boy to put in their circus. Pilot Paul Kelly is against the idea, and with girlfriend Virginia Grey come to Tarzan and Jane's aide. The film is what the trades would describe as "sheer hokum," but the novelty of Tarzan roaming the big city with Jane in search of Boy is undeniably amusing, and surely escapist fun for its May 1942 audience (no mention is made of the war, despite the Africa setting and trans-Atlantic flight).
The change of pace setting and emphasis on comedy is easily forgiven, especially with such highlights as Tarzan scaling and diving off the Brooklyn Bridge, wearing his first suit, and hearing a soprano on the radio: "Woman sick!" Tarzan exclaims. "Cry for witch doctor!" Unsurprisingly, Cheetah runs amok in this one, including a funny but politically incorrect telephone conversation he has with janitor Mantan Moreland. Silent screen Tarzan Elmo Lincoln is supposedly in there somewhere, as a circus roustabout, but this reviewer didn't spot him. Bizarre movie connection: The Japanese monster movie Gappa: The Triphibian Monster (1967), which has mother and father giant monsters leaving their jungle home to rescue their kidnapped and exploited son, is practically a remake."
David Fury's Kings of the Jungle: An Illustrated Reference To Tarzan on Screen and Television is the best book written on the Tarzan films. An essential tome and reference guide.
Suggested Online Reading:
Bill & Sue-On Hillman's ERBzine is the "Official Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute and Weekly Webzine Site" with over 5,000 pages in its archives. The film reviews are excellent and have tons of great pictures, posters and original lobby cards.
Kings of the Jungle