Tarzan the Ape Man and his Mate

Tarzan-1932-poster[This post refers to the first two Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, Tarzan the Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1932) and Tarzan and his Mate (Cedric Gibbons, 1934)]

Having just read James Lever’s mock autobiography of Cheeta the chimpanzee (which is far funnier and more moving than the skinny concept might lead you to expect), I was sent scurrying back on my knuckles to the original Johnny Weissmuller films. As far as my memory banks are telling me, these were on BBC 2 at 6pm every single night for about five years, when I was a kid, but I might have exaggerated that in my head.  I also remember Bagpuss lasting forever, instead of its actual 13 episodes, and that gaps in the TV schedule were to be filled only with Laurel & Hardy or Harold Lloyd I also can’t remember whether, as a (very) young lad I wanted to be Tarzan, or to be a member of his makeshift jungle family. I might even have seen myself in Cheeta. This pondering was perhaps prompted by a recent rediscovery of Hammer’s She, which made me want to revisit some of the films and TV that left a strong impression on my developing headspace as a child. films.

Coming from the “pre-code” period in Hollywood, a window of frisky abandon when the censorious Production Code had been drawn up but not yet rigorously enforced, the Tarzan films are a lot naughtier than I remember. In an early scene of Tarzan the Ape Man, Jane undresses and washes in front of her father, teasing him for being shocked: she is, after all, his little girl, and he’s seen her in states of undress before. Of course, she’s grown into a woman since he last saw her, and she seems oblivious to her adult sexuality. That’s a good excuse, at least, for her to lean into the camera, blithely delivering the kind of cleavage shot that would be snipped out of later films:

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It’s nothing, though, compared to the brazenness of a swimming scene from Tarzan and his Mate, which was cut out of the film’s original release, and only restored once it hit the home video market 60 years later. By the time of the sequel, Tarzan and Jane have settled into a kind of domestic bliss. Over the course of many sequels they will build up a recreation of a family home on the jungle escarpment, but in this second film they’ll still in a honeymoon period. When Jane falls from a tree branch, she snags the dress she’s been given by an English suitor trying to tempt her back to civilisation with fine clothes, “accidentally” leaving her completely undressed for a bit of impromptu skinny-dipping:

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Actually, though Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympian is doing his own swimming, Maureen O’Sulllivan is doubled by Josephine McKim, another Olympic swimmer. The sequence succinctly points to Tarzan and Jane’s idyllic separation from the outside world, a brief look at their ease in their jungle home before some more white guys arrive to screw it all up, but whatever its artistic merits, it was deemed too strong for the censors.

Poster - Tarzan and His MateLooking at these films again, it’s impossible to avoid the colonialist themes that are so prominently displayed within them. It would be easy to bash the films for their insensitive handling of African American actors (who are given roles no juicier than expendable dogsbody or pliant messenger) and  their native African characters (who are killed off with indiscriminate ease and patronised as window-dressing to the films’ safari aesthetic). It’s certainly true that the films condemn the destructive hubris of white traders mishandling the local culture (the first two films in the series hinge upon a hunt for the elephants’ graveyard, a sacred place for Tarzan’s friends, but an ivory-rich treasure stash for the traders), but Africa is still portrayed as an irresolvably deadly place of unchecked savagery and unpredictable violence. But you don’t even need to analyse the plots of these films. The polite but arms-length skirting around issues of race can be observed in the formal constitution of an early scene in which new arrival Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) is given a tour of her father’s African outpost:

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You can see that, what looks like an innocent, slightly patronising look at the locals actually indicates a vast ethnic divide thanks to the use of rear projection, delegating the authentic location duties to a second unit team, perhaps even using stock footage. I’m not sure whether this is better (the background plates seem to have actually been shot in Africa) or worse than the blackface in something like King Kong, which was released the following year. Whatever their narrative posturings about the need to respect the African wildlife (with no illusions about its eagerness to bite your face off), the Tarzan films are still really a drawn out discussion of the suitability of the jungle for habitation by white people, and as such, it falls back on an easy binary of civilised vs savage. But at least it does it with considerable energy, and a surprisingly striking visual style. It’s not surprising this stuff stuck in my mind. The films use a beautiful soft-focus vignetting effect for some shots, which may be to make the jungle seem denser than the woods around Los Angeles where it was actually shot, but it also adds a dreamy mist to the whole place, marking it out as a zone of fantasy:

Tarzan the Ape Man Vignette

If Tarzan’s jungle was an attractive place, it was always a dangerous one. More than anything, I remember the Tarzan jungles as a place of vertiginous cliffs and dangerous waters. Every visit to the escarpment was a tense negotiation of rocks that could throw you off at any second. I’m sure I had many dreams of falling as a result of watching this stuff:

Tarzan the Ape Man

Even as a kid, I remember Tarzan’s crocodile wrestling as a predictable, comically shoddy insert in which he rolls over on top of a plastic prop for a couple of minutes before finally stabbing it in the head. But, at least in this early version from Tarzan and his Mate, it’s a superbly realised sequence, with an unnaturally huge beast, superb puppetry and atmospheric underwater photography that mirrors the earlier swimming scene, a nightmarish flipside to the jungle dream:

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17 thoughts on “Tarzan the Ape Man and his Mate

  1. Pingback: Who Cheeta? « Spectacular Attractions

  2. I love your post about Tarzan. I grew up in the sixties and loved to watch Tarzan on Saturday mornings. I can’t find dvd’s of them anywhere and they are never aired on satelite. Johnny Weismuller was my hero when I was young. My favorite Tarzan movie is the one when Boy is small and gets into trouble all the time. I loved all of the them and truly wish I could see them again. They don’t make good movies like that anymore. Thanks for your post. I love reminiscing. I will be following it on my blog.

    • Thanks, Penny. Glad you like the Tarzan movies – I’ve been dipping into the DVD boxset, and it’s very nostalgic. They get lazier and more repetitive as they go along, but the main characters are compelling enough to always be watchable. I can’t wait to get round to Tarzan’s New York Adventure which, obviously, is a little different from the others.

  3. Pingback: Does anyone remember the Tarzan Television series with Ron Ely? | Bones Tv Series

  4. Pingback: Tarzan and the Amazons « Spectacular Attractions

  5. The crocodile fight in Tarzan & His Mate is lessened a bit by the rubber croc’s constant “rolling” in the water, but it’s still a very thrilling sequence. First, the crocodile is huge and at least twice Tarzan’s size. Secondly, the underwater wide shots of the crocodile chasing a vulnerably nearly naked Tarzan is chilling. And the fight is drawn out to several minutes to where there’s doubt until the very end that Tarzan will survive, though we all know he will.

    In Johnny Weissmuller’s last film, Tarzan & the Mermaids, they attempted to re-create the underwater battle, only this time with a giant octopus. While the premise had possibilities, it doesn’t work in this film as the struggle is hurriedly concluded in 30 seconds, and additionally, Weissmuller, at age 44, was no longer the muscular specimen of years and films before.

    • Thanks, D.M. I haven’t got round to Tarzan and the Mermaids yet – I think it’s next up in my DVD boxset. I always look forward to giant octopus battles. That crocodile fight is excellent, though. I still can’t quite see what is miniature and what is full scale models – I’m sure there’s a couple of shots of a dummy Tarzan puppet straddling the animal’s neck, but it’s all cut together at lightning speed.

      • In Tarzan and the Amazons, Weissmuller actually wrestles a live crocodile in the water that when you look closely, can see has its jaws taped shut.

        I’ve also read rumor that the croc broke the tape seal and Weissmuller had to swim rapidly to safe haven as the handlers coralled the croc.

      • OK, now I’ve got to watch that scene again and look closely. Maybe I’ll post a frame grab or two for comparison with the earlier croc scenes in other movies.

      • The black tape is pretty visible around the croc’s jaws two or three times – you’ll wonder why you didn’t notice it before like when I finally did.

        Also observe that Weissmuller stabs the water with his knife and not the croc itself.

  6. Nice job, Mr. North. I have to add Ms. McKim’s name to the two pages I made in honor of Maureen. I usually do original art, but I thought that those frames deserved to be rendered by me and am happy I did so. A big fan of Warhol, and sometimes I decide to do things that he might have done had he thought of them while he was still alive sort of like that, but more just being influenced by him along with the nine Muses of Ancient Greece, of course.

    • Thanks, Mike. Sorry to disappoint you that it’s not really Maureen O’Sullivan. Even without the nude swimming, though, the film is pretty saucy, and Maureen is stunning in it.

      • No worries, Dan. I am glad to have learned about Josephine McKim, a gold medalist. I guess it was Maureen who Tarzan pushed off the tree into the water, though; so we did all see her au naturale. A gutsy decision by her to do the scene. A real trouper of an actress. I hope to see the movie in its entirely again soon. By the way, I have read all the Tarzan novels, including the last one that had to be finished by someone else (and it showed).

  7. I watched these movies every night as a kid born in ’51 in the Albany area of NY on the 5 o’clock early show. I can see now why Maureen O’Sullivan was probably my first crush. Watching The 1st film Tarzan the ape man was horrifying in a pc sense (this includes the environment for me). But, what took the cake was looking at the natives who were playing a carnival-like game of throwing lassos at the safari folks to drag them into the pit where the giant ape could get ’em! Look at the natives! They are all dwarfs with shaved heads and pigment with the apparent concept of being pygmies!

  8. KING KONG (1933) does not feature any actors in ‘blackface’. The Skull Island natives are portrayed by actual African American actors and extras. The TARZAN films of the ’30’s depicted Africa as it existed then – very much still the ‘Dark Continent’, and should be viewed in that context. Cannibals, savages and great white hunters may not be part of today’s world, but they were a remote reality 80 years ago and films from that era were only reflecting that historical fact. As such, I don’t find them offensive in any way

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