The strangest thing I’ve seen this week came a little way into Tarzan Escapes, a rather brief, throwaway visual gag that puzzled me, and then made me feel a bit daft for being puzzled. In almost every one of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, there’s a trek up the treacherous cliffs that lead to the escarpment where Tarzan and Jane are developing a mini suburban home in the jungle, complete with homemade domestic gadgets and a fully equipped kitchen. Quite often, they use library footage, or second-unit sequences to show the local wildlife. There’s a lot of recycling in these films, with action scenes and shots of Tarzan swinging through the trees (performed by a trapeze artist in some cases) appearing repeatedly. So, it’s always a pleasant surprise when they throw in something novel.
En route to the escarpment this time around, the group that is ostensibly seeking Jane’s signature on a family fortune is actually going to try and entice her back to England, while Captain Fry (John Buckler, who died in a road accident a week before the film’s release) aims to capture Tarzan, presumably to stick him in a sideshow. Thus is efficiently established Tarzan and Jane’s ongoing see-saw dialectic between civilisation and … er, whatever the jungle is supposed to represent by the time they’ve built all the household appliances out of bamboo. On the trek, Fry’s cowardly and ineffectual assistant Rawlins (a career playing butlers clearly beckoned for Herbert Mundin) checks out the local animals, growing increasingly uneasy at the sight of big cats and crocodiles. The final straw, though, the one that makes him question his sanity, is the appearance of a large, thick-legged bird. Click on the slideshow to view:
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Notice anything odd about it? Like Rawlins, I did a double-take. I’m no naturalist (that’s animals, not clotheslessness), but I think I recognise a wide variety of species from this crazy planet of ours. But yes, the bird is actually a bloke in a costume. Not just any bloke – that’s Johnny Eck, “half-man” sensational star of Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932).
Having looked up this moment, I was surprised to find that it was itself used in the first Weissmuller Tarzan film, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). Had I not noticed it? Why did they choose to slip in this surreal moment, dressing up a human actor for one of the animals? They occasionally use actors in ape suits for complex bits of monkey business, but the “scenic” shots of wildlife are mostly shot on location using real animals. Only when they need something to attack or be ridden by a human do they cut to trained animal actors. I suspect the answer is that they did it because they could. The footage was shot during the making of Freaks, another MGM production, that would eventually be released a month before Tarzan the Ape Man, and might even be making sly reference to the bird creature into which Olga Baclanova is transformed at the end of Browning’s film. It’s tempting to read into it a subtext about capture and escape, the threat of Tarzan being turned into a sideshow exhibit, but it was probably just an opportunist in-joke.
Eck sounds like a pretty amazing guy, exploiting the prominence offered by his extraordinary physique to pursue his eclectic interests in arts and entertainment; he was a painter, pianist, diarist, magician, actor and, best of all, a Punch and Judy man. Tom Waits namechecks him on the Black Rider album, and loosely based the song Table-top Joe on his life. Find out more about him at the great Johnny Eck Museum.