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Monday, October 29, 2007

Weissmuller as Tarzan (originally published 5/97)

It's frustrating sometimes, the degree to which the contents of this column are dictated by what is actually available on video. This month, for example, I wanted to do a column on Tarzan movies, prompted by the recent release of "Tarzan and the Lost City." I was going to pick one representative film from each of my favorite movie Tarzans, commenting along the way on the different interpretations each had brought to the role. To my dismay, when I went to the catalogs and reference books to see what had been released, it turned out that in just about every case, it was the best examples of each Tarzan's work that were unavailable, leaving only grossly unrepresentative dregs to be seen.

The one exception was Johnny Weissmuller, whose Tarzan pictures are fairly well represented on home video. The upside of this, I decided, is that Weissmuller is after all just about everybody's favorite Tarzan. So, rather than give up on the idea entirely, I thought I'd just go with the flow by limiting myself to the Weissmuller Tarzan films.

Having been a champion Olympic swimmer, Weissmuller was recruited for the role on the grounds that a trained athlete would come closer to looking the part than a trained actor. Weissmuller certainly qualified on that score. Better yet, his facility with yodeling allowed him to furnish the memorable jungle yell that would be appropriated, through the magic of dubbing, by many subsequent Tarzans. For a sampling of Weissmuller's classic screen appearances as Tarzan, look for these titles on home video.

"Tarzan, the Ape Man" (1932). If you've come to think of Tarzan films as cheesy, low budget B-movies on the late late show, this classy, high-gloss production may surprise you. It was produced by MGM at a time when that studio was not in the habit of doing anything halfway. This version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel abandons the whole idea of Tarzan being a son of English nobility who came to be raised in the jungle by apes through misadventure. Here he's just a mysterious jungle man who wins the affections of Jane Parker (Maureen O'Sullivan), an English woman on safari with her father and soon-to-be former fiancee. Tarzan, although fluent in Chimpanzee and Elephant languages, is able to master only the rudiments of English, very convenient for a role played by a non-actor.

"Tarzan and His Mate" (1934). The sequel to the first Weissmuller film is generally regarded as the best of all his films, possibly the best Tarzan movie ever. It has also earned a certain amount of notoriety. Jane by this time has gone completely native, running around with scarcely more on than Tarzan. What's more, they are living in what appears to be a state of conjugal bliss, as the title makes clear, without the benefit of any sort of marriage ceremony. The keepers of the Motion Picture Production Code were not happy.

"Tarzan Finds a Son" (1939). By the time of the third Weissmuller-O'Sullivan Tarzan outing, "Tarzan Escapes" (1936), the Production Code had acquired new teeth, including the ability to fine violators. That was the beginning of the familiar Tarzan treehouse, which at least allowed for the possibility of separate sleeping quarters. Naturally, the only way for this unorthodox couple to legitimately have a child was through adoption, the alternative being unthinkable under the Code. So it was that they took in "Boy" (Johnny Sheffield), the orphaned survivor of a jungle plane crash.

"Tarzan's New York Adventure" (1942). The title speaks for itself: take Tarzan out of his familiar African jungle and turn him loose in the very different jungle of New York. Tarzan and Jane make the trip in pursuit of the men who have kidnapped their son to display him in a circus. The conceit worked well, but it marked the beginnning of the end for the series. This was O'Sullivan's last appearance as Jane, and with her gone the subsequent sequels began a slow descent into the cheesiness that you recall from the late late show. But despite their relatively ignoble end, the Weissmuller films continue to represent a touchstone for latter day Tarzans. Weissmuller had given Burroughs's creation a face and, more importantly, a voice. No one who has followed him in the role has ever entirely emerged from his shadow, nor is it likely that anyone ever will.

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