Saturday, August 25, 2012

Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan at RKO, Part 1

By Ed Garea

Tarzan films are one of those pleasant memories from childhood. I would camp myself in front of the television armed with a bag of Fritos and a glass of milk, oblivious to the world around for an hour or more, depending on how many films were being shown. When I see them as an adult after what seems like an eternity, my reaction is either one of delightful nostalgia for good times past or I look at it and say to myself, “I used to watch this?” (Sort of like pro wrestling.)

But back in the days when MGM was calling the production shots, the Tarzan movies were well-made excursions into the world of fantasy, where Tarzan and Jane could have a Cape-Cod-style tree house, no means of income but plenty of goodies lying around the pad, and a kid without actually having sex (they found him). And it is a further tribute to the genius of MGM (and in particular Irving Thalberg) that Johnny Weissmuller, a former Olympic swimming star with almost no clue as to what acting was, could star in a series of box-office bonanzas. By simply adhering to a strict formula and taking care with the production, MGM could crank out a Tarzan film about once every other year to long lines at the box office.

At first, the stories were taken seriously, but after a while they began to run out of plots. Beginning with Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), logic began to creep out of the plots, replaced with what later became known as “Camp.” Maureen O’Sullivan was tired of traipsing about in a loincloth, Weissmuller was getting a bit long in the tooth, and the producers at MGM saw the handwriting on the wall. More importantly, however, the advent of World War II cost MGM half of its foreign markets, and it was these markets that provided the profit to the expensively-made adventures. Tarzan’s New York Adventure was the sixth – and last – entry in the MGM series.

While the Tarzan pictures were finished at MGM, they were still judged as a viable franchise for the right studio. Sol Lesser was a producer at RKO who began his career as an exhibitor with a chain of theaters and later sold them off to focus exclusively on independent production, mainly churning out a series of B-Westerns. In the early ‘30s, as the first MGM Tarzan was about to be shot, Lesser announced that he had purchased an option on the property for five films. MGM persuaded him to hold off for a couple of years by purchasing three of the optioned films. (The two films Lesser did produce were 1933’s Tarzan the Fearless with Olympic swimming champion Buster Crabbe, and 1935’s The New Adventures of Tarzan with Herman Brix, aka Bruce Bennett, donning the loincloth. Both were made on miniscule budgets and further played to miniscule crowds due to the pressure MGM put upon exhibitors to bypass the films.)

But Lesser never lost his interest in the Jungle King, and so the next year he imported Weissmuller, Cheetah and Boy to RKO, where the series continued. Never was a producer so aptly named. Everything about Sol’s production was “lesser:” lesser budgets, lesser scripts, and lesser actors. But this was RKO, which along with Universal, was the bottom of the barrel among the major studios.

The RKO films differed from their MGM predecessors in several ways. Because of the restricted budgets, characterization was dropped in favor of more and more action. The RKO Tarzans had more of the feel of a Saturday afternoon serial with no stop to the action and little time given for character development. Filmgoers didn’t need to know the inner workings of the bad guys; it was enough to know they were bad because Tarzan opposed them.

Because O’Sullivan was under contract to MGM and had zero interest in ever playing Jane again, a search was conducted for an actress to take her place. Because of the war, Lesser figured the series could get by without Jane for a couple of films, which would give him time to find someone for the role. Thus audiences didn’t see Jane again until 1945 and the third film in the RKO series, Tarzan and the Amazons, when B-starlet Brenda Joyce took on the role. Joyce worked the final three Weissmuller films and the first with Weissmuller’s successor, Lex (Alexander) Barker. 

Joyce’s casting underlined another difference between the MGM and RKO product: the diminishing role of Jane. In the MGM films, Jane’s relation to Tarzan took time out from the action to focus on their characters. With the new emphasis instead on action, the roles of Boy and Cheetah were expanded at Jane’s expense. Cheetah’s comic relief bits were enlarged and Boy’s main task became to either get Tarzan in the soup or turn up the heat if he was already there.

Further, the decision was made to step up the pace of releases. While MGM had released a new Tarzan every two years or so, Lesser reasoned that with Weissmuller aging, he should strike while the iron was hot. Weissmuller would make an additional six films for Lesser, but while his timeline for the first six with MGM was from 1932 to 1942, his output with RKO lasted half that time, from 1943 to 1948.

So let us travel to the back lots of RKO, where lost kingdoms abounded, jungle girls in alluring tights ran and hid and were chased by the bad guys, themselves unrelentingly evil. Plus, for the first two entries in the series, Nazis! It doesn’t get any better than that, although we shall see that it certainly does get worse. The following are the first two of the six movies Weissmuller made for Sol Lesser and RKO.

TARZAN TRIUMPHS (1943): Johnny Weissmuller, Johnny Sheffield, Frances Gifford, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, Philip Van Zandt, Rex Williams, Stanley Brown, and Pedro de Cordoba. Screenplay: Roy Chanslor and Carroll Young. Director: William (Wilhelm) Thiele.

This is the best of the bunch for Weissmuller. After this, it was straight downhill. In case no one noticed, World War II was raging at the time and Tarzan would prove to be no exception. As the film opens, Tarz is living large, enjoying the bachelor life happily with Boy and Cheetah while Jane is in England visiting her family. During one of his mindless excursions Boy is trapped on a rocky ledge. Zandra (Gifford), whom we learn later is the daughter of the ruler of the lost kingdom of Pallandria, tries to rescue Boy but only succeeds in getting them both in danger and in need of rescue by Tarzan.

Later, in the comfort of their tree condo, Boy is reading a letter from Jane about the Nazi threat when a plane crashes. Tarz saves the pilot, Lt. Schmidt (Williams), from a hungry rubber crocodile and takes him back to Treehouse Central to heal his wounds. Schmidt pretends to be British with an act that could only fool Tarzan, but he’s really a nasty and thoroughly naughty Nazi. Meanwhile Zandra, her father (de Cordoba), and her brother, Arghmet (Brown), welcome other Nazis, led by Colonel Von Reichart (Ridges) to Pallandria. The Germans proceed to take over the town and enslave the inhabitants, forcing them to dig for minerals vital for the German war effort. (Sig Ruman is here in a minor role as a German sergeant, foreshadowing his later role as Sergeant Schultz in Stalag 17.)

The Colonel lusts after Zandra and wants to make her his personal love slave, but she escapes his clutches and runs to Tarzan, begging for help. Tarz, however, is an isolationist: “Nazi leave me alone, Tarzan leave them alone.” He soon changes his mind, however, when the Nazis kidnap Boy, seeking to learn the whereabouts of a coil needed for their radio – a coil Cheetah swiped and without which the Nazis cannot contact Berlin for reinforcements. Now the Nazis have really done it – they went and made the Big Guy mad: “Now Tarzan make war!” And he does, with a verve and elan that would have done Ah-nuld and Stallone proud. The Nazis are dispatched in interesting and gruesome ways – eaten by carnivorous fish, pushed off a cliff by Cheetah, and knifed and speared in various ways by Tarzan. Even Boy knocks off a few for good measure. Finally the evil Colonel is led by Tarzan into a trap with a man-eating lion and becomes the lion’s main course. In the end, the coil is reattached, and when Berlin HQ answers the call, they mistake Cheetah’s chattering for Hitler.

TARZAN’S DESERT MYSTERY (1943): Johnny Weissmuller, Johnny Sheffield, Nancy Kelly, Otto Kruger, Joe Sawyer, Lloyd Corrigan, Robert Lowery, and Frank Puglia. SP: Edward T. Lowe, Jr. D: William (Wilhelm) Thiele.

Jane is still missing and we learn that she is doing her patriotic duty as a nurse in a London hospital. She is in desperate need of “fever” medicine and turns to Tarzan as her favorite pharmacist, telling him in a letter to get off his duff and get her the medicine. Tarzan takes Boy and Cheetah with him across the desert to the other side of the jungle where the fever medicine plant conveniently grows. On the way, Tarz sees a group of men (later exposed to us as Nazi spies) led by Karl Straeder (Sawyer) and Paul Hendrix (Kruger) beating the hell out of a striped wild stallion. (Those rascals!) Tarzan makes them free the horse, and in gratitude, the stallion allows Boy to ride her to the local oasis.

Arriving at the oasis they run into Connie Bryce (Kelly), a magician from America who is stranded from a USO tour and is amusing herself by allowing the locals to saw her in half. Tarz, however, coming upon the scene in mid-performance, thinks they’re attacking Connie and chases them away – along with Connie’s horse. Discovering his mistake he offers to escort Connie to the capital city of Bir Herari, which is where they were both headed. The naughty Nazi spies beat Tarzan there and accuse the big guy of horse jacking. Hendrix then presents the horse as a gift to Sheik Abdul El Khim (Corrigan), the local Bigwig of the area, for the necessary Brownie points while Tarzan is thrown into the hoosegow, entrusting Boy to Connie’s care. (We’ll overlook the possible consequences of leaving a young adult whose hormones are probably raging with a luscious babe.)

The Sheik’s son, Prince Selim (Lowery), smells a big Nazi rat and warns Dad about accepting gift horses from Nazis. Later that night, while Cheetah wows the crowd with his high-wire act (no, we’re not making this up), Connie meets with the Prince, bringing him a bracelet containing a message from his old college chum, Prince Ameer. The message warns Selim that Hendrix and his pals are Nazi spies arming the locals for a revolt, as if the locals were not already revolting enough on their own. While the Prince is busy reading the message the Nazis are watching and send the Prince to meet his maker.

Unfortunately, before they can retrieve the bracelet, Cheetah makes off with it. (It always amazes me that a smart-ass chimp flummoxes these supposedly ingenious spies.) The Nazis pin the blame for the Prince’s death on Connie, who is jailed awaiting the hangman’s noose. What to do? Boy and Cheetah free Tarzan and Tarz in turns crashes Connie out. They head towards the unknown jungle for the fever medicine plants, pursued at a distance by the Nazi spies.

Losing their pursuers during a sandstorm, the foursome takes refuge in a camel driver’s hut (played by an unbilled Sid Saylor). Tarz leaves the other three behind and sets out for the jungle. There he braves giant rear-projected lizards while harvesting the medicinal plants. Meanwhile, Connie, Boy and Cheetah spot the Nazis catching up with them and decide to hide in the jungle. Straeder follows and is mauled by a lion and shortly afterward becomes a lizard’s lunch. Boy wanders into a cave and is caught in a giant spider’s web (obviously made from rope) manned by the slowest and phoniest spider in Hollywood history. Tarzan arrives in the nick of time, rescuing Boy and chucking Kruger to the spider. They get the plant, Jane gets her medicine, the spider gets fed, and everyone goes home happy.

This is probably my favorite Weissmuller RKO feature because of its sheer inanity. It plays more like a Saturday serial than a movie, containing several plot holes that only a kid could overlook, being more impressed with the lizards and the spider. The casting is hilarious, with Brooklyn-type Joe Sawyer playing a German spy and the smooth and urbane Otto Kruger as his sidekick, probably because of his last name. But the biggest casting faux pas was in assigning the role of the Sheik to Lloyd Corrigan, an actor best known for playing Boston Blackie’s fey buddy Arthur Manleder. As a sheik he comes off completely preposterous, but totally entertaining in a strange way, if one likes bad movie casting.

In Part Two, Tarzan goes from bad to worse as the war ends and we run out of Nazi baddies.

Edited by Steve Herte


  1. Hey thanks a lot for this, nice to have some of that background info filled in. Spot-on hilarious details in the film summaries. Love the early MGMs best, but it's perversly enjoyable to barrel one's way through the decline of the whole series... Any recommendations for books that cover this history (i.e. Tarzan production history across the two studios)?

    1. Thank you for your comments. The best book I know about Tarzan in the movies is "Kings of the Jungle: An Illustrated Reference to Tarzan on Screen and Television" by David Fury with a foreword by Maureen O'Sullivan. It's published by McFarland & Co., known for their excellent film studies, and is available through Amazon. Simply put, it's the best book on the subject of Tarzan in the movies and on television ever written, as it chronicles all the movies and television appearances.