Monday, September 3, 2012

Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan at RKO, Part 2

By Ed Garea

Edited by Steve Herte

As we read in Part 1, Tarzan and Johnny Weissmuller wore out their welcome at MGM with the Tarzan franchise being snapped up by producer Sol Lesser for RKO. Weissmuller made six more Tarzans for RKO before turning in his loincloth for khakis at Columbia as Jungle Jim.

While at RKO, Weissmuller made Tarzan flicks exclusively. Only one time during his tenure did he venture forth in another role and that was for producers Pine-Thomas and Paramount, where he starred in the 1946 melodrama Swamp Fire. He played a man who recently served with the Coast Guard and is returning to his life in Louisiana where he was a riverboat captain. His rival is Buster Crabbe (Wow! Two Tarzans!), who is the bad guy – we can tell from his mustache – and whom Johnny must battle for both his job and his girl. Proving he hasn’t completely left his jungle days behind, he does get to wrestle a rubber alligator. The box office returns from the movie didn’t exactly set a line of producers at Weissmuller’s door.

Save for that, Weissmuller toiled on as Tarzan in films of diminishing quality. By his final film he must have been as glad to leave Lesser as the producer was to ditch him for a younger model. The following are the final four.

TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS (1945): Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, Johnny Sheffield, Henry Stephenson, Maria Ouspenskaya, Barton MacLane, Donald Douglas, Steven Geray, J. M. Kerrigan, and Shirley O’Hara. Screenplay: John Jacoby and Marjorie L. Pfaelzer. Director: Kurt Neumann.

While taking a nature walk, Tarzan, Boy and Cheetah hear a woman screaming. Investigating, they find a woman being chased by hungry rear-projected leopards and a panther. Running out of room, she plunges off a cliff. Tarz chases the cats away and revives the girl while Cheetah helps himself to her gold bracelet, which she dropped on the ground. (It makes one think that perhaps the ape has a fence somewhere.) Her name is Athena (O’Hara) and she’s from Palmyra, an ancient city in a hidden valley populated by women that wear tight-fitting leopard skin outfits.

Because her ankle is sprained Tarz will carry her back to Palmyra and tells Boy to stay behind. But does he listen? Not on your life once he learns there are babes there, and he follows Tarz at a discreet distance. Inside the secret city, the Amazon Queen greets Tarz and thanks him for returning Athena. The Queen turns out to be Maria Ouspenskaya, all 5’1” of her. Some Amazon! How did she get this job, anyway? Shouldn’t she be out somewhere curing werewolves?

Before he leaves, Queenie drops an important plot point, reminding Tarz that he’s the exception to the rule. Anyone else that drops in is not getting out. Of course, this doesn’t apply to us in the audience, who are watching from the safety of our television screens. However, after watching this atrocity, we may want to do ourselves in.

Soon afterward Jane makes her less than triumphant return (and Joyce makes her debut), arriving via express shipping to a nearby trading post run by the grubby Ballister (MacLane). Jane does not come alone, but is accompanied by archaeologists Sir Guy Henderson (Stephenson), Andres (Douglas) and Brenner (Geray).  Cheetah, happy to see Jane, gives her the bracelet he had glommed earlier. Sir Guy’s partner, Brenner (Geray) spots the “made in Palmyra” designation on the bracelet and asks Tarzan about its origins. Tarzan becomes agitated by the questioning and leaves with Jane and company for home.

Looking up the designation, Brenner concludes that it comes from the lost city of Palmyra and Ballister recalls several stories about the place. Everyone but Sir Guy wants to go check it out and do the tourist thing and decide to ask Tarzan to guide them. But when Ballister shoots a helpless mother lioness, Tarz loses it (probably because they ignored the ‘Lion Crossing’ sign) and flatly refuses to have anything further to do with them. Sir Guy understands and declares he will lead the group to the north instead. However, Boy is fascinated with the scientific tools the group carries and is further miffed because Tarzan shooed them away. He tells the group that he’ll take them to Palmyra, an invitation they readily accept being there’s no handy service station around to ask for directions or a map. Further, they correctly surmise that (1) Boy is in the midst of a teenage rebellion, and (2) he seems to have an IQ of about room temperature.

So Boy takes them to Palmyra, where they are welcomed and immediately sentenced to death. But after convincing Queenie of their good intentions, she relents and instead sentences them to hard labor. At any rate, the explorers soon learn that, of course, the Amazon city is loaded with treasure. The girls are thrifty and all have excellent 401(k) plans. Now Boy has a brainstorm (uh oh) and sends Cheetah to Athena, who agrees to help everyone escape. However, good old villainous Ballister wants to help himself to the treasures. So they make off with the gold. Sir Guy wants to donate it to a museum, but Ballister would rather donate it to his own personal retirement fund, so farewell to Sir Guy. As Athena tries to get away, Ballister sticks a knife in her back (Villainy 101), but before dying she manages to sound the general alarm. Only Ballister and Andres (Douglas) escape, dynamiting the usual narrow mountain pass to keep from being followed.

Now Queenie’s really mad. Someone’s gotta pay for this and we all know who it’s going to be. Meanwhile, on his way to Palmyra, Tarz spots Ballister and Douglas making off with the gold and chases them into the handy dandy quicksand pit, where they meet their doom. Tarz then takes the gold, uproots a tree to make a bridge, and brings the loot back to Palmyra, where he convinces a grateful Queenie to let Boy go on the grounds of mental incompetence. 

Again, it’s another incomprehensible, but highly enjoyable, adventure with Barton MacLane in fine villainous form and Ouspenskaya looking and acting as if she’d rather be anywhere else. If you don’t think too hard about logical causes and effects and just keep eyes glued to the action taking place before you, it’s a rather pleasant way to spend 70 or so minutes.

TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN (1946): Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, Johnny Sheffield, Acquanetta, Edgar Barrier, Dennis Hoey, Doris Lloyd, Tommy Cook, Anthony Caruso. SP: Carroll Young. D: Kurt Neumann.

Well, Amazons really hit the spot at the box office so why not do it again with a slight twist and still rely on plot turns done to death in earlier movies? The result is a hodgepodge that, while not as entertaining as its predecessors, will still please all the fans out there.

The film opens with Tarz and family enjoying an afternoon strolling and shopping in a Zambesi village. Tarz wows the crowd by wrestling Tongolo the Terrible (an unbilled Abe “King Kong” Kashey) and Cheetah fools around with a snake charmer’s basket. Suddenly a wounded man enters on the back of an elephant. He soon succumbs to the wounds, which are thought to have come from a leopard. But after examining the man, Tarzan declares that it was not a leopard, but, as he says, “Something leopard that isn’t leopard.”

We soon learn that it’s a cult where the men dress in cheesy leopard skin costumes and use iron claws that look suspiciously like garden weeders. They worship a leopard god and are led by sexy high priestess Lea (Acquanetta). Also lending a hand to the cult is Dr. Ameer Lazar (Barrier), who moonlights as the cult’s plant in the government. The goal of the cult is to stop civilization from penetrating their little corner of Zambesi so that it can remain pure and unadulterated. To achieve this goal they must not only ambush every caravan into their territory, but must also discredit Tarzan, who appears to be the only person onto their little scheme.

This provides us with some information as to the intelligence in this part of the country. The cult is able to pull off this trick quite neatly by unleashing a pack of real leopards on the next caravan. Now even Jane thinks Tarz has gone over the bend. But Tarz shrugs it off and returns home to the tree condo to work on a plumbing problem (don’t ask). But Lazar and Lea, still worried, send Lea’s sneaky little brother, Kimba (Cook) to spy on Tarzan. Kimba, however, unbeknownst to Lazar and Lea, has an agenda of his own. He decides that he’ll make his bones in the cult by killing Jane and Boy.

In the meantime, a group of teachers is captured and made ready for sacrifice, causing Tarzan to come to the rescue. Tarz is captured in the rescue attempt and tied to a pole, where Lea threatens to rip him apart with her claw back-scratcher unless he divulges where to find the missing Kimba. It seems that as Kimba made ready to whack Jane and Boy, Cheetah knocked him out and Boy, seizing the moment for once, locked him in a sturdy bamboo cage.

Getting no answer from Tarzan, Lea orders her underlings to kidnap Jane and Boy, who are brought back to the camp. Cheetah unties Tarzan (as usual), and in turn Tarz frees Jane and Boy. Then he brings down the pole to which he was tied, causing the cave’s ceiling to collapse and a resulting cave-in. Moments before the cave totally collapses, Tarzan watches Kimba shoot Dr. Lazar and then be opportunely crushed by falling boulders.

The casting of Acquanetta was considered a minor coup. She was popular with B-movie fans for her role as Paula Dupree the Ape Woman in Captive Wild Woman and its sequel, Jungle Woman, for Universal in 1944. Acquanetta was really her name – she was born Burnu Acquanetta (which means “Burning Fire, Deep Water”) in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Her mother was Arapaho and her father white. Given up for adoption, she was raised in Norristown, Pennsylvania, and renamed Mildred Davenport.

Discovered modeling in New York City by Universal in 1942, she was given a big build-up with a three-page spread in a later edition of Life. Universal at first changed her nationality, billing her as “The Venezuelan Volcano,” but as details of her early life became public knowledge, her Apapaho heritage was emphasized and the studio claimed that she did such things as sleep in a teepee. She married Phoenix car dealer Jack Ross in the ‘50s and retired from Hollywood, appearing from time to time in her husband’s commercials and hosting a local show called Acqua’s Corner that accompanied the Friday Night Movies.

Tommy Cook, who played Kimba, went on to a busy career in feature films, starring in such classics of the cinema as Teen Age Crime Wave (1955), and the ever popular Missile to the Moon (1959), a remake of 1953’s Catwomen of the Moon.

TARZAN AND THE HUNTRESS (1947): Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, Johnny Sheffield, Patricia Morison, Barton MacLane, John Warburton, Charles Trowbridge, Ted Hecht, and Wallace Scott. SP: Jerry Gruskin and Rowland Leigh. D: Kurt Neumann.

Well the war is over, and there are no more Nazis for Tarzan to fight. So he lives a peaceful life with Jane, Boy and Cheetah, occasionally making forays into the local culture, such as celebrating the birthday of local bigwig King Farrod (Trowbridge). So what does one get a king for his birthday? Boy builds His Highness his very own fishing rod and reel, Jane comes up with some exquisite cloth from somewhere and Tarzan comes up with some sort of phony-looking plastic atrocity; possibly a fruit dish for the table that he got from the village’s K-Mart.

At the celebration, they are met by big-game huntress Tanya Rawlins (the beautiful Patricia Morison) and her evil trail boss, Weir (Barton MacLane again). The king allows only one pair of animals to be taken at a time, but Tanya and Weir have worn out their stock and need more . . . much more. They decide to make a deal instead with the King’s greedy nephew, Prince Ozira (Hecht), who uses their help to whack the king and discover that it’s good to be the king.

But they still have to deal with Tarzan and that’s not easy, although Tarzan is getting the worst of the deal when he discovers that Boy, the youth he raised into a blithering idiot, has swapped two lion cubs for a flashlight. The bad guys surround Tarzan. It looks hopeless. But Tarz calls for help and help soon arrives in the form of a herd of elephants that stomp both the bad guys and their camp into the mud. Tanya gets away in her plane, but Cheetah sneaks aboard, steals her compact and parachutes to the ground with the prize. No, I’m not making this up. 

Morison can be best remembered as an actress with huge potential that was never realized in Hollywood. Discovered by a Paramount talent scout while in a production of the musical The Two Bouquets on Broadway, she was brought along slowly in B-movies such as the Westerns I’m From Missouri (1939), Rangers of Fortune (1940), Romance of the Rio Grande, and The Roundup (1941).

Billed in advance publicity as the next Dorothy Lamour, Morison was also tried in such forgettable junk as Beyond the Blue Horizon and Are Husbands Necessary? (1942). She asked for her release and freelanced in The Fallen Sparrow (RKO, 1943) and the Tracy-Hepburn Without Love (MGM, 1945). She then signed with Universal, where again she floundered, with her best-known role being that of master criminal Hilda Courtney in the Sherlock Holmes mystery Dressed to Kill, the swan song for the duo of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Freelancing once again, her best shot for stardom came with the role as Victor Mature’s despondent wife in Kiss of Death (20th Century Fox, 1947), but her scenes were left on the cutting-room floor.

During the war while on a USO tour she made the acquaintance of Cole Porter, who was impressed with her full mezzo-soprano vocal range. When she left Hollywood to return to Broadway, he thought enough of her talent to ask if she’d like to audition for his new musical, Kiss Me Kate. Over 1,000 performances later, she never looked toward Hollywood again.

TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS (1948): Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, George Zucco, Andrea Palma, Fernando Wagner, Edward Ashley, John Laurenz, Gustavo Rojo, Matthew Boulton, Linda Christian. SP: Carroll Young. D: Robert Florey.

This was Weissmuller’s last outing as the King of the Jungle and, sad to say, he doesn’t go out in style. Having posed Tarzan against almost every kind of enemy from the jungle and civilization, what was left? Why mermaids, of course. Why didn’t they think of that before? Of course, there are no mermaids in the film. (And little action, come to think of it.) The overall look of the film is decidedly low budget; it was filmed on location in Mexico to save on labor costs, but the weather played havoc with the sets – and the actors.

Angel "Chupitas" Garcia, a cliff diver hired as Weissmuller’s stunt double, was killed while performing a cliff dive near the end of the movie. Producer Sol Lesser also suffered a major heart attack while on the set and had to be taken to Los Angeles to recuperate. Even Weissmuller was not immune, coming down with sunburn so severe he needed make-up for the final shoot. 

Tarzan and Jane now find themselves as empty nesters, having sent Boy off to school in England. They have little to do now so they butt into other people’s business. And this they do quite well. Tarz rescues a young girl named Mara (Linda Christian, future wife of Tyrone Power) from a jungle river and takes her to Jane and his friend Benji (Laurenz), a singing postal carrier (please don’t ask), who nurse her back to health.

Mara tells them she had been chosen to become the bride of Balu, but she wanted none of that and escaped. Instead, she loves Tiko (Rojo), who has been banished from the island. She then goes on to explain that a high priest of Balu named Palanth (who else but George Zucco) has enslaved the population of the island of Aquatania. Balu appears to the people as a large, mute figure residing in a temple on top of a rocky island declared off limits to everyone except Palanth. In reality, Balu is none other than Varga (Wagner), a greedy pearl trader in a plaster costume in cahoots with Palanth to relieve the natives of as many pearls as possible, which are offered as “tribute” to Balu. Mara thanks Tarz and Jane by giving them a large black pearl, which Jane in turn donates to the area’s new reform-minded commissioner (Ashley), probably for his PAC.

Meantime, Palanth misses Mara, so he sends underlings to kidnap her and bring her back, but unbeknownst to them Tarzan is following the boat back to the island. He sneaks into Balu’s temple and spots Varga disrobing and leaving the island. This gives the big lug an idea, so he dons the costume and becomes Balu. Benji, meanwhile, has brought the pearl to the commissioner and brings him and the inspector-general (Boulton) to Tarz’s tree house, where Jane and the lovelorn Tiko tell the entire story, and the group makes out for the island. Palanth has them brought to the temple for questioning, but Balu suddenly appears and not only orders Mara to be released, but Tiko forgiven as well. The island then prepares to celebrate the marriage of Mara to Tiko. 

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