Posted by Susan Doll on March 15, 2010
I have a soft spot for Golden Age movies that take place in tropical environments, which have left me with a life-long love of swaying palm trees, white sandy beaches, jungle birds cawing in the background, and exotic flora and fauna—giant snakes excluded. My love of tropical scenery and jungle locales began in childhood when I devoured the Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller that were frequently broadcast on one of the Cleveland television stations. Nothing seemed more adventurous and exotic to me than trekking through the jungle. In adulthood, I still enjoy these films, though the racist depictions of natives are difficult to watch. I enjoy them because they are not only an escape to an exotic Neverland filled with jungle animals, oversized tropical plants, and extra-large vines but also an escape from computers, cell phones, and those people who think they can’t live without them.
To me, the only Tarzan movies that matter are those starring Johnny Weissmuller, though he was the sixth actor to don a loincloth and play Edgar R. Burroughs’ famous jungle hero, and several other actors would follow in his wake. Weissmuller starred in MGM’s highly popular Tarzan film series during the 1930s and 1940s. While based on Burroughs’ Tarzan, the Ape Man, the MGM series freely deviated from the source material to create a definitive version of the jungle man still remembered for his athleticism, courage, and simple virtues. A tall, muscular athlete who had won five Olympic gold medals for swimming, Weissmuller perfectly embodied MGM’s vision for Tarzan. Maureen O’Sullivan, a cultured and well-educated actress, costarred as Jane, complementing Weissmuller’s monosyllabic interpretation of the Ape Man. The MGM films benefitted from solid production values and adventure-driven storylines, making the series the most memorable of the Tarzan features. Earlier Tarzan films pale in comparison while later versions lack MGM’s attention to character development, script, and casting.
In childhood, my favorite episodes were those in which Tarzan left his neck of the jungle to participate in dangerous adventures, such as the hunt for a secret treasure or a quest to find someone/something that has been lost or kidnapped. In Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941), he rescues Jane and Boy from greedy members of a safari who have forced Boy to lead them to a lost mountain of gold. One of my favorite parts of the Tarzan movies is the payback that cruel or greedy representatives of civilization get whenever they disrespect Tarzan or the natural world of the jungle. In this film, a thundering herd of elephants runs over most of the interlopers at the end, though Tom Conway’s ultra-civilized character is eaten by crocodiles. Too bad today’s real-life land developers, animal poachers, corporate participants in global warming, and other representatives of the dark side of civilization aren’t given the Tarzan treatment.
As an adult, I now prefer the first few Tarzan movies, because of the romance between Jane and her jungle hero. The first two in the MGM series were produced prior to the enforcement of the Production Code, the censorship code that controlled the content of Hollywood movies during the Golden Age. Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934) feature an undercurrent of eroticism as Tarzan and Jane are depicted in revealing costumes sharing a loving relationship in an Eden-like jungle. Tarzan’s original loincloth was slit on both sides to the waste, revealing Weissmuller’s amazing physique and powerful thighs. Likewise, O’Sullivan’s original costume is equally as skimpy. When MGM decided to cast Weissmuller as Tarzan, they hit a snag with the BVD underwear company, who had the champion swimmer under exclusive contract to tout their product. BVD fought hard to keep their handsome spokesperson, but eventually let him sign with MGM if the latter lent the underwear company several big-name stars, including Garbo, to appear in their ads. The publicity still at the top of this post is one of my all-time favorites because Weissmuller is just so jaw-dropping sexy. No wonder BVD hung onto him so hard.
I have never seen the full version of Tarzan and His Mate, which was supposedly restored for video release in 1991. Back in 1934, MGM released three versions of the film to meet the standards of specific state and local censors across the country. Before the enforcement of the Code, state and local censors would simply cut out any scenes or shots they found objectionable, without the studio’s participation. Different states and cities had different rules and standards, so a controversial scene might squeak by in New York but not Ohio. This left many a print hacked and ruined by the time it was returned to the distributor. With Tarzan and His Mate, MGM knew certain scenes shot for the film wouldn’t make it past some censors, and the studio distributed different versions to specific markets to avoid the amateur editing. The full version of the film featured a beautiful and erotic scene in which Jane and Tarzan swim together underwater, and Jane is nude. O’Sullivan’s swimming double, Josephine McKim, actually performed in this “ballet,” though when Jane steps out of the water, it is once again O’Sullivan, who supposedly flashes a bare breast. Oddly, the original director of the film was MGM’s famed art director Cedric Gibbons, but less than a month into production, he was replaced by Jack Conway. I don’t know if the underwater ballet was Gibbons’s or Conway’s idea, or if it was that of producer Bernard Hyman. But, I can’t imagine why they thought they could get away with it, even in limited markets (see below).
The Production Code, with its strict guidelines on the depiction of male-female relationships, squelched the Garden-of-Eden connotation to the Tarzan-Jane pairing. Tarzan Finds a Son, the fourth film in the MGM series, pushed the Tarzan legend in a new direction by introducing Boy, played by Johnny Sheffield. With the introduction of a son to the series, Tarzan assumed the role of the ideal father and provider while Jane became the dutiful mother; thus, family values were introduced to the series, neutralizing any hint of eroticism. Not only were the costumes changed to cover more skin, but Boy had to be found by Tarzan, not conceived by him and Jane, who had never been married in a traditional ceremony. In the storyline, Tarzan finds that the only survivor of a crashed plane is a tiny infant whom he names Boy. He and Jane decide to keep the child and raise it as their own in their home among the treetops. Five years later, the child’s relatives come looking for him, and a custody battle ensues—jungle-style.
Though not one of my favorite Tarzan movies, there are some wonderful scenes in Tarzan Finds a Son, including another underwater ballet that echoes the one in Tarzan and His Mate. This time, the scene features Tarzan and his adopted son cavorting underwater as a way to suggest that the jungle man loves Boy as much as any birth father could. To visually imply the unbreakable bond between them, writer Cyril Hume and director Richard Thorpe created a scene in which the pair swim in unison in their jungle paradise. To shoot this sequence, Weissmuller, Sheffield, and a small crew traveled to Silver Springs, Florida, to take advantage of the crystal clear waters. O’Sullivan, who was pregnant with her first child, did not go. Silver Springs, which is often credited with launching the tourism industry in Florida, consists of a network of springs that pump 800 million gallons of pure water from the ground each day, keeping the lakes, ponds, and waterways clean and clear. Tourists view the springs and the aquatic life by cruising the area aboard the famous glass-bottom boats. Another popular feature of the Springs was Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute, founded in 1929. Allen exhibited a particular fondness and understanding of reptiles. His studies of the alligator became well known among herpetologists, and his snakes were milked so that their venom could be used in the production of antivenin. Allen accompanied the cast and crew around Silver Springs and Wakulla Springs to keep the swimming areas free from snakes. Years later, when reminiscing about the shooting of the Tarzan films for a Weissmuller biography, Johnny Sheffield vividly recalled, “Ross Allen would go ahead of us and search the bank for alligators and cottonmouth water moccasins. He found a few too. I remember one time he got a water moccasin on the bank and put it in his mouth and swam back to the boat. A few minutes later Big John [Weissmuller] and I were working right there on the bank where Ross captured the aquatic pit viper.”
The Silver Springs footage shows Tarzan and Boy cavorting under water for almost five minutes, playing tag and hide-and-seek. An unplanned stroke of luck occurred when a baby elephant used in the film fell off a raft near the shore. A quick-thinking camera operator, already underwater in the camera bell, started rolling as soon as he saw the elephant slide off the raft. Unexpectedly graceful and coordinated, the elephant swims around a bit, and then is joined by Weissmuller and Sheffield before scurrying up the bank and back to dry land. The sequence concludes with Weissmuller and Sheffield being pulled through the water by a giant tortoise. Weissmuller hangs onto a back flipper, while Sheffield hangs on to the big man’s feet, resulting in a remarkable image of synchronous movement between beast, man, and boy. Not only are Tarzan and Boy in harmony with each other, they are in harmony with the jungle as well. Through this visually driven sequence, with little or no dialogue, the filmmakers make the viewer believe that the pair belong together in their jungle world.
Over 60 years later, the underwater footage is still remarkably fresh and vivid—so vivid and memorable that much misinformation has circulated about it. Tourist brochures and websites for Silvers Springs often claim that all six Weissmuller Tarzan films were shot “on location” there. In fact, the crew came to the area only once, and they shot footage at both Silver Springs and Wakulla Springs, which was then used sparingly in two of the six films. The majority of the footage focused on Tarzan and Boy, though “Jane” was shot swimming with the family at Wakulla Springs. A Florida resident doubled for Maureen O’Sullivan. This footage was used in Tarzan’s Secret Treasure. The principle location for all six MGM films was the Lake Sherwood area, including Sherwood Forest, near Los Angeles. The tree house where the Tarzan family lived was built at Crater Camp in Malibu Creek State Park, then duplicated on a sound stage at MGM. Interiors were all shot at MGM.
Somehow it is fitting that Tarzan’s jungle is not an actual geographic location but a composite of real places and man-made sets, because his home is mythic—like Mount Olympus. His jungle home is a paradise, a peaceable kingdom without guns, where he and the animals not only coexist but are kindred spirits. In Tarzan’s jungle, there is no need for money, marriage licenses, proper clothes, jobs, banks, social class, or any other concerns of the civilized world. While a world without the need for banks and money undoubtedly resonated with Depression-era audiences, a carefree existence in an exotic land—with a good-looking man in a loin cloth—appeals to me, too.
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