TARZAN FINDS A SON! (And Jane Becomes a Mom)

A scene from TARZAN FINDS A SON!

I wrapped up the TCM Classic Film Festival two weeks ago. It was their fourth fest and my first time there. I’ve been attending Telluride and Sundance for over 20 years, added SXSW to the roster about five years ago, and I like to check in on other film festivals too, be they local (in Denver, Estes Park, or Boulder), or outside the U.S. (ie: Vancouver, with Berlin next on my list). Every film fest has a different vibe, a different way of running things, and I’m not here to detract from any of that as I’m down with the whole idea of variety being the spice of life and I enjoy them all. I also need to be careful because, as a Morlock, I’m on the TCM dole and I realize that what I’m about to say might strike some as a conflict of interest. Still, here goes: TCM FF 2013 blew me away, and now, if anyone asks me about my favorite film festivals, I’m putting the TCM FF on the very top shelf. Most of the films I saw were on 35mm and the selection was – across the board – excellent. Every film was preceded with an introduction featuring very special guests, and not only were all the exhibition venues in dedicated film sites, some were in the best film theaters I’ve ever sat in, one even adding an award-winning organ player to an elaborate curtain show (El Capitan, I’m looking at you). Of the many films I saw at TCM FF, let me point to one particular title to illustrate the wonderfulness of it all, a mint-condition 35mm print of Tarzan Finds a Son! (Richard Thorpe, 1939), which screened at The Egyptian and was preceded by a special 45-minute presentation led by Oscar winners Craig Barron (matte painter) and Ben Burtt (sound editor and designer).

Given that it’s Mother’s Day today, it also strikes me as appropriate to discuss Tarzan Finds a Son! because it’s a film that allows Jane to partake in maternal duties. Those familiar with the story know that it’s not a Hallmark-perfect film. The story starts out by showing us a plane carrying Mr. and Mrs. Lancing (Morton Lowry and Laraine Day), and their infant son moments before it crashes in the African jungle. It turns out Tarzan’s home turf  has Bermuda Triangle-like qualities. The bad patch of air that screws around with plane equipment is located on the Mutia Escarpment (named after Mutia Omoolu, the African actor who played Rencharo in the 1931 film starring Harry Carey as the eponymous character in Trader Horn). The crash kills everyone on board except for the child.

Spoilers ahead, and speaking of spoilers…

I normally like to watch a film fresh and then dig up information about it afterwards, but the presentation by Barron and Burtt that preceded Tarzan Finds a Son! was as entertaining as the film itself. Yes, they pulled the curtain back to reveal how all the magic was done, but the incredible treasure trove of information they uncover only added to my awe and appreciation for the film that followed. Did it detract from my experience to know that African elephants can’t be trained, so Indian ones were used, but the Indian elephants had small ears that had to be equipped with giant rubber prosthetic ones? Nope. Or that the famous Tarzan yell that was rumored to be a combination of hyena, violin and dog sounds (or maybe even a cow in distress), was probably a flipped analog recording helped midpoint by a clarinet? Again, no. The detective work alone that went into analyzing the Tarzan yell was both impressive and fascinating, with lots of video clips being shown along the way. One highlight included a rare TV spot showing Weissmuller on the The Groucho Marx Show being asked to replicate the Tarzan yell (close, Johnny, but no cigar).

Back to the spoilers for Tarzan Finds a Son!

As mentioned, the parents die in the plane crash, but the infant is rescued from hyenas and cannibals thanks to the quick work of some of Cheeta’s furry friends. Everyone’s favorite chimpanzee extraordinaire, in turn, hands over the baby to Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan). Jane convinces Tarzan they should keep the child and when we next cut to action we are introduced to Johnny Sheffield as the five-year-old and precocious Boy, who can then be seen running around and getting caught in giant spider webs and almost bitten to death by aggressive arachnids, or almost getting gored by rhinos, or almost eaten by tigers, or almost drifting off waterfalls. Tarzan and Jane are always, of course, quick to come to the rescue, but they also have that half-shrug and “whatever” attitude that seasoned parents get who understand that, hey, the world is a dangerous place, so if the kid gets banged up a bit here and there, that’s the way it goes. I found the whole experience such a gripping ride that despite flirting with a bladder emergency (courtesy of drinking far too much coffee earlier in the day), I couldn’t rip myself from the screen and chose, instead, to twist up my legs like a Russian ballet dancer and grip the arm-rests of my chair with the mental focus of a strong-man trying to bend a crowbar.

Here’s the thing: that moment when my bladder felt like it was extended far past any previous carrying capacity ever met in my life where it felt like everything might burst, that  was also the moment when Jane was impaled with a spear in her back just before a pack of wild elephants trampled past the cannibal kingdom gates and all of chaos was unleashed. I went from twisting my legs like a Russian dancer to doing stuff Cirque du Soleil performers could only dream of, and if plastic could be crushed like coal, my arm rests would be encrusted with diamonds – and all of this because there was no way I could leave that theater to hit the men’s room until I found out what happened next.

As it turns out, Jane, who was supposed to die, lives thanks to early test audiences not liking the fact that she was speared to death. After all, you can’t do that to a mom, right? (Happy Mother’s Day!) This proves one thing only: the concept of test audiences should have been speared to death a long time ago, because for a fleeting moment I saw something surprising and uncompromising that would have touched on  greatness. (No offense to my mom, whom I’m very glad is still very much around and not having been speared by cannibals.) All in all, though, aside for the cheesy spiders and Jane miraculously coming back to life, what a film! I’d have given it a standing ovation had I not hit the aisle running at the first sign of the end credits so as to deliver an African-sized waterfall of relief at the nearest urinal.

In my praise of the TCM FF something else begs to be said: a classic film fest has an unfair advantage over most other film festivals which are obsessed with bringing you the newest, latest, and supposedly greatest film premiere that they can get their hands on. The fact is, when you’re only, or primarily, selecting contemporary movies you are also, by necessity, going to be stuck with a largely hit-and-miss affair stuffed with a lot of turkeys that won’t survive the scrutiny of time. Only hindsight gives you 20/20 vision, and that’s exactly what the TCM FF has in its favor, lots of hindsight, no turkeys.

Even better, because it’s mostly classics, the TCM FF had access to more 35mm prints than any other festival I’ve been to in recent memory. At the last Sundance Film Festival, I saw 27 movies, and only one (one!) title that I screened was on 35mm film, everything else was digital. This is to be expected, as we’ve now long ago crossed the format divide. And even at TCM FF many of the classics were digital restorations, which in most cases were exceptional (especially when screened at El Capitan). But, for an old fogy like me, there is something truly special about still having access to rare and archival prints. I enjoyed the clean and bright colors afforded the digital restorations of Giant and The Great Escape that I saw at the TCL Chinese Theatre, but – boy! – even a somewhat dirty original 35mm print of a pre-code film like Safe in Hell screened in a smaller multiplex theater provided me with more of a thrill. Of course, it helps if, like with Tarzan Finds a Son!, it’s a stunningly gorgeous and mint-condition print. Most of the action may have taken place on the Culver City soundstages owned by MGM, but for a brief time there at The Egyptian, I was living on the Mutia Escarpment.

TARZAN FINDS A SON! movie poster

27 Responses TARZAN FINDS A SON! (And Jane Becomes a Mom)
Posted By Doug : May 12, 2013 3:24 pm

keelsetter, thanks so much for this post! I love your enthusiasm, and ‘Tarzan Finds A Son!’ sounds like a riot of good times.
“This proves one thing only: the concept of test audiences should have been speared to death a long time ago,”
hold on there, friend-I think that sometimes test audiences can help to improve films. Their opinions might carry too much weight with the suits, and they might be (whisper it) non-film lovers…but some feedback can help shape a project positively.
I’m thinking of the Marx Brothers trying out their film material in front of live audiences before having the cameras roll.
Also, test audiences might have saved us from “Freddy Got Fingered”, so there you go.
It would be wonderful to visit so many film festivals-I’m glad that you share your adventures here at Morlocks, even your physiological moment of conflict while watching “Tarzan Finds A Son!”.
I might have an idea for…well, that depends.

Posted By Doug : May 12, 2013 3:24 pm

keelsetter, thanks so much for this post! I love your enthusiasm, and ‘Tarzan Finds A Son!’ sounds like a riot of good times.
“This proves one thing only: the concept of test audiences should have been speared to death a long time ago,”
hold on there, friend-I think that sometimes test audiences can help to improve films. Their opinions might carry too much weight with the suits, and they might be (whisper it) non-film lovers…but some feedback can help shape a project positively.
I’m thinking of the Marx Brothers trying out their film material in front of live audiences before having the cameras roll.
Also, test audiences might have saved us from “Freddy Got Fingered”, so there you go.
It would be wonderful to visit so many film festivals-I’m glad that you share your adventures here at Morlocks, even your physiological moment of conflict while watching “Tarzan Finds A Son!”.
I might have an idea for…well, that depends.

Posted By Susan Doll : May 12, 2013 6:18 pm

Hey, I was there for SAFE IN HELL, with Donald Bogle and William Wellman, Jr., which was pretty cool. And, I heard the organist and saw the curtain treatment at El Capitan when I watched the restored LADY AND THE TRAMP. It was beautiful.

I also opted for Mel Brooks presenting 12 CHAIRS, and Haskell Wexler and Albert Maysles at GIMME SHELTER.

Are you going next year? Depending on my schedule at school, I am pretty sure I am.

Posted By Susan Doll : May 12, 2013 6:18 pm

Hey, I was there for SAFE IN HELL, with Donald Bogle and William Wellman, Jr., which was pretty cool. And, I heard the organist and saw the curtain treatment at El Capitan when I watched the restored LADY AND THE TRAMP. It was beautiful.

I also opted for Mel Brooks presenting 12 CHAIRS, and Haskell Wexler and Albert Maysles at GIMME SHELTER.

Are you going next year? Depending on my schedule at school, I am pretty sure I am.

Posted By B Piper : May 12, 2013 9:05 pm

Did Brooks have anything interesting to say about THE 12 CHAIRS? I’ve heard it’s his favorite of his own films, and if so I applaud his taste. BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN feel more forced and unfunny every time I see them but CHAIRS just gets better and better.

Posted By B Piper : May 12, 2013 9:05 pm

Did Brooks have anything interesting to say about THE 12 CHAIRS? I’ve heard it’s his favorite of his own films, and if so I applaud his taste. BLAZING SADDLES and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN feel more forced and unfunny every time I see them but CHAIRS just gets better and better.

Posted By keelsetter : May 13, 2013 12:00 am

Doug – Good points on the test audience front. Comedy, as you mention, was (and remains) best suited for multiple testings in front of a live audience as a successful way to hone down an act. And why shouldn’t this work for broader genres? Well… sometimes it does, but we’re now in a brave new world were it’s even going beyond a test audience and everything is reduced to data. For more reading:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/business/media/solving-equation-of-a-hit-film-script-with-data.html?ref=movies&_r=1&

Susan – I nudged R.H.S. at one point when I thought I saw you walk past and said, “Hey, wasn’t that Susan?” But you were already gone. As you might be able to tell from my gushing review, I’d love to make the TCM FF a yearly destination trip. If stars align, let’s definitely get together next year.

Piper – I missed 12 CHAIRS, alas, so maybe Susan can reply.

Posted By keelsetter : May 13, 2013 12:00 am

Doug – Good points on the test audience front. Comedy, as you mention, was (and remains) best suited for multiple testings in front of a live audience as a successful way to hone down an act. And why shouldn’t this work for broader genres? Well… sometimes it does, but we’re now in a brave new world were it’s even going beyond a test audience and everything is reduced to data. For more reading:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/business/media/solving-equation-of-a-hit-film-script-with-data.html?ref=movies&_r=1&

Susan – I nudged R.H.S. at one point when I thought I saw you walk past and said, “Hey, wasn’t that Susan?” But you were already gone. As you might be able to tell from my gushing review, I’d love to make the TCM FF a yearly destination trip. If stars align, let’s definitely get together next year.

Piper – I missed 12 CHAIRS, alas, so maybe Susan can reply.

Posted By jim vecchio : May 13, 2013 7:43 am

Loved that article! I could truly identify with your dilemma of, to politely put it, needing to go but wanting to stay, during the impaling of Jane. Like all of us who weren’t there, I sure wish I could have been in your seat! I haven’t been to much film fests recently, the last one being a Hopalong Cassidy Festival in Cambridge, Ohio (and, yes, it was a ball!) but one local theater, the AVON, in Stamford, CT, regularly has classic and new films paired with authors, critics, directors, actors, etc., so I can get a small sense of the overall feeling of the TCM Festical (albeit very small). So, once more, as a representative of those who could not make it, GREAT REPORTING!

Posted By jim vecchio : May 13, 2013 7:43 am

Loved that article! I could truly identify with your dilemma of, to politely put it, needing to go but wanting to stay, during the impaling of Jane. Like all of us who weren’t there, I sure wish I could have been in your seat! I haven’t been to much film fests recently, the last one being a Hopalong Cassidy Festival in Cambridge, Ohio (and, yes, it was a ball!) but one local theater, the AVON, in Stamford, CT, regularly has classic and new films paired with authors, critics, directors, actors, etc., so I can get a small sense of the overall feeling of the TCM Festical (albeit very small). So, once more, as a representative of those who could not make it, GREAT REPORTING!

Posted By DBenson : May 13, 2013 4:53 pm

I symphathize. It took me a few times to realize a big Coke and a two-hour-plus Harry Potter are not an optimal combination. The toughest was when Harry had to fend off scary creatures while Dumbledore had to drink all the water in a magic punchbowl.

Posted By DBenson : May 13, 2013 4:53 pm

I symphathize. It took me a few times to realize a big Coke and a two-hour-plus Harry Potter are not an optimal combination. The toughest was when Harry had to fend off scary creatures while Dumbledore had to drink all the water in a magic punchbowl.

Posted By robbushblog : May 14, 2013 12:39 am

My mom and I watched all of the Weissmuller Tarzan movies when they were shown on TCM in 2011 and early 2012, I believe. Tarzan Finds a Son is definitely one of the highlights of the series. As a child my favorite was Tarzan’s New York Adventure.

I stopped getting concessions at the movies after a large Icee almost prevented me from finding out who Keyser Soze really was.

Posted By robbushblog : May 14, 2013 12:39 am

My mom and I watched all of the Weissmuller Tarzan movies when they were shown on TCM in 2011 and early 2012, I believe. Tarzan Finds a Son is definitely one of the highlights of the series. As a child my favorite was Tarzan’s New York Adventure.

I stopped getting concessions at the movies after a large Icee almost prevented me from finding out who Keyser Soze really was.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : May 16, 2013 5:26 pm

Enjoyed your post and I didn’t know that “Boy” was an infant that survived a plane crash. I always thought he was Tarzan and Jane’s biological child. Guess I better start watching the rest of these Tarzan movies, I’ve only seen the first one with MGM made, and the one made in the 80′s, Lord Greystroke one.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : May 16, 2013 5:26 pm

Enjoyed your post and I didn’t know that “Boy” was an infant that survived a plane crash. I always thought he was Tarzan and Jane’s biological child. Guess I better start watching the rest of these Tarzan movies, I’ve only seen the first one with MGM made, and the one made in the 80′s, Lord Greystroke one.

Posted By swac44 : May 21, 2013 9:43 am

You really need to see Tarzan and His Mate, the second film in the MGM series, and possibly its (pre-code) highlight. So glad it got restored for laserdisc so many moons ago. I haven’t watched any of the Weissmuller Tarzans in way too long, need to do some catching up, so many thrills packed into this franchise!

BTW, I’ve never seen any of the Tarzans starring Buster Crabbe,were those in serial form? I’m sure there out there somewhere in home video land, I wonder how they hold up?

Posted By swac44 : May 21, 2013 9:43 am

You really need to see Tarzan and His Mate, the second film in the MGM series, and possibly its (pre-code) highlight. So glad it got restored for laserdisc so many moons ago. I haven’t watched any of the Weissmuller Tarzans in way too long, need to do some catching up, so many thrills packed into this franchise!

BTW, I’ve never seen any of the Tarzans starring Buster Crabbe,were those in serial form? I’m sure there out there somewhere in home video land, I wonder how they hold up?

Posted By keelsetter : May 21, 2013 1:50 pm

Thanks for the tip! Knowing TARZAN AND HIS MATE might have some pre-code goodness sweetens the pot.

I’ve never seen Crabbe sport the loin-cloth, but have many fond memories of him as FLASH GORDON.

Posted By keelsetter : May 21, 2013 1:50 pm

Thanks for the tip! Knowing TARZAN AND HIS MATE might have some pre-code goodness sweetens the pot.

I’ve never seen Crabbe sport the loin-cloth, but have many fond memories of him as FLASH GORDON.

Posted By swac44 : May 21, 2013 1:57 pm

Yep, the scene of Tarzan and Jane going swimming is one of the most erotic things in pre-code, this side of Jean Harlow on a chilly soundstage.

Posted By swac44 : May 21, 2013 1:57 pm

Yep, the scene of Tarzan and Jane going swimming is one of the most erotic things in pre-code, this side of Jean Harlow on a chilly soundstage.

Posted By Doug : May 21, 2013 3:01 pm

swac44-I’ve cut back on my frivolous spending lately, but the recent Lloyd post by davidkalat spurred me to order a Laurel & Hardy silent set which includes both Jean Harlow and Thelma Todd.
I wanted to get “Bacon Grabbers” again. Recently watched Harlow in “Libeled Lady”; all the more I appreciate how she held her ground against three of the best in the business.
Though I may be talking nonsense, I think the young actress Amber Heard would do well playing Thelma Todd in a bio movie.

Posted By Doug : May 21, 2013 3:01 pm

swac44-I’ve cut back on my frivolous spending lately, but the recent Lloyd post by davidkalat spurred me to order a Laurel & Hardy silent set which includes both Jean Harlow and Thelma Todd.
I wanted to get “Bacon Grabbers” again. Recently watched Harlow in “Libeled Lady”; all the more I appreciate how she held her ground against three of the best in the business.
Though I may be talking nonsense, I think the young actress Amber Heard would do well playing Thelma Todd in a bio movie.

Posted By swac44 : May 21, 2013 3:37 pm

Good idea, Doug (couldn’t be any worse than Loni Anderson in that TV movie about Thelma). But who would play Zasu Pitts?

Posted By swac44 : May 21, 2013 3:37 pm

Good idea, Doug (couldn’t be any worse than Loni Anderson in that TV movie about Thelma). But who would play Zasu Pitts?

Posted By Next year’s TCM Film Festival: Movie recommendations | REVEAL SHOT : February 15, 2014 3:29 pm

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