#452) Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

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#452) Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

OR “Tumble in the Jungle”

Directed by Cedric Gibbons (and Jack Conway & James C. McKay. More on this later)

Written by James Kevin McGuinness. Based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Class of 2003

Thanks, Katrina!

The Plot: Johnny Weissmuller is Tarzan, the famous literary hero raised by apes in the jungles of Africa. Two years earlier in a previous film, this Tarzan met the civilized Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan), who opted to stay behind and live with Tarzan and his chimpanzee sidekick Cheeta (Himself). Now, Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), the former business partner of Jane’s father, has returned with Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh) on a mission to steal ivory from an elephant graveyard. This plot is held up by plenty of action, lots of animals, a bit of surprisingly risqué chemistry between the two leads, and an embarrassingly large amount of cultural appropriation.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives the film its due as “generally considered the finest in the [Tarzan] series”, and mentions its “rather steamy” production issues.

But Does It Really?: An MGM Tarzan movie should be on this list, and “Tarzan and His Mate” checks off all the boxes. Its depiction of African tribes is downright offensive, and adding a sequel to this list over its predecessor leads to some “Son of the Sheik” style confusion, but overall this Tarzan is a perfect representation of the overall series. No argument for its NFR inclusion, just plenty of concerns over its increasingly problematic elements.

Everybody Gets One: When nine-year-old János Weissmüller contracted polio, his doctor recommended he take up swimming for his health. As an adult, the renamed Johnny Weissmuller competed in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, earning five gold medals for swimming and breaking several world records along the way. By the early 1930s, Weissmuller was modeling for BVD swimwear and taking acting gigs, leading to a seven-year contract with MGM. The surprise success of 1932’s “Tarzan the Ape Man” catapulted Weissmuller to stardom, and he played Tarzan for 16 more years.

Wow, That’s Dated: Despite being predominantly colonized by European nations in 1934, Africa was (and is) several distinct nations with diverse people and cultures. But Hollywood wasn’t ready for that, opting to depict the continent as one big undeveloped country. With its generic, offensive stereotyping of native tribes, it’s movies like “Tarzan” that set the Civil Rights movement back for decades.

Seriously, Oscars?: None of the 12 Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films received any kind of Oscar attention. Fun Fact: This movie’s director Cedric Gibbons designed the original Oscar statuette, and would go on to win his own creation 11 times!

Other notes 

  • It’s odd to think that the character of Tarzan hasn’t been around all that long. The first Tarzan story appeared in pulp magazine “The All-Story” in 1912, with the novel “Tarzan of the Apes” published in 1914. The first film came four years later with silent film star Elmo Lincoln in the title role. Tarzan was only 20 years old when MGM started making their films, and author Edgar Rice Burroughs lived to witness the entire Weissmuller era!
  • After the success of 1932’s “Tarzan the Ape Man”, sequel talks between MGM and Burroughs began immediately. Weissmuller and O’Sullivan reprised their roles, and director W. S. Van Dyke was set to return as well, co-directing with legendary production designer Cedric Gibbons. Van Dyke was re-assigned, leaving Gibbons to direct solo. Unhappy with Gibbons running behind schedule and over budget, MGM replaced him with Jack Conway and James C. McKay, with most of the film recast and reshot. Despite over 1000 film credits, “Tarzan and His Mate” is Cedric Gibbons’ sole directorial effort.
  • Despite all the backstage hassles, the film overall is not only cohesive, but treats the subject matter with total seriousness. There are a few light moments, but the film is grounded in the reality of living in the jungle and the dangers inherent.
  • Wow, this movie must have raided every zoo in Los Angeles County. Elephants, chimpanzees, zebras, a rhino; that must have been a logistical nightmare, to say nothing of the smell.
  • I enjoyed Maureen O’Sullivan’s lively, playful performance, but I just don’t see why a sophisticated woman like Jane would live in a jungle with a primate like Tarzan. But then again, this is what most women feel like they do when dating men anyway.
  • And now the reason we’re all here: Produced just as the Hays Code was being implemented, “Tarzan and His Mate” features a nude swimming scene between Tarzan and Jane (although Maureen O’Sullivan is using a body double). It’s excessive but never tasteless, and caused the boys at the Production Code to throw a fit. The Code demanded that the censored version with a fully clothed Jane be implemented during its theatrical run, and the original version disappeared for over 60 years.
  • I love that Jane has her own version of the Tarzan yell that is essentially the Bat-Signal.
  • Speaking of, Neil Hamilton would go on to play Commissioner Gordon in the 1960s “Batman” TV series.
  • Seriously though, why would Jane choose this life for herself? Her love for Tarzan cannot be enough to justify almost being attacked by animals every five minutes.
  • Despite its obvious flaws (and alarming mistreatment of animals), the film does advocate for animal rights and anti-poaching. Now if only this film practiced what it preached, or at least cared about the native African characters as much…
  • The climactic animal attack goes on forever, but is an impressive feat of stunt work, editing, and special effects. Kudos to everyone involved.
  • There’s one male lion in this movie, and I have to assume it’s Leo. He earned his paycheck that week.

Legacy 

  • “Tarzan and His Mate” was the second of six Weismuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan films for MGM. In 1943, the series and Weismuller headed over to RKO for six more outings (O’Sullivan had left the series to raise her family). The series got a little more farfetched with each entry, the final one being 1948’s “Tarzan and the Mermaids”.
  • Many filmmakers have taken a crack at the Tarzan legend over the years. Robert Towne’s more faithful adaptation earned his dog an Oscar nomination (long story), but as per usual, it’s the Disney version that most people are familiar with.
  • Interestingly enough, the Weissmuller Tarzan films helped perpetuate Tarzan as a primitive, monosyllabic simian, a far cry from the more articulate, sophisticated man of the original Burroughs novels. And while we’re at it, at no point does Weissmuller ever say “Me Tarzan. You Jane“.
  • MGM’s “Tarzan” series is the second movie I’ve covered this week that was represented on The Great Movie Ride at Disney World. Dear God do I miss that ride.
  • And of course, Weissmuller’s Tarzan yell (allegedly a spliced-together recording of a soprano, an alto, and a hog caller) is the cultural shorthand for Tarzan, and is often emulated in both parodies and straightforward adaptations.

Further Listening: Not really connected to anything, but I’ve had The Kinks’ “Apeman” stuck in my head during this post’s writing process. It’s a good song, but someone please help.

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