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Weissmuller's Tarzan at RKO; Less Pretentious, Great Fun!
on October 20, 2006
While Tarzan was a moneymaker at MGM, with the outset of WWII, the studio felt Johnny Weissmuller was getting too old, Maureen O'Sullivan wanted out of the series, and the overseas market was lost, so the series was dropped...but RKO would prove the Ape Man had a LOT of life left in him!
Producer Sol Lesser loved the character, and snapped up the rights, wisely keeping Weissmuller, 39, and 'Boy' Johnny Sheffield, at nearly 12, in their signature roles. 'Jane' was written out of the first two features (first caring for her mother, then serving in the war), and the best-loved elements (superhuman heroics, comedy from chimp co-star, Cheetah, wild animal footage) were 'beefed up', dropping the romance, the atmospheric black 'extras', that provided authenticity (but were expensive for a smaller studio to maintain), and the MGM 'glossiness'. Even the Tarzan 'yell' had to be replaced (as the manufactured howl, part Weismuller, part studio magic), was the property of the studio; Weismuller created a 'new' one, that would become so popular that it would be kept, long after he finally retired from the role.
The first RKO entry was perhaps the best of the series; TARZAN TRIUMPHS brought the Nazis into the jungle to tap the resources of a 'lost' city, kidnapping Boy, and leading the previously isolationist Ape Man to utter the famous tag line, "Now Tarzan make war!" With lovely Frances Gifford as a native princess, and Sig Ruman, moving from Marx Brothers' foil to one of Hollywood's busiest 'Nazis', as one of the villains, the film is very entertaining (if extremely violent...Tarzan encourages the locals to grab a gun and kill, Boy shoots one Nazi soldier with a pistol, and even CHEETA machine guns one!).
TARZAN'S DESERT MYSTERY again offered Nazis (Otto Kruger, who'd played a similar role in Hitchcock's SABOTEUR, a year earlier, and veteran screen baddie Joe Sawyer), an American girl magician (vivacious Nancy Kelly), and a chance to combine Nazi duplicity with an 'Arabian'-themed adventure (which was a popular genre during the war years). Even a fantasy element was tossed in, as giant lizards and a mechanical spider 'passing' as 'prehistoric' appear in a 'lost jungle' climax.
TARZAN AND THE AMAZONS is closest in 'style' to the earlier MGM 'Tarzan' films (offering a crocodile fight, a 'classic' safari with many more black extras than in any other RKO 'Tarzan' feature of the era, excellent production values), and is most famous for introducing American Brenda Joyce, 33, as the new 'Jane', back from the war. Blond and beautiful, she lacked O'Sullivan's intellectual 'spin' to the role, but worked well with the 41-year-old Weissmuller, while providing a mother figure for 'Boy' that the 'kid' audience could relate to. With a cast of terrific character actors (including Henry Stephenson, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Barton MacLane), and a plot involving a 'lost' city of women, the film is one of the best-remembered RKO entries, and great fun!
TARZAN AND THE LEOPARD WOMAN marked the beginning of the decline of the RKO series; a routine, even silly tale of a cult (dressed in cheesy leopard skins) and it's high priestess (buxom Acquanetta) terrorizing the local population, and capturing Tarzan and his family. Memorable only for Cheeta saving Tarzan, yet again, and seeing 'Boy' Johnny Sheffield in the midst of puberty...
TARZAN AND THE HUNTRESS suffers from a low budget and a ho-hum plot; entrepreneur Patricia Morison's greedy crew kill a 'lost city' king to exceed their animal 'quota' for zoos, bringing out an aging Tarzan and startlingly adult-looking Boy; this would mark Sheffield's last appearance in the role.
TARZAN AND THE MERMAIDS, Weissmuller's final Tarzan appearance, is a truly surreal entry; filmed in Mexico, with musical interludes, the plot features an Aztec temple complete with a 'god', and cliff-diving (in AFRICA???), and is best remembered for lovely Linda Christian (Tyrone Power's future bride), as a runaway native girl, and a musical score by legendary Dimitri Tiomkin. Weissmuller looks middle-aged and heavy, and would be replaced, in the next film, by young Lex Barker.
A mixed bag, to be sure, but great fun, at it's best, and certainly worth owning!