Sunday, July 10, 2011


Two confessions: 1) as a lad on the edge of puberty, I was fascinated with Tarzan. I read Tarzan books and comic books, saw bits and pieces of the Tarzan movies on Sunday afternoons (I couldn’t always watch the whole thing because Dad got the TV on Sundays for football), and owned a book called Tarzan of the Movies, filled with pictures of hunky men wearing only loincloths. If it was a book that made me gay, this was it; 2) even though I was a big Tarzan fan, I can only recall seeing two of the Johnny Weissmuller films all the way through: Tarzan of the Apes (his first one) and Tarzan and His Mate (his second one). Of his twelve Tarzan movies, these two are considered the best. By the time Weissmuller made this one (his eighth), even though he wasn't 40 yet, he was going to seed: his face was a bit puffy, his stocky body was way past its prime, and his acting hadn’t improved. Even his famous yell sounds a bit puny here. Still, this movie has its moments and I wasn't sorry to have sat through it.

With World War II raging, Jane is in England working as a nurse; she sends Tarzan a message asking him to send her a rare fever cure found in a jungle past the Arabian town of Bir Herari. That town is run by a well-intentioned sheik with a handsome, Yale-educated son, Prince Salim. Unfortunately, the sheik has allowed a businessman named Hendricks to have too much influence; the working people like the sheik but despise the unfair, hard-driving Hendricks, whom we discover is actually named Heinrichs (and thus probably a Nazi). Meanwhile, Tarzan, Boy and Cheetah cross paths outside town with vaudeville entertainer Connie Bryce who has been sent on a mission to deliver a message to Salim from an old Yale buddy, exposing Hendricks. She goes about singing the Yale fight song ("Boo-la, boo-laaaa…") in order to find the prince but just after she gives him the message, Hendricks and his henchman kill Salim and pin the murder on Kelly, who is sentenced to death. With Tarzan in jail on a trumped-up charge of horse thievery, it's up to Boy and Cheetah to help him escape so they can all free Connie. Then, the real excitement starts as the good guys go racing through a desert sandstorm to reach the jungle to get the fever medicine before the bad guys catch up with them. Tarzan and his pals (and Hendricks) have to face giant prehistoric lizards, giant man-eating plants, and a giant spider before the medicine is found and the proper message delivered to the sheik.

The soon-to-be-bloated Weissmuller seems to just be going through the motions, but this is a fun flick thanks to the exotic setting, the supporting cast, and the youthful energy of Boy, played by 12-year-old Johnny Sheffield. Nancy Kelly does a good job with the underwritten role of Connie, Otto Kruger makes a good Germanic villain, Joe Sawyer is fine as his associate, and Robert Lowery (the first actor to play Batman, in a 1949 serial) is handsome indeed as Salim. In fact, at times this seems barely to be a Tarzan film; it plays better as a WWII B-spy thriller. The spider is laughably bad and most of the other effects are borrowed from other movies, but the last 20 minutes, beginning with the horse stampede that Tarzan uses to free Connie from the hangman's noose, move along nicely. My favorite line is from Kelly, when explaining to Salim about singing the Yale song: "I've had a very liberal education; I've been intercepting Yale passes for years." With Turner Classic running Tarzan films all summer, there will certainly be more Tarzan reviews on the way. [TCM]

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