Personal blog - and temporary home page until new website is finished - of writer, editor and graphic artist Christopher Mills

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Swingin' at RKO

Yesterday I received my TARZAN COLLECTION VOL. 2 DVD set from Deep Discount, containing Johnny Weissmuller's second set of six Tarzan pictures. This half-dozen were produced not by MGM, but by RKO, and were somewhat less lavish than the initial batch from the larger studio. Also, Maureen O' Sullivan was still under contract at Metro, so the two Johnnys (Weissmuller and Sheffield a/k/a "Boy") had to go on without their beloved Jane. For a couple movies, anyway.

Well, I've already watched four of the flicks, and while I may have caught bits and pieces of these over the years on television, I can honestly say I'd never actually seen any of them all the way through before. Overall, I've found them to be extremely entertaining, well-produced, and somewhat less repetitive than the earlier MGM series (five of which feature pretty much the same plot). Like any other character-centric series, be it James Bond, Sherlock Holmes or Freddy Krueger, there are certain elements that have to be in every installment – a formula to follow – otherwise the audience feels cheated. For my money, the RKO screenwriters were more imaginative in wringing new twists out of the recipe than their counterparts at Metro.

Sure, Weissmuller's getting older and no longer the lithe, well-sculpted figure of Tarzan and His Mate, but he still cuts a formidible figure of an Ape Man – at least in these first four flicks.

The first of the RKO series, Tarzan Triumphs (1943), begins with Tarzan off picking up a letter from Jane (who's visiting family in England) at a distant trading post. Meanwhile, Boy nearly falls to his death while doing some unauthorized exploring. Boy is rescued by the lovely Zandra, a native of a lost civilization hidden in a valley (and this won't be the last of these – not by a long shot). Zandra is played by the gorgeous Frances Gifford, who had previously headlined Republic's serial, Jungle Girl. She's great in this, and I wish RKO had cast her as Jane. Anyway, soon a Nazi combat unit shows up and occupies Zandra's peaceful city, and she runs to Tarzan for help. But Tarzan's an "isolationist," and it takes experiencing some Nazi cruelty first hand to finally motivate the Ape Man to take action: "Now Tarzan make war!"

So, the propaganda level's a bit high. But it's a satisfying adventure, nonetheless.

Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943) has Tarzan and Boy crossing an unnamed desert in search of a medicinal plant that only grows in a distant jungle. Enroute, they become entangled in the local politics of a small desert kingdom, befriend a pretty American stage magician (!) and bedevil a foreign agent/racketeer. When they finally get to the jungle where the rare plants grow, it turns out to be chock-full of dinosaurs (played by optically-enlarged lizards), man-eating plants, and giant spiders!

It's a little slow in the middle, but once they get to the "lost world" jungle, it picks up nicely!

Tarzan And The Amazons (1945) has Jane re-joining her jungle family – only now she's a blonde with an American accent (pretty but bland Brenda Joyce). When a group of explorers want Tarzan to lead them to a lost city of women (hidden in a mountain valley – see? I told you!), he refuses, having sworn to protect the secret of the city's location. Unfortunately, Boy hasn't sworn any oath and knows the way, so he leads the safari to the Amazon paradise, where they're all promptly captured and sentenced to a life of hard labor in the gold mines! You know, by now, you'd think people would realize that when Tarzan says "no," there's usually a good reason!

Finally, I watched Tarzan And The Leopard Woman (1946). Weissmuller obviously worked to tone up for this one, and he looks great. The plot here is pretty basic, but cool. A cult of leopard men and their priestess (Acquanetta) are trying to prevent civilization from encroaching on their territory by attacking caravans and making it look like animal attacks. Of course, Tarzan isn't fooled for a minute. Good fun with a great ending.

I've got two more to go – Tarzan And The Huntress and Tarzan And The Mermaids. I suspect these will be the weakest of the batch, but I'm looking forward to them anyway. Hopefully this set will sell well and Warners will release the five Lex Barker Tarzan films soon!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really like the jungle genre. I'm currently watching Jungle Girl, featuring Nyoka, another ERB creation, and really enjoying it.