I've always been a big Tarzan fan. It comes with the territory of being a Baby Boomer. In the late 50s and early 60s Saturday morning television meant The Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, Our Gang and Tarzan. Edgar Rice Burrough's jungle hero has been played by many actors and athletes, but Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) will always be Tarzan. The powerfully built Olympic swimming champ had the look and physique to make him the definitive Tarzan. The MGM films Johnny made with lovely Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane are classics. I've always been partial to the RKO series of 1943-8. The RKOs are more campy and silly at times, but still great entertainment. This post is an affectionate look at the series.
When MGM dropped the Tarzan series in 1942, producer Sol Lesser jumped at the movie rights and took stars Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny "Boy" Sheffield to RKO. Maureen O'Sullivan passed as Jane. The first two entries had her character in England nursing soldiers for the war effort. In 1938 Lesser had produced the independent Tarzan's Revenge starring Olympic athlete Glenn Morris and swimming champ Eleanor Holm.
Tarzan Triumphs (1943), the first of the series is a top notch adventure, also full of camp and wartime propaganda. Tarzan battles an army of Nazis, who have taken over a jungle city. Weissmuller, approaching 40, is still powerfully built and commanding as the jungle lord. Young Johnny and Cheeta are along for their usual adventures and monkeyshines.
To fill Jane's absence Lesser cast beautiful Frances Gifford as Zandra, princess of the captive city. Frances had earlier played Nyoka, the Jungle Girl (another Burroughs creation) in a 1941 serial. She was lovely and possessed a gorgeous figure and would have made a great Jane had she stayed in the series. For us Baby Boomers we all remember the cat and mouse game between Tarzan and Nazi Stanley Ridges with Tarzan's cries of "Here, Nazi. Come, Nazi-Nazi" before tricking him into a fitting death. Cheeta's finale with the Nazi's radio is not to be missed! It is right up there with The Three Stooges' Nazi gags.
The next film, Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943), was a bit on the silly side. Filmed right after Triumphs and also using Nazi villains, the film shows its haste in production. Again Jane is in England and asks Tarzan and Boy to find a jungle serum that will cure ill soldiers. The female lead is played by Nancy Kelly as a lady magician who meets up with Tarzan and Boy. Her character is plucky and amiable, but is given a little too much to do at the expense of Tarzan! The last part of the film in the "fever jungle" is good mostly for laughs with Tarzan battling "prehistoric monsters" and a "giant spider". Later that year Johnny did a cameo as himself in the war effort film, Stage Door Canteen. RKO studios used the Los Angeles County Arboretum in nearby Arcadia for jungle scenes. There was a lagoon and vegetation and looked quite realistic. Some scenes were also shot in Lake Sherwood. Also important to the success of the series was the work of directors William Thiele and Kurt Neumann, screenwriter Carroll Young and musical composer Paul Sawtell. They gave the films style, substance and color.
Tarzan and the Amazons (1945) got back to basics and also brought Jane back. Brenda Joyce, a lovely, shapely blonde with great legs, took over the role and looks great in Jane's leather tunic. She and Johnny made a handsome couple. She was a lovely step-mom to the pre-teen Boy. In the story Jane is returning to Africa after her wartime work in England. A group of scientists guided by a crooked hunter, Barton MacLane, are looking for a tribe of Amazons. When Tarzan refuses to show them the hidden Amazon city, Boy is duped into playing guide. When the crooks try to swipe the Amazonian treasure, they pay with their lives. Tarzan makes the save before Boy meets his death! There are many lovely leopard-clad lovelies as Amazons. Brenda Joyce makes a nice debut as Jane. All in all, a top-notch adventure.
The next film, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946), is the best of the series and my personal favorite. Tarzan takes on a savage tribe that dresses in leopard skins with steel claws and tries to retard the advance of civilization to the jungle. Their queen, Lea, is played by Acquanetta, an extremely beautiful and sexy actress who was portrayed as a Latina but was actually Native American. This film has more action and excitement than the previous entries. Johnny Weissmuller had gotten himself into the best condition of his RKO period. He is trim, toned and his pectorals are at their best in years. His loincloth is a bit more daring. Obviously the studio knew how good he looked! Brenda Joyce once again plays Jane and looks lovely as ever. Tarzan works hard in this outing, constantly involved in the action. He has a nasty fight with the leopard men and in a very erotic and chilling scene, faces torture from the beautiful but deadly Lea.
With Cheeta's help Tarzan makes his escape, destroys the evil tribe and saves Jane, Boy and some native girls, all of whom were to be sacrificed. If you haven't seen an RKO Tarzan, start with this one. It's the best!
This was a hard act to follow. The next film, Tarzan and the Huntress (1947), is a fine adventure. Not as intense as Leopard Woman, but still great fun. Johnny still looked fit and strong, but his physique isn't as awesome as in Leopard Woman. Brenda Joyce, on the other hand, never looked better. She sports a sexy two piece outfit in some scenes. Johnny Sheffield had grown into an athletic teenager. This would be his last appearance as Boy. He had outgrown the part. In 1949 he would star in his own series, Bomba the Jungle Boy at Monogram Studios.
The Huntress storyline is familiar. Greedy hunters led by the lovely Tanya, Patricia Morrison, try to overstep the bounds allowed by the local king. Tarzan intervenes and saves his animal friends. Barton MacLane returned in a role similar to his Amazons character. Tanya wasn't as evil as Lea and was allowed to escape. All the other baddies meet their fate at the hands of Tarzan.
The last Weissmuller Tarzan film was Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948). Unfortunately Johnny went out with a lackluster adventure. He had also lost some of his superb muscle tone and put on a bit of weight. He was still great in the part and along with the lovely Brenda, sporting that two piece again in early scenes, saves a rather sorry film. Newcomer Linda Christian also looks gorgeous as a native "mermaid" forced to marry a phony island god. A sub-plot involving pearl thieves is thrown in. Tarzan saves the day, making a spectacular cliff dive, fighting off his adversaries and battling an octopus before saving Jane and Co. This was the only Weissmuller Tarzan filmed on location in Acapulco, Mexico.
Johnny wanted a percentage of future film grosses to continue as Tarzan. RKO and Lesser decided to go with a younger actor. Lex Barker took over the role. Brenda Joyce stayed on as Jane for the first entry, Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949).
Johnny got back into shape and went over to Columbia studios to star in the equally popular series, Jungle Jim (1949-55). As a hunter and jungle guide, Johnny simply traded loincloth for khakis. As one critic said, it was "Tarzan with clothes." Johnny also starred in a syndicated Jungle Jim TV show in 1956.
The RKO Weissmuller Tarzans are very entertaining and exciting jungle adventures with the greatest Tarzan of all time. All 6 films are available on DVD on Warner Brothers' Tarzan Collection Volume 2.
Till next time, Good Hunting and Ungawa!