Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Johnny Weissmuller-The RKO Tarzan Films

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!


GL said...

I always preferred the RKO Weissmuller films to the MGM originals, although there were elements I wish that RKO could have preserved.

First, Brenda Joyce was always my preference as Jane to Maureen O'Sullivan. Brenda had a sweet, sensual look about her and was quite athletic and leggy in Jane's minidress.

As such, I wish they could have preserved the steamy romance with Brenda's Jane that Tarzan had in the MGM films. Weissmuller & Joyce made quite a lovely and eye catching couple as Tarzan & Jane. Though there was some playfulness and kissing between the two in their four films together, there wasn't the "sweeping Jane off her feet" romance that was a staple of the earlier films.

Perhaps RKO wanted to differentiate their efforts rather than make cookie cutter copies of the MGM films. So rather, they had Tarzan in cozy in suggestive situations with other female cast members.

Yet those scenes do have their strong moments. In Tarzan and the Amazons, Weissmuller saves a young Amazon beauty, played by Shirley O'Hara from a panther. Then, as she suffered an ankle sprain trying to escape the panther's chase, Tarzan sweeps her off her feet, and carries Athena in his arms, seemingly for miles, back to the mountain pass where the hidden Amazon city is located.

Even though it's not intended, it's quite romantic to see the strong, loincloth clad Weissmuller carrying the leggy, shapely O'Hara in his arms. And though Miss O'Hara was little more than half Weissmuller's age at that point, the scene conveys quite a suggestive, believable chemistry between the two.

Also, I have to mention Tarzan and the Leopard Woman as my favorite. Though he had just turned 41, Weissmuller looks incredible in this film with a physique a male 15 years younger would envy. His pectorals are as muscular as ever, and he had slimmed quite a bit. RKO, of course, looked to capitalize on his resurgent sex appeal by trimming his loincloth to its briefest and most revealing in years.

But it's Tarzan's fight with the leopard cult, and his conflict with it's sexy leader, Lea, played by Acquanetta, that make this film shine. Tarzan is captured in a thrilling fight with the steel clawed leopard men, leaving him with countless deep scratches all over his back, ribcage, arms, and legs.

Tarzan is then bound before Lea, who tries to extract information from a silent Tarzan to no avail. When this fails, she retreats to get a sharpened claw with a long handle, and begins to stalk towards a helpless injured Tarzan.

As she slowly stalks toward him, the claw is turned inward and is over Tarzan's left pectoral as Lea edges closer to him. there is no doubt that Lea intends to plunge the claw into Tarzan's chest to torture and perhaps even slay him. And yet, one can feel an ocean's worth of sensual tension between Tarzan & Lea.

This is certainly quite chilling and erotic given Weissmuller's pectoral prowess, as his chest was quite the symbol of his strength and manhood as Tarzan. And while Tarzan had always managed to defeat wild animals, giant crocodiles, and evil men alike - it's quite stunning that it's a beautiful woman that may imminently emasculate or even slay him.

So while there were elements missing from the RKO films, these were just two of the scenes of these films that always make them stand out more to me.

GL said...

Sadly, The Hollywood Reporter stated that Brenda Joyce passed away two weeks ago.

She became Jane in 1945 Tarzan and the Amazons at the age of 27, and despite her age difference with then 40 year old Johnny Weissmuller, they made quite an alluring and eye pleasingly sexy couple as Tarzan and Jane.

As mentioned before, she was my favorite Jane, and I always wished that the producers had given her Jane the steamy chemistry that Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane had with Weissmuller.

Still, her screen time with Weissmuller had its moments. When Tarzan greets a returning Jane after two years in Amazons, Jane is still demurely dressed in the fashion of the day in a calf length dress, high heels, and white gloves.

And yet the contrast is quite stirring between the modestly covered Joyce and the loincloth clad Weissmuller. Tarzan greets Jane's return by wrapping his arms around her tight and giving her a passionate kiss. I'm sure Weissmuller did not have to channel his acting chops for that scene.

And when they finally return to the treehouse, we see Jane don her short mini-dress, and every male shares Tarzan's broad grin at seeing Brenda's leggy shapeliness filling out her tunic.

Tarzan and the Leopard Woman featured a stark contrast. Weissmuller, perhaps buoyed on by his new found Jane, lost 30 pounds off his beefy physique, and at 41, his body looked as sleek as it had 10 years earlier as RKO sought to capitalize on Weissmuller's resurgent sex appeal by trimming his loincloth to its briefest in years.

Leopard Woman cried out for a stirring love scene of Tarzan kissing his Jane and sweeping off her feet to carry her off for a romantic interlude, but sadly we do not have it.

But we do have a market place scene of Tarzan and Jane walking hand in hand, turning all heads at the sight of this enduringly sexy image of the scantily clad, ample chested Weissmuller sharing a romantic walk with the beautiful, leggy, shapely Joyce.

A year later in Tarzan and the Huntress, viewers did get quite a sexy scene between Weissmuller & Joyce. While relaxing on a raft Boy is piloting, Tarzan teases Jane about the jungle being more peaceful before she arrived.

So to try to extract an apology from Tarzan, Jane leans over her husband laying on his back, and tickles his chest in quite an exciting scene and they playfully wrestle. Jane certainly knows how to bring her man to his knees as she eventually receives her apology sealed with a kiss.

So while, Brenda has passed on, she will remain eternally young as Jane, swept up in the arms of Weissmuller's Tarzan as an enduring image of beauty and love.

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Unknown said...

These films always appeared over the Christmas Holidays on the BBC in the late seventies and early eighties. I always found the RKO films darker than the bigger budgeted MGM films, Tarzan Triumphs has scenes not out of place in a war film involving commandos as he knifes Nazis with no emotion, and Tarzan and the Leopard Woman could have passed as a horror film as it has some very brutal and dark scenes involving the Leopard cult. Yet in those less offended and less PC times, the 1940s Tarzan films were considered wholesome family entertainment and well liked over here.
Still think Tarzan's New York Adventure is the best of the Weissmuller films, as it featured big budget action, some hilarious scenes involving Cheeta( the changing room scene is still excellent) and stunts like Tarzan jumping between buildings.

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