Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tarzan the Fearless (Principal, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I eventually watched a movie I’d recorded from TCM last March but had only now discovered in my back files: Tarzan the Fearless, a production of Sol Lesser’s Principal Pictures from 1933 — the year before Lesser’s company made The Return of Chandu, the remarkable serial directed by Ray Taylor, written by Barry Barringer and starring Bela Lugosi. Tarzan the Fearless was the film for which Lesser created the releasing strategy he also used in The Return of Chandu: he billed it as a so-called “feature-serial” and offered it to exhibitors in three forms: as a straight-on 12-chapter serial; as a feature-length (86 minutes) movie edited from the first four chapters plus the remaining eight shown in serial form (with a special trailer shown at the end of the feature to announce that the story would be continued as a serial at the same theatre); or as just the feature without the serial appendages. He produced it under an unusual rights deal he made with James Pierce, who had been given the rights to a Tarzan story by the character’s creator, Edgar Rice Burroughs, as a wedding present when Pierce married Burroughs’ daughter. Only Pierce’s contract with Lesser stipulated that Pierce himself play Tarzan — and Pierce was sufficiently heavy and out of shape that Lesser told him if he played Tarzan, the only way the film would work was if he made it a spoof. Fortunately, Lesser was able to buy Pierce off, giving him an additional payment in exchange for relinquishing his contractual right to star, and since MGM had just started Tarzan, the Ape Man starring 1928 Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller, Lesser signed the big 1932 Olympic swimming gold medalist, Larry “Buster” Crabbe — who looks enviably hot in Tarzan’s leopard-skin loincloth (despite some shots in which director Robert F. Hill and cinematographers Harry Neumann and Joseph Bretherton got too close and showed bits of Crabbe’s modern and decidedly not jungle-made underwear under the loincloth) and quite a bit handsomer than he did in Flash Gordon three years earlier (where he was still a nice hunk of man-meat but he’d started to put on the pounds).

Lesser had to deal with threatened litigation from MGM over his Tarzan project — Burroughs didn’t make the lives of studio lawyers easier by licensing and cross-licensing the character up the ying-yang until just about everyone holding a contract allegedly authorizing them to do a Tarzan movie had to deal with the uncertainty of just what they were and weren’t allowed to do with the character — and finally Lesser agreed not to start making Tarzan the Fearless until MGM finished Tarzan, the Ape Man. As things turned out the MGM Tarzan (a project studio head Irving Thalberg green-lighted just because he had a lot of location footage left over from MGM’s original jungle epic, Trader Horn, actually filmed in Africa, and he wanted to use that film for a sure-fire story that would help make up for the studio’s losses on Trader Horn) was an enormous hit and Lesser’s trailed along in its wake — while Burroughs, still seething at the treatment his famous character had got from both sets of filmmakers, greenlighted a project of his own called The New Adventures of Tarzan, also as a feature-serial, with yet another champion swimmer, Herman Brix, as his star. (Alas, all that survives of The New Adventures of Tarzan is a cut-and-paste feature edited down from the later episodes of the serial — and in a reissue print billing the star as Bruce Bennett, a name Brix adopted in 1939 because he wanted to get away from his ape-man roots and be considered for important roles in major-studio productions — which he finally got in late-1940’s films like Mildred Pierce and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.)

Burroughs was particularly upset that his Tarzan had been completely fluent in English, French and several African languages, while Weissmuller had little more to say than “Me Tarzan — you Jane,” and Crabbe got even less than that (though anyone who’s seen a Crabbe movie in which he did have dialogue to deliver probably doesn’t miss the experience that much with this one). Of course, the MGM version totally outclassed this one, both critically and at the box office; as Harrison’s Reports, a trade paper for theatre owners, commented at the time, “This is another version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan stories, and will do for juvenile trade; it might prove tiresome to adult audiences who have seen the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer version made last year.” Seen today, Tarzan the Fearless is pretty tiresome; though the opening credits make a big deal of the (dubious) claim that Burroughs wrote the story especially for the film, it’s the usual mishmash of a Tarzan tale (whether by Burroughs or others — the writing credits of this one list William Lord Wright as “script supervisor,” Walter Anthony as “dialogue editor,” and Basil Dickey and future serial specialist George H. Plympton for “continuity”): lots of native fauna to menace the whites in the jungle (lions, crocodiles, elephants et al.), lots of skullduggery and people at cross purposes — some of the villains are Arabs in full Valentino-as-the-Sheik headdresses and robes, some of them are whites and are part of the heroine’s entourage — as well as a lost city, a hidden treasure and a search for the heroine’s missing father, Dr. Brooks (E. Alyn Warren), who’s described in the American Film Institute Catalog synopsis as “a scientist studying African races and religions” — which is not made all that clear in the film itself.

In fact, a lot of things aren’t made clear in the film itself; it opens pretty much in medias res with heroine Mary Brooks (Jacqueline Wells, later Julie Bishop, and also the female lead in the marvelous 1934 Karloff-Lugosi vehicle The Black Cat) deciding to go skinny-dipping in a jungle lagoon — only she’s attacked by a bunch of stock-footage crocs (director Hill’s editing is actually pretty good but the graininess of the old footage gives the game away) and Tarzan leaps into the water and rescues her. Mary is leading an expedition through the jungle of Uganda (a stray line of dialogue tells us, for once in a Tarzan movie, which part of Africa we’re supposed to be in) to find her dad, and she’s brought along a nerdy boyfriend named Bob Hall (Eddie Woods) and a guide named Jeff Herbert (Philo McCullough), whom she trusts despite the fact that the moment we see him he’s so swarthy, heavy-set and unkempt, except for his neatly trimmed “roo” moustache, we know he’s up to no good. Of course we’re right: Jeff not only steals one of the sacred emeralds from the local temple (it’s one of these stories that, like King Kong, describes a Third World community living on the ruins of a village they couldn’t have built themselves but they’ve nonetheless carefully preserved from the long-extinct tribe that did) but he’s also carrying a letter — we see a sliver of it at intervals throughout the movie but only towards the end do we get to see enough of it to explain its significance — offering him $10,000 if he can verify the rumor that Tarzan is dead. Jeff is enough of a mean no-goodnick that he’s not going to let a little thing like Tarzan not being dead stand in the way of the $10,000; if he must, he’ll kill Tarzan himself and also make lascivious demands and force himself on Mary. The letter, when we get to see all of it, mentions that Tarzan is the long-lost heir to the Greyfriar (not Greystoke!) fortune in Britain, and the people currently enjoying that money want to make sure that no rival claimant is around to take it away from them.

There are lots of scenes of Tarzan wrestling lions with a knife in his hand (which was what he was doing when most Americans first saw him — on the cover of Munsey’s All-Story in 1912, when his first adventure was published and Frank Munsey’s illustrator showed him that way), swimming through the water either for his own enjoyment or to save another of the white characters (well, the person playing him was a champion swimmer, after all!), and — about the only comic relief in the film — playing a portable phonograph that scares the life out of him at first but which he eventually gets used to (I suspect the writing committee were inspired by the famous scene of Nanook trying to eat a phonograph record in Robert Flaherty’s 1922 classic Nanook of the North), and the ending shows some of Tarzan’s animal friends dancing to the music played by the phonograph — an irritating piece of camp that no doubt alienated many 1933 viewers even though at this level the scene is quite charming. The basic problem with Tarzan the Fearless — well, there are a lot of basic problems: the film is too slow-moving to generate much excitement, the action scenes are ineptly staged, director Hill deploys the cheesiest and most hackneyed recordings from Abe Meyer’s musical library (as opposed to Return of Chandu director Taylor, who raided Meyer’s music box for its subtlest and most sophisticated cues) and the plot is not just nonsense but actively antithetical to the idea of sense, so much so that it might actually have been better watching this as a serial because at least then we would have got the chapter fore-caps explaining who was who, what side they were on (it’s pretty much Tarzan, Bob, Mary and her dad against everyone else, actually) and how the various incidents are supposed to fit together.