Sunday, June 15, 2014

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Director: Cedric Gibbons                               Writer: James Kevin McGuinness
Music: William Axt                                       Cinematography: Clyde De Vinna
Starring: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, Neil Hamilton and Paul Cavanagh

Tarzan and His Mate is one of the most frequently mentioned examples of pre-code films due to its notorious underwater nude scene. It wasn’t the first of its kind, however. Two years earlier in the RKO film Bird of Paradise a stunt double for Dolores del Rio performed the same kind of nude underwater ballet with Joel McCrae. This time it was Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim doing the skinny dipping honors. Apparently different versions of the film went to different territories in the United States. One imagines that the more provincial Midwest and South received the version with Maureen O’Sullivan fully dressed, while the coasts received the version with McKim sans clothing. But even in her loincloth O’Sullivan is very provocative, with flaps in front and back but nothing on the sides. The screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs series of books, but has no real equal in his writings. MGM wisely decided to keep Tarzan in the jungle and continue reuse the elements of Tarzan the Ape Man that had been so popular with audiences the first time around.

At the end of the first film, Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane decides to stay with Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan after the death of her father. Like that film, this one begins at the river crossroads where Neil Hamilton owns a trading post, with Forrester Harvey as his assistant. He is planning an expedition into the jungle and some of the local British hunters, Desmond Roberts and William Stack, are very interested in it, but he’s keeping it a secret. He meets his friend, Paul Cavanagh, when his boat arrives and while they say they are on a hunting trip, they are really going after the ivory that Hamilton had seen at the end of the first film. But Roberts and Stack steal Hamilton’s map and it’s a race to see who can get there first. Unfortunately for the two would-be thieves, a tribe of cannibals gets them first, and Hamilton and Cavanagh lose half their men pushing past them. When they finally meet Weissmuller, he saves them from some angry apes, and at last Hamilton is reunited with O’Sullivan. In addition to the ivory, he wants to take her back with him, but Cavanagh has his eye on her as well. Things get even more complicated when Weissmuller doesn’t want them to desecrate the elephant graveyard while the desperate Cavanagh will do anything to get the ivory.

The two years between films makes a powerful difference. Where the first film was a bit tentative, this one is an all-out heart stopper in places. Director Cedric Gibbons wasn’t really a director at all, but a production designer. Most of the sets were reused from the previous film, but the rear screen projection and the artificial animal sequences are much better done. He was also assisted by a couple of other MGM contract directors, Jack Conway and James C. McKay for the animal sequences and the underwater sequence. The ballet that Weissmuller and Josephine McKim perform is quite beautiful, though it does bring to mind a more sinister dance from the 1950s in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Neil Hamilton reprises his role from the previous film and, along with it, a subtle change in character. He is much more sympathetic to O’Sullivan’s wishes in this film and so it is Paul Cavanagh who plays the role of the ruthless ivory hunter who has come to Africa bankrupt with nothing to lose. Weismuller has learned to talk a bit more and the relationship between he and Maureen O’Sullivan is incredibly endearing. The excitement is also ratcheted up a bit with more interaction with African tribes intent on killing the safari in addition to the animal sequences. Tarzan and His Mate is certainly a more confident film that the first one, and while it is a sequel it is also a very entertaining all on its own.

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