Tarzan of the 30’s

From 1932 through 1948, Johnny Weissmuller starred in 12 Tarzan movies–six for MGM followed by six for RKO, and all now owned by Warner Brothers. The Rafael will present two of these movies–both from the MGM 1930s–over the next two Sundays in a series called Hollywood & Vines: The Movie Magic of Tarzan. Visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt will be on hand to discuss how MGM created the look and sound of Africa on a Hollywood sound stage.

But I’m not writing about movie technology here. I’m writing about the Weissmuller Tarzan movies.

In the late 1990s, back when it was still a movie channel, AMC ran all 12 Weissmuller Tarzan movies in chronological order. I didn’t catch all of them, but I saw enough to observe the general arc of the franchise from pretty good to dumb but entertaining to laughably bad.

One interesting trend: Tarzan, as a character, got more domesticated as the series progressed. At the beginning of the first movie, Tarzan the Ape Man, he has never experienced human contact. In the second, Tarzan and His Mate (generally considered the best and the one screening this Sunday), he and Jane sleep in a different makeshift nest every night (they also appear to have a fantastic sex life). A few films later, they’re living in a huge and quite fancy tree-house complete with an elephant-powered elevator. At the beginning of the final film, Tarzan and the Mermaids, they’re living by a river, and eagerly awaiting the mail boat to see if they’ve received a letter from Boy, who’s attending college in England.

(The idea of Boy going to college intrigues me. Growing up in the jungle, how did he prepare for the entrance exams? And how does one manage a university social life when your name is Boy?)

When you think about it, these domesticating changes make sense. As people age, they settle down. And once-remote places often joined the world community in the 20th century. But a lot of the magic sure disappears.

One thing that never really changed was the films’ racism. The Tarzan story is inherently racist. There’s no reason why a white man, raised by apes, would be better adapted to the jungle than a black man raised in a human community that has had centuries to build a jungle-based culture and technology. But the depiction of Africans in these movies make that racism worse. The "natives" are often primitive, stupid, and violent, and clearly deserve the deaths they receive by Tarzan’s hands.

There are exceptions. Sometimes the natives are decent and friendly. But those natives are always played by white actors in slightly-swarthy make-up. The scary natives are played by very dark African-Americans.

On the other hand, the films carry a subtle anti-colonial and pro-environment message. The real villains are almost always white people who’ve come to Africa on some get-rich-quick scheme, and don’t care what they destroy to get what they want.

Tarzan movies are dumb almost by definition. But they can also be a lot of fun. And while they never tell us anything real about late colonial Africa, they can inadvertently reveal plenty about the time and place where they were made.

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