Going Ape!: TARZAN, THE APE MAN (MGM 1932)


Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Lord of the Jungle first hit the screen way back in 1918 with Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan. Many actors since then have donned the loin cloth, but for me the definitive movie Tarzan remains Johnny Weissmuller , who swung from his first Hollywood vine in MGM’s TARZAN, THE APE MAN, and played  the part for 16 years in 12 films.

Elderly John Parker and his young partner Harry Holt are in deepest Africa searching for the legendary “elephant’s graveyard”, which contains a fortune in ivory, but is considered sacred ground by the native tribes. Parker’s daughter Jane shows up, a spirited girl who’s no ball of fluff, but can hold her own. When Jane insists on accompanying the men on their journey, Parker scoffs, but Harry signs off because of course he’s immediately smitten with her.The jungle trek is fraught with perils, like a dangerous river crossing filled with hungry, hungry hippos and killer crocs. As they make their way through the treacherous territory, the explorers hear a strange cry, and soon come across Tarzan, a white man swinging in the trees with his ape friends! The jungle man swoops down and snatches Jane, taking her to his treetop abode. There she meets his pal Cheetah the chimp, and tries to communicate with Tarzan in the often imitated “Jane, Tarzan” scene (and no, they don’t say “Me Tarzan, you Jane” – just like Bogie never said “Play it again, Sam” in CASABLANCA, it didn’t happen!).

Tarzan goes foraging for some food, having an impressive battle with a pair of lions over a wildebeest’s bloody carcass, and while he’s away Parker and Holt find Jane in the treetops. The hot-headed Holt shoots an ape that could be Tarzan’s mom (not being fluent in ape language, I’m not sure), and Jane rejoins the safari. Tarzan, angered by this ape’s death, follows, and starts picking off native guides. Holt fires a shot that grazes the jungle man’s head, and Jane is brought to him by the apes. Nursing him back to health, Jane finds she’s missed the simple jungle lifestyle, and after a flirtatious swim, Tarzan and Jane wind up doing the Jungle Boogie – and I’m not talking about dancing!

Jane bids Tarzan a tearful goodbye and rejoins her people, who then get captured by a tribe of pygmy warriors and thrown in a pit with a killer gorilla! Good ol’ Cheetah alerts Tarzan, who comes to the rescue with his elephant pals and makes the save! A wounded elephant leads them to the hidden graveyard and passes away, as does a wounded Parker. Jane decides her heart is in the jungle, and stays with Tarzan and her new ape family.

Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) was well-known as a five-time Olympic Gold Medalist in swimming (and a Bronze in water polo) before being cast in his most famous role. While not a trained actor, his sturdy 6’3″, 190 pound frame and undeniable athleticism made him the perfect Tarzan. Most sources say Weissmuller himself created that iconic “Tarzan Yell”, but some claim it was opera singer Lloyd Thomas Leech, and still others an amalgamation of sounds. Either way, the yell is as recognizable to film fans as the ‘Wilhelm Scream’, and has been parodied by loads of comedians, most notably Carol Burnett:

Irish actress Maureen O’Sullivan plays the plucky Jane, a role she’d repeat five more times. She and Weissmuller make a perfect match, her feminine beauty complimenting Johnny’s masculine brawn. Britain’s C. Aubrey Smith is her father, and at times the rapid-fire delivery popular in the day makes their accents as thick and impenetrable as London fog! Neil Hamilton (BATMAN’s Commissioner Gordon) is good as Holt, though his character isn’t really very likeable. Cheetah is played by a  chimp named Jiggs, and the little guy steals every scene he’s in! And that’s stuntman Ray “Crash” Corrigan in his familiar gorilla suit terrorizing Maureen and company in the pygmy pit scene.

Footage shot in Africa for director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke’s previous jungle epic TRADER HORN (1931) was incorporated into this film. Cyril Hume wrote the screenplay, with additional dialog by famed thespian Ivor Novello – I’m assuming he wasn’t brought in to freshen up Tarzan’s dialog! The special effects are as primitive as the natives, but that won’t stop you from enjoying this fun, fast-paced adventure film. TARZAN, THE APE MAN is as entertaining to watch today as it was 86 years ago, despite everyone’s familiarity with the character and plot. It’s one of those films where I can truly say, “They just don’t make ’em like that anymore” and mean it!

Still Great Entertainment: Gable & Harlow in CHINA SEAS (MGM 1935)

Back in the 1970’s, Boston’s WCVB-TV Channel 5 ran a weekend late-nite movie series called “The Great Entertainment”. For 18 years, host Frank Avruch did Robert Osbourne-like introductions to the station’s library of MGM films, way before the advent of cable. This is where I first saw and fell in love with many of the classic movies and stars of the 30’s and 40’s. When TCM recently aired CHINA SEAS, I hadn’t seen the film in decades, and knew I had to DVR it. It had made an impression on me, and while rewatching I was not disappointed; it’s still a rousing piece of entertainment!

Clark Gable is rugged sea captain Alan Gaskill, carrying a quarter million British pounds worth of gold as cargo aboard his liner heading from Hong Kong to Singapore. Jean Harlow plays ‘China Doll’ Portland, Gaskill’s in-port squeeze who comes along against his wishes. Gaskill’s former flame, refined Sybil Barclay (Rosalind Russell), shows up, and the skipper gives China Doll the big freeze. While Gaskill tries to rekindle that old flame, Dolly takes up with wild animal importer Jamesy McArdle ( Wallace Beery ), who unbeknownst to all is in league with a gang of Malay pirates out to hijack all that loot!

This was Gable & Harlow’s fourth go-round together, and the no-nonsense he-man was the perfect foil for the brassy platinum blonde. Their Jules Furthman/Kevin James McGuiness-penned banter sparkles, with Harlow making the most out of her by-now-familiar floozy with a heart of gold persona. Beery, who appeared with the two in 1931’s THE SECRET SIX , had honed his loveable rogue role down to a science, and the three stars all shine brightly in this romp.

The diverse passenger list is a Familiar Face lover’s dream, with Lewis Stone a disgraced third officer who redeems himself in grand fashion, humorist Robert Benchley  a tipsy American novelist who spends the movie inebriated, stiff-upper-lip C. Aubrey Smith  the fleet’s owner, Akim Tamiroff a shady jewel thief embroiled with passengers Edward Brophy and Lillian Bond, Hattie McDaniel Harlow’s wisecracking traveling companion, and Ivan Lebedeff the chief pirate. Dudley Diggs, Willie Fung, Forrester Harvey, William Henry, and Donald Meek are also onboard for the ride.

For a film made in 1935, there sure are a lot of Pre-Code elements here. There’s no doubt Harlow’s China Doll is less than virginal, and the violence is fairly graphic for the era. The scene during a raging typhoon features extras getting run over by a runaway steamroller, and Gable suffers through the agonizing torture of the dreaded ‘Malay Boot’ at the sadistic hands of the pirates. Executive producer Irving Thalberg had been planning CHINA SEAS for over five years, and it seems some of those Pre-Code elements sailed right past the Hayes Office!

Director Tay Garnett was the ideal choice to helm CHINA SEAS, striking the right balance of masculine action with his deft comic touch. Garnett’s career stretched back to the days of Mack Sennett, and among his filmography you’ll find gems like SHE COULDN’T TAKE IT, SEVEN SINNERS, MY FAVORITE SPY, BATAAN, THE CROSS OF LORRAINE, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT. He dove right into episodic TV in the 50’s and 60’s, and capped off his career with a pair of family friendly made-in-Alaska flicks, CHALLENGE TO BE FREE and TIMBER TRAMPS. Garnett’s movies are well worth looking into.

CHINA SEAS is a rollicking adventure with a cast of professionals at their peak, headlined by the red-hot screen team of Gable & Harlow. I’ve been hearing a lot recently about how millennials don’t really get into older, black and white movies, but I think this film will turn anyone into a classic film buff. It’s “Great Entertainment”, indeed!

Pre Code Confidential #10: Cecil B. DeMille’s CLEOPATRA (Paramount 1934)

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When I hear the words ‘Hollywood Epic’, the name Cecil B. DeMille immediately springs to mind. From his first film, 1914’s THE SQUAW MAN to his last, 1956’s THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, DeMille was synonymous with big, sprawling productions. The producer/director, who’s credited with almost singlehandedly inventing the language of film, made a smooth transition from silents to talkies, and his 1934 CLEOPATRA is a lavish Pre-Code spectacular featuring sex, violence, and a commanding performance by Claudette Colbert as the Queen of the Nile.

1934: Claudette Colbert in title role of Cecil B. DeMille's film Cleopatra.

While the film’s opulent sets (by Roland Anderson and Hans Dreier) and gorgeous B&W cinematography (by Victor Milner) are stunning, all eyes will be on the beautiful, half-naked Colbert. She gives a bravura performance as Cleopatra, the ambitious, scheming Egyptian queen. She’s sensuous and seductive, wrapping both Caesar and Marc Antony around her little finger, and devious in her political machinations. If I were compare her to Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 Joseph L. Mankeiwicz version, I’d have to give the edge to Claudette; Liz may be more voluptuous, but Claudette’s definitely a more playful, tantalizing Cleo. And as for that famous milk bath scene, well…

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…hot damn!!!

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Cleo’s two lovers are both well cast, with smooth Warren William making a sturdy Julius Caesar. When her hopes to rule Rome alongside Caesar are dashed on the Ides of March, Cleo sets her sights on warrior Marc Antony, played with boyish enthusiasm by Henry Wilcoxon. She seduces him with wine, food, and her undeniable charms, gifting Antony with “clams from the sea” (in which a net is hauled up filled with writhing mermaids bearing shells filled with jewels), then celebrating with the bizarre tableau of dancing cat-women being whipped by a burly soldier! Who can resist a pitch like that!

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There are tons of Familiar Faces in this one, including Irving Pichel as Cleo’s confidant Apollodorus, Gertrude Michael as Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, C. Aubrey Smith as Enobarbus, Ian Keith as Octavian, Joseph Schildkraut as King Herod, and Richard Alexander, Lionel Belmore, Edgar Dearing, Claudia Dell, William Farnum, Edwin Maxwell, and Leonard Mudie in various roles. Look fast for a young John Carradine among the cast of thousands.

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Cecil B. DeMille certainly knew how to hold an audience’s interest. Whether it’s in the battle scenes containing much carnage (and, truth be told, much stock footage), or in all the half-naked women, the film is a visual delight, even when Claudette’s not on the screen. Nobody captured the decadence of ancient times quite like DeMille, and CLEOPATRA’s got decadence to spare, coming right before Will Hayes began his puritanical reign of terror with the Production Code. It was nominated for five Oscars (Best Picture, Assistant Director, Sound Recording, Editing), winning for Milner’s cinematography. Conspicuous by it’s absence on that list is Claudette Colbert’s performance, but I don’t think she minded; she won that same year for the screwball classic IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT.

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The 1934 CLEOPATRA is half the length of the ’63 Liz & Dick opus, and is a whole lot more fun. Cecil B. DeMille doesn’t get much attention these days, but he was unquestionably one of Hollywood’s most important figures, and this film is a great example of Pre-Code excess. I was as mesmerized by Claudette Colbert’s star turn as I was by DeMille’s epically delicious debauchery. I think you will be, too.