The Johnny Weissmuller RKO Tarzan Films 

Tarzan Triumphs (1943) – 7.0

Tarzan "Kill Nazis" as he hands out machine guns to the natives.

Tarzan "In the jungle the strong always win" throwing back the earlier words at a Nazi General as a lion eats him.

This is the first Tarzan film after the franchise was shifted to RKO from MGM. And it is easily the best of the RKO films. MGM had dropped the series in 1942 after six films for reasons I don't quite understand. The last film, Tarzan's New York Adventure, made a profit of nearly a million dollars. Perhaps Johnny Weissmuller wanted to leave though he had a great deal at MGM - making a Tarzan film every two years and getting paid quite handsomely. But only Tarzan films. Maybe he wanted more but he didn't get it at RKO where again with a few exceptions he was stuck playing Tarzan. And he lost his Jane in the process as Maureen O'Sullivan was a contract player for MGM and could not come along. My guess is that she was relieved to be out of the role even though it made her a star. The MGM films are pretty good - especially the first two but all of them are decent - only finding Boy (Johnny Sheffield) and his playing with Cheeta brought them down to being more for children. Tarzan on the Brooklyn Bridge is still one of my favorite scenes.

The US government approached Sol Lesser, the new producer at RKO, and asked them if Tarzan could join the war effort. Not only does he but first he becomes a metaphor for America First, the isolationist group that didn't want to enter the war. A woman from a lost tribe (yet another one) comes to ask for Tarzan's help after her village has been taken over by the Nazi's for natural resources. Tarzan replies that as long as they don't bother him, it isn't his business. To emphasize this point when Tarzan and Boy find a hurt German and tend to him, the German tells him "You don't want anyone to bother you. You are an isolationist." And Tarzan says yes, I am an isolationist. Until they mess with Boy. Slap him around a few times. Kidnap him. In one of Tarzan's more iconic moments he grabs his knife, stands at the doorway and exclaims "Now Tarzan makes war". Dead Nazis ahead. Yes, Tarzan became part of Antifa. The Germans are of course rotten though it is hard seeing actor Sig Ruman as a vicious Nazi since I have seen him in so many comedies playing a stuffed shirt.

Jane has gone back home to visit England - in truth because the producers had not decided on an actress to play her or wanted to give the audience time to forget O'Sullivan. But Tarzan soon has another playmate - Zandra from the lost city of Palandrya - who saves Boy's life. The people of Palandrya seem to also be a lost tribe that somehow migrated from SE Asia or some tropical island as they are all light-skinned, wearing sarongs and speak English. Zandra played by Francis Gifford is a beauty and when she is trying to persuade Tarzan to help free her village, Boy tells her when Jane doesn't get her way she has a way of changing his mind - swimming doesn't work, cooking doesn't work - and the thing that Jane really uses is off limits due to the film code. But if I had been Tarzan I would have been telling Boy, Jane who?

There are some good scenes in the film - Nazis being eaten by cannibal fish though not as effectively as in later Italian exploitation movies, an elephant pushing a Nazi to his death, Cheeta picking up a machine gun and shooting a Nazi (even Cheeta joins the war effort), Boy picking up a pistol and killing a Nazi, Cheeta being mistaken by the German High Command on the radio as Hitler and of course Weissmuller showing his physical skills which were still top shelf. The film starts slowly with Boy and Cheeta taking up too much screen time but works its way to a good climax. There still seems to be a budget here though the big elephant scenes are gone for good - but from here on the RKO films just get pretty weak and low budget.

It is amazing that Tarzan has gone through so many lives and so many actors beginning in the silent era. The concept is a total conceit of course and a racial one that doesn't fly too well today - but Tarzan keeps going but with adjustments to the depiction of the natives. In a film like this there are zero black characters - is that good or bad? If there were, they would likely be stereotyped so they just bypass that by having light-skinned natives and that also happens in some of the later RKO Tarzan films. Was this because of the war effort when the USA had blacks in the service and didn't want to offend them? The days of the savage black tribes in these Weissmuller films is coming to a close - partly for budgetary reasons I expect but also perhaps for racial ones or perhaps because they were being made more and more for children and they wanted to cut way down on the violence.

Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943) – 3/10

This is the second Tarzan film after leaving MGM for RKO and the quality takes a mighty dip. Without Maureen O' Sullivan available anymore because of the change in studio's they again have Jane off in London helping the war effort (Jane was back in the next film in the form of Brenda Joyce). As in many film series of that time from Charlie Chan to Sherlock Holmes to Tarzan the characters have to take on the Nazi's and vanquish them. Not much excitement in this one with Weissmuller disappearing for long periods of time and leaving it up to Boy to fill in for him. Not sure if this was due to Weissmuller's increasing drinking problem or something else. Really nothing much happens till near the end of the film when they use special effects to create some giant lizards and a rubber spider to attack Boy stuck to a web. I only wish the spider had eaten Boy. The more he is in a Tarzan film, the worse it is because you know you will get way too much "cute" animal interplay.

Tarzan and the Amazons (1945) – 5.0

After a two film absence and after a move to RKO studios, Jane is back! But unfortunately she had a big makeover and comes back in the form of Brenda Joyce who hadn't done much before Tarzan and didn't do much after though she was able to play Jane a few more times with Weissmuller and in the first of the Lex Barker Tarzan series, Tarzan's Magic Fountain, in 1949. I miss Maureen O'Sullivan. On the other hand I truly wish they had killed off Boy way back. The first few Tarzan films without him or him as small boy are so much better. As he grows older, he and Cheetah take up too much screen time and it gets really tiresome.

He is turning into a surly adolescent and one of the themes of the film is not obeying your father and disaster will follow as it does here. Not that Jane is much better. You would think after all this time she would stop trusting the white man, but I guess it is her English breeding that keeps her so naïve. The other theme in the film which has played out in many of the Tarzan films is what happens when greedy white men enter into a world of innocence. They corrupt it. And pay for it in the end.

The war is nearly over so Tarzan is done with the Nazis and back to Lost Cities. In this case they chase after gold in a Lost Amazon city with a bevy of beauties guarding it. Every cute female extra in Hollywood seems to show up here and that is the highlight of the film. Tarzan still kills his quota of one crocodile but I missed the elephant rescue that occurs in many of his MGM films.

Tarzan and the Leopard Women (1946) - 6 .0

For one of the later Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films this isn't too bad. Strange but not bad. A seeming race of white men and a white High Priestess are intent on keeping out the corrupt influences of the West. In our current day I expect we would view them as the good guys, but this being 1946 they of course were not. A slightly nutty Messianic leader who does the Hitler salute at one point doesn't help their image much. Jane as usual is totally useless as at one point she stands around and almost watches Boy get killed by a psychotic teenager until Cheetah saves the day. How she survived all those years in the jungle and still knows nothing is hard to imagine.

Sadly, the actress who plays the High Priestess and is quite an eyeful never amounted to much in show biz. Her real name was Mildred Davenport but went by the stage name of Acquanetta and had the nickname The Venezuela Volcano though she clearly wasn't from Venezuela. Her best role perhaps - not having seen all her films - was in the 1943/1944 Captive Wild Woman and Jungle Woman in which she was an ape made into human form. It was that sort of career. But she has a small cult following today.

Tarzan and the Huntress (1947) – 4/10

When Cheeta gets the most screen time, you know Tarzan has come close to rock bottom. Oh, for the days of headhunters, cannibals, wrestling alligators and tigers, Leopard Men, The Great Escarpment, elephant burial grounds, savagery and of course Maureen O'Sullivan. By this, the 11th in the series of 12 films - 6 with MGM and then 6 with RKO, Tarzan has become a family man though why he and Jane have no kids of their own is never explained. The Breem Code of course. Since they never married no children allowed. Only Boy who grows more annoying as the years pass by - now close to manhood as his voice has changed and he has a clearly defined physique but still Tarzan must be so disappointed with Boy as he remains as dim as a rock. Hard to envision him protecting the jungle once Tarzan is in an old folk's home.

Once the franchise went to RKO the budgets dropped considerably and of course Maureen O'Sullivan had to stop being Jane. This Tarzan feels like it plays out in an area the size of a football field and I imagine it did. At one point Tarzan does come face to face with a leopard ready to devour the female villainess and I thought - here comes the standard roll on the ground with a fake leopard scene - but they don't even have the money for that as Tarzan just goes in Tarzan Speak - go eat something else and the leopard obeys.

The plot is basically a group of hunters come to fill the zoos of the world after WWII - so not really bad guys though you wince when Jane says "don't worry, they will be well cared for". At least in the end we get the traditional call for the elephants to come stomp some bad-asses. I have now seen 11 in the series with one more to go. And then on to Lex Barker

Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948) – 5.0

I finally did it. It took me three years but I finished all 12 of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films. I can go to my Maker in peace. Looking at the series I would recommend the first 6 made at MGM and then warn anyone that the next 6 at RKO get progressively worse. Still it's Tarzan and Johnny Weissmuller. It is easy to forget some 70 years after the final Tarzan what an astonishing swimmer Weissmuller was in his time. He won 5 Olympic Gold Medals and set more than 50 world records. He was a huge celebrity before he became Tarzan. He probably wasn't much of an actor but who knows since his role as Tarzan never gave him much opportunity and after Tarzan he was in 13 Jungle Jim films which I would guess (never having seen any) didn't call for great theatrics either (have since seen two and I was right).

The first few Tarzan films were very popular and Irving Thalberg at MGM ordered that a new Tarzan film would only be made every two years to keep their freshness and quality. Weissmuller appeared in pretty much nothing else but was still receiving his salary from his 7 year contract with MGM. He was living good. From beginning to end Tarzan and thus Weissmuller never became much more than a grunting near savage with great physical prowess - while in the Edgar Rice Burroughs books Tarzan is speaking fluent English and French along with Elephant and monkey by book two.

This last Tarzan film is probably the lamest of them all but oddly one of the most charming. It is almost a gentle goodbye kiss. Tarzan fights no beasts of the jungle other than a rubber octopus for 2 minutes near the end of the film; there are no savage natives (in fact they are very attractive Mexicans as this was shot in Acapulco) and there is no drama or tension. There is also thankfully no Boy who is off in England learning how to be a proper Englishman (in fact he was embarking on his own series for Monogram in which he was Bomba of the Jungle - he was to make 12 of these before he retired from the film business.

There is also very little of Cheetah who had begun to hog the last couple films - so instead we get music - from a local man who seems to be an aspiring Calypso singer. At one point we get a musical number that would have been comfortable in an Esther Williams film. On top of that there is a brazen wonderful soundtrack from none other than Dimitri Tiomkin who was clearly slumming, but I guess if you are under contract you do what they tell you to. By this time he had already composed the music for Lost Horizon, Only Angels Have Wings and Duel in the Sun and many more. I can imagine him saying "You want the great Tiomkin to compose the music for a Tarzan film?"

The film itself when it isn't singing is about a false idol demanding pearls and girls from the not very bright natives. The woman is played by Linda Christian who is most famous for marrying Tyrone Power a year after this film. Maybe Tyrone saw her in this because she is very lovely. And poor George Zucco shows up as the High Priest and looks absolutely miserable. After Weissmuller left the series at RKO they hired Lex Barker to continue it and Brenda Joyce who was Jane in the RKO films was Jane in the first Barker outing. Barker was to make 5 Tarzan films from 1949 - 1953.