Friday Movie Review: Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
March 16, 2012 2 Comments
Racism! Mia Farrow’s mom! An underwater nude scene! It’s been almost eighty years since its initial release in 1934, and Tarzan and His Mate still retains some of his cinematic shock value.
First on the list has to be the racism. Despite the distance of time, the portrayal of savage Africa remains deeply disturbing.
It’s a multi-layered racism. Africa is, as you know, a fantasy-land filled with superstitious savages whose primary purpose is to serve as labor. I knew that going in, but one reason the racism can’t fade into the background is how the setup often mimics the film tropes of a southern plantation, complete with whips and a loyal native foreman to keep it all running. And yet the bad guy is the rich white man who wants to plunder an elephant’s graveyard of its ivory, so there’s that.
Tarzan is the white man who’s not quite white. He’s King because he has white skin, and yet Jane has lived with him for months and he still can’t figure out how to form a complete sentence in English. Perhaps he doesn’t need to, as his relationship with Jane obviously functions on the physical level. They’re not going to many book groups together. Jane, for her part, is perfectly good at doing the Tarzan yodel.
Indeed, the actress playing Jane, Maureen O’Sullivan — best known as Mia Farrow’s mom — is by far the best human element of the movie, engaging and capable of range. Depending on the scene, she can play either the vain girl mesmerized by a new dress or the independent woman who’s just fine living in the jungle, thank you very much. None of the men know what to do with her, except for Tarzan. And apparently what to do with her is to fling her over the shoulder and leap from vine to vine. Tarzan leap good.
The best-remembered scene is when Jane (in the nude) and Tarzan (in his regulation-issue loincloth) go for a swim. (There are topless African women at the start of the film, but they’ve never gathered much press.) The swimming can be remembered for more than just salaciousness, as it’s a lovely dance the two do underwater.
O’Sullivan’s body double was Josephine McKim, who swam with the dude playing Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. Today, they’d ruin the scene by adding an overproduced love song in place of the contemplative quiet of the water.
I saw it on the big screen at Palo Alto’s Stanford Theatre and felt that, as a big budget thriller, Tarzan and His Mate stands up pretty well. There are snakes! Zebras! Rhinos! Hippopotami! Elephants! A chimp riding an ostrich! (I swear that I saw that.) And while the special effects are occasionally goofy, most of the time they mix live action and film with great skill. It’s that skill which creates the film, as there’s not so much a plot as a series of montages.
I couldn’t relax into the movie because of the racism, but I could definitely appreciate why it was a big deal, as the grandness of it all remains evident. Plus, Cheetah the chimp is simply adorable.
I give Tarzan and His Mate one gorilla, one lion and, oh, half a rhinoceros on my King of the Apes ratings scale.
lanahj: 1934 MGM Men
MovieMorlocks: Me Suzi, You Tarzan!