"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

August 17, 2011

"Tarzan and His Mate" (1934) (Film review)

Tarzan and His Mate was the second Tarzan film with Olympic swimming hulk Johnny Weismuller and is generally considered as one of the best made after the pulp novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It is a lavish production, with huge sets and countless extras and, especially, animals - although there is not a shred of the real Africa here as everything was filmed in California. The trick photography is also nicely done, considering the early year.

The story is simple. In prequel Tarzan The Ape Man, Jane, the daughter of an English hunter, preferred the animal charms of Tarzan to her upper-class fiance. Now the jilted lover Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) returns with ivory poacher Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh). He is loaded with fine clothes and even a gramophone for Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) and tries to win her back and return together  to civilization. The two men also ask Tarzan to guide them to a giant Elephant Graveyard where they want to stock up on the ivory. You can easily guess the answers to both questions, but there is a lot of swinging, screeching, jumping, swimming and fighting with animals and Africans necessary before the coast is clear again of these invaders.

The film's ideology is staunchly and regrettably colonial. The Africans are presented as superstitious and murderous (in fact, Tarzan's chimpanzees in the film are shown with more kindness); the black luggage carriers are kept in check with curses, whips and bullets. The tree hut of Tarzan and Jane looks like a little white enclave floating high above the real Africa.

The film is of course full of animals - I hope they were treated humanely, but most of the fights seem trick photography. Tarzan has to wrestle with every wild animal imaginable, from crocodile to rhinoceros. And we of course have the Cheetahs, the chimps who are his friends and helpers. Most impressive is the scene where Tarzan leads an elephant stampede to stop the poachers from taking the ivory tusks from the graveyard. I have never seen so many elephants together. Or else  the finale of the film, where Jane and the poachers are attacked by a large group of ravenous tigers (while already under attack from "wild aboriginals").

Another "animalistic" element is the sexiness of this film, which originally was surely not made for children. Although it is not shown as such, Tarzan and Jane clearly have an active love life, judging for example from the languid and affectionate way they wake up together in their tree nest. What's more, Jane's costume is enjoyably skimpy and there even is a sort of underwater ballet scene where she swims naked with Tarzan. This was possible in the all too short Pre-Code years of the early 1930s, when narrow-minded moralists didn't have their hand on the throttle yet.