Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tarzan Escapes (1936)

Director(s): Richard Thorpe

Johnny Weissmuller returns to the jungles in the farthest reaches of Africa as “The King of the Apes” with Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane by his side in Tarzan Escapes, the third installment of the Tarzan franchise to star the former Olympic swimmer as the heroic title character. Brought back are the characters we love in Tarzan, Jane, and Cheeta the ape, along with the great adventure that surpasses the previous films. Gone from the earlier pictures are the titillating costumes (or lack thereof) of the female lead that excited male audiences, due in part to the Hollywood Production Code that has come into place since we last saw our heroes. With superior cinematography, a darker plot, and better special effects Tarzan Escapes is perhaps the finest of the all the Tarzan features produced up to its time of release. So hold on tight as we swing into another adventure with cinema’s favorite man of the jungle.

Tarzan Escapes is an adventure sequel to Tarzan, the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate, where Jane is tempted by family members to return to civilization, which angers and endangers Tarzan into a trap at the hands of a hunter looking to profit from man of the jungle. Some time has passed since we last saw Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan), now a domestic couple of the jungle, one with nature and all the animals that call Tarzan friend. When two of Jane’s cousins find Jane with news of an inheritance she must claim with the hook that she must return to civilization Jane realizes she must go despite not wanting to leave Tarzan, even temporarily. As Jane and her cousins set course for home, their wilderness guide, hunter Captain Fry (John Buckler), takes the opportunity to capture the fabled Tarzan. After a mix up with a hostile native tribe, Tarzan escapes his brief entrapment with the help of his animal allies. Once again with Tarzan in the arms of his beloved Jane, her cousins realize that her love for Tarzan is far more important than trying to get their cousin home, leaving Tarzan and Jane once again happy living in the jungles.

This installment of the Tarzan series outdoes the quality and adventure of its two predecessors starring Weissmuller and O’Sullivan. It is a tale with a darker, more gruesome sort, filled with horrible death sequences and an overall grimmer tone, lending to more depth than just a romp in the jungle seen in Tarzan and His Mate. The cinematography, editing, and special effects are far superior, done so with more craft and creativity to manifest just the right tones for such an adventure picture. With creative tracking shots, wonderful exposition of plot and characters, and a far more creative means of telling a story than that of a novice form of point-and-shoot, this film uses the camera to express more of the story with its movements that thrill audiences with mere glances of just parts of Tarzan as he crawls just off screen than showing all of the man. For a sequel, and a second sequel at that, this picture is a surprise at how wonderfully planned and executed the filmmaking is. It is a huge boost for a franchise that was already very popular with movie goers of the time.

Of the production process, the greatest adventure was that of the director’s position. Originally entrusted to the hands of James C. McKay, an editor originally by trade who helped direct parts of Tarzan and His Mate (another film with a change of hands with the director’s chair), MGM found that McKay shot the film too gruesome, including all the death sequences, and decided to go a different direction. Writer John Farrow would be handed the job to reshoot near all of the feature and help right the ship. Still not happy with what they saw, MGM once again replace their director with a more seasoned man, Richard Thorpe, who would assemble the final production and receive full credit. It may be a little unclear who was responsible for what, but in the end the direction seems far better quality than its two previous films.

Former Olympic champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller by this time was known far more as Tarzan than he was for his aquatic achievements on the major international stage. The role, which was really was his only true role in major motion pictures to this point, had made him a huge star as well as a great deal of money. He would forever be the ideal man in the role of Tarzan.

Jane, Cheeta, and Tarzan
Maureen O’Sullivan was slowly growing weary of the role that made her a star. She sought for legitimate dramatic roles in various pictures, but could not seem to get out from underneath the part that made her a star and continued to make her successful amounts of money and press in the motion picture business. Her wardrobe had significantly change from when we last saw her in Tarzan and His Mate, where her clothing was not much more that strategically placed material barely covering up her most intimate areas. That film even featured a sequence where a body double swam fully nude in a scene with Tarzan to continue to thrill male members of the movie going public. After the enforcement of ethics within movies by the production code here we see Jane fully clothed, the most clothing we had seen on her since she first trekked into the jungle in full safari gear before meeting Tarzan. This kept Jane much more decent, though new eye make-up and longer, more curly hair helped to give a bit exotic flair to make up for the lack of exposed skin.

Compared to its previous pictures, this episode of the Tarzan saga would be much darker. With many men falling to their deaths from high cliffs, men being eaten alive by alligators or other beasts, and even the evil Captain Fry being swallowed up by quick sand, this film is quite gruesome. That was not all as there was a sequence where Tarzan did battle with giant vampire bats with was removed, both for being too intense for audiences and for irrelevance. Censors would not like the darker angle with all the ideas of death surrounding the story, but with the subtraction of the vampire bats and the happy ending the picture made it through approval. Being Tarzan was not all fun and games.

Tarzan Escapes would be a misleading title as Tarzan would be captured for only a few moments in the film, and even that was not the center of the plot. MGM decided that it was a title that implies more adventure and would excite audiences, drawing them to theaters. In any case Tarzan Escapes would a thriller of a film, despite its lack of sensitivity towards the depiction of native Africans, or even the actors that played them, manifesting them as all savages with little more skill than muscle.  Tarzan was a strong franchise for MGM that would continue to produce many sequels to give movie goers their fix of the high flying man of the apes.

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