Monday, July 11, 2016

TARZAN'S BEST MATE

You may have come away from my initial musings on Tarzan with the opinion that I'm no big fan of the man, either with or without his apes. 



Upon reflection, you might be correct, as I'm struggling to think of positive superlatives about a character who I've never been massively enamored with; all that vine swinging, yodeling, chimp handling and animal thumping failing to float my boat.

Nonetheless, I've still got a fond recollections of watching his adventures as a kid - so there has to be something about the franchise that has kept me faintly fascinated. 

Whilst wittering on about the potential fate of his latest outing it occurred to me why the character has always seem obscured as far as I was concerned :

For me, when it comes to Tarzan, it's all about Jane.

Further to that, one Jane in one film in particular - 
Maureen O'Sullivan in 1934's Tarzan and His Mate.


Before we inevitably lower our already ground-level standards and get onto her still outrageous outfit, allow me to somewhat cleanse my conscience by explaining what, beyond the obvious, led my pre-adolescent crush on arguably definitive onscreen incarnation of the character.

First off the bat, Jane might not be wearing much, but she's got the proverbial trousers in this relationship. Subsequent Tarzan's relegate Jane to the role of damsel to be distressed - including the latest version if reviews are to be believed. 

Back when I first saw the film, one after-school showing on BBC2 many moons ago, she struck me as the boss. 

Tarzan may well be the man of the jungle, but that's by virtue of him being dumped there like some mutton-fisted Mowgli in the first place. Jane's the one who took a long hard look at this world made the decision to plonk herself in the thick of it. 

Of her own volition she's taken a permanent vacation from society's conventions, casting away the trappings of the Western world with abandon (both literally and figuratively), and making her home in the treetops. She's chosen a caring, tender but ultimately hedonistic existence rutting away like rabbits with her loinclothed lover, far away from the mundanity of modernity. 
Naturally, she's in constant danger of becoming a lion's light-lunch or crocodile chow but that's the price one pays for living it up in a backlot jungle.

All that's heady dream-state stuff for a country that suffering the depths of a depression, and had only let women join the voting club 14 short years before. 

We're in the midst of 1930s Pre-code Hollywood here, which for a few precious years placed women outside boxes they were rapidly shoved back into by the middle of the decade. Film after film from the big studios loudly proclaimed that women could be just as driven by conviction, ambition or indeed lust as their male counterparts.

Let's not kid ourselves that things were suddenly equalised between the genders after the Talkies took hold at the end of the 20s, and before the Production Code was enforced by the end of '34. In truth, it was economics that pushed the envelope as much as anything else at the time. Life was pretty horrendous once the depression took hold, and women made up the most massive part of the movie audience at the time. 

It more than made fiscal sense to reflect back at them powerful females who took charge, and took little of no shit from the ineffectual men around them.

So that's one of the main factors that makes O'Sullivan's Jane such as appealing character - she's unabashed in her passion, unwavering in her love and unafraid of the ridiculously perilous situation she's decided to stick around in.

Just take a look at the way the film was marketed when first released - not as kiddie-fare, or a boy's own adventure - but as a rip-roaring spectacle with something for the whole family. 



Action, adventure, cheesecake, beefcake and bags of sex-appeal (including the legendary, long thought lost, recovered and restored nudie swim, which we won't go into here).

Having made over $2.5 million on his first outing in 1932, MGM bet the bank on this one; no quickie status like later Tarzan's, but a two-year production and development at double the $600k budget of their original.

Now, briefly, to that outfit.

By the early 30s movie attendances had dropped by a third from their heyday in the 1920s. 60 million peeps a week were catching the latest flicks, which sounds marvelous until one mentions that was a significant drop from 90 million movie-goers a week a few years previous.

Movies were getting the whammy from the wireless, and the novelty of talking pictures had worn off - so then as now, sex was a vital ingredient in keeping the box offices ticking over. If Tarzan was marching around in naught but a pair of flimsy fabric pants, I guess the thinking was why shouldn't Jane be stepping out up in a shammy-leather bikini? 

Lest you think this is all grievously one-sided, take a gander at the scanty state of Johnny Weissmueller's get up in the film :

Briefs that define the term, with an ever present danger that his own personal vine might spill out onto the big screen and start swinging of it's own accord. 

I hope we can agree that there's a pretty level playing field here betwixt the genders in regards to the amount of skin on show.

That was 1934 - with the film being released just before the Production Code kicked into full metal gear. 

If you need proof any further about how bluntly the genie was shoved back in the bottle, compare not just the outfits but the embraces above and below, separated by two short years and a lot more loincloth.

Now, it's eminently arguable that losing the cheese-cake costume was a leap-forward; even though the latter-day me - proud father of two brilliant young ladies - might have a hard time convincing my 14 year old counterpart of that. 

What was gained in animal skin was lost in animal nature - with the production code neutering the lusty, strong-willed and adventurous side of Jane, stripping her back to a bystander behind the stove

More of the wholesome and less of the whole, essentially.


To put it bluntly, as the decade turned MGM decreed that the public at large wanted the Tarzan's to stop the fucking and start the family - Cheetah being no substitute for a genuine son or daughter.


Under the aforementioned code they clearly couldn't let the unmarried pair pop out their literary offspring - Korak, Son of Tarzan - so they studio did the only sensible thing possible to make the series fully kiddie-fied; in 1939's Tarzan Finds a Son!, he literally does just that.

O'Sullivan jumped shipped two films later, and since then, Jane's have been a mixed bunch - mostly following in the mold of faithful, tutting hausfrau, primed for a second act kidnap and a third act rescue. All a bit dull and uninspiring to say the least. 

Probably the closest depiction of the independent and strong-willed Jane who captured both Tarzan and my own heart was in the Disney version, magnificently voiced by Minnie Driver.

The opposite side of the coin was Bo Derek's soft-core interpretation of the role in the 1981 Tarzan the Ape Man, also released by MGM. 

Forcing Miles O'Keefe's fondle-happy Tarzan down the cast-list, and virtually off the screen at times - the focus was decidedly on the female side of things, but not necessarily in the most forward thinking of fashions, and certainly not with the female contingent of the audience at the forefront of the filmmaker's minds. 

At times in seems Tarzan and Jane were less in a relationship, and more in a chest-off to which the Ape-man came consistently in second. I mean, look at the state of this German VHS cover. The best that can be said for it, is that it at least unequivocally sets up where the film encased therein is en route to.


So, in conclusion, what have we learnt? 

Well, for one thing progression isn't as simple as cut and dry as 'then bad, now good'. There's a helluva lot that's distasteful to modern eyes in Tarzan and His Mate, and I can't see me taking my girls to a matinee of that film any time soon. 

However, it presents a version of Tarzan's Mate we've not really seen since - and possibly the only time both Jane and Tarzan's onscreen relationship really rang true. That's down to an utterly brilliant performance from O'Sullivan that makes her character completely compelling and captivating. She absolutely sells the act that Jane's love for the Ape Man will conquer all and she's given it all up to pair up with him, because - let's be honest - it's not for the comfort of it.

And that's another reason why the new version is most unlikely to swing off with £12+ of my hard-earned pocket change. 

According to reports, Jane is back to purely being a plot device to get Tarzan going. If that's not the case with, the trailers aren't doing the greatest job of getting it across. 



We certainly can't place the blame for that interpretation at Margot Robbie's door - the intended audience and ambitions for the latest film are completely at odds with the wider net cast by the very first MGM films.

If it's wrong to want a bit extra from Jane other than her simply standing around slack-jawed in a damp dress, waiting to be saved, then I don't want to be right. 

They may not have given O'Sullivan's Jane much to wear back in 1934, but dammit - they certainly gave her a whole lot more to do.

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