Fusion-Fightin' Fogey Wants to Live Like an Ape Man

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Tarzan: Is he a racist übermensch, a naïve rousseauian fantasy, the original wigger, a product of American anglophilia, or just a big ape? On the occasion of the complete Tarzan DVD release, Stanley Crouch takes a fresh look at the King of the Jungle, and concludes the series was motivated by visions of luddite paradise that were "far less cruel than they were simple-minded."

Not one of the six films in The Tarzan Collection (Warner Home Video) is very good, but the unit of adventures reveals much about our naive conception of "purity" as it arrives in popular culture, where "something wild" always offers an answer to the problems and dilemmas that attend modern living. Johnny Weissmuller, a champion Olympic swimmer, was given the lead role. He buffed up in the gym after the success of the first film and then made his way through tale after tale in which he spoke in a child's vocabulary but had the strength of character found only in the wise, the courageous, and the incorruptible. In short, he is absurd.

Even more absurd is the idea that a civilized woman would be so taken by this man-child that she would give her back to everything European as she walked into the primeval foliage of her nature boy's world. Interestingly, Maureen O'Sullivan makes Jane more believable than the cartoon conception of the character she was given to embody. That character is perfectly described in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), the second film of the series, which arrived in the wake of King Kong and emphasizes how happy Jane has become in the year since she chose to be a bush babe. A smitten British ladies' man says of her to his friend, "She's priceless, a woman who's learned the abandon of a savage yet she'd be at home in Mayfair."…

Along with the laughable servants, the Tarzan films show the American fascination with pets and children: As the series goes on, there is much intended comic relief from Cheeta, the chimpanzee. Cheeta is a first cousin of the Mexican, Chinese, or Black American servant (or sidekick) who either screws up due to a consistent misunderstanding or yucks it up as if the last 20 seconds to laugh began 10 seconds ago.

As for the Africans, most of them were Negro American men who were picked up at dawn in South Central Los Angeles and driven to Griffith Park, where most of the exteriors were shot.

One of the fun things about the Tarzan genre is its confidence in the naturalness of aristocracy, the idea that you could plunk a British gentleman buck-ass naked in the jungle and he would still end up on top. That's a durable idea even in highly regarded contemporary literature. Over the weekend I read (and for the most part, enjoyed) Ian McEwan's Atonement, in which an upwardly mobile Cambridge student gets framed for rape, spends years in prison, then joins the army as a private; but throughout his wartime adventures, everybody who meets him immediately recognizes him as a man of quality just by the cut of his jib.

Kerry Howley butted heads with Stanley Crouch over his jazz criticism.

John J. Miller marveled at Edgar Rice Burroughs' ability to swing through the jungle of early-20th Century capitalism.

Was enthusiastic Tarzan fan Josef Stalin the hidden hand behind Johnny Weismuller's career?

Maureen O'Sullivan, the real attraction of the series, took it all off in Tarzan and His Mate.

Nice Crouch appreciation.

NEXT: Churchill Surrenders

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  1. One of the fun things about the Tarzan genre is its confidence in the naturalness of aristocracy, the idea that you could plunk a British gentleman buck-ass naked in the jungle and he would still end up on top. That’s a durable idea even in highly regarded contemporary literature.

    That’s because most writers have no inkling of things like malaria, filariasis, trypanosomiasis and the myriad of other tropical parasitic diseases that would have reduced Lord Greystoke into a shambling mess had he been lucky enough to avoid starvation.

    People tend to look at nature in terms of their local city park when in reality it’s not a very pleasant place at all, at least for those who are used to air conditioning and three squares a day.

  2. I always figured Tarzan and Jane for some kind of Paradise Regained story. Even in the wild, there were moral constants. Oh well.

  3. I’ve heard Boy was aggressively gay.

  4. in which he spoke in a child’s vocabulary but had the strength of character found only in the wise, the courageous, and the incorruptible. In short, he is absurd.

    Well, the whole idea is absurd, yes. But why would having a child’s vocabulary mean he couldn’t be wise, courageous and incorruptible? If not exposed to human language early enough, the most he ever could learn would be a few words. That part is quite realistic.

    Whether he could develop the other qualities without language is a matter for speculation, since the only examples we have of people deprived of language usually involve deprivation of other human (or even ape)contact as well (e.g., the Wolf Boy of Ardennes and Genie). But a human raised by apes, as the story goes, would probably pick up all the subtlelties of ape society.

  5. I’ve heard Boy was aggressively gay.

    I’m not sure what “aggressively gay” means, but it sounds like fun. As oppossed to passively gay, I suppose, but I can’t quite envision that, either.

  6. A cursory analysis of the John Carter series and, to a lesser degree, I Am a Barbarian largely supports this analysis of Burroughs.

    – The hero is a gentleman of good breeding out of his element, who rises inexorably towards his goal, like a bubble in water.

    – The landscape is a violent and primitive world in need of the courageous moral fibre of the hero.

    – The hero makes the primitive world his beloved and preferred home.

    – Pets are often the most treasured and beloved allies of the hero.

    – The hero is socially inept and yet a natural leader, as well as a major babe-magnet, both for the object of his infatuation (eventually) and for the power-hungry vixens.

    – The heroine, while frequently lauded as strong and smart, is prized almost exclusively for her beauty and grace, and she is largely inert as a character, almost a McGuffin.

  7. Ian McEwan’s Atonement, in which an upwardly mobile Cambridge student gets framed for rape, spends years in prison, then joins the army as a private; but throughout his wartime adventures, everybody who meets him immediately recognizes him as a man of quality just by the cut of his jib.

    Spoiler Alert

    It’s been a while since I read Atonement, but weren’t those the projections of an aristocrat? Wasn’t she just imagining what Robbie’s wartime adventures might have been?

    …and isn’t much of English Lit about class and manners? …as opposed to American race and space.

  8. You don’t have to be an out-and-out Luddite to find something attractive and comforting in the life of the apeman (re: Ray Davies).

    Just watch out for that tree…

  9. Kreegah! Cavanaugh bundalo!

    Remember that movie-Tarzan is a dumbed-down version of ERB’s pulp original. English is Johnny’s third language, at least, after Great Ape-ish and French. I think he may have learned the local human dialect before he picked up English, too.

    Tarzan is a combo of the Romulus and Remus myth and Rousseau’s “noble savage.” He is nature’s aristocrat, yes, but he also taught himself to read.

    And his son is named Korak.

    Kevin

  10. It’s been a while since I read Atonement, but weren’t those the projections of an aristocrat?

    You’re remembering correctly. I don’t think McEwan himself is arguing for the natural aristocracy, especially since social fluidity is a major theme in the book. But he is using the trope; whether he believes in it or not, the key thing is that this way of dramatizing things has never died out.

  11. “…student gets framed for rape….”

    Was the prosecutor’s name Nifong, perchance?

  12. Tarzan…the original wigger

    I LOL’ed.

  13. Tarzan: Is he a racist ubermensch, a naive rousseauian fantasy, the original wigger, a product of American anglophilia, or just a big ape?

    If I was rankin’ ’em, I’d put naive rousseauian fantasy at the top of my list list–Tarzan as noble savage.

  14. “Even more absurd is the idea that a civilized woman would be so taken by this man-child that she would give her back to everything European as she walked into the primeval foliage of her nature boy’s world.”

    Uh, what about Jane Goodall?

    And what about voluntary Tarzans and Janes like Steve Irwin and his American wife, a.k.a., Mr. and Mrs. Croc Hunter?

  15. “Even more absurd is the idea that a civilized woman would be so taken by this man-child that she would give her back to everything European as she walked into the primeval foliage of her nature boy’s world.”

    Uh, what about Jane Goodall?

    And what about voluntary Tarzans and Janes like Steve Irwin and his American wife, a.k.a., Mr. and Mrs. Croc Hunter?

  16. And what about voluntary Tarzans and Janes like Steve Irwin and his American wife, a.k.a., Mr. and Mrs. Croc Hunter?

    Or Treadwells girlfriend who got killed by a bear with her hubby in “Grizzly Man”.

    oh yeah spoiler he dies and so does she and it is a bear that kills then….bla bla bla

  17. “Even more absurd is the idea that a civilized woman would be so taken by this man-child that she would give her back to everything European as she walked into the primeval foliage of her nature boy’s world.”

    1. I don’t know, i’ve always thought it a cartoon exageration of how otherwise intelligent & “cultured” women fall for not very intelligent rock stars & sportsmen. I mean Ronaldo gets to date Brazilain super-models just coz of his ability to kick a ball ! I ask you – is this world a just or sane place ? Is it ?

    2. Rimfax,
    “A cursory analysis of the John Carter series and, to a lesser degree, I Am a Barbarian largely supports this analysis of Burroughs.”

    My understanding of John Carter & other Burrough’s characters’s, based on no particular evidence, is that they are Lord Jim/Josepph Conrad charaters. Think about it – Dude f**ks up in London/Kansas, loses out unfairly. Decides to redeem himself on a distant Planet/country populated by an ancient high civilization in decline which is given to all kinds of romantic and idiotic rituals, & where the women princesses seem amazingly asian by description (at least, in ERB’s case). Also, he is the only white dude/person of his type around which surely helps. This is a whole genre – “She”, “Lost Horizons” etc.

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