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.