Combustible Celluloid
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With: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan, John Buckler, Benita Hume, William Henry, Herbert Mundin, E.E. Clive, Darby Jones, Cheetah
Written by: Cyril Hume, based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Directed by: Richard Thorpe
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 89
Date: 06/11/1936

Tarzan Escapes (1936)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Cage Fright

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many writers have tried to understand the appeal of this very strange story of a man raised in the jungle by apes. The most plausible idea is that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote it at the turn of the century, at the beginning of the industrial age, and it represented a yearning to get back to nature, to indulge in our animal side. Moreover, the jungle sets are more inviting than a real jungle might be. In any case, Tarzan has resulted in at least 40 official movies and probably several dozen more unofficial ones.

Three of the very best have been included in a new box set from Warner Home Video, which owns the rights to the old MGM releases. The Tarzan Collection runs through the first six sound features, all starring Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. (Weissmuller made at least six more movies, but O'Sullivan called it quits after these six.) Previous Tarzan features used big body-builder types for the role, but Weissmuller -- an Olympic swimming champion -- had a lean, agile build that made more sense. And though O'Sullivan lacked a sexy, pinup quality, she had an adorable, universal appeal -- a playfulness that translated into a perfect chemistry with her co-star.

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) benefited from director W.S. Van Dyke, otherwise known as 'One-Take' Woody. Best known for the Thin Man films, Van Dyke brought a snappy energy to his films by virtue of their spontaneity. He paces the picture perfectly so that we actually believe Jane would stay behind with her new Tarzan. In one scene, she swims with him and chatters on and on, remarking how much fun it is to talk to a man who can't understand her. Van Dyke had previously shot a jungle adventure called Trader Horn that wound up with thousands of feet of unused footage; it was put to good use here. Unfortunately, the DVD technicians were unable to master this older footage to match the newer, studio-set footage.

Many consider Tarzan and His Mate (1934) to be the best Tarzan film ever made, and I'm in complete agreement. Officially credited to legendary set designer Cedric Gibbons, the film was unofficially co-directed by Jack Conway and James C. McKay, and yet it still has a cohesive style, a bit looser, more playful and more exciting than the first film. Neil Hamilton reprises his role as Jane's jilted suitor, who ventures back into the jungle in search of elephant ivory. Made before the Hays Office began cracking down on "offensive" material, this film features O'Sullivan in her skimpiest outfit yet, as well as a few nude and semi-nude scenes. (A nude swimming scene that featured a body double was cut out of the 1934 release but restored in the 1980s.) More of the Trader Horn footage can be seen, and footage of Tarzan wrestling an alligator was re-used for later films.

Tarzan Escapes (1936) was designed as a severe horror tale about hunters tricking Jane to leave the jungle, as well as planning to capture Tarzan and put him on display like a zoo animal. Although Tarzan escapes his cage just in time to save the day, the film was deemed too scary. So the studio re-shot most of it and the original footage has yet to be found. It's still a very good Tarzan film, with some of the original elements still in place. But with Jane's full-length jungle outfit, the elaborate treehouse and more slapstick footage involving Tarzan's pet chimp Cheeta, it began to get a bit cheesy.

The remaining three films -- Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939), Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941) and Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942) -- grow increasingly silly, and include the introduction of Tarzan and Jane's son. Since they weren't married, the Hays Office wouldn't let them have a son of their own, so the filmmakers had a plane crash in the jungle with a baby aboard.

All six films are presented in a very good four-disc box set. Each disc contains two films, though for some reason, they're not in chronological order. (The viewer has to go back to disc one for Tarzan Escapes after watching Tarzan and His Mate on disc two.) Disc four contains an excellent feature-length documentary about the history of the Tarzan films, featuring interviews with O'Sullivan (who died in 1998) and Weissmuller's son, as well as footage of one of the surviving Cheetas who has lived more than 70 years! The bonus disc also comes with trailers and other short subjects.

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