Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

This week, the new Tarzan film The Legend of Tarzan is scheduled for its worldwide premiere. While a new Tarzan film used to be a common occurrence (in the 1930s and 1940s there was usually a new one every year), they have not exactly been as common lately. In fact, the latest live action Tarzan film was Tarzan and the Lost City, a pretty bad flick from 1998.

The Internet Archive has a little over half a dozen Tarzan films and serials, but truth be told, most are not good. One of the better is the serial Tarzan the Tiger (episodes 1–7 and 8–15).

Frank Merrill in Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

Tarzan the Tiger was made just as the silent era was swiftly marching towards its own grave. This serial is an example of a blend that was relatively common around this time. It is essentially silent, but it has a synchronized soundtrack, including some (pretty annoying) sound effects and also the first-ever recorded version of the Tarzan yell. It was, however, a far cry (pun intended) from the later Weissmuller version.

This was the last silent Tarzan, and it marked the end of the first period of Tarzan films also in another way. Starting with the first Tarzan film, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), Tarzan films had always been based, more or less faithfully, on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books. But with the first true Tarzan sound film, The Ape Man (1932), the stories were original ones, created directly for the movies. Also, the characters and their surroundings changed from the novels, introducing for example the ape Cheeta (who is not still alive, by the way; that is just a myth) and the famous tree house.

But Tarzan the Tiger was still very much rooted in the original Tarzan novels. It has been too long since I read the novel Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, upon which the serial is based, but my recollection is that the serial follows the original plot fairly well. The traitorous Arnold Werper is there, as is the slave trader Achmet Zek. And most importantly, the jewels of Opar, which everyone wants, and on which the amnesiac Tarzan is positively hung up. If nothing else, the serial is definitely made in the book’s spirit.

With that novel, Burroughs started experimenting with a new plot format, one which involves switching from one character’s point-of-view to another’s and with frequent cliff-hangers. I call this type of novel “the jungle romp”, since it has a number of characters running circles in a jungle, alone or in small groups. They are often completely lost, but in the end they miraculously find one another (and the treasure) in just the nick of time. It is plain that this is a formula which would easily lend itself to the serial style of story telling.

The Jewels of Opar was also Burroughs’ first novel where he used the amnesia cliché. Many critics have said that Burroughs overused amnesia in his plots: it was used several times in the Tarzan series of novels, for example. But in this first, Burroughs was still experimenting, and it actually helps to lift the story and make it more interesting.

Frank Merrill, like so many other screen Tarzans, had a background as an elite athlete. He had been a nationally top-ranking gymnast, and it shows. In terms of physical appearance and ability, he made a splendid ape man. His acting talent was somewhat less splendid, but his over-acting is actually unintentionally funny and helps to raise my level of enjoyment another notch.

The version found at the Internet Archive is, unfortunately, very dark and generally of poor quality. I am not sure if restored versions are available on dvd, but all the versions I have seen on the Internet are like this one, or worse.

This serial is best enjoyed for an abundance of action and sudden plot twists, just like any good serial. On the other hand, one should not expect too much of the acting or scenography.

Frank Merrill and Natalie Kingston as Tarzan and Jane in Tarzan the Tiger (1929)

Tarzan the Tiger
Download links: 1–7 | 8–15
Year: 1929
Running time: 4 h 28 min
Director: Henry MacRae
Stars: Frank Merrill
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX

Won in the Clouds (1928)

Aviation film has a long history. One of the first films to use an aeroplane as an integrated part of the story was Dash Through the Clouds (1912), a trivial comedy which today is only worth remembering for the amazing Wright aeroplane which is its real main character. A long range of films, today mostly forgotten, followed during the rest of the silent era.

Almost the only one of the silent aviation films that is still remembered today is Wings (1927), but that classic (the first to win the Academy Award for best picture) is not available at the Internet Archive. Fortunately, there is another typical (though considerably less lavish) representative of the genre in the form of Won in the Clouds.

Al Wilson and his Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" in Won in the Clouds (1928)

I have previously stated that the late 1920s was a period of very high film-making standards. But of course, not every film can be innovative and ground-breaking. Won in the Clouds is not one of those films that will leave you deeply touched and perhaps even with a changed perspective on some aspect of life, such as Sunrise: A Song of two Humans (1927) or La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928).

Fortunately, it has other qualities. Won in the Clouds is a good example of light entertainment of the kind that Hollywood has always done best. The story is a bit silly, but not as silly as many other films, both new and old. The acting is typical of the silent era. But most importantly, some of the stunts made in this film are absolutely spectactular. Not that they cannot be reproduced and improved upon with modern film-making techniques. It is just that when you see these stunts, you know that it has to be the real thing. There is little opportunity for trick filming, and no room for extreme safety measures. And there are definitely no stunt men.

The story is a fast-moving one involving diamonds, a crooked mine manager, cars, jungle animals, sick natives, romance, and, of course, aeroplanes. Unless you place too high demands on credibility, this is good entertainment.

With its African setting, Won in the Clouds definitely does contain some racial stereotyping. Racism can never be excused by the passage of time, but racism in popular culture is one source that can help us analyze the time and the culture that it mirrors. As such, it can perhaps also help us understand our own time and help avoid making the same mistakes that previous generations did.

This film is best enjoyed for the wonderful aeroplanes and neat stunts.

Grace James and Percy Hogan in Won in the Clouds (1928)

Won in the Clouds
Download link
Year: 1928
Running time: 52 min
Director: Bruce M Mitchell
Stars: Al Wilson
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Windows Media (2.0 G)

The Phantom (1943)

The Phantom is a classic newspaper comic strip in the adventure genre. It was created in 1936 by writer Lee Falk, and soon became very popular. Even after its creator’s death in 1999, it continues running with new creative teams. While past its peak, it remains very popular, not least as a comic book in Scandinavia and Australia. The character is partly a synthesis of Zorro and Tarzan, but with some very unique and original elements thrown into the mix.

As a hero in the movies, The Phantom’s career has been considerably less stellar than in the newspapers. There have been several attempts, mostly very awkward, to recreate The Phantom either for TV or for the big screen. In fact, the best screen Phantom is still the very first, The Phantom from 1943. The adventure serials were at that time at their peak regarding budgets and production values, and The Phantom is not lacking in terms of entertaining adventure.

Tom Tyler with Devil by the skull throne in The Phantom (1943)

The plot is standard serial fare. Professor Davidson needs help to find a lost city. The Phantom comes to his aid, but a number of bad guys try to thwart them. Since this was made in 1943, one of them is a Nazi agent. And then there is the professor’s beautiful daughter, Diana. Why, of course. There has to be a romantic interest for the hero. After the early 1930s, female characters in serials became increasingly more passive and objectified, mostly acting as baits for the crooks to go after and the heroes to rescue. These gender roles became so cemented that they can still to some extent be seen in popular media, and I believe that the serials had a large part in that development. In early serials from the 1920s, the women were much more active, sometimes actually acting as the heroes themselves.

In spite of his appearance, The Phantom is not really a superhero, neither in terms of powers nor in terms of the themes covered in the comics (special thematic rules apply in the serials). Like many superheroes, however, The Phantom is dressed in a tight suit and a mask. Just like Superman, his costume was inspired by the strongmen of the early 20th century, which explains why he has his underpants outside his trousers. This would be fair enough, except according to the background detailed in the strip, the costume was invented by the first person to hide behind The Phantom’s mask in the 16th century.

Yes, there are many corny things about The Phantom, but that is part of the character’s charm. You cannot watch this serial, or read the comic, unless you accept it for what it is, and allow yourself to be immersed in a different world, one where the good guys always win and the bad ones get punched on the nose.

This film is best enjoyed if you are disappointed with some of the other The Phantom films and want to enjoy what is probably closest to the real thing in motion. As an added bonus, Kenneth MacDonald makes a very memorable interpretation as the evil genius.

Tom Tyler fighting a ferocious lion in The Phantom (1943)

The Phantom
Download link
Year: 1943
Running time: 4 h 20 min
Directors: B. Reeves Eason
Stars: Tom Tyler
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: Cinepack

Nabonga (1944)

Last week, I wrote about Tarzan actor Buster Crabbe playing the second fiddle to Johnny Weissmuller. This week, it is Crabbe’s turn to play the lead, and his sidekick is a very interesting actor named Prince Modupe. If not for these two actors, the B-movie Nabonga would have been easily forgotten.

Prince Modupe and Buster Crabbe in Nabonga (1944)

Every once in a while, one of the Tarzan actors would turn out to actually have an acting talent, and would go on to make a decent acting career. Crabbe was one of these. Like Weissmuller, he was an Olympic swimming gold medalist. He made his Tarzan appearance in a 1933 serial, Tarzan the Fearless. The serial is now lost, but a feature film version remains. Interestingly it was produced simultaneously with Weissmuller’s first Tarzan for MGM, due to conflicting contracts (somewhat similar to the situation with James Bond in the 1960s). Crabbe followed a long tradition of Tarzans recruited for their physique rather than any actual acting talents. Indeed, his Tarzan role did not allow for much acting on Crabbe’s part.

This is where history loops back, because the story of Nabonga centers around the girl Doreen (played by Julie London) who is stranded in the jungle and raised by her father and a gorilla. It is clearly inspired by the story of Tarzan, and undoubtedly made to capitalize on the Tarzan films (still with Weissmuller in the lead at this time). So Crabbe comes back to the Tarzan theme, but from the opposite direction, so to speak, as the romantic interest of the female “Tarzan”.

Prince Modupe plays Crabbe’s sidekick Tobo. At a time when black people generally were subject to simplified stereotyping, Modupe managed to play roles where he actually appeared as a human, not as a stupid native or savage or servant. Born in French West Africa, Modupe’s village had very little contact with white people, yet young Modupe (“Prince” was originally his royal title, apparently) managed to get a European education and later worked in the US as a writer, composer, producer and actor. Beyond that, I was able to find very little information on the Internet, but this is one personality whom I would love to find out more about.

The nice chemistry between Crabbe and Modupe lifts this film from the turkey pit and actually makes it enjoyable, at least in part.

One more actor deserves to be mentioned, namely Ray Corrigan. The guy in the gorilla suit. The suit was apparently Corrigan’s private property, and some periods of his career he specialized in gorilla roles.

This film is best enjoyed as a celebration of National Gorilla Suit Day, which is on Friday, January 31. National Gorilla Suit Day was first conceived as a joke by Mad Magazine artist Don Martin, but is today celebrated every year by fans of Martin and fans of gorilla suits alike.

Buster Crabbe, Julie London and Ray Corrigan in the gorilla suit, in Nabonga (1944)

Nabonga
Download link
Year: 1944
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Director: Sam Newfield
Stars: Buster Crabbe
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (704×528)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG2 (3.8 G)

Swamp Fire (1946)

Today it is exactly thirty years since Johnny Weissmuller passed away, the most iconic of the many Tarzan actors on the silver screen. Weissmuller, who was already famous for his achievements as a swimmer, including five Olympic gold medals, was the first to portray the ape man in a sound movie. When Weissmuller’s acting career started, Tarzan’s popularity was going downhill fast. Weissmuller’s twelve films turned that trend, and without them it is possible that Tarzan would not have such a strong iconic presence today.

As Weissmuller’s Tarzan career was nearing its inevitable end, he also made the film Swamp Fire. This is, in fact, Weissmuller’s only major role where he did not play either Tarzan, Jungle Jim or himself.

Buster Crabbe, Carol Thurston and Johnny Weissmuller in Swamp Fire (1946)

In Swamp Fire, Weissmuller plays Johnny Duval who returns home to the Louisiana bayou after service in World War II. But due to his traumatic experiences in the war, he cannot go back to his old job as a bar pilot. Duval wants to marry his old sweetheart Toni, but then there is the headstrong and rich city girl Janet Hilton, who has decided that she wants Duval for herself. To complicate things further, Buster Crabbe (who had also played Tarzan, in the film Tarzan the Fearless (1933)) plays Mike, who is also after Toni’s heart.

I guess, this being the Big Man’s death date and all, one should be respectful. But then, mommy always told me to tell the truth too and, truth be told, Swamp Fire would be a pretty nice little romantic melodrama if not for Weissmuller in the lead. Because while most of the other actors do what can be expected under the circumstances, and Buster Crabbe is really good, Weissmuller is mostly stiff and unconvincing. His acting repertoire turns out to be very limited, as he uses the same mannerisms here as in his Tarzans. But while they work there, they fail here.

This film is best enjoyed for the very unusual pairing of two Tarzan actors. Not only that, but Virginia Grey (Janet Hilton) had previously played against Weissmuller in Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), and it would appear that the film is shot in the same swamp jungles as the very first Tarzan movie, Tarzan of the Apes (1918). For a final Tarzan connection, the film includes a Tarzan tribute scene where Duval wrestles with an overgrown alligator.

Carol Thurston, Johnny Weissmuller and Virginia Grey in Swamp Fire (1946)

Swamp Fire
Download link
Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 9 min
Director: William Pine
Stars: Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (688×519)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.4 G)

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

Tarzan is often mentioned as one of the most iconic literary characters of the 20th century, after Sherlock Holmes and maybe Dracula. But Holmes and Dracula were both created in the 19th century, so perhaps Tarzan is the most iconic literary character to emerge during the 20th, disregarding comic characters such as Superman.

Today, when you think about Tarzan on the silver screen, you probably think first about Johnny Weissmuller, who played the ape man through most of the 30s and 40s. Starting with his films, and continuing for decades thereafter, the movies were not based on any of the books written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Indeed, even the characters barely resembled those in the books (Boy and Cheeta were never in the books at all).

Stellan Windrow as Tarzan in Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

The first Tarzan movie Tarzan of the Apes, on the other hand, is very faithful to the original story. Perhaps too faithful, which may have been the reason why it was cut heavily, apparently from three hours originally, and even then they only did half the book. (The rest was adapted into a second film, The Romance of Tarzan (1918), which was thought lost until a partial print was discovered recently.)

But the existing film of only an hour is too short. You can feel the incoherence caused by the heavy cutting. Some films really deserve to be restored to their best possible versions. But restoration is expensive and time consuming, so for now we will have to settle with the butchered version.

The one-hour version at the Internet Archive is the longest extant version known to me (there are commercial releases with better music and image quality, but the same content). Yet, it can be assumed that other surviving versions contain material not used in this one. The best example is a 1937 cut of the first half of the film (Tarzan’s childhood) titled Tarzan the Boy, which was up for sale a while ago on eBay. Then there are rumours about a 73-minute version, and there are probably others. Even though a complete version may never be found, it should be possible to do considerably better than what exists at present.

The casting in the film is not exactly great. Even Edgar Rice Burroughs himself was said to be dissatisfied with Enid Markey as the young and beautiful Jane, and while Elmo Lincoln is certainly muscular enough, he does not exactly look like he could suddenly jump into a tree and start swingning away. Rather, he is lumbering around in the jungle. In fact, another actor, the Swede Stellan Windrow, was originally cast for the role, but he was drafted when shooting had only just begun. It is him we can see in some of the scenes where Tarzan swings through the trees.

The film was shot in the swamp jungles of Louisiana. A documentary was recently made about the filming. I have not seen it, but it is said to be very good.

This film is best enjoyed if you are unfamiliar with the original. It really is a great story, and this first filming tells it better than most later ones even though some liberties have been taken.

Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan holding Enid Markey as Jane in Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

Tarzan of the Apes
Download link
Year: 1918
Running time: 60 min
Director: Scott Sidney
Stars: Elmo Lincoln
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Poor, random music
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (426 M)