Thursday, January 23, 2014

Gordon Of The Jungle!

When Lex Barker was no longer going to be Tarzan the new guy was someone very visually different indeed. Gordon Scott was a "muscle man", a body-builder type who had mighty arms and a broad back, and frankly he didn't look all that comfortable in the trees most of the time. He didn't seem that he'd be agile. But then he was a different kind of Tarzan in what was soon a different kind of story.

Tarzan's Hidden Jungle from 1955 was the first of Scott's vehicles as the Ape Man, and it was just one more Tarzan movie by the RKO team that produced perhaps far too many since much of the juice seems to have been leeched away from the series by this time. The story is one of white hunters wanting to invade a forbidden territory to get their greedy mitts on the vast herds of elephants, buffalo, and what not which live there. To do that they trick the local doctor into taking them and then it all goes to hell as the natives feeling betrayed want to kill everyone. It's up to the oddly quiet and reticent Tarzan to intercede, first by saving the brave nurse who goes to warn the unwary doctor and then by turning his attention on the hunters themselves.

There's some pretty decent action in this one and Jack Elam as one of the villains while oddly restrained is still pretty good. The big focus in this one is that with Jane missing, Tarzan is left free to flirt with Vera Miles who plays an unremarkable loyal nurse, who if I'm not mistaken actually seems to wear heels in the veldt at one point. She's a pretty but dingy sort who goes off into the jungle and quickly finds all the cliche dangers, requiring the mighty thews of Tarzan to save her. One can clearly see the RKO formula is losing atmosphere quickly in this final Tarzan effort from the studio.

Tarzan and the Lost Safari is a stunner for one simple reason. This 1957 flick is in living color, giving vivid life to the vistas of Africa in which some real shooting was done. Sol Lesser Productions now divorced from longtime partner RKO gave Tarzan's adventures a new gloss at MGM. Jane is still missing in action, thus allowing the handsome Gordon Scott to seemingly woo the beautiful heroine of the piece. He's as always innocent, but it's a significant plot element in a story which finds a plane full of jet-setters having crashed in the wilds of Africa with only Tarzan and Cheeta to save them.

There's frankly little here that wasn't in some of the other movies, but it does seem to play out on a larger canvas and the threat does offer echoes of actual Burroughs content both in content and structure. The enemies in this movie are the "Opar Men", though they are far different from the prehistoric menaces of the novels. Nonetheless they do seem a worthy threat, and are shockingly colored blue in spots which really pops off the screen.

Tarzan and the Trappers from 1958 is the one Gordon Scott movie I've seen a few times since it appears in all the public domain collections. It is actually three episodes of a failed television project strung together to make a less than impressive feature film. It feels like a TV show and that means it doesn't really raise the stakes of the Tarzan experience much if at all. Scott does seem a bit more comfortable in the role and in front of cameras, so that helps.

Jane is back (played by Eve Brent) and blonde finally. Sadly so is the Tarzan Family unit with the addition of Tartu, a  young  boy played by Rickey Sorenson. It makes sense I guess for a TV show that they'd want a solid domestic situation, but this is wacky and Tarzan spends most of his time chasing the titular trappers and not at "home". This story feels small like a TV show of the time, but still we have some decent threats and even a lost city.

Tarzan's Fight for Life also from 1958 is simply stunning to look at. This movie keeps Eve Brent as Jane (even prettier in color) and Ricky Sorenson as Tartu, but really adds some spectacle. The treehouse returns.  The color is intensely vivid and adds to the story immensely. There's some really impressive location shooting which is by and large neatly wedded to the studio material.  Scott looks great though he's still better at grappling and hefting than leaping. Woody Strode is on hand and looks magnificent as a baddie. Also there's a terrific battle with a giant snake which seems to get out of hand.

In this one Tarzan defends a hospital in the middle of the jungle which seeks to serve the local tribes and also do significant research, but which has come under increasing criticism from the local witch doctor after the demise of the old chief. There's the usual back and forth as the doctor, his daughter and the young assistant try to stay brave in the face of the increasing threat. The set design and costumes are really done well in this one, though Tarzan is still the same broken-English speaker we've known for decades. That is about to change.

More on what happens when Tarzan is made for grown-ups next time.

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  1. Another significant change with the arrival of Scott as Tarzan was that the film Tarzan was no longer a grunting, mono-syllabic ape man. I think all Tarzans (for the most part) after Scott were all pretty articulate with their English usage. I understand the book Tarzan was fluent in several languages.

    1. The Tarzan of the novels is an incredibly intelligent fellow, in the early novels able to write and speak English (eventually) and French. He's a reasonably sophisticated man after being groomed by his friend D'Arnot. Scott does start the trend to have Tarzan speak normally in his last two movies which I covered in another post today, but I noticed in doing these reviews that the speech had been slowly improving right through the Barker years too, though never smooth.

      By the time we get to Ron Ely, it's well established that Tarzan is just another guy when it comes to conversations. It does push against his otherness, but it's still better than the alternative which limited the character far too much.

      Once they got rid of Jane, I guess they decided Tarzan needed to speak for himself.

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