ranuel (ranuel) wrote,

Revisiting Childhood

This week I revisited two favorites from my childhood and found one better than I remembered and one indescribably worse.

The Bad:

Tarzan the Apeman with Johnny Weismuller. When I was a kid one of the local TV stations ran old movies on Saturday afternoon. They alternated several syndicated packages through the years but they ran all the JW Tarzan movies through on a fairly regular basis. The movies have a lot to enrapture a kid: Jungle animals, a cool hero, a cool heroine, and lots of really ghoulish scenes of torture. The bit where they tied a guy to two crossed trees and then cut the rope was my favorite.

I'd watch one of these and run outside to climb a tree and swing on a vine (It being Florida I could do that although not from limb to limb. Just a couple of feet at ground level.) and practice my Tarzan yell. Nobody could do it as good as Carol Burnett but I tried my best.

Unfortunately, as an adult I notice the stuffed lion, the mechanical croc with the big painted eyes, the trapeze not quite hidden in the vines, and the fact that all the gorillas are men in ape costumes while the baby gorillas are all played by chimps. I also notice the incredibly nasty racism.

I find myself dividing racist things into two groups. Things that are fueled by hatred and intended to hurt - intentional racism -  that deserve righteous anger (and smiting) and things that the person doesn't realize is hurtful but just accepts because that is what the culture around them accepts - inbred racism - that deserve a gently worded correction.  Someone who suffers from the later can be educated and will be genuinely puzzled or contrite when confronted with their gaff. Someone who suffers from the former should be neutered before they bred since they usually produce more of both types.

There are several instances of inbred racism in the original Tarzan novels - which after all were first published in 1914 - but I can't call to mind anything that I would call intentional racism. The fact that Burroughs at one time or another mocks representatives of every race and country and seems to have a sour view of civilization and the human race in general mitigates the racist instances even further to me. YMMV.

The movie on the other hand...

I cannot believe for one minute that even in 1932 the people who made this movie did know realize how nasty their depiction of the African natives was. Even the "good guys" casually abuse the bearers in their safari. They are beaten with whips, forced to carry heavy unbalanced loads on precarious mountain trails with no safety equipment even though the whites are carefully roped together, laughed at by the "sophisticated" flapper Jane Parker, murdered by Tarzan over something done by one of the whites, and die in various ways throughout the movie until only the whites are left. And yes, the word "boy" is thrown around a great deal even though that character won't make an appearance for two or three movies.

If the events of this movie had happened in one of ERB's novels Harry's nasty behavior towards the bearers and his attempts to kill Tarzan would have been presented as plainly villainous. He would have been used to illustrate the point that the "civilized" Europeans are anything but. Here he is shown as fairly heroic. Jane gets snippy with him at one point over his distrust of Tarzan but I really, really, wanted her to haul off and bitchslap him into next Wednesday, or for one of the elephants to step on him , and he barely gets a crease in his khakis.

There is almost nothing left of the novel Tarzan of the Apes in this except for character names. I am of the opinion that the novel has never been satisfactorily adapted for the screen and this falls further away from canon than most of the tries.

The great dramatic confrontation of the movie occurs when the party is captured by dwarves, many of whom are white actors in blackface with bad afro wigs who dance around and mug at the camera in exactly the sort of way you are imagining.


Jane: "Are these Pygmies?"
Harry: "No, they're dwarves."

Actual dialogue from the movie.
A Douglas Adams style sign should appear at this point to announce that this never happens in the novel. Any of the novels.

The portrayal of Tarzan, a character who in the novels has got to have a genius IQ, as somewhat mentally defective instead of simply not speaking English, is acutely painful to watch.

And speaking of cute, there is quite a lot of JW on display in this movie since the Hayes board hasn't made them make the loin cloth less revealing yet and the man does have an Olympic level ass. Unfortunately it's not enough to save the movie from the Olympic level asses behind the camera. There is one more movie on the disc I have so I might as well watch it to see if it is as bad. I have another disc with my two favorite movies from the series still to come in my Netflix queue. I'm probably going to let it come up in it's turn to see if either of  them hold up at all but I'm not holding out much hope.

This got a bit long so I'll go into the one that didn't disappoint tomorrow.

Tags: movie review, tarzan
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