Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

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“The best weapon a woman has is a man’s imagination.”–Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane Parker

One of the most interesting serials to reflect upon from the Pre-Code era is the Tarzan series of films. Starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane, the duo brought Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters to life in many a film. With a little help from their chimpanzee friend, Cheeta, the core Tarzan trio takes on a new adventure in every film.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is the second of 12 action adventure Tarzan films in which Weissmuller appeared. In this installment, Tarzan and Jane are husband and wife, still living in the jungle with Cheeta. Business partners Harry Holt and Martin Arlington arrive with a group of locals and meet Tarzan and Jane in order to take ivory from an elephant burial ground. As Holt uses Tarzan to satisfy his greed, he also works to try and persuade Jane to return to civilization. While she rejects the offer, she persuades Tarzan to act as their guide.

As rivalries arise and truths are revealed, an array of conflicts present themselves. Battles of human vs. human, animal vs. animal, animal vs. human, and humans and animals vs. humans all occur on many occasions. An escape from one sort of danger is almost always the doorway to another, making this film one of constant action and thrilling scenes.

The cast for this installment in the series is as follows:

  • Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan
  • Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane Parker
  • Neil Hamilton as Harry Holt
  • Paul Cavanagh as Martin Arlington
  • Forrester Harvey as Beamish
  • Nathan Curry as Saidi
  • George Barrows as Gorilla
  • Yola d’Avril as Madame Feronde
  • Paul Porcasi as Monsieur Feronde
  • Ray Corrigan as Gorilla
  • Desmond Roberts as Henry Van Ness

The film was directed by Cedric Gibbons, as well as an uncredited James C. McKay and Jack Conway, and written by James Kevin McGuinness. Sherman Myers and Erele Reaves created the music while Clyde De Vinna and Charles G. Clarke set the scene with their cinematography. Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the film showed off special effects of the day, which included matte paintings, miniatures, split screens, and rear projection.

Rather than filming in the African jungle, the film was instead shot in locations near Los Angeles, including Sherwood Forest, Lake Sherwood, Whittier, Big Tujunga, and China Flat. Doubles for Weissmuller included MGM animal trainers Bert Nelson and George Emerson, while trapeze artists Alfred Codona and the Flying Codonas doubled for Weissmuller and O’Sullivan, in addition to acting as Cheeta. Dressed in ape suits, the Picchianis appeared in the film, with one of them doubling for Weissmuller in a tree-jumping scene.

MGM also adapted its animals in order to suit the types of animals found in Africa. Rather than including African elephants in the film, MGM utilized Indian elephants from the MGM zoo and had attachments placed on their ears to make them look enlarged and affixed false tusks on the elephants. In other cases, mechanical animals were designed, such as the mechanical crocodile with which Tarzan battles. However, another animal star was brought in from the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany–named Mary the rhinoceros–for Tarzan to ride. In animal vs. animal battles, travelling matte shots were used to show lions battling with elephants.

One of the more notorious aspects of this film is that O’Sullivan happens to wear one of the most revealing costumes in film history for the period. Her scant dress is supposed to depict her sexual freedom, in contrast to the more prim and proper English attire that Jane would have worn in the past. In addition to partial and full nudity, another complication for the period is that Jane and Tarzan sleep together, though they are not married.

The scene that caused the most ruckus was Jane’s underwater ballet sequence, which was shot in three different versions and edited by MGM to meet certain markets. One version had Jane clothed in her loin cloth outfit, another had her topless, and the third portrayed her in the nude (albeit O’Sullivan’s double, U.S. Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim wears a flesh-colored swimsuit on her lower half). However, by April of 1934, all prints of the film were ordered to be changed by censors. When Ted Turner took over the MGM library, a positive print of the original nude scene was discovered in the vaults and released in 1986. The scene is four minutes in duration.

Though the film was a hit, it did not earn as much of a profit as its predecessor. Nonetheless, it was an international hit and remains an intriguing and inventive film to this day.