There may be stranger reasons for sitting down to watch a movie, but I’ve got a good one here: I’m about halfway through Steven Bach’s book Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl, when all of a sudden, I come across a biographical nugget I had forgotten about from reading Riefenstahl’s own memoirs some years earlier: In her autobiography, the infamous director of the Nazi propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will claimed she’d had an affair with Olympics decathlon champion Glenn Morris, during and after the 1936 games in Berlin.
Morris, as die-hard Tarzan film fans know, became the eighth actor to play Edgar Rice Burroughs’ apeman when he was cast in the 1938 jungle opus Tarzan’s Revenge. Produced and distributed by 20th-Century Fox, this quickie/budget adventure was released even as MGM’s celebrated series with Johnny Weissmuller continued, the lukewarm reception to Tarzan Escapes perhaps suggesting to producer Sol Lesser—who had already mounted Buster Crabbe’s vine-swinging turn in Tarzan the Fearless—that he could benefit from realizing another rival Tarzan film that might better satisfy the jungle lord’s many fans.
My copy of Tarzan’s Revenge—contained within a budget DVD collection that also features the Crabbe film as well as Elmo Lincoln’s silent classic Tarzan of the Apes, Tarzan and the Green Goddess (starring the more Burroughs-faithful, well-spoken Herman Brix), and the Gordon Scott outing Tarzan and the Trappers—had gone woefully unwatched in full; with so many good-looking films available to view, I can get easily discouraged when a print is too shabby or the sound too subpar. But this crazy intersection of Riefenstahl/Tarzan trivia got my longtime affection for the character energized again, and sent me right to my TV and a sit-down with Morris’ sole appearance as the Earl of Greystoke.
The film is often derided as one of the worst-ever incarnations of the Burroughs character. Know what? It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s not the Bo Derek travesty, either.
The film’s storyline is an “original” one, which is to say it’s not based directly on any of the novels, but it contains many of the ingredients fans could expect to be mixed together in any Tarzan picture: A beautiful woman (Eleanor Holm) on safari, accompanied by her boastful-but-less-than-manly love interest (George Meeker); an exotic plot for the heroine to be kidnapped, this time by a turban-wearing royal (C. Henry Gordon) determined to have her as the plus-one in his 100-wife harem; stock footage of jungle wildlife; clashes with headhunters; a fight with a lion; swimming with crocodiles; and of course, comic relief from Cheetah.
Along with Meeker as Tarzan’s romantic rival Nevin Potter (a sniveling, faux-man name if ever there was one) and Gordon portraying cut-rate-Chandu-esque stalker Ben Alleu Bey, the film adds a third principal opponent for the jungle king in the form of the “Great White Hunter”-type Olaf Punch (!), played by Canadian screen actor Joe Sawyer. Sawyer’s shady safari leader, given the oh-so-sinister tic of an eye twitch, has made a secret deal with Alleu Bey to deliver Eleanor (Yes, that’s Holm’s name in the movie, too; she plays “Jane” in everything but name) to his palace, located in a vaguely Arabian-looking setting—I suppose Tarzan fans can content themselves to believe it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of Opar.
Also added to the narrative strains of the kidnapping scheme, the central romance of “Me Tarzan, You Eleanor” (a quote featuring twice as many words as are actually spoken in the exchange, but more on that in a moment), and the MacGuffin of Holm’s family and wimpy suitor Potter pursuing game to bring back for exhibition (including a super-rare white alligator!), Tarzan’s Revenge treats us to the intermittent comic repartee between Eleanor’s parents, played by journeyman George Barbier (Philadelphia born! Pardon the indulgence of a local shout-out) and renowned gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.
What’s most amusing (to me) about Barbier’s turn as Eleanor’s father is how readily he accepts the idea of his daughter staying behind in the jungle with the savage Tarzan. Hopper’s jam in Tarzan’s Revenge is to fall victim to hilarious (?) fits of sneezing in nearly every scene. I really expected this running gag to eventually “mean” something to the story—like maybe her sneezing would give the party away while they tried to hide from cannibals, or some such devilish twist—but that just shows how much I’ve been successfully conditioned by modern screenwriting, where even the most seemingly trifling of character bits is revealed somehow to be hugely consequential to the storytelling. No such luck here—it’s really just a lot of funny sneezing.
There are occasional dialogue howlers, too—but nothing beats this little gem from she-man Nevin Potter when he raises his rifle and takes aim after hearing a rustling in the bush:
“I can’t see what it is, but it’s something!”
Turns out it’s an adorable little deer he wounds. The animal scampers away; Potter, unaware of whether or not he’s hit or killed anything living, just shrugs. (Ultimately, Tarzan attends to the poor little beast) When Eleanor gently ribs her questionably masculine protector about running out of bullets, he curls his lip into a cocksure sneer and boasts he’s still got a whole boxload of ammo left. What a guy!
So much for the lowlights of Tarzan’s Revenge; there are some bright spots, too. True, neither Glenn Morris nor Eleanor Holm are accomplished actors (they’d both abandon The Biz entirely after this film flopped); lucky for us, Morris is aided by the fact that he says exactly three words in the movie: “Tarzan,” “Eleanor,” and “good.” Otherwise, he lets his physique do the work; running and jumping around, and dangling from various vines—once upside down, by foot! Credit due, I assume, to a stuntman—he’s lean and muscular enough to make an acceptable Tarzan. Sure, his face looks a little like Harpo Marx (especially when he bares his pearly whites in mischievous smiles), but if you’re in a really forgiving mood, you can try to pretend he’s Lex Barker with a Herman Brix yodel.
Like Morris, leading lady Eleanor Holm was an Olympic champion (swimming, in the 1932 games)—and her athletic abilities are showcased in the film. Her appearance brings to mind a kind of hybrid Judy Garland/Joan Crawford, and her delivery of lines is frankly no more or less stiff than her colleagues’. Her wardrobe is certainly a cheesecake-lover’s letdown for coverage that’s far more conservative than Maureen O’Sullivan’s hugely appealing (lack of) attire in the pre-Code Tarzan and His Mate…but I’m hard-pressed now to remember if Ms. O’Sullivan ever actually outswam a croc the way Holm is shown to do here.
Eagle-eyed (and eared) film buffs will also enjoy the cameo by Western star “Wild Bill” Elliott. I “knew” the voice immediately, but had to look up the name.
The qualities that struck me as surprisingly fine in Tarzan’s Revenge were two: The cinematography by George Meehan (who shot a good many 1940s Westerns), even observed through the muddy, damaged prints that are the best we’re ever likely to have, occasionally shines—especially during night scenes that are lit more moodily than we’re used to seeing in a bargain-basement Greystoke picture. Also superlative is the near-constant musical score by prolific composer Hugo Riesenfeld. Smartly arranged with recurring leitmotifs corresponding to action, romance, comedy, or natural wonder, the score incorporates pre-existing material that includes the oft-used “Gruesome” segment of Misterioso Infernale by Gaston Borch; I couldn’t really tell you exactly how much of the score is original or recycled—but whatever the nature of his contributions, Riesenfeld does a fine job of helping move the film along with well-chosen musical ideas.
If Tarzan’s Revenge doesn’t rise to quite the levels reached by the more outstanding of the Burroughs-inspired films (and it certainly doesn’t), its rough-hewn charms aren’t a serious embarrassment to the general screen legacy of the apeman. It’s pulpy and disposable; call me a Tarzan fan too easy to please, but sometimes a quick and silly swing through the trees is worth issuing the victory cry of the bull ape!
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