Ever since Johnny Weissmuller’s version of Edgar Rice Burroughs legendary beefcake literally first swung into theaters with 1932’s Tarzan The Ape Man, you’d be hard pushed to find another cinematic Lord Of The Apes that could match up to his steely glare, his solid physique or the fact that he seems to be able to swim as fact as a damn motor boat and in 1934 the inevitable happened. Tarzan and his incredibly free spirited partner managed to bag themselves a sequel with the oddly titled Tarzan And His Mate which either sounds like he’s going to spend the whole movie on the lash with his best friend or it’s a very coldly titled porno… Of course the film is neither of these (although considering Tarzan and Jane’s living arrangements, the latter may not be that far from the truth), but it is a very brazen sequel made during a time that such cash in’s were only just about to become the norm with all the follow ups Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Wolf Man were due to score… can this movie made nearly ninety years ago manage to forge it’s own path in the wake of it’s predecessor?
It’s been a year since events brought city girl Jane and her jungle dwelling boo together and in that time they’ve been living quite happily in their tree house while the apes they share the tree tops with have no doubt had to tune out 12 months worth of their nightly gymnastics. However, Harry Holt, the business partner of her deceased father, has a plan to not only rekindle the plan to find the secret elephant’s graveyard in order to lay claim to it’s bountiful amounts of discarded ivory, but he also has his besotted eyes set on trying to woo Jane back to civilised life with trunks full of all the latest fashions. Joining him in this endeavor is his pal Arlington, a man whose pencil moustache positively screams cad and who desperately needs this caper to succeed to revive his flagging fortunes but his bed hopping habits means he also feels stirrings for Jane once he sees her emerge from the trees with her pneumatic himbo in tow.
After agreeing to escort them to the ivory, Tarzan must keep that muscular neck on a swivel due to many different threats, some more obvious than others. The main danger seems to be a brutal tribe who seemingly get their rocks off by staking their victims out and then using horns to summon lions to rock up and eat their victims, but seemingly more insidious dangers lie within their own camp in the form of Arlington (I told you that moustache was highly suspect!) who isn’t adverse to using a little thing like murder to get what he wants, and what his grossly oversized libido wants is Jane.
So as sequels go, Tarzan And His Mate often treads dangerously close to being an exact copy of Tarzan The Ape Man; both films begin virtually the same with Arlington arriving in Africa much like Jane did in the first movie and throughout the story we get a heap of simular callbacks. Impish chimp Cheeta once again has to outrun lions in order to pass viral information on like a version of Lassie that can fling it’s own shit, Tarzan gets temporarily sidelined by a stray bullet and like before an evil tribe of natives shows up at the end only to be routed by yet another pacyderm stampede called up by Tarzan’s iron lunged cry. Yes, it’s very similar – the elephant graveyard plot is practically identical – yet somehow Tarzan And His Mate avoids being a cynical retread by simply honouring it’s own established continuity and then building on the characters from there.
Remaining the best thing about the films is Maureen O’ Sullivan’s incredibly willful Jane who may well be the worst teacher in the world (a whole year and he’s still talking like “Me” this and “Ungawa” that), but she’s definately made good on her earlier promise to mold this lump of ape-raised clay into an attentive, loving partner. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if a theory exists that she’s only taught him basic stuff to keep him exactly the way she wants him, after all she’s taught him to say “I love you” to her every morning and freely admits to steering away from exposing him to negative words like “unhappy” – it’s a fascinating relationship that would reek of manipulation, but when it comes to physicality Tarzan can more than hold his own in this “marriage”, playfully flinging her around the place like a rag doll while Jane shows off complete, unwavering trust as she dives out of trees into his dependable arms.
In fact, thanks to it’s pre-code status, Tarzan And His Mate is often quite risque for a film from Hollywood’s golden age as fucking around in the jungle while barely 20 seconds away from certain death at all times (there always seems to be a lion or a rhino around every bastard corner) obviously seems to be a potent aphrodisiac which reaches it’s climax (steady now) an eyebrow raising extended skinny dipping sequence. In fact the sexual connotations don’t stop their as practised lothario Arlington – a man who’s undoubtedly had more women on their back than paralysis – visibly gets off on Jane aggressively sucking the venom out of the poisoned arrow wound on his forearm which foreshadows his later murderous intent. I guess it’s tough to spot a red flag when the film is in black and white…
Other noticably iffy stand outs include Cheeta puffing on a ciggy and the poor girl witnessing Cheeta senior getting fatally poleaxed by a charging rhinoceros, but this latter scene only goes to show that the brutal violence from the first movie is still very much in effect. Bodies riddled with arrows and coated with ants bare more than a passing resemblance to Alfred Molina’s speared corpse from Raiders Of The Lost Ark and once again, animal lovers will have a conniption when witnessing our hero stab a rhino to death, or Arlington giving an elephant a shotgun powered one way ticket to the sacred graveyard just so he can follow it there. Of course, the series treatment of it’s black characters is still indicative of the time period, although there is one scene where Harry risks his life to save their tied up safari guide from being mauled by a lion. Admittedly, he (SPOILERS) fails miserably and is torn to pieces along with the guide who, it must be said, would whip the other natives to get them moving – but it’s a start… I think.
One thing that’s also a talking point while watching these movies is also how fucking dangerous it all looks despite simultaneously being absurdly cheesy to modern eyes. Take the stuntman getting whirled around a lake like a pair of socks in a washing machine by a giant animatronic crocodile which then cuts to a little minature Tazan doll riding a real croc; the techniques used to realise this world of non-stop action may be comically crude to people raised on computer generated alchemy, but in actuality it’s utterly fucking stunning that the craftsmen turned out stuff that were so functional.
With the main characters established into the roles that will define them until the end of time, there’s a tendency to up the damsel in distress angle noticably, for example Jane goes from being menaced by a rhino, to a leopard to a crocodile in rapid succession in a little under four minutes, but luckily she’s still feisty enough to get fully stuck in during the siege during the climax, setting fires, shooting guns and warding off huge felines until her stabby boyfriend can intervene, meaning both she – not to mention this rollicking sequel – manage to keep their dignity with style in this satisfyingly classic rumble in the jungle.