Obviously seeing that they had a good thing going with their double team of Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, MGM dove into the deep pools of franchise filmmaking with their third Tarzan picture in 1936 with the ominously titled Tarzan Escapes.
However, how many different on-screen stories are there to actually tell about a dude living in the wilderness – or to be more precise, how many orginal stories are the producers willing to tell without deviating from the established plotlines that have already worked for them twice before?
Even as early as a third film, major attacks of deja-vu are almost inevitable if you don’t shake things up, so can Tarzan fend off over familiar plot lines and action sequences as easily as he can duff up a snarling lion?
Once again, clueless white folk from the walks of upper class society visit the darkest reaches of Africa in order to track down Jane Porter, the woman who went off to live with the savage white man raised in the jungle known as Tarzan – but this time the visitors are family, two cousins who need her to return to civilisation to claim the family fortune before time runs out. Teaming up with the painfully dodgy Captain Fry, they mount a safari to locate the canopy dwelling couple and soon they are reunited, but despite seeing the suprisingly rich quality of life Jane has made for herself (her treehouse could easily feature on Grand Designs), her cousins plead with her to return. Meanwhile, Tarzan, who seemingly spends his days mostly clearing up trouble that’s been caused by the surprisingly lethal japery of his chimpanzee companion Cheeta (seriously, her pranks easily verge on the psychotic and have legitimately fatal consequences – but on the other hand: funny chimp do stuff!), doesn’t seem to realise how much danger he’s in as Fry’s true plan is to capture and cage him and send him to London where he’ll supposedly make a mint in carnivals.
As the players shuffle round a metaphorical chess board filled with tribesmen, homesickness and a truly bizarre prehistoric chicken, Fry strains against the ever changing status quo to manuever his prey into a place where he can literally spring his trap shut on our bare chested champion, but even his most outlandish lies won’t be a match for a sadistic chieftain, who’s truly shocking method for dealing with interlopers would make Jigsaw violently throw up inside his pig mask.
Will the accumulated lies of Fry and Jane’s cousins finally drive a rift between the tree dwelling lovers or will their jungle love overcome?
By this point in movie history, when Wiessmuller ruled the backlot forest sets of Hollywood, both he and Jane actor Maureen O’Sullivan pretty much knew their characters inside and out and the script for Tarzan Escapes wisely chooses to reflect this by greatly expanding their domestic lives to near Flintstone levels of primitive domestication. After discovering that the twiggy, treetop bunker where we’ve seen them snooze in the past is now only their secondary home, we get introduced to their proper home, a massive treehouse that Jane insists contains all mod cons – there’s a contraption that gives them running water, an indoor stove, a crank operated ceiling fan and even an elephant powered elevator (so, what, Cheeta’s an employee now?). Questionable motives about hiring their jungle friends to work in their penthouse aside, the treehouse offers yet another fascinating look at Tarzan and Jane’s ever evolving relationship. Where in the first film they shared an instant attraction and the second they where still enjoying their honeymoon period (the naked swim is proof of that), here our vine swinging duo are now a settled, devoted couple whose vastly different lives have merged almost completely. While his new home means he’s as domesticated as never before, Tarzan still hurls himself through the trees like a maniac and now seems to actively right wrongs in the jungle like he’s fucking Batman or something whereas Jane seems to finally found the right balance between her previous life in the city and one where she and her yodeling beau get biz-zay literally wherever they want – although we’re mercifully spared any details of what their toilet is made of and how long it took for Jane to teach Tarzan to use it… However, the most satisfying thing about where their relationship is now is how initially fragile it is when put under any stress from the outside world. Tarzan may be the sort of guy who’s tough enough to beat the fuzzy shit out of any predatory feline who even looks at him funny, but he’s still incredibly vunerable to the thought that Jane would leave him for the city if the need arises. Watch how he instantly believes any lie anyone tells him about his true love – it’s written off that maybe the lord of the apes is simply naive in the duplicitous ways of so called civilised men, but it feels to me that despite the fact he wanders around all day in a loin cloth so small it could barely function as a hand towel, he’s actually extraordinarily insecure about Jane leaving him which further suggests that he’d even be noble enough to let her go if she wanted.
It’s all fascinating stuff and it’s what propels most of a movie that, if I’m being brutally honest, is a little formulaic at times. Once again people from Jane’s past turn up to be a nuisance and once again they all fall foul of a nasty tribe in the final reel – even the pencil moustached look of the last movie’s villain is recreated in the Captain Fry, but luckily he proves to be another plus point as the script places him as such an out and out wanker, he ends up become a great foil. Whether blowing away the film’s human comic relief in cold blood when his back’s turned, to his dastardly plan to just give everyone over to a violent tribe just to guarantee his free passage, he’s a refreshing, old school bounder whose comeuppance comes intriguingly not at Tarzan’s blade but at the jungle lord’s quiet, yet forceful insistence that Fry returns back through a lethal swamp or he’s going to get a serrated, steel catheter for no extra charge. It’s wonderfully cold and demanding that the villian offer himself up to swappy a marsh teaming with poisonous, roaring iguanas (?) Proves that our boy Tarzan has a dark streak a mile wide.
Apparently a much gruesomer version of the movie was originally shot only to be axed by the studio with the lion’s share of the film (pun intended) being reshot from scratch with a new director. This might explain the rather distinctive stink of reused footage during the action sequences (those wildebeest and crocodile sequences look awfully familiar) which is normally the sign for older franchises that the rot is beginning to set in; I mean, just ask the producers of some of the Godzilla movies made in the early 70’s.
Thankfully the strength of the characters manage to persevere over the second hand action much like our hero himself as he wrestles one of the many lethal beasts that stalk his kingdom (why doesn’t he just learn to use a bow?), but if the series was to retain it’s earlier pizzazz, it would need to try something radical… boy, would it.