After a relentless production schedule that saw six films churned out in a decade like some loin clothed obsessed production line, the MGM Tarzan series was in dire need of some kind of face lift. For example, while the previous movie, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, was a highly effective adventure for the Johnny Weissmuller’s iconic vine swinger, it lost points due to the fact that it was merely a highly polished romp with cookie cutter plotting that’s virtually identical to the five movies that came before it – something had to change and if it wasn’t going to be the plot then it might as well be the setting.
It was time for Tarzan and his family to visit the urban jungles of New York much like King Kong him before him – but hopefully with less biplane related death. The city that never sleeps isn’t going to get a chance to with all the yodeling Tarzan’s going to be doing…
It’s an average day in the jungle as Tarzan, Jane and Boy continue with their idyllic lifestyle while waiting for the inevitable visit from greedy, white fortune hunters that will undoubtedly fuck up their day beyond recognition – and as if on cue, said white people turn up in their plane to Hunt themselves some lions to populate their circus back in civilisation.
After a frosty start, Tarzan lets them be, but is concerned that Boy is way too fascinated with their plane for his own good and the curly haired brat sneaks out to stare wide eyed at the flying vehicle. It turns out that Tarzan’s initial mistrust was bang on the money and the expedition leader, the gruff Buck Rand starts eyeing up Boy in order to spirit him away to work under the big top but everyone’s plans are halted when the customary attack from a hostile native tribe attack two acts sooner than they normally do and when one of the natives finally hits upon the bright idea of cutting the vine he’s swinging in on (how did it take six films to figure this out?), Tarzan and Jane are presumed dead and Buck takes Boy back to New York anyway.
Upon reviving, our parental heroes head to New York to get Boy back, only to run into some pesky laws that forbid them from raising their found child in an untamed jungle alongside ravenous jungle cats and the occasional cannibal – plus an enraged Tarzan doesn’t help matters any further by hoisting Buck’s shifty lawyer above his head and dumping him in the jury box. Objection, indeed.
Realising man’s law sucks harder than an elephant’s trunk at the watering hole, Tarzan decides to do things his way and escapes the courthouse to go native on the rooftops of the big apple and track down the big top where Boy is being held – can he possibly hope to stand up to a bunch of carnies after a lifetime choke-holding lions and riding alligators? The answer: yes he can. That’s probably why this entire film ends up being shorter than your average Walking Dead season finale…
Tarzan’s New York Adventure would prove to be a turning point in Tarzan’s film career as studio MGM wouldn’t make another movie based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ adventurer until 1957 while Weissmuller would go on to continue his run by making six more Tarzan movies with RKO. As for Maureen O’Sullivan – the woman who remains one of the best Jane Porters to this day with arguably only Minnie Driver in Disney’s animated version being the only serious contender for the title – this sadly would be her last swing of the vine as she left the role she made famous.
However, as the change of scenery did manage to make things feel fresh, seeing Tarzan in the big city isn’t exactly the sustained thrill the filmmakers were obviously hoping it would be and despite some legitimately cool scenes of our hero leaping from rooftop to rooftop like Matt Murdock forgot to put on his Daredevil costume, or scrabbling all over the Brooklyn Bridge before diving into the East River, you have to wonder what young boys in 1942 made of the lengthy scenes of our displaced jungle lord negotiating civilised society that take up most of the film’s slight running time. Shock as the jungle lord gets measured for a suit! Thrill as Tarzan quietly negotiates customs! Cringe as Tarzan points at every black person he sees and loudly enquires why tribe members are also wearing clothes!
Why exactly a series that constantly felt the need to keep showing the same footage of our hero wrestling a giant, rubber crocodile to up the action quota would suddenly think that a court room scene would cut the mustard for an audience expecting high adventure is beyond me (saving money, I guess?) but to play devil’s advocate, I can’t fault the filmmakers for finally trying something new even though Tarzan should never actively wear a shirt. Oh sure, the villains are cut from the same cloth and the movie somehow still ends with Tarzan saving the day by summoning an elephant stampede (that what you get for having so many elephants for your circus, buddy) but I genuinely wish they could have had the characters explore this strange new world in more ways than Tarzan being overly impressed with a shower and Cheeta making the kind of prank calls that even Adam Sandler would find childish.
However, as a (sort of) send off to a particular era of Tarzan’s cinematic history it does the job well enough by mixing things up a bit but it still feels oddly sad. Even though Weismuller and Johnny “Boy” Sheffield jumped over to the new movies happily enough, Jane was written out of the first couple of RKO movies while she apparently helped with the war effort only to return as a completely different actress in the form of Brenda Joyce.
Still, Tarzan – be it Johnny Weissmuller’s version or someone else – would continue swinging through the jungle while yodeling like a mad man for many years to come and this first iteration of the character for the talking era still stands as some of the best adventure movies the golden age of Hollywood had to offer thanks to them being rousing rumbles in the jungle.