Sunday Matinee: Tarzan’s Desert Mystery

Tarzans Desert Mystery1943 saw Tarzan leaving MGM and moving over to RKO. Johnny Weissmuller continued playing Tarzan for another six pictures but as the series progressed, he was starting to look less and less the part. The first film that RKO made was Tarzan Triumphs which set Tarzan against the evil of the Nazis. Because Maureen O’Sullivan was unable or unwilling to reprise her role as Jane, Jane was written out for the next couple movies having gone to England to help with the war effort. Tarzan and Boy (returning Johnny Sheffield) continue hanging out in jungle only to have Frances Gifford appear and plead for help for her hidden secret village which is getting exploited by the Nazis.

Tarzan initially refuses to get involved in a war until those evil Nazis kidnap Boy, then Tarzan starts killing in the name of war time propaganda. Watching these films it occurs to me that Tarzan’s murder count is probably as high as Rambo’s. Many an evil village/tribe/Nazis/white hunter has met their death at the hands of Tarzan, either personally or through a standard issue stampede of elephants.

The next film also has an evil German as the bad guy, this one is trying to take control of a village. Tarzan receives a letter from Jane, still in England helping the war effort, asking for a special medicine that Tarzan can only get in a different and dangerous jungle across the desert. Tarzan and Boy go to cross the desert and run into American magician/spy Nancy Kelly. Kelly is trying to warn the Sheik’s son about the evil German but unfortunately ends up getting framed for the son’s murder. Naturally Tarzan helps her out and the three of them flee the pursuing bad guys into the dangerous jungle where Tarzan can find the special medicine.

After an hour of standard Tarzan movie action the film suddenly decides to veer off into fantasy. The jungle is dangerous because it’s filled with dinosaurs (giant lizards wearing horns and projected on a back screen), man eating plants and giant spiders. While Burroughs’ novels often contained fantasy elements like lost cities, dinosaurs and other fantastic elements, the Tarzan films had pretty much always avoided them. Having them appear here out of the blue is a bit strange. It never really gets explored properly although I was amused to see it. Sadly these elements haven’t appeared since.

The next four Weissmuller films went back to the standard plots of lost cities, evil tribes and evil white hunters. Jane returned for the rest of Weissmuller’s series but the role was recast and Brenda Joyce became Jane for the next five films. Joyce’s Jane differed from O’Sullivan’s feisty Jane. Gone was the ability to fight and defend for herself and suddenly Jane was more of a homebody, just hanging around the jungle house making Tarzan and Boy supper. Weissmuller’s last Tarzan film was 1948’s Tarzan and the Mermaids, which was actually shot on location in Mexico. Apparently in Tarzan’s Africa, just down the river a little lies an ocean diving tribe with Mayan ruins that suddenly looks less like a Hollywood African jungle and a lot like Mexico. The plot has Tarzan helping a young couple from this coastal tribe which has been overtaken by an evil corrupt priest played by George Zucco. Weissmuller would move on to play the clothed comic book character Jungle Jim for sixteen movies. Joyce would stay on as Jane for the new Tarzan.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m2sKANpaRWg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Od91lXQYKCA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPyJUia6W9A

Author: Shane Hnetka

Shane Hnetka spends most of his life watching movies and reading comic books, using his vast knowledge of genre culture for evil instead of good.