Tarzan was invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1912, and the first Tarzan film was made in 1914. As an American, Burroughs was geographically and philosophically at a distance from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mary Shelley, and Jules Verne, but he inhaled both their love of the primitive and their suspicion of science. Growing with unabated power, that wariness of the mechanical continued to expand and take on an ever more intoxicating force with the dread following the unprecedented carnage of World War I and the smokestack lightning of industrialization. In the rocket’s red glare of America, a particularized love of the “natural” revealed itself in the romance of the woodsman, the Indian, and the cowboy or Western outlaw, all of whom were in conflict with the shackles that came with settling anything, whether in the Mohawk East or the Wild West.
Burroughs was essential to the popularization of the idea that technology could be terrible and that man was the inevitable target of increasingly restrictive and ominous inventions. His Tarzan, like James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, lived in a Neverland where one did not have to grow up and feel his soul eaten away by the responsibilities and rituals of the middle and upper classes. Had Burroughs been a writer of Westerns, his central character would have been an Indian or a white woodsman who had been raised in the natural world and was wary of civilized gentility. Instead, he reversed Joseph Conrad and created a white African ape man who was more primitive and, therefore, more “naturally” sane than those from outside the bush. Burroughs made Tarzan’s Jane an American, but Hollywood decided that she should be British, especially since the members of the American upper class could be cultural Tories to the extreme, measuring all grace and refinement by British models.
Not one of the six films in The Tarzan Collection(Warner Home Video) is very good, but the unit of adventures reveals much about our naive conception of “purity” as it arrives in popular culture, where “something wild” always offers an answer to the problems and dilemmas that attend modern living. Johnny Weissmuller, a champion Olympic swimmer, was given the lead role. He buffed up in the gym after the success of the first film and then made his way through tale after tale in which he spoke in a child’s vocabulary but had the strength of character found only in the wise, the courageous, and the incorruptible. In short, he is absurd.
Even more absurd is the idea that a civilized woman would be so taken by this man-child that she would give her back to everything European as she walked into the primeval foliage of her nature boy’s world. Interestingly, Maureen O’Sullivan makes Jane more believable than the cartoon conception of the character she was given to embody. That character is perfectly described in Tarzan and His Mate (1934), the second film of the series, which arrived in the wake of King Kong and emphasizes how happy Jane has become in the year since she chose to be a bush babe. A smitten British ladies’ man says of her to his friend, “She’s priceless, a woman who’s learned the abandon of a savage yet she’d be at home in Mayfair.”
That vision has remained in place until now, although the Madonna fiasco Swept Away has done it some damage. The haughty upper-class blond beast learned to enjoy being submissive as long as she was removed from her own world, but, once she and her lower-class Mr. Natural were rescued, the beast applied her perfume again, bit her lip, shrugged her shoulders, and slipped back into the difficult bliss of riches. Having experienced natural paradise, she was now ready for the comforts of sophisticated social ritual, the purpose of which is to reduce the power of life to a highly polished code of deportment.
Tarzan has no codes and understands none. He doesn’t comprehend money or safaris intent on bringing back riches. As Jane says of him, “You see, Tarzan has no objectives; he just goes somewhere because he wants to.” He has an unpolluted consciousness in which everything is upfront and clear as the summer sun. Underneath it all, of course, is a sense of sex and love that cannot exist in Europe with the same kind of freedom. That might well have been the attraction of the series for adults: Jane and her guy were making the beast with two backs unencumbered by the vestiges of the Victorian age. Always seeming fresh from an assignation, they were close to nude, they lived off the land, and the animals loved and obeyed Tarzan—especially herds of elephants and gaggles of chimps—stopping whatever they were doing to run off and arrive at the command of his yodel. If not, they were dispatched by Tarzan in hand-to-claw combat. The jungle was his kingdom, and nothing had better get in his way: Gorillas, lions, rhinos, and giant crocodiles fell before his skill and his unexplained, well-engineered knife. But those who paid attention, like the inevitable cockney or Irish servant, realized his essence. They saw beyond the limits of his vocabulary and his loin cloth. As one servant described the Lord of the Jungle in Tarzan Escapes (1936),“Miss Jane, he’s the finest gentleman I ever knew, trousers or no trousers.”
For this reason, we are meant to understand why Jane would accept Tarzan and an elephant stampede rather than an English gentleman and a London traffic jam. Along with the laughable servants, the Tarzan films show the American fascination with pets and children: As the series goes on, there is much intended comic relief from Cheeta, the chimpanzee. Cheeta is a first cousin of the Mexican, Chinese, or Black American servant (or sidekick) who either screws up due to a consistent misunderstanding or yucks it up as if the last 20 seconds to laugh began 10 seconds ago.
As for the Africans, most of them were Negro American men who were picked up at dawn in South Central Los Angeles and driven to Griffith Park, where most of the exteriors were shot. There was also actual footage from Africa patched in and some drooping black breasts presented quickly but in the grand spirit of National Geographic. And, in keeping with the tradition of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the savage black dwarfs of the first Tarzan film are clearly blacked-up white men, while in a later film, the chimpanzees riding elephants are obviously human beings aped-up. With the exception of Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), where we see civilized Nairobi Africans in colonial circumstances, the natives in the bush are mean and bloodthirsty, but no more lowdown than the ruthless white men who invade Tarzan’s Eden in order to leave with ivory or gold.
One cannot hope to comprehend the curving path of American popular culture unless the visions of paradise lost and paradise regained are assessed. The ways in which these visions were communicated in the Tarzan series were influenced by the morality of the time, the ways Hollywood made pictures, and the attitudes toward the shortcomings of modern life. Those viewpoints were usually far less cruel than they were simple-minded. But how many ideas about what constitutes salvation in a labyrinthine world such as ours are ever truly complicated?