Saturday, December 29, 2012

Children of a Lesser Tarzan...

As prior mentioned, 2012 marks the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Creation of Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. As far as his film career goes, Tarzan's topmost avatar has always been Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic Swimming Champ who took the Ape Man to Glory and Big Box Office back in the 1930's and 40's. Thus Weissmuller is in a rare cinematic category along with Sean Connery as 007 and Chris Reeve as Kal El, consistently everyone's favorite version of their respective characters. Johnny's appeal was simple, he was first Tarzan explicitly marketed to women on the basis of his good looks and simpleminded relationship with Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. Whatever problems purists may have with the scripts and Tarzan's pidgin english or progeny "Boy"...The approach stands the test of time as the iconic Tarzan interpretation. So far as Tarzan is concerned literally the race is to come in second behind Weissmuller. For me three actors come into contention:
Jock Mahoney The great problem of Mahoney's brief two film reign as Tarzan back in the early 1960's is that he came to the part a decade too late, being almost forty two when he was cast in what is my favorite color Tarzan movie "Tarzan goes to India" (1963). Forty two or not, Mahoney is a lean, quick, slightly feral Tarzan who is trying to save a herd of Indian elephants from a dam project that threatens to flood their home. Its a simple movie and Mahoney plays it with a lot of heart as a very human sort of a Jungle Lord. This is also the first Tarzan film to push Lord Greystoke into the role of "International Adventurer" all in color and shot on location as well.
Ya gotta love Mike Henry last of the original All-Up Color Movie Tarzans, a pro football player turned actor, he reputedly refuses to this day to sell his autograph to fans at nostalgia shows despite the fact that his association with the Tarzan franchise could net him a nice annuity. Nope Mike has wonky sort of integrity and he is in the weirdest of the 1960's adaptations of the character "Tarzan and the City of Gold" (1966) which takes Lord Greystoke from International Adventurer to outright Secret Agent as the Jungle Lord must thwart a coup plot in Mexico! 007 needs a souped up Astin Martin & a Walther PPK, Tarzan gets by with a Bowie knife and some arrows. And anyway, look at Mike Henry's physique...the man is literally a Renaissance statuary come to life! His muscles had muscles! Mike is no scenery chewer, none of the post Weismuller Jungle Lords ever were, but when he goes prowling thru the underbrush, he looks at home like he is the Apex Predator of legend.
Gordon Scott, who must have been a yard across at the shoulders in his prime, can credibly claim to be the Man Who Saved the Tarzan Franchise. Initially cast as the successor to Lex Barker Scott limped thru a few cheerless black and white jungle features complete with pidgin English until Producers Sy Weintraub & Sol Lesser got their hooks into the series shot them in color made lavish use of location work and set Gordon Scott free to speak in proper syntax. The result was a box office bonanza, the films started doing huge business overseas with Scott as the most massive, seemingly unstoppable Tarzan of all...Hell in "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure" he throws down with 007 Sean Connery(in a rare villainous role) and wins... All the above mentioned films are available for purchase thru the Warner Brothers Archives, either on Blue Ray or DVD.

Friday, December 28, 2012


Late word comes to us of the death of British TV Producer, Gerry Anderson creative spirit behind such classic kidvid series as "Stingray", "The Thunderbirds" and that SF-noir for the Elementary School crowd, "Captain Scarlet". I will remember him primary as a technical innovator of the first rank, if the public wanted puppet shows from him then he made sure that the puppets he was using were technological marvels of the first rank. Anderson was smart, maybe not the best writer in the world (this became apparent when he made the leap to human actors in the 1970's) but he reinvested in his own product and tried to do better with each succeeding series. Like The Beatles, he figured out early on that $uccess depended on penetrating the American market, to this end he made sure to leaven his British produced product with some American voices (chiefly US actors Shane Rimmer and Ed Bishop) as his shows became less comical, more adventuresome and violent.
Like William Shatner and Jonathan Harris, Anderson's various characters, the stolid Thunderbirds crew or the pre-liberated Lady Penelope, or the semi suicidal Captain Scarlet, all form veritable pillars in a pre-Star Wars science fiction driven childhood. In point of fact, the whole of the special effects industry in Great Britain has its origin with Gerry Anderson's many supermarionation series, dozens of creatives who worked with Gerry and his talented then-wife Sylvia all went on to work on almost all the major SF films of the 1970s. Truly there is no Star Wars without "Joe 90". Alas though, supermarionation eventually maxed out (ten years of research and still Anderson could make his puppets walk realistically) and Anderson tried his hand at producing an all up live action "Star Trek" style franchise "Space 1999" there some of his creative limitations revealed themselves... But to the end of his life he remained invested in the latest technology, a decade ago he was executive producing a remake of "Captain Scarlet" using CGI animation and at last the immortal Captain could walk right! Anderson must have been relieved....

Friday, December 14, 2012

Happy Birthday Lord Greystoke....

Its been a bittersweet year for the protean fantasy worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, "John Carter" (Warlord of Mars) tanked at the box office compelling a managerial shake up at Disney and consigning ERB's science fiction to bookshelves for the foreseeable future. A certain amount of stock taking is in order, but at the very least lets take a moment to celebrate the Century Anniversary of Burrough's greatest creation, Tarzan of the Apes! Ah but Tarzan was a marvelous creation, an English Aristocrats sense of duty married to an animal's ferocity and lust for freedom. Indeed how could the Ape Man miss? Unlike most of Edgar Rice Burroughs' other creations, Tarzan though a titled English Baronet AND "Lord of the Jungle" is not a conqueror per se. Once Tarzan emerges from the jungle to claim his hereditary birthright he settles down to ranch live in some fabled rainforest with his chosen mate Jane Porter. Tarzan "is" he does not "rule" any more than any other prowling predator rules over abd above the dictates of their animal instinct. That to me is what has given Tarzan his unique appeal down thru the years, he is Free and has the Strength and Character to maintain his freedom without recourse to brutality or mendacity. He speaks several languages (including the gutteral tongue of the Great Apes) and yet he holds all civilization as a very paltry thing indeed. Conquerors & tyrants are almost always Tarzan's mortal enemies...running some lost City founded by a lost Roman Legion on the up and up is NEVER on the Ape Man's agenda. Tarzan is in short, the ultimate escape fantasy...he is also very much rooted in the contemporary world even if his version of Africa may as well be another planet given the inconstant nature of Edgar Rice Burroughs' zoology. Still it's a milieu that needs little explanation and is accessible to everyone from Tarzan's mate Jane Porter to the usual motley collection of communists, film crews and absent minded scientists. Proof of the Ape Man's power lies in the fact that even as jungles and rainforests shrink...his power over the imagination crashes thru the tree tops unabated...And with the Broadway musical and the Disney ice show, the Ape Man has demonstrated unmatched popularity in almost ALL media outside the printed page. Let me close then with one of Edgar Rice Burrough's greatest descriptive quotes from the original "Tarzan of the Apes" "Mother Was a Lovely Beast..."