The Tarzan Collection Starring Johnny Weissmuller
Warner Home Video, $60
The stars: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan
After the success of the 1931 MGM African adventure “Trader Horn,” the studio discovered moviegoers were hungry for more jungle adventures and optioned two of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories.
MGM picked Johnny Weissmuller, a strapping 6-foot-3, 27-year-old champion swimmer who had won five Olympic gold medals and 67 world and 52 national titles, to star in 1932’s “Tarzan the Ape Man.” His only movie experience had been in the 1929 musical “Glorying the American Girl,” in which he was clad only in a fig leaf. He went on to work as an underwear and swimsuit model for BVD, which let him out of his contract to work on “Tarzan” on the condition that MGM would have him pose with his female stars in BVD swimwear. As Tarzan, he swapped swimming trunks for a loincloth, and MGM billed him as “the only man in Hollywood who’s natural in the flesh and can act without clothes.”
Weissmuller’s Jane was Maureen O’Sullivan, a spunky Irish actress (and mother of Mia Farrow) who had had a less-than-successful stint at 20th Century Fox before moving to MGM.
Over the next 10 years, the duo would appear in six “Tarzan” adventures, all basically following the same premise: The couple’s idyllic jungle life is disrupted by evil white men with guns. Jane and their son, Boy (Johnny Sheffield), inevitably found themselves in deadly jeopardy (usually captured by hostile natives), to be rescued by Tarzan, who’d give his distinctive jungle yell to summon herds of elephant to help him save the day.
The film: “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1932)
The plot: Tarzan and Jane meet after she arrives in deepest, darkest Africa to join her father’s (C. Aubrey Smith) ivory hunting expedition. It’s love at first sight for Tarzan and he kidnaps Jane -- “Me, Tarzan; you, Jane.” Though she escapes, Jane finds herself smitten with the Lord of the Apes and decides to stay with him in the jungle.
The film: “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934)
The plot: Considered the best of the Weissmuller “Tarzan” films, this risque adventure was recently inducted by the Library of Congress into the National Film Registry
This edition features the original version of the movie, which includes an infamous swimming sequence between Tarzan and a nude Jane. That scene was cut before theatrical release.
The film: “Tarzan Escapes!” (1936)
The plot: This time around, Jane’s cousins (Benita Hume, William Henry) arrive to persuade Jane to return to England to claim a fortune that had been bequeathed to her. Their evil guide (John Buckler) decides to capture Tarzan and put him on public display.
The film: “Tarzan Finds a Son!” (1939)
The plot: To beef up interest in the series, the producers added a child for Tarzan and Jane. Cheetah, Jane’s pet chimp, finds a baby boy in a downed plane in the jungle and brings it back to the treehouse. Tarzan names the child Boy (Sheffield) and the three enjoy swimming and swinging on vines. But five years later, a search party comes looking for the child, who is heir to a huge fortune.
The film: “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” (1941)
The plot: Jane and Boy are captured by villains who force them to show them to a treasure in gold.
Now 37, Weissmuller was starting to show his age and his boyish figure was getting bit thick in the middle.
The film: “Tarzan’s New York Adventure” (1942)
The plot: The last in the MGM series. A cruel circus owner (Charles Bickford) arrives in Africa to capture animals for his show and decides to kidnap Boy and take him to New York. So Tarzan and Jane exchange their jungle wear for real clothes and head to the Big Apple with Cheetah in tow. Cheetah and an African American janitor figure in an embarrassingly racist scene.
Extras: A bonus disc includes the breezy documentary “Silver Screen: King of the Jungle,” a Jimmy Durante spoof, “Schnarzan the Conqueror,” and two shorts with Weissmuller: “MGM on Location: Johnny Weissmuller” and “Rough Dough.” Trailers round out the disc.