Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941)

Tarzan's Secret Treasure is the fifth in the MGM series of films starring the Olympic Gold medal winning swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as the definitive depiction of the vine swinger. It has all the expected elements to be expected, both positive and negative, as well as some surprisingly physical love scenes, and an approach to racial themes that is not as straightforward as it may first appear.

Tarzan is enjoying a life of splendid isolation in the African jungle, with wife Jane, adopted son Boy, a pet chimp called Cheetah, and a menagerie of all creatures great and small. An expedition team arrives on the hunt for a lost tribe, but when Boy inadvertently reveals the presence of gold, two of the party get greedy and kidnap Boy and Jane.

The film moves at an unhurried pace to begin with and we get plenty of scenes showing the home life of the Tarzans, as well as some comedy relief bickering among the non-human inhabitants that would not pass animal welfare regulations today.

After about twenty minutes the actual plot kicks in when the expedition team appear, rescuing Boy from a crowd of angry natives. Head villain Medford is played in suitably oily fashion by Tom Conway, (the brother of George Sanders, from whom he took over the role of debonair detective The Falcon), while Barry Fitzgerald as his dogsbody O'Doul is such as broad Irish stereotype that his main purpose seems to be to distract from the stereotyping of the Africans. Also, look fast for a cameo from Johnny Eck of Freaks fame, here in full costume, playing a bizarre looking jungle bird.

The pace picks up once Tarzan leaps to the rescue, and from then on, the action doesn't let up, thanks largely to the astonishing physical presence of Weissmuller, particularly when he is in or under the water.

The first and most striking thing that occurred to me while watching this film was how, on one level, the Tarzan clan is very much you average nuclear family, with Dad going out to work (gather food) while Mom stays at home to cook, clean, and raise the child.

But the Tarzan family is also a little more unconventional than that. The love scene between Tarzan and Jane is surprisingly sensual and physical for the time, with little separating the husband and wife (who presumably did not marry in a Christian church) other than a skimpy dress and a loincloth. The depiction of the Africans as backwards, superstitious, and communicating in a gibberish language is unflattering, if standard for the time, but I think sufficient time has gone past that we can recognise it as no more realistic than the depiction of Indians in Western films. Moreover, the focus is on Tarzan, a man who has turned his back on his own society and culture, and refuses to integrate with those of the country he now calls home, putting him more in line with the ideals of the pioneer spirit. Lastly, don't forget, this is an idyllic situation that he has made, learning to live alongside the natives, and things only go wrong in this world when white people turn up.

Tarzan's Secret Treasure Trailer by trailerapi