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Building My Movie Posters Puzzle: Tarzan the Fearless

In late June of last year I took advantage of some free days to visit my Mother in Virginia for her birthday. It was a fun long weekend that included meals out, a screening of Finding Dory, and an unexpected shared activity when I ran across a puzzle in the book store that was just too good to pass up. It consists of thirty-nine posters from a wide variety of classic films stretching from the silent era of the 1920s into the 1970s. It was an engrossing project to undertake alongside my Mother and we naturally discussed several of the featured movies as we built it. What stunned me a little was that I had actually only seen twenty-six of the thirty-nine films honored. I have vowed to fill these gaps in my knowledge of film and take you along for the ride as I reconstruct the puzzle in question. I’ll re-watch the movies I’ve already seen along with experiencing the ones that are new to me and share my thoughts on each one.

I guess when you decide to put together a product like this puzzle of old movie posters, there end up being some disappointing limitations to your ability to execute it as well as you’d like. Getting the rights to all of the most appropriate artwork is most likely difficult at times. In my last entry in this series I complained about the version of the poster the makers of the puzzle chose for Rear Window, but that’s nothing in comparison to the choice they made (or perhaps were forced to make) this time around.

I have to admit that when I first saw this movie poster I didn’t look it over too closely. I just went ahead and assumed that this would be one of the long series of very famous Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller that stretched from 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man to 1948’s Tarzan and the Mermaids.

As it turns out, however, Tarzan the Fearless was actually a pasted together 12-part series of live action serial shorts starring Buster Crabbe that only exists because there was some legal confusion over who actually owned the rights to the Tarzan character. Metro Goldwyn Mayer paid off the producer of the competing serial to delay it until their own first entry hit theaters.

I don’t have a ton of experience with the Weissmuller films, but I’m guessing none of them feature Tarzan spanking his monkey.

The serials this movie is made up of didn’t originally have much in the way of a score, so later some dramatic background music was borrowed from a western and that’s what you’ll hear if you make the mistake of consuming this version of the ape man. Yeah, this is one I can’t recommend at all…but let’s see what we can find to say about it anyway.

We’ll start with the man who portrayed its title hero. Buster Crabbe was, like Weissmuller, an olympic swimmer who had tested for the role in the higher-end MGM production but lost out. He had played a couple of uncredited football players and a supporting role in the Randolph Scott western The Thundering Herd.

At first, it seemed like Crabbe was going to miss out this time too. After all, Tarzan’s creator Edgar Rice Burroughs had made the casting of his son-in-law “Big Jim” Pierce a condition of passing the rights to producer Sol Lesser. Pierce not only effectively had a contract in his pocket, but he had more experience in acting than Crabbe did…and he had already played the Tarzan character in a silent film called Tarzan and the Golden Lion.

Unfortunately for Pierce, Lesser didn’t want him for the role. He thought the former All-American football player was too beefy to play Tarzan and that audiences would respond to him in the trademarked leopard loincloth as humor. Burroughs told him it was up to Pierce. In the end, Lesser made a deal with Pierce in which he stepped aside in exchange for $5,000 and an arranged screen test at MGM. Unfortunately for him the test had him attempting a Shakespearean soliloquy which was entirely unsuited for him and he never ended up acting for MGM. He did, however, spend several years as the voice of Tarzan on a national radio program, with his wife and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ daughter Joan voicing Jane. The pair was eventually laid to rest together with the names of the characters on their respective tombstones.

With Pierce out of the way, Lesser was free to cast his own Tarzan. Crabbe had caught his eye in a very similar role in the very recent Paramount picture King of the Jungle.

The first four of the resulting serial shorts were released together as a seventy-one minute feature. The idea appears to have been to use the feature to promote the following chapters of the serial. It didn’t work. In part, this was because the story didn’t reach any sort of satisfying conclusion, leaving audiences a little confused. Of course it didn’t help that what was there just wasn’t very good to begin with.

The film includes a lot of stock footage of animals moving around from a variety of vantage points and it rarely appears to be seamless with the rest of the cinematography. In some moments, dangerous animals are shown in close-up and then not included at all in the action. Crabbe performs some of the physical stunts admirably and he has a wide charming smile, but he’s just not a top notch actor and the character’s attempts at speech are embarrassingly inconsistent. Maybe that’s the fault of the writers, but Crabbe sure doesn’t make it work. In addition, there are some elements that will make a smart modern audience cock their heads. The story takes place in all of the topographies of Africa at the same time and includes at least three distinctly different types of African populations…including some which are supposedly cannibals. All of them speak English for some reason, but surrounded by all of these people, Tarzan still can’t speak anything but a broken version of his own made up language.

Compared to the better Weissmuller productions, Tarzan the Fearless rates very low on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Maybe I should give some of those a try again.

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Posted on July 22, 2017, in Movies, reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. A very nice, off the beaten path addition to this series. Buster Crabbe was one of four former Olympic medalists to play Tarzan at different times during the 1930s; besides Johnny Weissmuller, the others were Herman Brix (better known by his later screen name of Bruce Bennett) and Glenn Morris.

    Buster Crabbe went on to a degree of fame by starring as Flash Gordon in three serials made from 1936-40; he also played Buck Rogers in a 1939 serial. Crabbe crossed paths with two other movie Tarzans later in his career. In the first Flash Gordon serial, who should show up as one of Flash’s allies but James Pierce as Prince Thun of the Lion Men. And many years later, when Weissmuller had left the role of Tarzan behind and was making the Jungle Jim films, Crabbe played the villain in one of them.

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    • daffystardust

      Thanks for adding these facts in, jestak! The Tarzan character was a huge deal in pop culture for a long time. It still pops up every once in a while over the years, but aside from Disney’s animated Phil Collins fest, none of them has really made a significant impact over the last several decades.

      I haven’t done real study of the different versions of the character and his story, so I don’t know if I can explain Tarzan’s slump in popularity after such great success in the early to mid 20th century. One factor, however, is the questionable racial politics so often attached to the world of Tarzan. In the older versions I have seen (including Tarzan the Fearless) the native populations are depicted in cliched and borderline (if not patently) offensive ways. Why are so many of them cannibals? Meantime, our central hero is a white man who has apparently had little trouble mastering life in the jungle all by himself and surrounded by thousands of deadly animals, but you know, none of the natives are swinging from vines and successfully wrestling with lions and crocodiles.

      I guess this is why Disney was able to effectively sidestep these questions. Talking cartoon animals living in a part of the jungle that is uninhabited by people makes it possible to make a Tarzan movie set in Africa with no actual Africans in it. Ugh. I can’t imagine I would ever try to write a Tarzan movie myself.

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  2. Well, Tarzan was raised by apes, unlike the other human inhabitants of his land, so of course they can’t swing from trees and such.

    I grew up watching the Weissmuller Tarzan films every Saturday on TBS in the early 80s. They also showed all of them a few years ago on TCM. Mom and I watched all of them together. Good times.

    Another note about Crabbe, but not as Tarzan: He once guest-starred on an episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the 1979-1980 series starring Gil Gerard as the titular space/time traveler.

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