As I mentioned last week, recently we’ve acquired quite a few of the old Saturday-afternoon serials on DVD. There’s a lot of hidden treasures to be unearthed there, and for the next couple of columns, I’ll be giving you a rundown of a few of them.
CHAPTER ONE: JUNGLE DRUMS!
The first one we bought, the one that got a half-dozen others suggested to us, actually caught my interest years ago because of something I saw in a Joe Kubert comic.
When DC was doing its Tarzan book, often there would be some sort of extra or filler page thrown in — I think this had something to do with the way the stories were being reprinted overseas, the license required one less story page for the European version or somesuch. Meaning that here in the states the DC Tarzan comics always had to have an extra page of content that could then be painlessly removed in the reprint without screwing up the story.
One of the ways Kubert would fill an extra page would be to run a still from one of the many old Tarzan movies and give us a little informative caption. And in one case, he ran a shot from The New Adventures of Tarzan, adding that star Bruce Bennett was one of the few actors to portray Tarzan consistently with the way Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote him, as a well-spoken British nobleman.
Well, I was all over that. If there’s one thing all fans of Burroughs’ Tarzan books agree on, it’s disappointment at how the movies depict him.
I assure you, those of you still smoldering over the cinematic incarnation of Daredevil or the Fantastic Four have nothing on us fans of the Tarzan novels for bitterness. We’re talking decades of heartbreak here.
Anyway, “Bruce Bennett as Tarzan” sounded vaguely familiar, and sure enough, on a budget Tarzan DVD collection Julie had given me a while back, there was Bennett starring in Tarzan and the Green Goddess.
So I screened it again… and remembered why I hadn’t been able to get through it the first time. I liked Bennett’s portrayal of Tarzan well enough, but the movie was an awful, disjointed mess. I thought at the time, with its breakneck pacing and twisting turning plot, that the effort looked like an old serial more than anything else.
Well, there was a reason. That’s because it was cut together from bits of an old serial, The New Adventures of Tarzan.
It took me a while to figure it out because I was not aware that Bruce Bennett, the actor I knew from Sahara and Treasure of the Sierra Madre and other classics, had originally gone by his real name, Herman Brix.
The history of this serial has as many wild twists and turns as the story it tells. Let me see if I can sum it up for you.
At the time this was made, 1935, MGM had been very successful with its first two Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller. Burroughs, however, did not care for them and after the first two films, the contract was up with MGM. With the film rights returned to him Burroughs was anxious to see if it could be done better.
Enter Ashton Dearholt, a guy who’d had some minor success in Hollywood with Westerns and knew Burroughs though his daughter. Dearholt persuaded Burroughs to go into partnership with him to form their own film company and produce their own Tarzan films.
Burroughs outlined a story and arrangements were made to shoot in Guatemala, on the theory that it would be both cheaper than a studio shoot and lend an air of authenticity. So they were off and running.
The production was by all reports an extremely rocky experience. Problems with illnesses and customs issues caused enormous cash flow difficulties and Burroughs himself had to step in and bail out the serial, causing him to rethink his relationship with MGM and allow them to renew the option to make more Weissmuller movies. As a result, once the New Adventures of Tarzan serial was actually finished, a great many theaters refused to show it for fear of losing MGM business. The studio had made it very clear that their Tarzan was the official one and with a new Weissmuller movie already in production, most theater owners didn’t see any reason to alienate MGM and lose the box office of a known hit for the sake of running a crappy low-budget serial. Frantic to try and recoup somehow, Dearholt cut together several different versions to hawk to theatres as a one-off feature, including Tarzan and the Green Goddess.
There’s lots more behind-the-scenes stuff like that — really, it could be its own column — but I should skip to the bottom line that concerns us here. Is it worth checking out? Is the movie itself any good?
Well, let’s define our terms a little bit. When you’re watching these old serials, a different standard applies. It has to do with what Stephen King called ‘the set of reality.’ The idea is that you automatically make mental adjustments when you are watching a big-budget Hollywood special-effects extravaganza as opposed to, say, a high school play.
Serials were shot on the cheap and often cannibalized footage from other films in the studio’s library for anything from crowd scenes to an erupting volcano. The actors were usually contract players from — well, call it the shallow end of the talent pool. The scripts were in service to the action, not the other way around. There was very much a quota system in place for fights, damsels in distress, and so on and so on.
Now, for me, that’s why I like them. To me that kind of storytelling in an imposed rigid structure is harder than just writing a story; which is why I always admire the people who can do that and make it work well. The best of the serials were still constructed according to the needs of the formula — there was a set number of chapters, each chapter contained at least one action set piece, and a cliffhanger ended each one — but they felt organic, the seams didn’t show. And if you got lucky, the actors in it, although they probably weren’t ever going to be Oscar winners, were bringing their A-game.
Okay. All that being said, is The New Adventures of Tarzan any good?
Actually, yeah, I thought so. The story works a lot better when you get to see all of it (the total running time for all twelve chapters is five hours, as opposed to a paltry 72 minutes for Green Goddess) and it’s familiar stuff to anyone who’s read the books. It’s a tale very much in the tradition of the later Tarzan novels, not surprising since this was made in 1935 while Burroughs was still writing them — that puts it just after Tarzan and the Leopard Men came out and before Tarzan’s Quest was published. The story concerns Tarzan going off to Guatemala to find his missing friend Paul d’Arnot, and through a chain of coincidences getting embroiled with Major Martling and his search for a mysterious idol called the Green Goddess. There are competing expeditions looking for the idol as well, one led by a woman named Ula Vale and another by the villainous Raglan. There are plenty of fights and cool jungle action sequences, plots and counter-plots, and even a lost city with a hot priestess who’s going to offer up Tarzan and friends as a ritual sacrifice. Vintage Burroughs.
The acting is not great — Raglan is played by Dearholt himself, and Ula is played by his wife — but Herman Brix/Bruce Bennett is pretty good, and the jungle footage and stunts are amazing. Herman Brix did everything himself and the sheer athleticism on display from him is astonishing. He was a college football star as well as a gold medalist in the 1928 Olympics (for the shot put) and only missed the 1932 games because of a broken shoulder. But by the time he made this Brix was in great shape and it shows. All his fighting and vine-swinging and lion-wrestling and so on looks incredible, especially when you remember they were shooting the whole thing in the wilds of Guatemala and there was no Hollywood special effects department backing him up. Here’s a clip demonstrating what I’m talking about — that’s not a special effect where Tarzan is breaking the ropes, Brix really did it, and the lion stuff speaks for itself.
Plus it’s in the public domain, so you can get the DVD for about two dollars.
Be sure you get the real one, though, the twelve-chapter serial. In addition to Tarzan and the Green Goddess, Dearholt also cut together another crappy 70-minute movie from the footage, called The New Adventures of Tarzan, after Brix had changed his name to Bruce Bennett and was having some Hollywood success. Don’t be fooled. You want the serial.
And there you have it. Be here next week for our next thrilling chapter: The Trials of Tom Tyler!!