Tarzan is an ubiquitous character in film history, becoming a franchise that dominated the 1930s into the ’50s and making Johnny Weissmuller an unconventional star. I say all this having never actually seen a Tarzan movie. Tarzan and His Mate is said to be the series at its bawdiest and most progressive, so I was fortunate to get a chance to see it on the big screen. The second of the Tarzan features to come out in the ’30s, Tarzan and His Mate certainly plays on the laxity of the Code while being a rousing adventure tale filled with moments that actually shocked me.
Tarzan and Jane (Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan) are living happily in the jungle, but when an ex-flame of Jane’s comes to visit in the hopes of bringing her back to civilization complications ensue.
It’s easy to understand why this is considered the sauciest and most feminist of the Tarzan features. Having established Tarzan and Jane’s relationship in the first entry, 1932’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, the film is able to eschew all the exposition and start with the two being happily together. (Interestingly, the movie never calls out the fact that Tarzan and Jane aren’t married. The jungle doesn’t have marriage licenses!) It’s always interesting to watch sequels from this time period as the lack of television or any re-releases often required the audience to retain information or have flashbacks fill in the blanks. Neil Hamilton’s Harry Holt was in the first feature, but for audiences who don’t know that the movie doesn’t give much more information than him and Jane have history. As someone who’d never seen the first film I still felt I was given all the required information making this just as solid an entry into the Tarzan universe than the first feature itself.
Like the ultimate jungle film, King Kong (1932), Tarzan and His Mate uses the full impact of its jungle setting to create tension and suspense. Prior to the screening there was a discussion of the movie’s early use of rear projection, and despite the primitive time the audience still believed Maureen O’Sullivan was in the same frame as charging rhinos or lions. The sets are designed for maximum opulence and majesty, particularly during the somber walk to an elephant graveyard. And with all the wild animals running about, the camera never shies away from showing that there are actual dangers. Tarzan wrestling with a jungle cat actually sees his arm trapped in its mouth, a moment that regardless of how choreographed it was, still looks utterly terrifying.
But what many problem remember about Tarzan and His Mate is the interplay between Weissmuller and O’Sullivan. As Jane, O’Sullivan commands the screen far more than Weissmuller does. As the representative of civilization she’s the focus of the movie, whether she’s being enticed with pretty dresses or rolling around with her jungle husband. She compels everyone’s attentions and tells them what’s what. When she doesn’t want to leave, she has no problem telling Holt and Arlington (Paul Cavanagh), and in fact it’s her refusal to do what they want that inspires them to try to kill Tarzan.
And she holds just as much sway over the Ape Man, luxuriating in their relationship (with plenty of implications that they’re having a lot of physical contact). Much has been made about the nude swimming scene and it’s beautiful to watch, particularly because it truly showcases the couple’s love for each other. Tarzan makes a point of telling her each morning, “I love you;” he knows how to make Jane happy! By the time she’s actively participating in the finale’s fight sequence you’re buying that this is one of the quintessential best relationships in movie history.
Tarzan and His Mate is a great entry into the Tarzan mythos, as well as showing off the sheer awesomeness of Maureen O’Sullivan.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.