Director – Cedric Gibbons, Screenplay – James Kevin McGuiness, Adaptation – Leon Gordon & Howard Emmett Rogers, Producer – Bernard Hyman, Photography (b&w) – Clyde De Vinna & Charles G. Drake, Art Direction – Arnold Gillespie. Production Company – MGM
Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Parker), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Paul Cavanagh (Martin Arlington), Nathan Curry (Sardi)
Harry Holt joins Martin Arlington as he mounts an expedition to the Mutia Escarpment in search of the legendary elephant’s graveyard. However, Harry’s true intent in going is to persuade Jane to come back with him. They brave a number of perils to make it to The Escarpment. Despite Harry’s best efforts to persuade her, Jane prefers to stay with Tarzan. Meanwhile, Tarzan refuses to let Arlington take the ivory from the elephant’s graveyard and so Arlington decides that he must kill Tarzan.
Tarzan and His Mate was the second of the Tarzan films starring Johnny Weissmuller. (See below for the other Weissmuller Tarzan films). The first Johnny Weissmuller outing Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) had been a considerable box-office success. MGM put all their resources into the sequel and, as a result, Tarzan and His Mate is a superlative production that surpasses its predecessor. Indeed, Tarzan and His Mate is the best of all Tarzan films and without a doubt the finest backlot adventure MGM ever put together at least until the advent of colour and even then some.
The action sequences are incredibly exciting, even seen 60 years later. There are some marvellous sequences with Johnny Weissmuller fighting hand-to-hand with lions, especially memorable being a ferocious, incredulity-defying battle where he wrestles underwater with a giant crocodile. There is a seat-edge sequence with Maureen O’Sullivan cornered on a rock ledge as lions leap up and pin her in from either end. The eye is boggled by images of vast armies of attacking native tribesmen all lined up. The climax with Johnny Weissmuller charging into battle with an army of elephants, which simply kick attacking lions out of the way, achieves a scale that few films do. The animal scenes are some of the best ever achieved – the episodes with the hippo rescuing the unconscious Tarzan from the river and then chimps tending his wounds holds considerable poignancy. Even the scene where Johnny Weissmuller builds a bier for the dead Cheeta manages to craft a degree of emotion, especially in comparison to the corny Cheeta slapstick relief that dogged most of the subsequent Tarzan films.
One of the most amazing aspects of Tarzan and His Mate is the degree of open sexuality to the film. The Tarzan jungle fantasy has been made to hint at a considerable eroticism. Director Cedric Gibbons makes it clear in no uncertain terms what Tarzan and Jane spend most of their time doing in the jungle. The film has been shot with a series of almost revealing, soft-focus bedroom scenes; or images of nude bodies seen swimming and running behind the bushes; and particularly one scene where Maureen O’Sullivan is seen undressing in silhouette. (The original intent had been to have Maureen O’Sullivan appear topless, although it proved too difficult to shoot pieces of foliage and fruit hiding the naughty bits a la Austin Powers).
Tarzan and His Mate, and to a lesser extent Tarzan the Ape Man, are the only of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films to be pitched to an adult audience, rather than the juvenile adventure focus that the sequels and subsequent films were sold down to. One must remember that Tarzan and His Mate came out two months before the Hays Code came into effect, creating a series of stringent rules about what types of sexuality and perceived immorality could and could not be portrayed on screen. Even so, the level of soft eroticism that we see caused considerable outrage during the day. Much of this was cut immediately after release, although was restored in the 1990s. As a result of this outcry, MGM cut back on any suggestion of eroticism in the subsequent entries – Maureen O’Sullivan’s bikini was replaced by a more modest one-piece in the next film.
The director of Tarzan and His Mate was Cedric Gibbons. An Irish emigrant, Gibbons was better known as the head of MGM’s art department from 1924 to 1956, during which time he oversaw the artwork on some 1500 films, including Tarzan the Ape Man. (Gibbons’ one other distinction was as the man who designed the Oscar statuette). Tarzan and His Mate was Cedric Gibbons’ one and only outing as a director. Reports also have it that Gibbons was removed from the director’s seat and replaced by an uncredited Jack Conway, for reasons that vary between Gibbons being needed back in the art department to MGM getting cold feet over the level of eroticism in the film.
The other Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films are:– Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Tarzan Escapes (1936), Tarzan Finds a Son (1939), Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941), Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942), Tarzan Triumphs (1943), Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943), Tarzan and the Amazons (1945), Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946), Tarzan and the Huntress (1947) and Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948).