On August 8, 1944, The Hollywood Reporter announced that director Kurt Neumann was looking for 48 athletic, six-feet tall women to portray Amazons in the next Tarzan movie.
He found ‘em. Tarzan and the Amazons is the ninth film that stars Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. While it’s far from the best of the series, the Amazons really are something else. If you like sexy, tough women who can kick a little ass, this is the movie for you. Sure, there are a few butterfaces in the bunch, but mostly it’s like watching dozens of stunt doubles for Wonder Woman stand around looking sultry before they break into action. And I don’t think the group’s collective resemblance to Wonder Woman is accidental.
Wonder Woman made her debut in All Star Comics in December 1941, and by 1942 was a well-established character. Wonder Woman may have been what most Americans thought of in 1945 when they thought of an “Amazon,” since the metal tiaras, metal wrist- and armbands, gladiator sandals, and above-the-knee skirts look as if they owe more to DC Comics than they do to classical Hellenic representations of Amazon warriors. (Although the warrior women in Tarzan and the Amazons are more partial to leopard print than Wonder Woman ever was.)
Apparently producer Sol Lesser’s previous Tarzan film, Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943), had been unpopular with both critics and audiences, so he brought back the character of Jane, who had been absent from the last few Tarzan movies. The dark-haired, petite Maureen O’Sullivan, who had played Jane opposite Weissmuller in his first six Tarzan films, did not return for the role. Instead, Jane was played by Brenda Joyce, a sexy blonde and former model who looks nothing like O’Sullivan. (It’s explained in this film that Jane was performing nursing work in England during World War II.) Joyce would go on to play Jane in four more Tarzan movies, three with Weissmuller and one with Lex Barker. Also, the dependable Johnny Sheffield makes his sixth appearance as “Boy.” I think the introduction of Boy in the fourth Weissmuller Tarzan film, Tarzan Finds a Son (1939) marked a downturn in the series, but his scenes with Tarzan’s chimp companion Cheeta are pretty cute. He also can handle a bow and arrow, and when he dives into the water, it looks as if he’s been taking a few lessons from Weissmuller, who was an Olympic swimming champion.
The plot of Tarzan and the Amazons kicks into gear when an Amazon hunter named Athena (played by Shirley O’Hara) is attacked by a panther. Tarzan saves her, but in the course of the attack one of her golden bracelets falls off. Cheeta finds it and gives it to Jane as a gift. A group of explorers see the bracelet and convince Boy to lead them to the secret world of the Amazons. A child raised by Tarzan really should know better, but I suppose there wouldn’t be a movie here if Boy didn’t do something dopey. Tarzan gets to show off his sage side, however, when Boy asks him why he refuses to lead the scientists and explorers to the Amazons’ land himself. “Not good for man to look straight into sun,” Tarzan says. “What’s the sun got to do with it?” Boy asks, to which Tarzan responds, “Sun like gold. Too much sun make people blind.” So perhaps Boy’s actions are not so much dopey as they are an attempt to defy his adoptive father and his raised-by-apes-but-strangely-Confucian wisdom.
The inevitable violent clash between cultures is done well, even though the RKO Tarzan pictures never had the budgets of the earlier and more prestigious MGM productions. Also, if you watch carefully, you’ll see the same few Amazons firing arrows in shot after shot, since apparently only a few of the towering “glamazons” cast by the producers could convincingly handle a bow and arrows.
Weissmuller wasn’t the first actor to play Tarzan, but he was by far the most successful and may still be the most well-known. By 1945, however, he was no longer the trim, leonine lord of the jungle seen in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934). If you’ve never seen Weissmuller in action, those two are the ones to see. Aside from the fact that they’re great, albeit dated, adventure pictures, watched in succession the two films offer the pleasure of seeing O’Sullivan’s Jane transform from a prim, fully clothed Englishwoman into a scantily clad lover of the jungle god, living with him in the treetops, swinging from vines, and swimming in the nude. In fact, Tarzan and His Mate would be the last film in which O’Sullivan appeared in such states of undress. By the third Weissmuller film, Tarzan Escapes! (1936), O’Sullivan’s skimpy two-piece costume became a more concealing one-piece outfit, and she even started wearing shoes. By the fourth film in the series, the two adopted a son and lived together in a jungle tree house as a family unit, which satisfied bourgeois sensibilities, but wasn’t nearly as sexy or exciting as when it was just the two of them, fighting wild animals and bad guys in between outdoor lovemaking sessions.