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Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (Feb. 5, 1949)

Tarzans Magic Fountain
Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949)
Directed by Lee Sholem
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

Tarzan’s Magic Fountain marked the beginning of a new era for Tarzan movies.

Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic swimmer turned actor who first played Edgar Rice Burroughs’s lord of the jungle in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), left the series after appearing in Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948).

The hunt was on for a hot young male actor to take his place, and producer Sol Lesser reportedly interviewed more than a thousand of them. He and RKO Radio Pictures eventually settled on 29-year-old hunk Lex Barker.

Barker was a native of Rye, New York, a member of a prominent family who disowned him when he went into acting, and a veteran of World War II. He had chiseled features and an even more chiseled physique. The only thing he needed to do to play Tarzan was shave his chest and learn to speak in the clipped, pidgin English that Weissmuller had made famous.

Barker 1949

The script for Tarzan’s Magic Fountain, by Curt Siodmak and Harry Chandlee, tells a story that will be familiar to fans of the film series. Greedy outsiders become aware of something very valuable hidden deep within the jungle, and Tarzan must act as a buffer between the tribe who guard it and the outside world.

An aviatrix named Gloria James Jessup (Evelyn Ankers), who was lost and presumed dead (à la Amelia Earhart), walks out of the jungle one day. She doesn’t appear to have aged a day since she disappeared. Her reasons for resurfacing are purely altruistic, but the evil Mr. Trask (Albert Dekker) realizes that if she’s telling the truth — and there really is a fountain of youth — that he could stand to make millions selling the water.

The beautiful and shapely Brenda Joyce returns in the role of Jane. She appeared in four Tarzan films opposite Weissmuller, and her presence in Tarzan’s Magic Fountain helps to make the transition from Weissmuller to Barker a smooth one.

She also plays a pivotal role in the film’s story, as she becomes close friends with Gloria and decides she will do anything to help Gloria be happy — even if it means doing exactly what Tarzan warns her not to do.

Joyce Barker Ankers

Tarzan’s Magic Fountain is a fun entry in the series. It’s full of excitement, fantasy, and amusing animal action. Elmo Lincoln, who played Tarzan in the first film adaptation of Burroughs’s novel, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), has an uncredited cameo as a fisherman repairing his net.

Barker makes for a fine Tarzan, but he’s lacking that special something that Weissmuller had. Even in his later years, Weissmuller moved like a panther and cut through the water like a fish. Barker is a beautiful physical specimen, and he moves well, but he lacks Weissmuller’s unique, leonine grace.

Tarzan and the Mermaids (March 29, 1948)


Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948)
Directed by Robert Florey
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

Tarzan and the Mermaids was Johnny Weissmuller’s last go-round as the Lord of the Jungle. It was directed by Robert Florey, produced by Sol Lesser, and released by RKO Radio Pictures. It was Weissmuller’s twelfth time starring in a Tarzan film. (His first six Tarzan films were released by M-G-M and the last six were all released by RKO.)

The M-G-M Tarzan films are generally superior — the production values are higher and Weissmuller was younger, so he better looked the part — but the RKO Tarzan films are a lot of fun, too. They’re B pictures, no doubt about it, but they’re well made for what they are, and it’s always fun to see Weissmuller swing, yell, swim, grunt, and get the bad guys.

Tarzan and the Mermaids was filmed entirely on location in Mexico, at Studios Churubusco and locations in Acapulco and Mexico City. The film doesn’t actually take place in Mexico, but rather in and around “the forbidden island of Aquatania,” which lies at the end of the river that runs past Tarzan and Jane’s home.

If you’ve ever seen a Tarzan movie you know that Tarzan and his mate Jane (played by Brenda Joyce) live somewhere on the continent of Africa, so Aquatania is probably meant to exist somewhere in the Indian Ocean, but there’s no mistaking it for anything but Mexico, even if the people of Aquatania are dressed to look vaguely Polynesian.

Then again, no one watches a Tarzan film for geographic or anthropological accuracy. For that matter, no one should watch a Tarzan movie and expect its story to accurately reflect its title.

To wit, the closest thing to a mermaid in Tarzan and the Mermaids is the beautiful Mexican-born actress Linda Christian, a.k.a. “The Anatomic Bomb” (and soon to be Mrs. Tyrone Power). Christian plays “Mara,” a young woman Tarzan drags out of the river.

Mara is on the run from her tribe’s high priest, Palanth (George Zucco), who has demanded she marry the “god” Balu, a slow-moving, bejeweled monstrosity that stands atop the cliffs and causes his worshipers to quake in fear.

Balu is just a guy wearing a costume, of course. He’s a villainous pearl trader named Varga (Fernando Wagner), and he and Palanth have a lucrative scam going. I wasn’t clear on how Balu planned to consummate his forced marriage to Mara (costume on or costume off?) but since she falls under Tarzan’s wing before that can happen, her reunion with her true love, Tiko (Gustavo Rojo), is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

I enjoyed Tarzan and the Mermaids despite its flaws. John Laurenz’s character “Benji” is similar to the Chito Rafferty character he played in numerous RKO westerns, and he seems mind-bogglingly out of place in the film, but other than that I didn’t have any major complaints. Dimitri Tiomkin’s musical score is rousing, there are some spectacular cliff diving stunts, and Weissmuller is always a treat to watch as Tarzan, even when he’s middle-aged and puffy.

Tarzan and the Huntress (April 5, 1947)

Kurt Neumann’s Tarzan and the Huntress should really be called Tarzan and the Poachers. The word “huntress” conveys more risqué sexiness than the film actually contains (the same can be said of the poster), and seems designed to draw in the same people who shivered at the sight of the muscular Johnny Weissmuller being clawed by the beautiful actress Acquanetta in his previous outing as the King of the Jungle, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946).

When Tarzan and the Huntress begins, we learn that zoos around the world are facing a post-war shortage of animals. (Did lions and monkeys get drafted? I missed that.)

Enter Tanya Rawlins (Patricia Morison, stepping up from Queen of the Amazons to a higher-quality jungle movie). Tanya is an animal trainer leading a safari that also includes her villainous guide, big-game hunter Paul Weir (Barton MacLane), and the moneyman, Carl Marley (John Warburton).

Meanwhile, a half-naked couple who live in a treehouse with their pet chimp and their boy, who calls his adoptive parents by their first names, are preparing to honor local monarch King Farrod (Charles Trowbridge) on the occasion of his birthday. No, they’re not hippies, they’re Tarzan and Jane, played by Weissmuller and Brenda Joyce. Their adopted son, “Boy,” is once again played by Johnny Sheffield, who looks as if he should probably change his name to “Man” sometime soon (or at least “The Artist Formerly Known As ‘Boy’”), since he’s nearly as big as Tarzan. (This was Sheffield’s last role in a Tarzan picture. In 1949 he struck out on his own in the Bomba, the Jungle Boy series.) When Tarzan inspects the fishing pole that Boy has fashioned for King Farrod, he smiles and says, “Everybody like fishing, even kings.” This might be a lesser entry in the Tarzan series, but the playfulness of Tarzan’s little family group and their idyllic life in the jungle is always fun to watch. If you’ve seen one Tarzan movie, however, you’ve seen them all, and you know that something will soon come to threaten their peaceful existence.

In this case, it’s a perfect storm of Tarzan-related problems — hunters and trappers arriving from the “civilized” world, treacherous locals, and Cheeta and Boy’s shared love of shiny objects.

When Weir tells Tanya that King Farrod won’t allow more than two specimens of each animal to be taken out of the jungle, Noah’s-Ark style, she sputters, “You can’t be serious!” So in a back-door deal, the king’s scheming nephew, Prince Ozira (Ted Hecht), offers Weir and Tanya a “no quota, no restrictions” offer on trapping animals, as long as they pay him a bounty per animal.

One of the members of Tanya’s safari offers to trade Boy a hand-crank flashlight for Cheeta. Boy refuses, since Cheeta’s like a member of the family, but he’s not above stealing a pair of lioness’s cubs in exchange for the nearly worthless bauble.

Tarzan returns the two cubs to their mother and draws a line in the sand. Hunters stay on their side of the river, Tarzan stay on his.

The hunting party doesn’t seem overly concerned, but then Tarzan calls all the animals to him with his powerful jungle cry, and they leave the hunters’ side and come to his.

It’s on.

Tarzan knows just how to handle the greedy poachers when they cross the river into his territory. “Hunters without guns like bees without stings. Hunters not so brave now,” he says, after he steals all of their weapons and hides them behind a waterfall.

That would be the end of the story if it weren’t for that darned Cheeta, who wants Tanya’s shiny compact so badly that she shows the hunters the way to the waterfall.

Cheeta gets her compact, the poachers get their guns, and it’s time for Tarzan and Boy to hand out the punishment, one hunter at a time.

Tarzan and the Huntress was Weissmuller’s penultimate turn as Tarzan. After appearing in Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948), he went on to star in the Jungle Jim series and Lex Barker took over starring in the franchise with Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949).

Weissmuller appears to have gained some weight since he made the previous picture in the series, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, but he’s always fun to watch as the character. Brenda Joyce looks beautiful, as always, but I wasn’t sure what to make of her little slip-on pantyhose shoes.

If you’ve never seen a Tarzan picture before, Tarzan and the Huntress probably isn’t the place to start, but it’s solid entertainment for fans of the series, and offers especially good animal action and hijinks.

Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (January 1946)

A lot of fans of Johnny Weissmuller’s work as Tarzan in the MGM series of the ’30s like to beat up on the RKO Radio Pictures Tarzan pictures of the ’40s. They’re campier, the production values are cheaper, and Weissmuller was older when he made them. I say, so what? They’re still great Saturday-matinee entertainment, especially this one. Tarzan and the Leopard Woman moves at a good pace, it’s loony without being over-the-top, and Weissmuller is in better shape than he was in the previous few entries in the series.

Weissmuller was a big guy; 6’3″ and 190 pounds in his prime. Like a lot of athletes, he had a tendency to gain weight when he wasn’t competing professionally (when he was making the Jungle Jim series in the ’50s, he was reportedly fined $5,000 for every pound he was overweight). In Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, however, he was 41 years old, and looked better than he had in years. His face looks older and his eyes are a little pouchy, but three divorces (including one from the physically abusive Lupe Velez) will do that do a guy. Even though he was nearing middle age when he made this picture, Weissmuller was still a sight to behold. When he jumps into a river to save four winsome Zambesi maidens (played by Iris Flores, Helen Gerald, Lillian Molieri, and Kay Solinas) from crocodiles, he knifes through the water, and it’s not hard to see why he won five Olympic gold medals for swimming, and was the first man to swim the 100-meter freestyle in less than a minute.

When Tarzan and the Leopard Woman begins, the local commissioner (Dennis Hoey) is speaking to Dr. Ameer Lazar (Edgar Barrier), a native who has been educated and “civilized.” The commissioner is concerned about a spate of attacks by what seem to be leopards. Dr. Lazar appears to share his concern, but we soon learn that Lazar is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Privately he spouts anti-Western doctrine that sounds suspiciously like Marxism, and is the leader of a tribe of men who worship leopards and wear their skins. Tarzan believes that the “leopard” attacks are really the work of men, so to throw off suspicion, Lazar releases a trio of actual leopards as cannon fodder. Their attack against the caravan is repelled, the leopards are killed, and everyone is satisfied that the terror has passed. Everyone, that is, except Tarzan, who still smells a rat.

The original shooting title of Tarzan and the Leopard Woman was Tarzan and the Leopard Men, which is probably a more accurate title, but definitely a less sexy one, especially once you see the leopard men. The eponymous leopard woman is Dr. Lazar’s sister, Lea, high priestess of the leopard cult. Played by the exotic-looking actress Acquanetta, Lea makes a few memorable appearances in the beginning of the film with her voluptuous breasts barely concealed behind a gauzy wrap, but after the halfway mark she wears a more concealing leopard-print dress, and spends most of her time standing on an altar, goading on the leopard men’s dastardly acts. For the most part, the leopard men are paunchy, pigeon-chested, middle-aged men whose poorly choreographed ritual “dancing” never stops being unintentionally hilarious.

Acquanetta was born Mildred Davenport in Ozone, Wyoming, in 1921. She changed her name to “Burnu Acquanetta,” then to just “Acquanetta,” and starred in films like Rhythm of the Islands (1943), Captive Wild Woman (1943), and Jungle Woman (1944). The raison d’être of most island pictures and jungle movies in the ’40s was to show a whole lot more skin than was considered appropriate in any other genre of the ’40s, and on that count, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman succeeds. Weissmuller’s loincloth is as skimpy as it ever was, and the scene in which he’s scratched all over by the leopard men’s metal claws, then tied tightly to a pillar and menaced by Lea surely excited plenty of future little sadomasochists in the audience.

Former model Brenda Joyce, in her second outing as Jane, has really grown into the role, and looks great. I missed Maureen O’Sullivan when she left the franchise, but Joyce has really grown on me since Tarzan and the Amazons (1945). She’s pretty and charming, not to mention stacked.

There’s a subplot in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman that I’m going to call “Battle of the Boys.” Johnny Sheffield is still playing Tarzan and Jane’s adopted son, “Boy,” but he’s quickly outgrowing the moniker. Sheffield was 14 when he made this film, but he looks older. Unlike a lot of cute child stars to whom puberty was unkind, Sheffield looks like he’s in better shape than anyone else in the movie, and he’s good-looking. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Tommy Cook, who’s a year older than Sheffield, but looks younger and weirder. The last time I saw Cook, he played the cute little sidekick named “Kimbu” in the 1941 Republic serial The Jungle Girl. Here, in an enormous thespic stretch, he plays Lea’s younger brother “Kimba,” who insinuates himself into the lives of Tarzan, Jane, and Boy. He might as well have been named “Bad Boy,” since he’s Boy’s evil doppelgänger. Jane takes pity on Kimba and cares for him, but his true intention is to cut out her heart in order to become a full-fledged warrior among the leopard men.

I don’t think I’ll be giving anything away if I say that Tarzan, Jane, Boy, and their pet chimp Cheetah make it through the proceedings relatively unscathed, while the bad guys all die horrible, gruesome deaths. Tarzan and the Leopard Woman might not be the greatest entry in the Tarzan franchise, but it’s far from the worst, and packs plenty of action and thrills into its 72-minute running time.

Tarzan and the Amazons (April 29, 1945)

TarzanAmazonsOn 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.

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