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.
See more on the Tarzan films at our ERBzine Silver Screen section:
Tarzan and the Leopard Woman is featured at:
Editor and Webmaster for the
Edgar Rice Burroughs Tribute Websites and Webzines
Thanks for stopping by, Bill. I love the ERBzine, and first discovered it when I was writing my review of Tarzan and the Amazons. Keep up the good work!
Super review, Adam. Tarzan and the Leopard Woman has always been my favorite for many of the reasons you mention. You’re correct in that the Weissmuller RKO movies do get a bit of a bad rap. Even those of us who enjoy them realize there are flaws, but they’re still just as enjoyable as the MGM fare.
There’s plenty of eye candy and eye-raising situations that make this film interesting and in some effects, unique from the other Weissmuller Tarzan films.
Johnny Weissmuller looked incredible for this film. He had trimmed his waist and his pectorals here would invoke envy from a male of any age. His body had looked its best since the first several MGM films. And you can be sure when Weissmuller showed up for the first day of filming, the producers jaws dropped and wardrobe was immediately summoned to trim several inches of leather off his loincloth. Indeed, Tarzan’s wardrobe in this film reveals quite a bit of hip and thigh.
Brenda Joyce is lovely as Jane. She’s domesticated but very beautiful, and her legs are extremely sexy in her minidress. The scene where she & Tarzan are walking hand in hand in the market is stunning – both are scantily clad, very sexy, and quite an eyeful.
Unfortunately, that’s as romantic as Tarzan & Jane get in this film. As I mentioned in my Amazons post, the RKO films did sway a bit from the Tarzan-Jane romance to distinguish itself more from the MGM series. This film would have been a terrific spot to see Tarzan save a fainting Jane from the leopard, then sweep her up into his arms and carry her back to the treehouse. The sight of a muscled, trimmed Tarzan carrying the shapely leggy Jane would have been a sight to behold here, and is probably my only complaint with this film.
This film is unique because Tarzan actually gets beaten physically in combat here. In previous films, he’s usually put in peril by circumstance or emotional blackmail using Tarzan’s family. But in this one he absorbs quite a beating at the hands of the leopard men. Yes, the leopard men are quite lame and non-imposing, but the attack of Tarzan and his vulnerable exposed flesh by a dozen of the steel clawed leopard men is quite chilling.
It’s also unique in that Tarzan’s co-villain is a woman in the exotically sexy Acquanetta. Even though Tarzan and the Amazons may have given the impression that the Amazons were Tarzan’s opposition, they were his ally. Here, Acquanetta in her leopard print mini is Tarzan’s sexy, leggy opposition as the Leopard Queen, Lea.
And certainly the producers capitalized on the combination of the scantily clad Lea with the even more scantily clad Tarzan inevitably providing sexual tension when the two meet. After the leopard men attack and capture Tarzan with their clawing and tie him up at Lea’s mercy, you already have a hint as where this is headed as Tarzan’s chest seemed to maintain its pristine condition despite the leopard men leaving deep scratches all over the remainder of his body.
As Lea retrieves a steel claw with a long handle and slowly stalks Tarzan, there’s no doubt she’s going to take the claw to his chest, and as previously mentioned, Weissmuller’s pectoral prowess here was superb, and as much a symbol of his strength and manhood as anything.
The scene is extremely chilling, and once you pass a certain age (wink), you realize the eroticism of a nearly naked and helplessly bound Tarzan about to be tortured by the sexy Lea.
As you mentioned, Johnny Sheffield has also outgrown being called Boy, and though he flirts with the Zambesi maidens at their school, unfortunately for Boy the young ladies seem to be more taken with staring at Tarzan.
Boy also gets a beating at the hands of Kimba as he defends Jane, and needs Cheta’s help to survive. Neverthless, he’s retreats to the treehouse with Jane, and she sits beside him nursing the wounds and scratches on his back as Boy lies on his stomach in bed. As someone who was 14 years old at one time as Johnny Sheffield was here, I’m sure he really must have enjoyed shooting this scene with the gorgeous Brenda Joyce.
In total, this is a film that appeals to all different audiences. Seeing Weissmuller’s physique appeals to the adult female crowd, while Sheffield’s Boy appeals to the female teen set. Likewise, the male audience will enjoy staring at Brenda Joyce and Acquanetta, as well as reveling in Tarzan’s sexy conflict with Lea.
I agree that there could have been a little more physical contact between Tarzan and Jane in this one. Weissmuller and Joyce didn’t seem to lack chemistry, but the script didn’t give them much chance to be together in a romantic way. I did like the scene you mention, where they walk hand in hand through the market. In a way, the evolution of Tarzan and Jane’s relationship over the course of the series (Maureen O’Sullivan’s departure notwithstanding) mirrors the way in which most relationships change over time. They’re still very much in love, but with a teenage “son” and home repairs to take care of, they just don’t have time to swim naked together all the time like they used to.
RKO chose to put Tarzan in situations with other females rather than the prototype love scenes with Jane. Certainly none is more suggestive than what Tarzan endures with Lea in Leopard Woman.
I think you’ll find Tarzan and the Huntress has the most playfulness and romance of the Weissmuller-Joyce era when you get to watch that one.
Hi Adam- Great review. This is my favorite Tarzan film. You hit all the great highlights. Johnny’s physique was awesome in this entry. Brenda Joyce was a gorgeous girl and was quite underated as Jane. Acquanetta really shines here with great beauty and sex appeal. The scene when she threatens to torture Tarzan with the claw is extremely erotic and chilling.
Hope you’ll get to “Huntress” and “Mermaids”
Keep up the great work.
Thanks for your kind words, Dave. I hope I’ll get to “Huntress” and “Mermaids,” too. This project is a labor of love, but it’s an enjoyable one, so I plan to keep going well into the ’50s and hopefully beyond. “Tarzan and the Huntress” came out in April 1947 and “Tarzan and the Mermaids” came out in May 1948, so it’ll take me a little while to get to them, but they’ll come around sooner or later.
In the meantime I plan to catch up on the Weissmuller films I’ve missed. I watched his first four Tarzan pictures from the ’30s not too long ago, but “Tarzan’s New York Adventure” and “Tarzan Triumphs” I have only vague memories of seeing on TV in my youth, and I don’t think I’ve seen “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” or “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery” at all. I’m looking forward to kicking back at some point and watching those four.
I’ve also never seen any of the other Tarzan pictures from the ’20s and ’30s, except for clips. Elmo Lincoln and Frank Merrill don’t get much love from the fans, but I’ll watch anything once.
Pingback: The Beast With Five Fingers (Dec. 25, 1946) « OCD Viewer
Pingback: Tarzan and the Huntress (April 5, 1947) « OCD Viewer