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.