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Tag Archives: Lex Barker

Tarzan’s Peril (March 10, 1951)

Tarzan's Peril
Tarzan’s Peril (1951)
Directed by Byron Haskin
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

The lavish spectacle King Solomon’s Mines (1950) rewrote the rules of the “jungle adventure” film, since it was shot on location in Sub-Saharan Africa and instantly made all the B movies shot on soundstages and backlots look ridiculous. First and foremost, it showed that there was a lot less jungle in Africa than kids raised on Tarzan movies assumed there was. The distant, rolling plains we saw in King Solomon’s Mines bore little resemblance to the dense jungles where Tarzan swung on vines.

So producer Sol Lesser and RKO Radio Pictures picked up the gauntlet and decided to shoot their next Tarzan picture not only in color, but on location in Kenya.

Unfortunately, something went wrong with the color footage, so Tarzan’s Peril was released in black & white. A fair amount of the location footage found its way into the final product, but it’s not integrated very well into the main narrative. We never see Lex Barker strutting in his loincloth through the grasslands of Kenya, for instance. He mostly sticks to the soundstages and backlots, clowning around with Cheetah the chimpanzee and throwing knives at not-very-terrifying giant snake puppets.

Huston and Barker

As I said in my review of Lex Barker’s previous Tarzan picture, Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950), Barker’s movies are probably only ever going to be watched by hardcore Tarzan fans. With nearly a century of Tarzan flicks to choose from, newcomers are advised to start with the Johnny Weissmuller movies, particularly the first two, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934). If you have kids and don’t want to expose them to the dated and racist depictions of Africans in the early Weissmuller films, you’ll probably want to show them either Disney’s Tarzan (1999) or Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) (which, incidentally, was the first Tarzan movie I ever saw).

However, if you’re not a hardcore Tarzan fan, there is one reason to check out Tarzan’s Peril. It features Dorothy Dandridge as “Melmendi, Queen of the Ashuba.” Dandridge was the first African-American to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actress, and along with Lena Horne, she was one of the only black “leading ladies” in Hollywood in the ’40s and ’50s. Of course, even for a beautiful and light-skinned actress like Dandridge, good roles for black women were still hard to come by in the ’50s. And the roles she was offered, like this one, are fairly limited.

Dorothy Dandridge

The problem is not just that Tarzan’s Peril is a low-budget picture (I love B movies, and this is a perfectly decent one with plenty of action), it’s that Dandridge is given frustratingly little to do. In fact, after watching Tarzan’s Peril I wished that Jane hadn’t even been featured as a character. She’s played by Virginia Huston, and except for a bit of mutual splashing around in the water, there’s no erotic chemistry between her and Barker. Mostly she comes off as an idealized version of a prim 1950s housewife, chastising Tarzan for eating food out of a pot on the stove and demanding he sit down to dinner.

Given that Huston was the third different actress to play Jane in as many Tarzan movies featuring Lex Barker, I wished they had written her out of the movie entirely and just focused on Dandridge’s character, Melmendi. Anything like kissing would have been verboten with a white actor like Barker, but they could have beefed up her part and had plenty of erotic subtext. That would have been really fun to watch.

Tarzan’s Peril is OK, but not great. On the plus side, it’s got plenty of action, some of the best location footage in an RKO Tarzan movie to date, and a trio of memorable villains.

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Tarzan and the Slave Girl (June 23, 1950)

Tarzan and the Slave Girl
Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950)
Directed by Lee Sholem
Sol Lesser Productions / RKO Radio Pictures

Lex Barker’s second go-round as Tarzan made me miss Johnny Weissmuller just a little bit more than his first.

Part of it was that I just didn’t find Tarzan and the Slave Girl as entertaining as Barker’s first go-round as the character, Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), but I think it was also because the novelty was starting to wear off.

I’m not trying to dump on Barker, who’s fine in the role, and certainly a beautiful physical specimen. Saying that another actor isn’t as good as Weissmuller in the role of Tarzan is akin to lamenting that no one was a better James Bond than Sean Connery.

Some fans of the original Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs complain about Weissmuller’s pidgin English and monosyllabic dialogue, since the Tarzan of the original novels, Lord Greystoke, grew past his feral beginnings to become a cultured and well-spoken superhuman lord of the jungle. However, I think everything about Weissmuller’s interpretation of the character works in the movies. His difficulty with English emphasizes his magnificent physical qualities, and makes Maureen O’Sullivan (who played Jane in the first six Tarzan movies opposite Weissmuller) a better partner for him, since she has skills that her mate lacks.

Tarzan and the slave girls

The good news is that every Tarzan movie delivers a decent amount of entertainment, and Tarzan and the Slave Girl is no different. If you’re looking for lovely half-naked bodies, animal action, jungle stock footage, and drunken chimp antics, then this movie delivers.

The plot is the typical mishmash that Tarzan movie fans are used to. Deep in the jungles of an Africa that in no way resembles anyplace on the actual continent, a group of white men from a tribe called the “Lionians” are kidnapping young women from other tribes. The young women they kidnap are also white, and mostly look like a casting call for Dorothy Lamour and Linda Darnell types.

Tarzan (Lex Barker) and his mate Jane (played for the first and only time by Vanessa Brown) are embroiled in this plot when the Lionians kidnap Jane and a woman named Lola (Denise Darcel), and Tarzan must rush to their rescue.

Whatever else this film might lack, it’s certainly full of leering shots of its female stars. Not only do Jane and Lola engage in a catfight for no particular reason, soon afterward they are captured by the Lionian slavers, and the long, lingering closeup of Darcel and Brown both rubbing their feet and ankles when they are shackled together made me wonder if director Sholem was taking some inspiration from Irving Klaw’s fetish films.

In fact, the casting of Darcel, a French actress whom we last saw as the only female character in the war movie Battleground (1949), seems like a way to make sure every heterosexual male viewer’s taste is catered to. Vanessa Brown, who plays Jane, is very slender and youthful-looking, whereas Darcel is fleshy and sexy.

Darcel and Brown

At this point in time, Tarzan and the Slave Girl is probably only ever going to be watched by hardcore Tarzan fans. If you’ve never seen a Tarzan movie, you have tons to choose from. The best place to start is probably with the first two Weissmuller flicks; Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934), which is arguably the greatest Tarzan film of all time.

However, if you are a hardcore Tarzan fan and have seen all the Weissmuller films, the Barker films are not without their pleasures. They’re solid Saturday matinee viewing, and for my money that’s never a bad thing.

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.

The Farmer’s Daughter (March 25, 1947)

H.C. Potter’s The Farmer’s Daughter has a title that makes it sound as if it might be an extended dirty joke that also involves a traveling salesman, but it’s not. It’s a funny, romantic, and inspiring film about a young woman whose life takes a very different direction than the one she expected it to take when she left home for the big city.

Katrin Holstrom (Loretta Young) lives on a farm in “Redwing County” with her Swedish father and mother (Harry Shannon and Anna Q. Nilsson) and her three brothers, Peter (James Arness), Olaf (Lex Barker), and Sven (Keith Andes). She goes to Capital City (a thinly veiled Chicago) to pursue a nursing degree, but an unscrupulous “friend” of her family named Adolph (Rhys Williams) weasels all of her money out of her and she’s left penniless.

She takes a job as a maid in the palatial home of Agatha Morley (Ethel Barrymore), a grand dame and behind-the-scenes political figure whose son, Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten), is a congressman. When asked about her qualifications, Katrin tells Ethel that at home, she makes six beds every morning, does the washing and ironing for her three brothers, herself, and mama and papa, cleans all seven rooms and does dishes, helps mama with the canning — preserves, meat, eggs, dill pickles, smoked ham, and bacon — waits on tables (40 hands at harvest time), and makes glögg at Christmas. And that’s just what she does indoors. Outdoors, she plows with a horse and tractor, hoes potatoes, shucks wheat, milks cows, beds horses, butchers pigs, kills and dresses chickens, and cuts wood for both mill and stove.

She’s hired.

She doesn’t mention that she also give back-cracking, limb-twisting, lung-emptying Swedish massages, which she does for Glenn while he’s recovering after falling through the ice while skating with her.

Katrin is also a whip-smart young woman who speaks her mind as easily as she breathes. During a party for political bigwigs at the Morley home, where Katrin is serving drinks, a congressman named Wilbur Johnson (Thurston Hall) says it’s too bad Katrin has only just moved to town, because a vote from a pretty girl like her would have made his victory complete. She responds, “Oh, I’m sorry, sir, if I could have voted, I wouldn’t have voted for you.” He’s taken aback, but her Swedish-accented, lilting, matter-of-fact delivery leaves him speechless.

After the party, Glenn asks Katrin why she doesn’t like congressman Johnson, and she says it’s because he opposes a higher minimum wage. She agrees with Johnson that people should be responsible for themselves, but she believes in a living wage. When Glenn asks her what she means, she responds, “A living wage depends on whether you’re getting it or giving it.”

After Katrin stands up at a political rally and poses a series of hard questions to the Morleys’ candidate, Anders J. Finley (Art Baker), including a number of very specific questions about his record that show she’s done her homework, the opposition party asks her if she’d like to run against Finley for a seat in Congress.

Katrin’s no-nonsense, can-do, take-charge attitude takes her as far in politics as it did back on the farm, but her opposition to the Morleys’ candidate threatens the budding romance between her and Glenn. It also drives her back to her family farm in despair after a vicious smear campaign is launched against her.

As with most political movies, the film is careful not to offend anyone by getting too deeply into hot-button issues. It’s also not very nuanced. By the end of the film, Finley has gone from being a condescending chauvinist to a figure of pure evil who is in league with both gangsters and home-grown fascists.

But The Farmer’s Daughter still manages to be a very funny and occasionally sharp political satire. The script by Allen Rivkin and Laura Kerr is wonderful, and the actors all play their parts to perfection. Ethel Barrymore conveys much without even speaking, and Charles Bickford is especially good as the Morley’s crusty old butler, Joseph Clancy.

Loretta Young was the surprise winner of the Oscar for best actress at the 20th Academy Awards for her role in this film. (Rosalind Russell had been heavily favored for her performance in Mourning Becomes Electra.) I can’t compare Young’s performance to any of the other women who were nominated, because I haven’t seen their films yet, but I think her win was well-deserved. Katrin Holstrom, with her blond hair tied up in coiled buns and her Swedish accent, could have easily been a caricature, but Young imbues her with so much liveliness and depth that I fell in love with her, and was rooting for her all the way.

The Farmer’s Daughter has a light touch, and is very funny, but it’s still an inspiring film. Remember that when it was made, women had only had the right to vote at the national level for slightly more than 25 years, and only 41 women had served in the United States Congress.

It might not be the best movie I’ve seen so far this year, but it is the funniest, warmest, and most moving. Wait … maybe it is the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.

Cloak and Dagger (Sept. 28, 1946)

Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger is the best espionage thriller I’ve seen since Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940). Like that film, it doesn’t have the over-the-top stunts or pyrotechnics of a modern action movie, but its pacing, plot, and music create a spectacle that is every bit as suspenseful and exciting.

Gary Cooper, who is best known for playing stoic men of action, gives a credible performance as bookish physicist Alvah Jesper, a man who finds himself in over his head, but is smart enough and tough enough to find a way out of one tight situation after another.

Professor Jesper is recruited by the O.S.S. (the Office of Strategic Services, the U.S. intelligence agency formed during World War II that would eventually become the C.I.A.) and sent to Switzerland to bring his former colleague Dr. Katerin Lodor (Helen Thimig) back to the United States. Dr. Lodor, an elderly woman, escaped through the Alps from Germany, where she was being forced to work on an atomic bomb project for the Nazis. Switzerland is a neutral country, but it’s lousy with agents of the Gestapo, and Dr. Lodor’s life is in peril.

Immediately, there are two implausible aspects of the plot that you have to get over to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the picture. One is that the O.S.S. would recruit a college professor with no experience in the intelligence field to act as an undercover agent merely because he has a personal connection to their target and speaks conversational German. The other is that, by this point in 1946, it was common knowledge that any nuclear research being conducted by the Nazis was mostly smoke and mirrors, and the Third Reich was never close to developing an atomic bomb.

Neither of these issues proved a stumbling block for me. Every spy thriller needs a plot hook, and plenty of these hooks prove either factually inaccurate or completely ridiculous after five or ten years have passed. Also, the O.S.S. was a young organization, and they did some pretty wild stuff during the war. Recruiting a college professor in his mid-40s for dangerous undercover work doesn’t seem completely outside the realm of possibility. (Cooper’s role is loosely inspired by the exploits of Michael Burke, president of the N.Y. Yankees from 1966 to 1973, who briefly played with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1941 before leaving to serve with the O.S.S., where he worked behind the lines in Italy and later in France, where he helped the Resistance prepare for D-Day.)

There are some great touches, too. When Jesper disembarks in Switzerland, he thinks he’s being smart by casually covering his face with his hand when he walks by a photographer, but it is precisely this action that alerts the Gestapo to the fact that he might be a man worth watching.

After Jesper makes contact with Dr. Lodor, she leads him to Dr. Giovanni Polda (Vladimir Sokoloff), another physicist who is being forced by the Nazis to work on their atomic bomb program. Jesper travels to Italy, where he is aided by Italian partisans led by Pinkie (Robert Alda) and the beautiful Gina (Lilli Palmer).

Luckily, Jesper is able to pose as a German doctor because the Italian fascist thugs keeping Dr. Polda prisoner in a beautiful villa clearly don’t recognize American-accented German when they hear it. Viewers with an ear for languages probably will.

The Italian baddies are led by a man named Luigi, who is played by veteran character actor Marc Lawrence, who had a very long career playing gangsters in Hollywood. His first film role was an uncredited part as a henchman in If I Had a Million (1932), and one of his last was playing Carlo Gambino in the 1996 TV movie Gotti.

Toward the end of the movie, Cooper and Lawrence square off in the most brutal and realistic fight I’ve seen in a movie from the 1940s. The James Cagney thriller Blood on the Sun (1945) features a great judo fight that was way ahead of its time, but the combat between Jesper and Luigi is a desperate fight to the death, pure and simple. There’s nothing flashy about it, and it’s not overly choreographed. The two men hold each other close, clawing at each other’s faces, choking each other, kicking at weak points, and twisting back fingers and arms. It’s over in less than 90 seconds, but its impact lasts for the rest of the movie.

The screenplay for Cloak and Dagger was written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner, Jr., based on a story by Boris Ingster and John Larkin, and “suggested” by the 1946 nonfiction book Cloak and Dagger: The Secret Story of O.S.S., by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain.

Director Lang is best known for the films he made when he still lived in Germany, such as the silent science fiction opus Metropolis (1927), the chilling portrait of a child killer M (1931), and the crime thriller The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), but Lang was a master craftsman at every stage of his career, even when doing for-hire work like this.