This would be the sixth and last installment of the MGM Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, and though Weissmuller would continue with the role over at RKO, Jane herself would vanish for a bit as Maureen O’Sullivan was an MGM contract player, not to mention sick of playing. Tarzan’s New York Adventure is also the shortest of the series, running at a brief 71 minutes, though the biggest difference isn’t the length but in its increased comic tone.
When Tarzan and Jane got themselves a kid in Tarzan finds a Son I worried that the film would become more kid friendly, but my worries were allayed for in Tarzan’s Secret Treasure there was even more death and danger than in some of the previous films. Sadly with Tarzan’s New York Adventure my concerns became justified as more than half its running time is spent on goofy comedy bits, and not the fun adventure elements we had come to know and love.
The premise of taking Tarzan out of one jungle and into a modern one is certainly rife with possibilities, but instead we get a typical “fish out of water” comedy. Worse is the normally comic relief bits that were normally left to the drunken antics of the chimpanzee Cheeta are now being shared with Tarzan, as we get him being confused by such modern items as the telephone, radios, and indoor plumbing. I’ve poked fun at Johnny Weissmuller’s mentally handicapped ape man in the past, but here the screenwriters hit new lows. Maureen O’Sullivan manages to impart some heart and dignity to the proceedings, but alas even her great talent cannot compete with Cheeta let loose in a hotel suite.
The plot the screenwriters use to get Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) to New York City is as contrived as it is silly. An iron bird, that’s an airplane to you civilized readers, lands on the Escarpment and Tarzan rushes off to tell these intruders to basically, “Get off my lawn!” This airborne safari consists of Buck Rand (Charles Bickford) a big game hunter, Manchester Montford (Chill Wills) world famous animal trainer, and Jimmie Shields (Paul Kelly) their pilot. They’ve come to Africa to get animals for a circus back in the States, but Tarzan doesn’t care why they are here, only that they leave. Jimmie Shields explains that it will be dark soon, and thus unsafe for them to fly over unfamiliar terrain. So Tarzan gives them a deadline of, “When shadow comes between two sticks, men go!” and then swings back into the jungle.
There is a nice bit where Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) explains to Boy (Johnny Sheffield) why Tarzan is very anti-visitors, “When strangers come from outside, they always cause trouble. They’re always seeking something.” This is a very sensible and accurate statement, but once again Boy’s curiosity about the civilized world, and especially airplanes, gets the ball rolling for the “drama” to unfold. Against Tarzan’s wishes Boy sneaks out to get a look at this airplane so that maybe he could build one of his own some day, but when Buck Rand meets the jungle boy, and sees how great he is with trained animals, a kidnapping is decided.
Jimmie puts a kibosh on these plans, kidnapping children not being in his contract, and he sends the kid back home. Unfortunately the dangers of the jungle prevail in keeping the kidnapping premise on the table by a lion attacking Montford which forces Boy to delay his trip home and save they guy. Then the Jaconi tribe attack the expedition.
Note: A bit of continuity issue here as this tribe originally killed anyone who trespassed on the Mutia Escarpment, including themselves if they even set so much as a foot on this sacred ground, but now they seem to have become unruly neighbors to the Tarzan family.
Upon hearing the sounds of battle between the safari and the Jaconi, Tarzan and Jane swing into action, and then quickly get their vine cut from under them by a sneaky savage. They plummet to the ground where the Jaconi then decide to set fire to the jungle brush around the unconscious pair instead of, I don’t know, stab them with a spear or two. With Boy’s parents assumed dead they rush the kid back to their plane and take off for fortune and glory. Of course Tarzan and Jane are not dead, and Cheeta is able to revive them before they are burnt to a crisp. The chimp informs them that the hunters have taken Boy and they immediately set off to get him back.
When our heroes eventually make it to America they try to track down Jimmie Shields, they don’t find him at his hotel, but they do learn from his nightclub singing girlfriend Connie Beach (Virginia Grey), that the Colonel Ralph Sergeant (Cy Kendall), who runs the local circus, put up the $5,000 bond for the immigration authorities, and he has Boy. Meanwhile at the circus Buck Rand and Col. Sergeant get an offer of $100,000 for the Jungle Boy and his act from a foreign circus.
Tarzan wants to break Sergeant in half and wipe the fairgrounds with his villainous roustabouts, but Jane intercedes with the horrible advice of, “We better trust the law.” So we now get Tarzan in court. That the courtroom drama here is not of quite Kramer vs Kramer or even Miracle on 34th Street standards goes without saying, but even by silly pulp movies it’s a tad moronic. The evil lawyer (Charles Lane) working for the circus presents the case that the jungle is too dangerous a place to raise a child, while Tarzan’s lawyer goes for the nobility and beauty of the jungle being an excellent schoolyard for growing boys. The case briefly seems to be going their way until Jane lets slip the fact that Boy isn’t actually their son, but just some kid they found.
When the nasty lawyer starts calling Jane a liar Tarzan goes berserk, and tosses the dude into the jury box. The Judge (Russell Hicks) adjourns the hearing until tomorrow, and Tarzan is detained by the court until the Judge can rule on the matter. Sergeant and Rand takes this lucky break to head back to back to circus to grab Boy, with their plan to fly him out of New York and get their money for the kid. But one must ask such questions as, why in the hell is the boy still being held captive at the circus? What kind of custody hearing leaves the child in the hands of a group of roustabouts? It’s by this time that Jane has realized that maybe trusting in the law wasn’t the way to go, “You were right Tarzan, as you always are, and I was wrong. I know that man’s laws are not for you. You are free as an eagle. I should have told you to follow your own law. To find Boy in your own way.” This was not one of Jane’s finer moments.
This then leads to the movies showcase of Tarzan bounding around New York City, crashes through the courthouse window, and escapes into the concrete jungle.
Climbing buildings, swinging across chasms hundreds of feet up and eventually diving off the Brooklyn Bridge allows Tarzan to elude the police and reach the circus. Tarzan then fails almost immediately to save Boy as is he caught in a trapeze net, and locked in a cage. Unfortunately for the villains, who try and spirit Boy away in their car, this circus has a shit ton of elephants, and that is not a good thing when Tarzan is around.
Tarzan leaps onto the fleeing car, knocks Sergeant and Rand unconscious, and pulls Boy out of the vehicle just before it crashes. Jane, Jimmie and Connie show up in a car and advise Tarzan, “This place isn’t too healthy. Come on, get in.” Now I assumed this would lead to Jimmie smuggling our heroes out of the country in his plane, but no, they end up facing the Judge. Tarzan is sentenced to 60 days for contempt of court and resisting arrest, but because he had a really good reason his sentence is suspended. Yeah, that’s how the law works, not to mention the fact that Tarzan is very guilty of the murder of Sergeant and Rand, as we never saw them crawl out of the car after it was totalled.
I know many enjoy this film for the fluffy adventure movie it was intended to be, but for me the making of Tarzan into an even bigger buffoon just irks me too much. Many consider Johnny Weissmuller to be the quintessential movie Tarzan, yet it’s really Maureen O’Sullivan whose beauty, grace and heart that is stamped all over this series that makes the series work for me. It’s her chemistry with Weissmuller that really sells the part, and is what makes her the quintessential Jane. Weissmuller would go on to play Tarzan six more times, but this was the last we’d see of Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane.