Between Tarzan Escapes (1936) and Tarzan Finds a Son (1939) MGM let the rights to Tarzan slip into the hands of producer Sol Lesser, who had been trying to get a hold of the property for quite some time. Tarzan was a Twentieth Century Fox product for just this one brief outing before Sol Lesser later reclaimed Tarzan for RKO Pictures in 1943.
Tarzan’s Revenge opens on the deck of the S.S. Congo Hope, a large paddle boat tooling down an African river. On board this boat we first meet Nevin Potter (George Meeker) as he blasts away at the local wildlife, and is basically this film’s version of America’s foreign policy. He is joined on deck by his fiancée Eleanor Reed (Eleanor Holm) who comments on Nevin’s hunting prowess with a touch of disdain stating that his hunting is, “Sort of like the jungle version of slaughter day at the stockyards.” Nevin is such a dim asshat that he thinks this is a complement and responds, “You know, that’s what I like about Africa; you don’t have to go too far for your game.”
Also aboard S.S. Congo Hope are Eleanor’s parents Roger (George Barbier) and Penny Reed (gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) who have come to Africa to collect animals for their proposed zoo. Why they brought along Nevin, who shoots everything that moves, is beyond me. Sure he’s your daughter’s fiancée but when you are looking to capture animals alive you may want to leave behind the guy who thinks shooting a parrot with a rifle is appropriate. Also on board is Ben Alleu Bey (C. Henry Gordon) a rich and powerful sultan who upon seeing Eleanor decides he must add her to his harem of a hundred plus wives.
When the Reed safari sets forth they are in the capable hands of their guide Olaf Punch (Joe Sawyer) a just on the wagon cad who sells them out to Ben Alleu Bey at the first sign of a bigger paycheck. This is one of those films where you really can’t root for anyone. Eleanor is the most sympathetic character we have, but being she is played by Olympic gold medalist swimmer, and not an actress, so one finds it a tad hard to get too attached to her. This brings us to this film’s Tarzan played by Glenn Morris, another non actor only this time an Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon. Sure Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic medal winning swimmer, but he managed to convey a childlike charisma with a hint of danger that made his portrayal of Tarzan work, and add that to the fact that he had the great Maureen O’Sullivan backing his play as Jane makes up for a lot. Glenn Morris comes across more like a frat boy in search of the rest of his toga than a Lord of the Jungle.
Tarzan doesn’t even have much of a screen presence as he only pops up once and awhile to pull Eleanor out of mud hole, save her from a lioness that wants her cubs back (idiots Eleanor and Nevin snatched up the cubs not wondering about possible angry mom), and eventually saving her from the clutches of Ben Alleu Bey. There are some decent action moments, but because both the leads are famous athletes we get two scenes of Eleanor swimming and Tarzan getting fruit for breakfast by using a javelin and not a spear.
Even the decision for the naming of the heroine was because of the fame of the stars. Sol Lesser decided against having her named Jane because he thought the world wouldn’t accept her playing anyone not named Eleanor. That is all kinds of stupid. That neither Eleanor Holm nor Glenn Morris ever acted again in movies bares that out. The movie can’t even get any credit for being more faithful to the source material; for even in the limited screen time we get of the Ape Man we don’t get to see him do much “true” Tarzan stuff. At one point jerk Nevin wounds a deer, with all his random shooting, and later Tarzan finds it and nurses to back to health, even making a splint for its leg. This film has a pretty blatant animal conservationist slant, which I’m all for, but I’m sorry if Tarzan of the books ever came across a wounded deer he’d put it out of its misery and then eat it. He does at least toss around the locals as literary Tarzan pounded on just about everybody.
Tarzan’s Revenge was a critical and financial disaster, and it wouldn’t be until 1943 and Tarzan Triumphs that Sol Lesser would get another crack the Lord of the Jungle. The film has since fallen into the public domain so if you have 70 minutes to kill you can check out this odd little entry in Tarzan’s cinematic history.