With the success of Tarzan the Ape Man both MGM and Edgar Rice Burroughs were keen for a sequel, and with the crazy amount of money that RKO took in with King Kong the previous year it should be no surprise that they decided to pour even more money into a sequel to their own hit, making it grander and more action-packed than the original.
Tarzan and His Mate starts off roughly the same way as the first film, with Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) readying another safari to trek to the Mutia Escarpment and the elephant’s graveyard – got get that lovely ivory – but this time instead of being partnered with Jane’s father, who died at the end of the last film, he has old school chum Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanagh) to help out, a man who though a good shot with the gun is a bit of womanizer and basically an all-around jerk. Harry has more than one motive in returning to the Mutia Escarpment, which would of course be Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan), who he still carries a torch for from their last encounter. He has loaded his safari with numerous items of woman’s clothing and perfume – in the hopes of luring Jane out of the jungle, back into society and hopefully into his arms – but I think Holt would be better off he just stuck to hanging out with Arlington.
Tarzan and the dangers of the jungle are not the only threat to this expedition, as two other white men, Henry Van Ness (Desmond Roberts) and Tom Pierce (William Stack), have stolen Holt’s map to the Mutia Escarpment, and their own safari now has a six-hour head start. It then becomes a race through hazardous terrain, for without the ivory they hope to find, Arlington will be penniless, as he had invested the last of his money in this expedition. Once again we are shown how callous our white leads are as they get a tad miffed when eight of the native bearers die of exhaustion because they had expected to only lose about ten for the entire trip. Seriously, these guys factored in how many people their expedition was going to lose, and bizarrely everyone seems cool with that. Worse is when Arlington shoots one of the bearers for cowardice, and Holt chides him, “A whip would have done just as well” and asshole Arlington responds, “Perhaps you’re right. He could have carried 150 pounds of ivory.”
They catch a lucky break when they come across the Pierce and Van Ness safari – horribly murdered by the local cannibals – so with their competition out of the way it should be all smooth sailing…oh wait, those pesky cannibals then proceed to kill about a hundred of Holt and Arlington’s bearers, as the group flee to “safety” of the Mutia Escarpment.
Eventually, they make it to the safety of the Escarpment – the cannibals can’t chase them there because the ground is sacred – and how sacred do they consider this land? Well, when one over-enthusiastic cannibal chases them a little way onto the Escarpment he quickly realizes where he is standing, runs back to his people, kneels before his chieftain, and is stabbed to death. That is one harsh religion. Unfortunately, our group then finds themselves in an “out of the frying pan into the fire situation” for as they traverse the dangerous climb they encounter a group of angry apes, who bombard the safari with rocks.
After the party lose a number of native bearers – totally ruining the fatality estimates – Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) finally shows up to call off the attack, and he greets Harry and his new friend, and even though it’s been a year since he last saw Tarzan the jungle lord still barely knows any English other than, “Tarzan, friend” or “Tarzan, love Jane” which begs the question, what the hell has Jane been doing all that time when she could have been teaching Tarzan English? Pssst, the answer is sex, lots and lots of sex.
Harry makes introductions and explains that he’s here for the promised return trip to the elephant’s graveyard, but he also spends much of his time wooing Jane – with new clothes, perfume, and music from the gramophone they brought along – but we also have Arlington the womanizer making his play for Jane, and he even kisses her. So not only is he making moves on a girl his best friend has stated he is interested in – which is a jolly bit of crap – but also on the woman whose “husband” is the key to the success of this entire venture, so I’m getting the impression he isn’t the brightest of lads.
Jane likes the dresses and admits there are some things in society she misses, but she loves Tarzan and has no interest in ever going back home, and this wonderfully illustrates the love that exists between Tarzan and Jane which is the one element this movie series gets pretty much bang on. Though Jane in the books later becomes a badass jungle fighter in her own right, the movie sadly never lets Jane be anything other than a damsel in distress, and in this movie alone Tarzan has to save her from a leopard, a crocodile, a rhino, and a pride of hungry lions, but they do have some time for play. It’s in Tarzan’s Mate that we witness the infamous nude swimming sequence, where Tarzan playfully rips off Jane’s dress as she dives into the river, and then the two partake in a beautiful underwater ballet.
This is the last we will see that much skin on Jane, double or not, as after this film Jane adopts a more modest one-piece jungle attire, and forgoes nude swimming entirely. Most audiences didn’t even get to see this underwater nude sequence as Joseph Breen, the then director of public relations of the MPPDA, reported to his president Will Hays that those scenes, which included full-frontal nudity, were unacceptable. It wasn’t until the late 90s, when Ted Turner purchased the MGM library, that this scene was finally restored. Yes, in 1934 you can have a film where countless people are savagely murdered – and even show topless black women – but a nude white woman was completely scandalous.
So Holt and Arlington get their safari all geared up for the march to the elephant`s graveyard – with a borrowed elephant breaking trail for them – and all seems to be going well, until the final penny drops. Tarzan had no idea the reason for this trip was to take the ivory. For him, the elephant’s graveyard is the place where his friends “sleep” and he will not let Harry and company desecrate it. The fault of this falls totally on Jane, who never once thought to mention this to Tarzan. This, of course, doesn’t sit too well with our resident white asshats, and with the last of his money riding on the success of the expedition Arlington shoots an elephant so that they can follow the dying beast to the graveyard, and it’s only Jane’s quick intervention that prevents Tarzan from breaking Arlington in half.
Tarzan and Jane then leave as Holt, Arlington and the safari go off and follow the mortally wounded elephant, and neither of these two great hunters wonders why Tarzan seemed to let them off with just a warning, but once they find the elephant’s graveyard, and have their men pack up all the ivory, Tarzan arrives at the head of an angry herd of elephants, to bring some jungle justice. Jane rushes over to Holt and Arlington telling them, “You’re my people. I don’t want to see you buried here with my father.” Arlington quickly tells Jane, “Perhaps, after all, we were wrong. The elephants are Tarzan’s friends. I realize we are violating something he holds sacred.” Holt’s incredulous “What?” at this change of heart is hilarious, more so in the fact that Jane actually buys into this baloney that Arlington is selling.
“Tarzan, they have agreed to not take the ivory, and totally not shoot you the first chance they get.”
So Arlington shoots Tarzan the first chance he gets – while the ape-man is out getting breakfast for Jane – and as Arlington sees Tarzan fall, and sink into the river, he assumes the ape-man is dead. What a moron. Jane is told by Arlington that he saw Tarzan being surprised by a crocodile, and dragged into the river, something even Holt finds hard to believe, but without Tarzan in her life, the jungle no longer holds any allure for Jane, and so she agrees to go back with them to civilization. Oh, and she lets them take the ivory, cause screw Tarzan’s wishes now that he’s dead, but because karma is a bitch the safari soon encounter a local tribe known as the Men Who Eat Lions, and Jane is forced to take charge as she tells the men to get their guns ready and make a run for the rocks.
Jane, Holt, Arlington and a couple of the surviving bearers make it to the rocks, but the box of ammunition is dropped, and without it, they have no chance of holding off the angry natives. While Holt and Arlington argue who should make a run for the ammunition box, Saidi (Nathan Curry), the Head Bearer, makes a break for the box but he is captured. The Men Who Eat Lions start blowing horns that imitate the call of a lion, and they tie poor Saidi to a tree as bait and then in a surprising turn of heroism Holt races out into the open – firing at the natives – in an attempt to rescue Saidi, but sadly he catches a spear for his troubles and then is mauled to death by the arriving lions.
What is shocking is that Arlington himself is shortly taken out by a lion, so we never get Tarzan’s revenge for the whole attempted murder thing, and on an even cooler note Tarzan never even tells Jane about Arlington’s action, he lets her go on thinking her people were all decent and good, and not backstabbing bastards, which speaks tons to his character, more than a dozen jungle fights would. Of course, the movie itself ends with an amazing jungle fight as Tarzan, who was nursed to health by Cheeta, and his ape friends arrive to battle the Men Who Eat Lions.
The elephants show up and stomp and toss the feline menace around, and the day is saved. Or more accurately Jane is saved, everyone from that safari – all two hundred bearers and the two white idiots – are dead. The elephants pick up all the dropped ivory, and the movie ends as the group heads off to return the sacred ivory to the elephant graveyard.
This was a fantastic movie, with characters consisting of complex and multiple motivations, and neither Harry Holt nor Martin Arlington are the typical “Big White Hunters” that you get in most jungle adventures, they are shown to be callous, duplicitous and cruel, but also noble and self-sacrificing. These are not traits one is accustomed to seeing in these kinds of films, and this is what makes Tarzan and His Mate possibly the best of the Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan films. The story is well-plotted, the action is fantastic, and Jane actually gets some cool stuff to do.
The film began under the direction of Cedric Gibbons, but the studio was not happy with how the schedule and budget were going and so he was replaced by Jack Conway, though Maureen O’Sullivan recalls the actual direction was carried out by James C. McKay, who was hired only as the animal director, and with that kind of mess behind the scenes it truly is surprising as to how well it all turned out.
Trivia Note: Indian Elephants are easier to train than African Elephants, so they were used for the Tarzan films, but they have noticeably smaller ears than their African cousins so large fake ears were attached.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
Tarzan and His Mate (1934)
The second of the Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan films is my favorite, and not just because of the nude swimming sequence. A fun action epic with characters showing shades of grey amongst the rousing action.