Tarzan and the Mermaids would be Johnny Weissmuller’s twelfth and last outing as Edgar Rice Burroughs legendary Ape Man. Producer Sol Lesser, feeling that Boy had grown too old for the part of a Jungle Boy, had given Johnny Sheffield the boot after Tarzan and the Huntress, and he also moved the production to Mexico giving the film a very Latin American feel.
The movie opens with a narrator guiding us through the world of Tarzan’s Africa until we stop at the forbidden island of Aquatania, “There dwells a cult of strange people, known as Aquatigans.” We are told they are a hardy people, living on the bounty of the sea, and happy in the enjoyment of their exotic existence. When they aren’t basking in the sun, fishing or swimming, they are diving for pearls that they give freely to their god Balu. The never-ending narration continues with the telling of the legend of Balu, “Many years ago, strangers came, destroyed their ruler, and robbed them of their pearls. Their conqueror ordained himself a god, dwelt in a temple on an island, which he declared taboo, and interrupted his will to the people through a cohort he named the High Priest.”
This con is being run by an unscrupulous trader by the name of Varga (Fernando Wagner) and his partner and fake High Priest, Palanth (George Zucco). Their scam is a pretty good one, Varga dresses up in the mask and robes of this god Balu and Palanth “interrupts” the will of the god, and of course, the will of Balu usually involves the procuring of more pearls which Varga will then smuggle out of the country. Like I said it’s a pretty decent swindle, one easily pulled off considering they are fooling a bunch of superstitious idiots that are cut off from the outside world. Unfortunately, neither Varga nor Palanth had read Rudyard Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would Be King or else they could have avoided their one big mistake, and that would be telling the Aquatigans that Balu wishes the fair maiden Mara (Linda Christian) as his bride.
The problem with this is that they chose, of all the pretty maidens on this island, the one who doesn’t believe Balu is a god, and who is in love with someone else. Varga is so hung up on Mara that he even banished her boyfriend Tiko (Gustavo Rojo) to the outside world. Once again thinking with the little head completely messes up a perfectly good scam, and when Mara makes a break for it during the wedding ceremony everything starts to go to shit. Palanth orders a search party to go out and bring her back because of Varga’s penis…I mean Balu’s will demands it. Mara escapes to the outside world but before she can locate her beloved Tiko she finds herself in Tarzan’s net. She panics and tries to escape Tarzan, swimming madly away, and almost drowns in the attempt. Why Tarzan felt the need to chase after some random girl to the point of her passing out from exhaustion is not made clear, but it does help move the plot along. Tarzan brings the unconscious woman back to the treehouse and a strangely understanding Jane (Brenda Joyce).
Tarzan and Jane befriend Mara who then gives Jane a large flawless black pearl worth a small fortune, but our heroes do not like to accept gifts so they decide it’d be best to have the pearl taken to the commissioner (Edward Ashley) in Nyaga, where it could be used to fund the construction of a school or hospital. The person given the job of delivering the pearl to Nyaga is Benji (John Laurenz), a Latin American singing postal carrier who had brought a message to Jane and Tarzan from Boy who are told is getting schooled back in England. The calypso singing lothario Benji character is one of the big tip-offs that this film was shot mostly in Mexico as he and most of the cast are Latin American, and the terrain looks nothing like Africa.
Eventually, the Aquatigan task force catches up to Mara, and after a brief struggle, she is captured and taken back to Aquatania. Tarzan is able to track the abductors all the way back to Aquatania, and after a little snooping around has figured out the whole “False God” con going on. Meanwhile, Benji returns to the treehouse with the British Inspector-General (Matthew Boulton) and then when Tiko shows up they all decide to head to Aquatania. So Jane, a calypso singer, an inspector, and a love-sick Aquatigan, all completely unarmed, make their way to Aquatania where they are immediately captured.
The prisoners are taken before Palanth but before they can be sentenced to death Balu strides in, much to Palanth’s surprise as Varga was off running the Nyaga trading post end of the operation and so couldn’t possibly be in the costume. Much to Palanth’s consternation Balu indicates that the prisoners should all be set free, including Mara. Palanth learns that it was Tarzan posing as the god and confronts the ape-man, “If my people knew anyone posed as Balu, they would destroy him.” Tarzan counters with, “If people know Balu a man, they destroy you.” Check and mate. It’s great when the series remembers that Tarzan is a smart and canny foe and not one to be screwed with. As often is the case in this series just when my faith is restored in the character something monumentally stupid will happen. In this case, it’s the idiotic decision for everyone to stay in Aquatania for partying and aquatic sporting events. Have none of these bozos heard the term “Getting out when the getting’s good.” Neither the villains nor the heroes have any sense of when it’s best to cut and run.
Back in Nyaga the commissioner consults with the local pearl expert who unfortunately just happens to be Varga. Realizing things must be going bad back in Aquatania Varga and his goons rush back, sneak in and retrieve the Balu costume, and through Palanth, orders that the intruders be killed. Tarzan is able to fight his way passed a large octopus, sneaks up behind Varga to rip off the mask and gives us one of the biggest anti-climactic endings in the franchise’s history. Once their god is revealed to be just a man the Aquatigan’s turn on Palanth, tearing him apart, and then Tarzan punches out Varga, sending the villain to his deaths on the rocks below.
Director Robert Florey doesn’t bring much to the party with this outing; much of its short running time is wasted on lame song numbers and very little action. The movie’s conclusion happens so abruptly that one wonders if they had just run out of money or maybe someone with a stopwatch was there to ensure that the film did not exceed 77 minutes. Someone should have told screenwriter Carroll Young that if you are going to rip off Kipling you shouldn’t have just skimmed it when reading the original. In all fairness, Kipling never thought to put in an octopus fight.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948)
Movie Rank - 5/10
Aside from a fun octopus fight this last Weissmuller Tarzan film was a bit of a disappointment, and a sad note to end his twelve picture run on.