Tarzan and Jane having a son was certainly inevitable, Edgar Rice Burroughs introduced Jack Clayton the Son of Tarzan back in 1915, but for the movies, MGM decided they couldn’t have the kid be a blood relation, as Jane and Tarzan were not legally married. Tarzan does call Jane his wife numerous times, but I guess common law wasn’t something the morality leagues were going to accept, and so Tarzan had to literally find a son in this movie.
The movie opens with a loving couple and their baby flying over the jungles of Africa when their plane suddenly develops engine problems and it crashes. Their little baby is the only survivor of the crash and is quickly rescued from prowling hyenas by a group of chimpanzees. Cheeta, everyone’s favourite comic relief chimp, chases off the apes that rescued the baby, and he brings the boy home to Tarzan. I’m guessing Cheeta wanted to take credit for the rescue, or something, but it’s the kind of asshole thing that chimp would do.
Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) is thrilled with the idea of having a baby, without the hassle of labour pains or stretch marks being a huge bonus, and so they decide to adopt him and not tell anyone where he came from. Now I can totally see Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) going with the “finders keepers” morality here, but not Jane, sure we get some lip service from her on how when they went to the crash site and discovered that the Zambeles, a local head-shrinking tribe, had taken the bodies of the men, and any clue as to the boy’s identity was lost. Yet at no point does Jane suggest taking the baby to the nearest trading post and notifying the authorities of the crash or its infant survivor. Jane’s decision-making processes are questionable throughout this film, and after having the child for a week she decides they really need to give him a name, and after pooh-poohing Tarzan’s first suggestion of “Elephant” she agrees with his naming of the child…Boy. I’m sorry, but even in the male-dominated sexist era of the late 1930s, no woman was going to allow a child to be named Boy.
I’ve mentioned in past reviews that Jane’s failure to even try and improve Tarzan’s language skills makes little to no sense, they’re in the jungle together for years, and yet he can still barely speak broken English, and now compounded by a five-year time jump, where we meet Boy – now older and swinging in the trees with good ole dad – and he can’t speak English any better than Tarzan. So not only did Jane cave in on giving their kid an idiotic name but for some reason, she also decided that teaching the child her native language was a waste of time. You’d think she’d want to have at least one other person in the neighbourhood capable of carrying on an intelligent conversation, one that doesn’t include the word ungawa.
A shadow falls on their idyllic life in the form of another safari, only this one isn’t looking for the elephant’s graveyard, these are relatives Boy, who looking for survivors of the crash. Why it took the family this long to start looking for the plane crash is never really explained, but it turns out that Richard Lancing, Boy’s real father, was the favourite nephew of Lord Greystoke, and now Boy (Johnny Sheffield) is worth millions.
Note: In the books, we know that Tarzan’s real name is John Clayton the Viscount Greystoke, but as this movie series never gave us an origin story for Tarzan the writers for some bizarre reason decided to use Tarzan’s real name for his adopted son’s backstory.
The search party consists of Sir Thomas Lancing (Henry Stephenson), Austin Lancing (Ian Hunter), his wife Mrs. Lancing (Frieda Inescort), and Mister Sande (Henry Wilcoxon), who is in charge of the search. They are a bit put out when Tarzan drops in, smashes their guns and tosses Austin around, but then Jane shows up and explains that this is due to Tarzan’s distrust of guns. Once things settle down the Lancings state that they would really like Tarzan and Jane’s help in finding answers.
Jane invites them back to their treehouse for a meal, and there she explains to them how they found the plane after the Zambeles had carried off the bodies of the men, and how she and Tarzan buried the mother with her child. Jane’s quick fabrication, to cover up Boy’s true identity, is so full of tense fear that it’s shocking that no one immediately comes to the conclusion she is lying. Austin and his wife fail to cover their excitement at the news that the inheritance is now theirs to split three ways, but Sir Thomas is more interested in the truth than his share of the inheritance. He recognizes Richard’s eyes and chin when he looks at Boy, and when he later confronts the rest of his group they admit that they to believe Boy to be the lost child they are looking for. The younger Lancings suggest leaving Boy and taking the inheritance, but when Sir Thomas objects, they say they will take him back as legal guardians, thus they would still control the inheritance. Sir Thomas informs the two that he will report on their nefarious motives the minute they get back home because he is an idiot.
Tarzan overhears their plans to surround the treehouse with guns and abduct Boy, so he sneaks in at night, steals all their guns, and drops them into a deep grotto. When Jane finds out about this she has a heart-to-heart talk with Mrs. Lancing, and the two discuss what would really be best for Boy. Back in London he would have a proper education, would be a powerful member of society, oh, and he wouldn’t be almost killed on a daily basis by every creature in the jungle. This last point is the key one that swings Jane over to their side, and can’t say that I blame her, as just in the last two days Boy had almost been eaten by a lion because he was playing with its young, was nearly trampled by a raging rhino, and was menaced by a whole bunch of angry spiders.
Oh right, he survived because he has Tarzan backing him up, the most awesome dad in the world. I guess Jane feels that maybe one day Tarzan won’t be fast enough to rescue the idiot kid in time, so she tricks Tarzan into going down into the grotto to retrieve the guns, and then she cuts the vine that would allow him to climb back out. This betrayal seems really out of character for Jane, one minute she’s lying to keep Boy and then in the next moment, she’s pulling a fast one on Tarzan just so she can hand the kid over to these assholes. And I must say, stealing a guy’s kid has to be considered grounds for divorce, even in the jungle. On the march back to the edge of the Mutia Escarpment, Sir Thomas is able to warn her about his relative’s unethical intentions, and when he tries to sneak off to get Tarzan out of the grotto, he gets shot in the back. The Lancings then march Jane and Boy right into Zambele territory where they are all captured.
The film has a rather interesting and odd ending, Jane tells Boy to make a break for a small hole in the wall of the Zambele village, and go find Tarzan, but when the kid makes a dash for the hole Jane follows him to provide cover, and she catches a spear in the back. This noble sacrifice was to redeem her for her betrayal of Tarzan, but when preview audiences saw Jane die they had very negative reactions, so an extra scene was filmed with her surviving the injury.
Boy, with the help of the apes and elephants, is able to get Tarzan out of the grotto, and faster than you can say “Elephant Stampede!” Tarzan and company crash into the Zambele village to rescue Jane. When Tarzan finds Jane he is unaware that she is hurt, and stares at her with a look of fury because of her betrayal, but she then gives him a very touching speech, “Tarzan, before I go please listen. I know now how right you are. Boy belongs here with you. Don’t ever let him go.” Tarzan turns his back on her and starts to walk away, she then calls out, “Tarzan, please try to forgive me. Later on, you’ll know that I…” and then she collapses. Tarzan rushes to her side and discovers she is bleeding. This is a great scene, and Maureen O’Sullivan’s performance is heart-wrenchingly awesome, and then it’s ruined by Tarzan yelling, “Jane not go! Jane not die!” and that apparently heals her wound, as she is now fine.
The reason behind Jane’s intended death was because Maureen O’Sullivan had grown tired of the part, and really who could blame her, and MGM had intended the part of Boy to be a substitute for Jane. Unfortunately for the studio, the fan reactions to her death were much the same as they were back in 1919 when Burroughs tried to kill off Jane in the book Tarzan the Untamed. Killing off Jane just isn’t done, but her abrupt survival at the end of Tarzan Finds a Son did not change Maureen’s mind about the part, and she eventually left the series after two more instalments.
You can find all my Tarzan movie reviews here: Tarzan at the Movies
Tarazan Finds a Son (1939)
Johnny Weissmuller is a decent Tarzan but it’s Maureen O’Sullivan’s Jane that really raises these pictures above others of the genre, and to this day she is still my favorite Jane.