Tarzan movies were very popular on the afternoon movie that started at 4:00 on channel 2. It was amazing just how far black and white film could deliver the impact of this magnificent jungle hero. I think that playing Tarzan and playing Army were pretty much neck and neck as far as popularity went. The only difference with playing Tarzan was that it was something you pretty much had to do alone. Unlike Army, Tarzan didn't have any fellow soldiers. He was all alone. And let's face it, nobody wanted to play the british big game hunters or the natives. Why? Because both of those factions usually ended up dead. The natives usually got trampled by elephant herds or shot by the british hunters, and the hunters usually bought it by way of quicksand, poison darts, getting mauled by lions, or by getting split apart on trees.
Remember that horrible crossed-tree death torture? The one where the natives took two trees, bent them over with vines, then staked out their victims on opposite trunks and cut the vines? The trees would them tear them in half. That one gave me the creeps for nearly a lifetime. Remember also the Gobonis? They were the fierce tribe that everyone was terrified of.
Tarzan spoke two languages: English and something else. He had some great words, but the one he used the most was "Ongawa". That must have been like the "que" in Spanish, being a catch-all word meaning several different things. We kids understood him perfectly. Tarzan was bilingual. "Cheetah! Ongawa! Pay-say, pay-say!!" That one meant for Cheetah to hurry. I think Tarzan could've just pointed at whatever he wanted, and throw out an "ongawa", and he would be completely understood. Tarzan did everything by tone of voice, and most everything was a command. Though he does wake up his new wife Jane with a nice cup of jungle juice served in a hollowed out coconut, he does also command her with: "Swim!" Tarzan's second language is English, but he did it so well. "Tarzan happy. Jane happy. Boy happy. Ongawa, ongawa." See? Bilingual.
Tarzan was doing pretty good for himself as a jungle bachelor. He had his apes, his lions, his elephants and a few natives he could hang out with. So, it was only natural that a woman had to come along and spoil all the great jungle adventure. But surprise, surprise. She didn't spoil anything. What a shocker that to me, as an adventure-loving kid, Jane was just alright!
First of all, Jane was independent, pretty much fearless, gorgeous (a jungle hero needs gorgeous), resourceful, had her own knife and knew how to use it, and had her own yell whenever she was in trouble. Jane was a proper lady who'd decided to go on a vision quest to find her true self by staying behind with her beloved Tarzan. That's right folks, Jane gave up all the glitz and glam to stand by her man.
Let's take a look at the evolution of Jane before the Motion Picture Standards Asscociation's Legion of Decency censored her curves. The movie "Tarzan and His Mate" displayed more of Jane than most American mothers wanted their impressionable young sons to be watching on afternoon TV screens. Even as a kid, I remember thinking that I really hadn't seen too many jungle gals with this much skin showing. Thankfully, my mom was bored silly with Tarzan and wouldn't go near the TV when it was on, so I had pretty much free rein to watch whatever I wanted. However, after the release of 1934's "Tarzan and His Mate", the Motion Picture industry took the hint, and re-designed Jane's outfit (for the worst), making it look more like a one-piece bathing suit with short sleeves. Jane was now up to code.
Maureen O'Sullivan herself described the effect of her costume in a recent interview: "It caused such a furor; the letters came in, and so it added up to like thousands of women objecting to my costume, and I think that's one of the things that started the legion of decency." Bah-humbug.
Tarzan inspired all of us guys on the block to swing! And by swing, I mean any type of "vine" substance we could find, we tried to make swinging through a jungle work. Of course it never did. The closest I ever came was swinging on the ropes in our school gym which I immediately got in trouble for. Ropes were meant for climbing, not swinging. My best friend Jim had two massive evergreens in his front yard like pillars. The bases were smothered by ivy. I remember us trying to make vines out of the ivy to swing on, which, by the way, were strong enough to hold us, but they didn't go anywhere. Oh well, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The Tarzan Family Tree The only thing I really didn't care for in Tarzan movies was "Boy." I always thought of him as more of a distraction, but like everything else in the Tarz movies, you get used to it. They did make a great family though. The family that plays together stays together. The incredible underwater swimming scenes were the best. My favorite was in "Tarzan Finds a Son" Even as jungle entertainment, I was always sure that some sort of family dynamic was being taught using the vehicle of Tarzan films.