‘Tarzan and His Mate’ — the ‘Avatar’ of its time?

Oct. 14, 2010 | 6:15 p.m.


tarzan and his mate Tarzan and His Mate    the Avatar of its time?

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in "Tarzan and his Mate"


As the “voice” of R2-D2 and Wall-E, Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt might be the world’s foremost expert on movie robots, but when it comes to his own cinematic passions, his heart lies in the jungle. His favorite film of all time? “Tarzan and His Mate,” the 1934 film starring Johnny Weissmuller as Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ singular vine swinger. “I realized about 25 or 30 years ago that this film always gets to me right in the heart,” Burtt said. “I love adventure movies and it combines, of course, action and adventure with a really romantic story between Tarzan and Jane and at the end of the movie it all comes together as they give their calls to each other and they ride off on an elephant together. There’s something basic about it.”

A new print of “Tarzan and His Mate” will screen Saturday at the Linwood Dunn Theater, part of a week-long Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ tribute titled “Me Tarzan, You Technology: The Magic of Tarzan in the Movies,” and Burtt and Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Craig Barron (“X-Men,” The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) will be on hand to explore the making of that film. On Oct. 24, the pair will host a screening of 1939’s “Tarzan Finds a Son!”

The sequel to 1932’s “Tarzan the Ape Man,” “Tarzan and His Mate” sees Weissmuller’s hero and his lady love Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) encountering her old flame (Neil Hamilton), who has returned to Africa on an ivory expedition to elephant burial grounds — but also to convince Jane to return to civilization. The new print from the Academy Film Archive will feature a nude swimming sequence that was excised from the original cut because it was considered too racy.

“Tarzan Finds a Son!” sees Tarzan and Jane rescuing a baby — the only survivor of a plane crash — and raising him as their own. John Sheffield plays Boy. Though MGM’s “Tarzan” films from the 1930s and ’40s might seem primitive today, they displayed incredible technological achievement in their era, Burtt said. Making a comparable film today would be exorbitant, he said. “It would be impossible to do a film like that today with all the animal work and stunt work,” he said. “They are a one-of-a-kind in film history.”

34 poster Tarzan and His Mate    the Avatar of its time?Specifically, ‘Tarzan and His Mate” and 1933’s “King Kong” set the template for a more advanced use of sound to support an action-adventure movie, according to Burtt. “One of the things that distinguishes ‘Tarzan and His Mate’ is that there is no score for the film. There is a musical main title and I think a musical note at the end where it says ‘The End,’ but they decided to have this movie supported with dialogue and sound effects.”

Tarzan, though more articulate in “Mate” than in the first film, still is a man of few words. “There’s not much conversation with Jane. So you have scenes of pantomime and lots of supporting sound effects from the apes — Cheeta has this wonderful voice completely created by cutting together chimpanzee sounds. That is one of the things that I found fascinating about the movie. There’s a great deal of ambience of the jungle and off-screen native drums and obviously animal sounds.”

All of those sounds were recorded for the 1931 MGM blockbuster “Trader Horn,” which was shot on location in Africa. “ ‘Trader Horn’ was one of the first films to send a crew out on location to such a distant place,” Burtt said. “Out of that they came back with many rolls of film with sound on them and that gave MGM a library to start with. They made good use of it with ‘Tarzan’ films. All of these things gave Tarzan more credibility.”

Barron also will show how the films used rear projection and matte paintings to give audiences the illusion they were on location in Africa instead of a Culver City back lot and soundstages. (Just as with the sound, a lot of the stock footage seen in the early “Tarzan” films was also from “Trader Horn.”) One secret Burtt won’t discuss is how Tarzan’s famous yell was created. “You won’t find out until Oct. 16,” he said, laughing.

— Susan King


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2 Responses to ‘Tarzan and His Mate’ — the ‘Avatar’ of its time?

  1. ElleOdom says:

    I would get the TV Guide each month and search for the Johnny Weissmuller/ Maureen O' Sullivan Tarzan films on TCM when I was a child. I love these films. They are basic and entertaining in the best way that films can be. As with any films of that era, sex and race based stereotyped are evident in character portrayals; but, even in viewing these films with a 21st century-sensibility, they are entertaining adventures and the best of escapism that rival, or surpass, anything of today.

  2. TheMom51 says:

    I remember reading an article that said Johnny Weissmuller developed the Tarzan yell himself…a version of yodeling. I have yet to hear a perfect imitation of it after all these years!

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