Lex Barker Tackles Tarzan … Part 1
When Johnny Weissmuller retired from his loin cloth duties as the Lord of the Apes, producer Sol Lesser and RKO studios thought it best to continue on by hiring the relatively unknown Lex Barker to take over with the faithful Cheetah the Chimp at his side. Barker would star in five films released at one per year beginning with 1949’s Tarzan’s Magic Fountain before retiring from the role and passing his knife on to the muscle bound Gordon Scott (Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure).
Having found his way back to Hollywood after serving in WW2, Barker seemed stymied at making a career until Weissmuller’s moving on to the Jungle Jim series. After a supposedly long search for a new Tarzan, Lesser landed on Barker and the RKO “B” unit was once again on the studio backlot giving Cheetah plenty of opportunities to play scene stealer with his new co star.
Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949)
Suitably the very first words uttered on camera by the man replacing the screens most memorable Tarzan were indeed, “Umgawa.” Kicking this jungle sized plot into action is Cheetah finding a cigarette case belonging to a woman missing for twenty years after her plane crashed in the dense lands of Africa. Soon after, Barker and Brenda Joyce returning to the series as Jane find more wreckage and artifacts. Into the story come the customary villains played by Albert Dekker and Charles Drake. There’s a reward on the missing woman and when they find out she’s alive and well living in a secret land with rejuvenating waters that keeps one young, they fully intend to exploit the opportunity for personal gain.
The woman is played by Evelyn Ankers and when she returns to civilization the aging process begins to rapidly speed up. After reuniting with her husband, Alan Napier, the pair seek the help of Barker’s Tarzan in returning to the mystical mountain top village where strangers are not welcome. Tarzan once again refuses to help as he knows that Dekker and Drake who have joined in on the safari want nothing more than to profit by the expedition. Jane is taken in and against Tarzan’s wish leads them until trouble surfaces forcing the Ape Man to swoop in and save the day. “Jane know better next time.”
The ending will leave few surprises for those who know the familiar formula of the Jungle Man’s adventures.
This edition in the series was scripted by Curt Siodmak and directed by Lee Sholem. A fountain of youth idea shouldn’t be surprising coming from the pen of Siodmak. A man who had already given cinema goers all kinds of other worldly themes thanks to his association with the Universal Monsters series having written The Wolf Man and Son of Dracula among others. Sholem was making his directorial debut with this entry and would also helm the second Barker title before moving on to other projects including the Jungle Jim series with Johnny Weissmuller.
Silly and pedestrian with a good cast of supporting players, there are still plenty of laughs to be had with the always entertaining Cheetah that includes a gag involving a vial of the Magic Water that is sure to turn back time.
Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950)
Everything appears peaceful down by the riverside as Tarzan, Jane and Cheetah enjoy an afternoon Elephant ride. That is until the all too familiar face of Anthony Caruso is seen peering thru the jungle bush at the lovely ladies washing laundry along the river bank. Screams and the beat of drums ensue when a lovely maiden disappears. Tarzan the tracker goes into immediate action and when Jane is grabbed next by Caruso and his minions, the tension is only enhanced. A brief skirmish between Barker’s Lord of the Jungle and Caruso frees Jane but leaves Caruso with a nasty gash on his cheek from the jungle man’s knife.
With Caruso and his supporters making off by canoe with their one hostage, Jane discovers that the one fighter Caruso left behind is stricken with a plague. Imploring Tarzan to go to the local village, he brings back the local Doctor, Arthur Shields who luckily has an antidote to the illness. While in the village, the script allows for some comical routines involving Cheetah and Robert Alda’s bottle of Schnapps as well as the supposedly brave Tarzan fearing for his life when Shields administers a needle of the formula to Lord Greystoke’s arm. Viewers take note of nurse Denise Darcel who clearly sets her sights on the scantily clad Tarzan. Jane portrayed this time out by Vanessa Brown surely has a cat fight on her hands.
A safari is in order as Tarzan aims to free the slave girls that have been disappearing from local tribes and Shields wants to trace the source of the plague to Caruso’s mountain top home of temples and a King pining for his lost Queen and fearing the imminent death of his young son. Caruso won’t easily forget the scar he now bears on his face and with his men doubles back and takes both Jane and Darcel hostage. Cheetah and his Master will have to go into stealth mode to work their way through the jungles including coming into contact with a vicious group of natives that are so decked out in leaves and moss, I thought I’d wandered in to a viewing of Toho’s Attack of the Mushroom People.
Enough about the plot. A plague infested kingdom, an antidote, hostages, Anthony Caruso whispering in the King’s ear and Lex Barker all rolled into one. Figure it out?
This second feature with Barker in the loin cloth offers a whole lot more action and adventure than the first outing and though it’s all of a comic book nature, it plays fine. Even if Caruso and his men look to be wearing those little hats that the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz were sporting. Plenty of customary stock footage abounds including marauding elephants, a true staple of the series and another of those lost kingdoms that Tarzan always seems to know about.
Tarzan’s Peril (1951)
For the third Lex Barker outing, a couple of changes took place. Stepping in to the director’s chair was Byron (War of the Worlds) Haskin and the ever revolving character of Jane was enacted this time by Virginia Huston. When she’s introduced in the film, I thought Tarzan had swing into the home of Barbara Billingsley for a couple of seconds the way she doted on him. Thought she might even pull out a set of golf clubs, all washed and scrubbed.
The best thing going for this third Lex Barker adventure is the fact that we have another first rate actor portraying the villain. It’s George Macready who is accompanied by another shady character actor, Douglas Fowley. Buried in this script I think it’s easy to see that producer Sol Lesser was hoping for an above average Tarzan film. Injecting some location footage into the opening scenes, Dorothy Dandridge portrays a peaceful village Queen whose tribe rejects warfare and she the overtures of a rival vicious King. Alan Napier returns to the series as a soon to be retired policeman of sorts who aims to keep gunrunners and slavers out of Africa. He’s a friend to Tarzan and it’s thanks to them that the character of Macready has been jailed. News travels fast by drums in the jungle when the nefarious Macready escapes and plans to smuggle guns to Dandridge’s competition for a fortune in uncut diamonds. Perhaps even a bit of revenge if he can time it right as it’s the testimony of Huston’s Jane that sealed his fate in the courtroom.
This should have been the best film of the Barker series had it stuck to playing the film straight as a High Noon(ish) styled story. The filmmakers wisely set up the plot by not even introducing Barker’s Tarzan until the 16 minute mark. Macready makes for one hell of a vicious antagonist to Tarzan’s ruling of the jungle. Somehow, items like giant rubber Venus Flytraps worked their way into the adventure whilst Tarzan is trying to scale the jungle and save Miss Dorothy’s tribe from the war mongering group that Macready has armed and set against them.
There’s a larger canvas at hand here but perhaps playing it safe and marketing the film to it’s intended audience was the safest play. To a certain degree the idea of this film with Macready having an old score to settle with Tarzan is reworked in one of the best of the series, the previously mentioned Gordon Scott actioner, Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.
Director Haskin would go on to direct another jungle adventure that far exceeded the excitement of this one, 1953’s The Naked Jungle. The story of Leiningen Vs. The Ants starring Charlton Heston who could easily have played the Jungle Man at this time had they been thinking of an “A” budget variation of the story. After all, he sure wasn’t scared to wear the loin cloth in 1968 and drag around his own version of Jane in the sexy form of Linda Harrison. You know the movie. Yes it’s time for a Heston Cameo.
Two more with plenty of quotes and trivia to follow in Barker as Tarzan Part 2.