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Sunday, 6 April 2008

Tarzan the Silent

A heads-up regarding the dirt-cheap DVDs available from Alpha Video, a company whose output I can best describe as 'glorious tat'; a lot of public domain stuff and many titles that would be below most commercial distributors' radar, but I wish they'd been around when my dad was alive so I could have bought him their Ken Maynard westerns.

I came across their product when a Google search for something else threw up a couple of Tarzan titles that I didn't even know existed in any available form... the silent Tarzan and the Golden Lion with James Pierce, and the silent/sound serial Tarzan the Tiger with Frank Merrill. I ordered both through Amazon for what felt like small change, and had low expectations.

But when I watched Tarzan and the Golden Lion, I was pleasantly surprised... it follows the book and has an authentic Burroughsian feel. The production is far more lavish than many a later Tarzan and Pierce makes a decent hero, although his legs are a bit comically skinny for the role. Some nice sets, well shot, although Pierce later complained that poor production and direction wrecked his chances of a film career. The disc quality is decent enough considering what I was expecting. Apparently the only surviving print was discovered in Germany; Alpha appear to have added their own English titles, distressed to match the age of the film. The titles get a few of the details wrong... Jad Bal Ja the lion becomes Jab, Tarzan acquires a sister... but that's a quibble at the price.

Pierce later married Joan Burroughs and became ERB's son-in-law, and the pair played Tarzan and Jane on the radio. Pierce and Joan, I mean, not... oh, you know what I'm saying.

The Frank Merrill title is more of a curiosity and less of a pleasure than Tarzan and the Golden Lion, I have to say. It's a 15-part serial based on Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar , made two years after the introduction of sound and here carrying its original music-and-effects track. On the value side, you get all fifteen chapters. Merrill makes a credible-looking jungle lord most of the time and, as with Pierce's portrayal, it's the articulate, cultured Tarzan of Burroughs' imagination.

On the downside, I'm never gonna make it through all fifteen episodes - the story isn't up to much and the storytelling is barely coherent and involves a lot of loooooong dialogue-bearing title cards. Maybe it's just the way it seemed to me, but it felt as if they took up a full third of the running time.

The added sound effects, the producers' answer to the coming of sound, give us Tarzan's first screen jungle call. It sounds like a man with hemorrhoids passing a stool full of broken peanuts. The general level of the production is such that you don't even wince at the sight of tigers roaming around Africa... by then you've pretty much come to expect it. Which makes it all the more surprising that Pierce's movie was panned the way it was, and Merrill's two serials were praised as much as they were.

What is worth remarking on is the care that Alpha Home Entertainment take over these bargain-bin releases. We're not talking Criterion Collection, here, but they take what they've got and present it as well as they can. They're great for the money if you've an interest in the subjects.

4 comments:

Lucy said...

I recall watching a Tarzan movie when I was a wee girl and Tarzan's loin cloth rode up and he was wearing red pants. My first ever boyf wore some just like them & the first time I saw him getting undressed and I started laughing uncontrollably... Only prob was, he thought I was laughing at the size of his member and ran off: never saw him again. Hope he didn't jump ofrf a bridge or anything, it was all a misunderstanding!!

Lucy said...

Oh just remembered before I got sidetracked by pants: I'm attempting to write a novel and finding it hard to switch my screenwriter's brain off. Do you have any tips on how to go from one medium to the other pls?

Stephen Gallagher said...

That's probably worth a blog post to itself if I can wrap my head around it, Crusoe permitting. Geek that I am, I'm currently trying to work out which Tarzan movie would have been made in colour but with poor enough production values to leave his red knicker shot in...

Gail Renard said...

Perhaps it was a Tarzanic version of Shindler's List.