The Sunday Intertitle: Tarzania

Gorillas looked different in the 20s. That’s evolution for you.

I took a quick shufti at Episode 1 of SON OF TARZAN, on the basis that I’d never seen a silent movie serial apart from Fieuillade. I was glad I did!

Atypically, this not only starts the adventure rolling (Tarzan’s young son, raised as a Greystoke in England with no knowledge of his jungle heritage, is abducted back to the Dark Continent by evildoers) but gives us a whistle-stop summation of the whole mythos, from Tarzan’s birth to his return to claim his inheritance. Since, by chance, we’d just seen most of GREYSTOKE on TV, it was fascinating to compare the two…

There’s something just WRONG about this sentence.

Both, weirdly, deploy the unconvincing contrivance of having Lord G/Mr T meet an ape of his previous acquaintance in London, with much jolly running amuck ensuing. And both are as charmingly unsophisticated as one another, though the serial is notably more efficient and dynamic.

Famously, Robert Towne slaved on his GREYSTOKE script for years, before being forced to sell it. He was so appalled at the alterations made subsequently, that he took his name off it and credited it to his dog, P.H. Vazak, something he always felt bad about afterwards, on behalf of the dog. And by the way, how cool is it that Towne’s dog has initials? I’m going to make damn sure my next cat has initials. Our current one, Tasha, is mononomic, possessing only a title, “the Terrible,” and that’s purely honorary.

Apart from the apes who don’t belong to any recognized species and whose ears wobble about EXACTLY like rubber (how hard would that have been to fix, seriously?), GREYSTOKE has a startling lack of action (a nice Conradian bit with sinister Europeans fizzles out in an expensive conflagration rather than delivering the brutal set-to we were anticipating), but it does have Ralph Richardson’s penultimate perf, and Christopher Lambert is actually very good in it — he’s been looking at, and possibly even reading about, actual apes.

The serial takes itself much less seriously, and so is able to deliver the required entertainments of the genre: animal-punching, unconvincing jungle, and lots and lots of racism. A Tarzan without racism is unthinkable. I was struck by how “Black People,” in the intertitles, warrant capital letters, whereas “white people” do not. This might seem respectful, even a sign of inverse racism… I think probably it’s just a bit of exoticism — and exoticism is racism’s sexy sister.

“Me Tarzan! Hello! And rrraaarrgh!”

10 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Tarzania”

  1. Maybe it’s nostalgia at work, but I’ve never really found GREYSTOKE to be so bad that Towne needed to disown it. A bit pretentious, maybe. It was directed by Hugh CHARIOTS OF FIRE Hudson. But I mean, GREYSTOKE is way better than Towne’s TEQUILA SUNRISE.

  2. Yeah, but we don’t know what his version of the script was like (I think the script was published, but I haven’t read it). I know he wanted the first half to be entirely non-verbal. The film comes close, but doesn’t quite have the nerve.

    More importantly, we don’t know what his version as director would have been like — maybe terrible, but it would’ve been HIS. I’ve been through enough bad rewrites to know the attraction of being able to remove your credit just as a “screw you” to the meddlers.

  3. Well let’s just say that Greystoke was no Creature From the Haunted Sea.

  4. How could it be?

    I’m reminded of a comment by the elderly Cary Grant as he tried to gain entry to an event. The girl on the door looked up from the guest list upon hearing him give his name.

    “You don’t look like Cary Grant.”

    “Yes, well, nobody does.”

  5. Pat Riley Says:

    How bad is it that they dubbed Andie MacDowell’s dialogue, but somehow Lord Greystoke emerged from the jungle with a Beligian accent? I will always remember what is suppoed to be a poignant scene is instead slightly humorous – “he was my father”…..

  6. I suspect interference on that score. Since Jane is written as an American, and Andie MacD’s accent is objectively quite pleasant, she got cast. But then somebody, probably an American, said, “She sounds like a HICK!” and they ran around trying to find the poshest American voice they could get.

    A mash-up of Greystoke and Four Weddings might produce amusing results…

  7. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this bit of trivia, but it was Glenn Close (uncredited, I believe) whose voice was used in place of MacDowell.

  8. And Angela Lansbury dubbed Ingrid Thulin for Minnelli’s ( deliciously insane) The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

  9. Christopher Says:

    I there!..Are you a Go-Rilla from the 1920s?..or are you a common Pongo from Poverty Row?.,come come man! can’t be both..

  10. Yes, I knew about Close… obviously, if you want posh, she’s a good choice, but something more contrasting with the Brits, like Andie Mac’s natural tones, would make perfect sense to me.

    The only thing holding me back from watching more of Son of T is the sad lack of Bull Montana. What were they thinking? If they were thinking, “We don’t need to have Bull Montana as an ape-man,” how wrong they were!

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