At the Redford Theatre’s Feb. 1, 2008 screening of Tarzan and His Mate, it was hard to imagine what might have astonished the crowd the most.
Was it the sexiness of Maureen O’Sullivan and her relationship with Tarzan? Or the stunning violence that probably took as many lives as the recent Rambo movie?
Or how about the amazing acrobatics of Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller) as he swung through the jungle with the greatest of ease (except for when he was being shot at or chased by a wild animal).
Like many in this Friday night crowd, I was expecting mostly some “Me Tarzan, you Jane” kind of fun and games.
But it turned into an evening when many people got a reminder why enforcement of the Production Code was increased in 1934 (the year Tarzan and His Mate was released). And it also showed the amazing creativity of 1930s studios in entertaining Great Depression-era audiences.
Shelter from the Snow
The Friday night crowd had a chance to relax from the snowstorm that had closed many schools and businesses. Now the roads were plowed, and we could shed the cares of the workweek, get out of the house, and start our weekend.
It was a typically fun Redford evening. Organist Jennifer Candea’s selection of bluesy, subdued songs (like “All of Me”) seemed to perfectly fit the audience’s mood.
At intermission, I wandered through the outer lobby, taking in the different sights. People lined up at the 50/50 raffle counter for a chance to, as stage announcer Ken Collier says, “Go home with more money than they came in with.” Several Redford volunteers had friendly visits with some of the moviegoers.
Other people looked through the collection of old record albums, while others looked at displays for upcoming events like the Valentine’s Day presentation of Meet Me in St. Louis on Feb. 15-16, and the Redford’s 80th birthday celebration on April 19.
As usual, several moviegoers were writing down the names of movies they would like to see, to put in the organ-shaped suggestion box. At the end of intermission, on stage, Ken Collier announced upcoming movies, with the strongest applause coming for the March 28-29 showing of The Blues Brothers (1980).
In my research for the Looking Back feature of this web site, I’ve read a lot about the concerns that many moviegoers had in the early 1930s about the content of movies. It was less than 10 years since film began both talking and showing, and the full impact of motion pictures made many people wonder about the effect of movies on society, particularly children. People also wondered how they could decide what to see, to avoid certain kinds of content.
In Ann Arbor, the Michigan Theatre held Saturday morning movies for children, with the features selected by a local school committee. Ann Arbor and Detroit newspapers tried to tell readers what movies were most suited for children, young people, and adults.
As I read about these concerns, they reminded me of the safeguards that people use today to control what is exposed to them and the people for whom they are responsible. Internet controls. Television ratings. Movie content web sites like www.screenit.com.
As I watched Tarzan and His Mate, I knew that only a year later, Jane would be dressed more modestly. That you wouldn’t see gruesomely murdered dead bodies hanging from trees. And that, in a development that people still debate, Hollywood’s Golden Age of children’s movies, literary adaptations, and other classics was just beginning.
In some ways, the debate about where to draw the line with content is similar to the clash of cultures that helped make Tarzan and His Mate so interesting. On screen was one of the classic images of Hollywood—Johnny Weismuller, one of the sports stars of 1920s, giving out the well-known Tarzan yell.
Weismuller’s mastery of jungle culture included a deft handling of friend and foe in both the animal and human worlds. And the English explorers who had come to take ivory home gained a new respect for Tarzan, Jane, and their companions before, in a stunning scene, these explorers met a cruel fate.
What I think I’ll remember most from Tarzan and His Mate are the different animals, including the obviously fake ones. Whoever trained animals for this film, and worked with them in battle scenes, earned every penny they were paid.
And most memorable was an elephant quietly laying down in a graveyard of skeletons, preparing itself for death. At the end of movie, the final, quiet, distant image of Tarzan and Jane leading a caravan of elephants lifted the movie to a higher level than just entertainment.
Copyright © 2008 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.