I better go get the school nurse! Oh... that’s right, we’re in the jungle...
The Son of Tarzan, from 1920, is a pleasant surprise—even if it is a fifteen-part serial with the necessary cliffhanger ending every half hour or so, and endless artificial crises and padded-out scenes. There is a lot to mock in this film, coming as it did from a Poverty Row studio and being shot on the cheap. How cheap? Check out the Arab Sheikhs with painted-on beards and mustaches, wearing obvious bathrobes. At the same time, though, there is a lot to praise.
If you’ve read all the Edgar Rice Burroughs books, you’ll be pleased to know that this is a pretty faithful adaptation of the novel on which it is based. If you’ve only ever seen the Weissmuller movies, you may be thinking that Son of Tarzan refers to Boy, the kid Tarzan and Jane found and adopted—because of course they never married in the Weissmuller continuum, and therefore (since it was the 1930s) Never Had Sex. Surprise! In the Burroughs books they did marry and produce a real live baby of their own.
The baby grows up into fifteen-year-old Jack Clayton, aptly played by child actor Gordon Griffith. Dad Tarzan has settled down into a stolid existence as a British Lord—is that a toupee we glimpse him wearing?—and Mom Jane just wants to put the whole jungle experience as far behind her as possible. She has ordered young Jack’s tutor to teach him nothing about the jungle whatsoever. What exactly she means by Jungle isn’t specified. No geography lessons about Africa? Or no hints that there are places in the world where people don’t always behave in a civilized manner? Tarzan (referred to throughout the film as “Lord Graystone”) grumbles that this isn’t necessarily a good idea, but Jane wins out. Or thinks she does...
The truth is that young Jack has already figured out that it’s a jungle out there, and he’s eager to learn about it. He loves climbing trees, is fascinated by the great apes, and daydreams constantly about Africa. Some kind of Lamarckism is a work here, combined with a drastic case of ADD and hyperactivity. Meanwhile, bits of Tarzan’s past are about to collide with his future...
In the previous Tarzan novel (and now-lost film) Tarzan battled a couple of villainous Russians, killing one and leaving the other as a prisoner of native villagers. The survivor, Paulovich, manages to escape at last, bringing with him one of Tarzan’s old ape-friends. Akut the ape has been hanging around the beach sadly hoping to glimpse Tarzan returning on a ship, so he goes willingly with the Russian when Paulovich flags down a passing steamer. Back in civilization, Paulovich and Akut go on the stage with a trained animal act.
But we’re not finished with the exposition! We learn that a French Foreign Legion officer, M. Jacot, has made an enemy of Sheikh Amor Ben Khatour. When the Sheikh learns that Jacot has sent for his wife and baby daughter to join him in Africa, he ambushes the travelers, kills Jacot’s wife, and carries off the little girl. Giving her the name Meriem, he raises her as his own, which means nonstop physical and verbal abuse. Meriem copes with it by living in a sort of fantasy world with her burlap dolly, clearly a predecessor of 9.
Back to London, where young Jack sees a poster for Ajax (Akut’s stage name) and decides to go catch his act. He sneaks out at night on his own and goes to the theater, but Akut recognizes Jack’s essential Tarzanness and goes ape onstage, climbing to the boxes to be with him. After the tumult dies down Jack is dragged home, and Paulovich demands restitution. Tarzan offers to buy the ape for a handsome sum on the condition that Paulovich ship Akut back to Africa. He writes out a fat check as half of the payment. Neither he nor Paulovich seem to have recognized each other at this point. The Russian pockets the check and is leaving when Jack accosts him. Now Paulovich realizes this kid is the son of his bitter enemy who marooned him in the jungle for years. He lures the boy back to his nasty little apartment, where he overpowers Jack, ties him up, half-strangles him and prepares to throw his body down a trap door that opens onto a subterranean river. Jeez! The gritty horror is aided by the fact that actor Eugene Burr plays Paulovich as a pop-eyed psycho several shades creepier than Peter Lorre.
Fortunately faithful Akut breaks his chains and saves Jack, pitching Paulovich down the hole instead. Paulovich can swim, unfortunately, and is washed out to sea, where he is picked up by a crew of villainous Swedes. Jack frees himself and proves he’s got what it takes to survive in the jungle, the naughty little minkey, by going through Paulovich’s coat and taking his wallet. Seeing the cash and steamship ticket for Africa, he has a brilliant idea! And so he sets off for Africa, smuggling Akut along with him disguised as an old lady swathed in shawls.
Jack may be plucky and bright, but he’s still a child; he’s foolish enough to tell a fellow passenger that he’s traveling alone with Granny and no one will be meeting them when they leave the ship, because they know nobody in Africa. The fellow passenger creeps into Jack’s room at night, intent on robbing and killing him. Faithful Akut comes to the rescue again, killing the would-be murderer, but the tumult wakes the whole ship and Jack and Akut are forced to jump overboard, grabbing a flotation device on the way down.
Dawn of the next day, with Jack and Akut crawling ashore, and here is the great shining moment in the serial: Jack rises on his knees and sees before him the Africa of his dreams, mountains towering against the sunrise, the jungle below full of mystery and promise. It’s the ultimate wish-come-true. This skinny little kid in his wet underwear flings up his arms in triumph, and you have to cheer.
Jack wastes no time emulating his dad, mugging an African for his fur loincloth and spear and getting to know the local apes. He ventures close to the Sheikh’s encampment, sees little Meriem being abused, and rescues her, though he is injured in the process. Little Meriem is impressed. Time Passes and they grow up together in the jungle, at first as brother and sister and later, it’s implied, as lovers. The apes give Jack the name Korak, the killer.
From there on Son of Tarzan falls into the usual round of serials, in which the good guys are captured by the bad guys and then escape, and then get captured again and escape some more, and so on and so forth until Episode Fifteen, when all the plot threads pull together and resolve into a happy ending. Boy loses girl, girl loses boy, girl thinks boy is dead, girl is adopted by Tarzan and Jane and almost elopes with oily London cad. Paulovich causes no end of trouble with his bloodthirsty crew of Swedish Pirates. Sheikh Amor Ben Khatour is still hoping to recapture his adopted daughter so he can pull out some more of her hair or, better still, stamp her face with a branding iron. Young lovers are reunited and Tarzan saves the day. To give Son of Tarzan credit, though, there’s some fairly clever plotting.
Too, the character of Meriem deserves some applause. She may be a bit shellshocked from early abuse, but she grows into one enthusiastically feral girl. When Korak challenges and kills an ape who had been courting her, she whoops and dances savagely. This is no modest and fearful Jane. When she is assaulted by pirates, she fights fiercely. She’s completely unselfconscious about bathing naked in jungle pools or occasionally popping out of her bodice. In the final scene, when Tantor the Elephant goes a little crazy, she risks her own life to lead him away from Korak. If there’s a better pulp-era heroine than Meriem, I’d like to know who she is.
Son of Tarzan was plagued by troubles all through production. A big name star (at the time, anyway) was announced to play Korak, but pulled out at the last moment. The studio’s president insisted his wife star as Meriem, though he was finally overruled. After much publicity hoopla about real apes being contracted for and real tropical island locations, the company ended up with moth-eaten looking ape costumes on extras and locations in San Bernardino and Pico Rivera, dismal suburbs of Los Angeles. The actor playing Tarzan broke several ribs in a fight scene. Shooting ran behind schedule. In the last installment the actor playing Korak was badly injured and unable to finish his last scene, for which an extra who kept his back to the camera was used. A rumor was started that the actor had died from his injuries, and it would appear that the film’s distributors encouraged the false reports in hopes of extra publicity. Hawaiian-born Kamuela Searle lived on, however, tragically dying of cancer four years later. He was a good actor and a splendid Korak, lean and sinewy and athletic.
For years it was thought that nothing had survived of Son of Tarzan but a dreadful feature print edited down from the original 15 episodes, but apparently a decent copy survived somewhere, and is available on DVD from Alpha Home Video. Bear in mind that it’s a 15 part serial and don’t try to get through it in one night unless you put it in the DVD player at, say, 5PM and are prepared to stay up late.
Next: more of Big Elmo Lincoln as he dons the leopardskin skivvies for the last time in The Adventures of Tarzan!
Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy as well as a regular blogger for Tor.com. She lives with her very own jungle denizen, a lilac-crowned Amazon parrot.