Whaddya mean – “No shirt, no shoes, no service?”
Next up on our list of Strong and Silent Survivors is 1921’s The Adventures of Tarzan. Even so, what we have here is a fragmentary work. It was originally a 15-part serial and has come down to us as a neatly re-edited 10-parter. It opens with a replay of many of the events in 1918’s Tarzan of the Apes and most of the first chapter is spent bringing the audience up to speed, just in case there was still anyone out there who wasn’t familiar with the Origins of Tarzan. Since this serial also features the return of Elmo Lincoln as a spectacularly beefy Ape Man, this makes for a nice sense of continuity. The plot is primarily derived from two of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, The Return of Tarzan and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar.
Once the recap is completed, we are swung into the thick of the action without ever quite understanding how we got there. Tarzan and Jane have been marooned in Africa, which implies they must at some point have left there, and Jane is taken prisoner by Arab slave traders (What? Again? But Arab slave traders were stock Burroughs villains). The supreme villains this time out, however, are Nikolas Rokoff and a dastardly Frenchman named Monsieur Gernot. Initially, they are joined by Tarzan’s cousin, William Cecil Clayton, who has convinced Jane that Tarzan died during the shipwreck (they really must get a new travel agent), and is not only planning to usurp the title of Lord Greystoke but has gotten engaged to Jane, as well.
The would-be Greystoke, however, isn’t around very long; and that brings up the issue of the lions. There are more damned lions in this film than there were roaches in your first apartment. They run here; they run there, round and round the same set of trails in a jungle that looks suspiciously like the three or four acre vacant lot you used to play in as a kid. At one point two characters are rolling around on the ground in a vicious battle to the death, and two lions run through frame, leap over the combatants and keep going. On another occasion, one of the villains is racing along a trail; a lion comes running from behind him and speeds past him, and the villain can only get off a pistol shot at its retreating flank. They serve as a convenient plot device when someone needs to be threatened or distracted, but for the most part they’re just there.
Early in the film William Clayton, closely pursued by a lion, leaps over a log and vanishes on the other side, never to be seen again. His place in the Triad of Evil is soon supplied by Sheik Ben Ali, who, after kidnapping Jane, teams up with Rokoff and Gernot. Also wandering around in Africa is Professor Porter, Jane’s father, who goes from a case of befuddlement to outright Jungle Madness, but he doesn’t get anything much to do until the closing chapters of the serial.
To make matters more confusing, since we’ve seen him last, Tarzan has apparently become an agent of the French Secret Service; and in this capacity is pursuing nasty blackmailer Rokoff, who has stolen from Tarzan the formula for a deadly gas. I can only think of one type of deadly gas Tarzan might be capable of producing, but why it should be necessary to write the formula down escapes me. Maybe it was explained in the missing chapters. Not only that, the baddies have learned of the existence of the lost Atlantean colony of Opar and are determined to plunder it. So that he won’t lose the map to Opar, Rokoff injects a little sadism into the plot by inscribing a copy of the map on Jane’s bare back, using the tip of his knife. Fortunately, we aren’t shown this. Jane is then rescued by Tarzan, who says soothing things and runs off to find jungle herbs to cure her wounds.
And here we see another repetitive and annoying plot point: all through the serial, Tarzan is forever leaving Jane on her own so he can go collect herbs, see what the baddies are doing, fight a lion, drop his leopard-skin toga off at the cleaners, and of course Jane gets re-captured every single time. Notice that leopard-skin toga, by the way; by 1921 the censors had decided that a furry breech clout was rather too brief as a costume, and so Tarzan wears a vaguely caveman over-the-shoulder number which obscures somewhat Elmo Lincoln’s moobs and love handles. Other things to watch for: Louise Lorraine’s sprightly little Jane gets several costume changes, fairly sensible ones when compared with Enid Markey’s unvarying Olive Oyl fashion sense and Lil’ Orphan Annie coiffure. And don’t miss the shot of Og, the Bull Ape, who appears to be wearing Nikes in one scene in which he is perched on the back of Tantor the elephant.
In an early chapter, the baddies actually get to Opar, dragging along Jane as prisoner and closely trailed by Tarzan. It would appear the Atlantean colony has fallen on hard times. They live in what appears to be a hole in a sand pit; their males have all degenerated into spindly little Neanderthals who would make the Geico caveman grit his teeth in mortification; and they are ruled over by Queen La. La is a big broad in a tailored cowskin, who acts like a bossy hall monitor. Her shambling lackeys may not be the brightest bunch ever to stun a hippo with a club, but they do manage to capture the baddies and Jane. Instantly jealous of Jane’s petite figure, La orders Jane sacrificed to The Flaming God. Tarzan to the rescue! La falls head over heels in love with Tarzan and doesn’t know what to do, since she doesn’t have a hankie to drop for him to pick up. She pines for Tarzan through the rest of the serial, but Tarzan is unswervingly faithful to Jane, even if he does forget where he put her sometimes.
For the rest of the serial, Jane (and the map scored on her back) goes back and forth like a football, captured by the bad guys, dragged halfway to Opar, then rescued by Tarzan and carried back to their little love nest in the wild. When it is discovered that her wounds have healed over and the map has disappeared, Rokoff and Company carry her off to the vaguely Arabic city of Sagarone, where a cackling old beggar named Hagar claims to be able to brew a lotion that will make Jane’s scars reappear. Ouch. The old coot owns a booby-trapped house; just as Tarzan, having rescued Jane, is running down a staircase with her, Hagar pulls a lever that drops them into his hidden cellar. Inevitably they escape, emerging through a street-level window to find that Og the Bull Ape is thoughtfully holding the reins of a getaway horse for them. Maybe he just dropped in to Sagarone to shop for another pair of Nikes.
Naturally, Jane doesn’t stay rescued for long.
There is some further business with the villains attempting to raid the ivory stores of the Waziri tribe; Tarzan joins the fight on the Waziri’s side. Next, Queen La sends her caveman army to beg for Tarzan’s leadership because Rokoff, Gernot and their cronies are coming to steal her treasure. Back and forth, back and forth, and you don’t need me to tell you that in the end the wicked are punished, Tarzan and Jane stroll away together down a romantic beach, and Queen La is left wailing, “You are not Morg! You are not Imorg!”
For a number of years, The Adventures of Tarzan was considered lost. Then, in 2004, a copy of the 10-chapter re-release from 1928 was brought out by The Serial Squadron. If you can get past the fact that the remaining plot makes no sense, quite a good job has been done producing the 2-disk set and inserting explanatory title cards to fill out the plot holes resulting from the missing chapters. There are even extras, showing a number of scenes too fragmentary to be included in the restoration, as well as a radio interview with Edgar Rice Burroughs.
If you’re a fan of Elmo Lincoln, you’ll want to see this, since this was his last outing as the Ape Man. Six years would elapse before any other versions of Tarzan were filmed, and by that point, Lincoln had become unhappy with being typecast and had moved on to other roles. Join us next week for a look at Tarzan and the Golden Lion, featuring a cameo by everyone’s favorite monster grandpa, Boris Karloff.
Kage Baker is a writer of fantasy and science fiction, as well as a frequent blogger at Tor.com. She has had to call on her super powers of concentration in order to remain awake through all these bloody multi-chapter serials.