You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.
1927’s Tarzan and the Golden Lion ought to have been one of the more notable Ape Man epics. Loosely adapted from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel of the same name, it had Burroughs’ own enthusiastic support, largely because James Pierce, the actor cast as Tarzan, was hand-selected by Burroughs as most closely resembling his creation. Alas, Golden Lion failed to wow the critics, and we’ll let Mr. Pierce himself explain why: “Because of poor direction, terrible story treatment and putrid acting, the opus was a stinkeroo.” His rancor was no doubt sharpened by the fact that, at Burroughs’ request, Pierce dropped out of another film to play Tarzan. The film was Wings and Pierce’s part was filled by a young unknown named Gary Cooper. Cooper’s career went straight up, and Pierce never starred in another vehicle in his life. He did, however, marry Burroughs’ daughter Joan. One hopes the alcohol did not flow freely at family dinners.
Pierce put it pretty succinctly, but there are so many levels of sheer wrongness in this flick that they deserve to be dragged screaming into the cold light of day, if only to serve as an example of how random dumbness can wreck a movie. Let’s start with egregious mythos-revising: most of the action in the movie revolves around the kidnapping of Tarzan’s favorite sister, “Betty Greystoke.” Setting aside for a moment the sheer dumyankness of her name (it would be Betty Clayton), there is the riddle of her existence at all. One is forced to invent a missing scene in which Lady Greystoke gives birth to twins before she expires; and, fearful of their destinies should they grow up together, Lord Greystoke places the infant girl in a Moses basket which he then fastens atop the flat head of faithful Cheetah, who then dog-paddles all the way up the equatorial coast past Europe and, crawling ashore somewhere in the Thames estuary, delivers the baby to kindly Senator Organa.
Also, in no other early Tarzan film is colonialism’s heavy hand so unpleasantly evident. In the opening scenes, we get to see the tribe of the Wazari joyfully celebrating the slaughter of a great bear. (Bear? Okay … ) We have met the Wazari before as Tarzan’s early adversaries and later allies. The camera dwells lovingly on their tribal dances, particularly one man who seems to be inventing the Funky Chicken, and then a couple of Tarzan’s African houseboys come out on the verandah and ask where “the Chief” is. We learn that Tarzan has become the Chief of the Waziri: so much for their independent status. Later we see that icon of colonialism, a sleepy black servant, negligently operating a punkah-fan with his foot as the white folks in dinner jackets sit around in the parlor.
But let’s go back to that question, “Where is the Chief?” Why, he’s playing in the jungle with his pet lion, Jab. We get to see Pierce’s Tarzan in action and are rather less impressed than Burroughs was. Lean and muscular, to be sure, but the tightly marcelled hairdo and general resemblance to Harry Houdini are off-putting. Presumably the Ape Man is out enjoying a few stag moments before his sister’s visit. Cut to Jane Clayton, Lady Greystoke and sister Betty, being carried in a gauzy litter by faithful Wazari at the head of a pack-caravan winding its way through the jungle towards Tarzan’s plantation.
And, speaking of the jungle, who’d ever have thought that equatorial Africa had so many oak trees, sycamores, and dry hills covered with sagebrush? The earlier films at least made a pretense of disguising their LA-suburb locations. Tarzan and the Golden Lion relies on one stock shot of some zebras running; the rest is nakedly Chatsworth.
While Tarzan sits fondly watching his buddy Jab tear the intestines out of a zebra, an ancient bearded man in rags staggers forth from the jungle and doesn’t even manage to croak “It’s—” before collapsing. Jab, sensing danger, jumps the threadbare unfortunate. Tarzan has to drive him off and rescues the stranger, who is an English explorer named Gordon.
Meanwhile, back on the trail, we meet the Bad Guys—and a stranger trio hadn’t appeared on film since The Unholy Three. The lead Renegade White is Esteban Miranda, in Burroughs’ original book a dead ringer for the Lord of the Jungle himself. Here, however, Esteban looks like about 300 pounds of Country Crock in a pith helmet. His second in command is a stubby little bearded creature with a memsahib’s veil on his pith helmet. The third member is a Renegade Wazari, played in gloomy blackface by Boris Karloff. He lacks a bone through his nose but is otherwise all tricked out in tribal regalia, including what appears to be someone’s attempt at a pirate captain’s hat fashioned out of straw. I was looking forward to seeing some Karloffian overacting, but no such luck: Boris manages to hold on to one dour expression through the whole of the film.
With their army of the Unspecified Other Tribe, the villains trek around Africa looting and plundering anyone they can. Pausing beside a river, Esteban spots Lady Greystoke’s rich baggage train settling down for the night on their side of the river. Woo-woo, look at the pretty ladies! He goes across the river to chat them up, first ordering his men to be ready to attack when he gives the signal. (That’s right: attack across a river. Which has no bridge or convenient shallow bits.) The ladies indignantly rebuff his advances and the attack is on! It’s a long drawn-out affair, as you might imagine, and only the timely arrival of Tarzan saves the day.
That night, at Chez Tarzan, Gordon the explorer explains that 10 years previous he was captured by degenerate savages known as the Tangani. They carried him off to slave in the diamond mines under their fabulous Temple of Diamonds. He has only just managed to escape, bringing a small bagful of sparkly souvenirs. But, darn it! Who should be listening at the window to hear this story but Esteban Miranda, who has led his evil army to camp nearby. Jab the lion eventually notices his bloated moon face peering through the window and gives the alarm, but Esteban manages to escape into the night. Tarzan resolves to lead an army out against the Renegades the very next day. He does so, and despite his legendary tracking skills, completely misses Esteban’s crew.
They, meanwhile, take advantage of Tarzan’s absence to attack the house. They capture Gordon, demanding that he lead them to the Temple of Diamonds. He refuses to do so. They then take Betty as hostage for his cooperation and off they go through the jungle, apparently pausing only long enough to kill one of Tarzan’s favorite chimpanzees. Arguably the best performance in this film is turned in by the little chimp playing Gobu, brother of the murder victim. We get to watch an extraordinary display of primate rage and distress, culminating in a sort of primitive funeral and mourning session for the deceased. Gobu can scream his lament at Tarzan, but evidently in this film apes don’t have the ability to communicate with the Lord of the Apes, unlike virtually every other creature of the jungle. On the right track at last, Tarzan leads the Wazari after the Renegades.
And here we are at the Temple of Diamonds where, we are told, the childish and superstitious Tangani have allowed themselves to be ruled by a few sly whites. They don’t look sly, or exceptionally white. Who would have thought one film contained not one but two contenders for weirdest villainous trio ever? The High Priest, as portrayed by 8-foot tall Chinese actor Yi-ching Lin towers over his two fellow priests, who are both tiny dumpy men who look as though they showed up too late for the auditions for Princess Jasmin’s kindly old father. All three are dressed in glittery robes and wear headdresses that appear to have been stolen from Las Vegas showgirls. They worship the same Burning God as the degenerate inhabitants of Opar; no surprise, since in the original book, they are the Oparians. The Tanganis, ignorant and foolish as they are, get all freaked out over an earthquake and beg the High Priest to save them. The Priest assures them that a little human sacrifice will pacify the Flaming One. Can you guess who’s going to fall into his clutches?
That’s right! Esteban and his crew arrive at the sheer face of the cliff which is the only way up into the City of Diamonds. They put ladders into place, but are hesitant to climb for fear of unknown dangers at the top. Say you’re in Esteban’s position. You have the choice of picking out some unimportant tribal red shirt from your ranks and sending him up the ladder, or you might send up your single hostage; who is, coincidentally, a dishy female you’ve been lusting after. Who would you choose to put in harm’s way? Well, Esteban chooses Betty.
From here, Tarzan and the Golden Lion devolves into a lot of incoherent chases and rampages, and you may be tempted to throw the remote through the screen. But hang in there: there are at least two bits worth catching. One is the surreal extended moment when Betty, sitting on a rock at the top of the cliff, is completely unaware that Fat Little Priest #1 has poked his head out of a secret passage just behind her and is staring with dog-like fixity at the back of her elbow. The other is when Esteban, in an attempt to impersonate Tarzan, crams himself into a teensy little leopard skin; I’ll bet the actor went back and cried in his trailer for hours after he saw the rushes.
Long thought lost, Tarzan and the Golden Lion resurfaced a few years back in, rumor has it, an insane asylum in France. It’s now available for your viewing pleasure, if I may term it so, from Alpha Home Entertainment. The print is decent and, fortunately, this is a mere feature film, not a multi-part serial; so it clocks in at just under an hour. The accompanying music track is possibly the least inspired you will ever hear on a silent film.
Pierce, understandably bitter about dropping what turned out to be a choice role in Wings, nevertheless went on to star as the first-ever radio Tarzan in a weekly series opposite Joan Burroughs as Jane. Since his chiseled features were no longer out there for the world to see, one wonders whether his Indianan accent sat well with Tarzan’s creator.
Next week, we’ll look at the final silent Tarzan film, and examine another wrecked acting career. Same Ape Time, same Ape URL!
Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy, and regular guest blogger for tor.com. Her short story “Maelstrom” was recently short-listed for the French Grand Prix d’Imaginaire.