Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: Strong & Silent, Day 5

George hear twig snap…

“NEYAAAAAAHHH! NYAH! NYAH!”

That sound, my friends, is a man’s acting career in its death throes. The culprit was Tarzan the Tiger, the year was 1929, and Frank Merrill was the unfortunate who happened to be playing the Lord of the Apes at the moment cinema sound technology was making its first experimental squeaks and gurgles.

Tarzan the Tiger is one of those late silent films marketed as a sound picture, something like the “Simulated Stereo” recordings of the early ’60s: the film was shot in silence, but a recorded musical score with some sound effects at appropriate moments was supposed to create the illusion of  a talkie. You hear cocoanut shells impersonating hoofbeats, primitive noisemakers impersonating lions and gorillas, and—oh, dear—Frank Merrill’s actual human voice, in his best effort at the Victory Cry of the Bull Ape.

Nyaaaaahhhhhh.

Studio executives were unimpressed. A third Merrill film, to have been called Tarzan the Terrible (talk about handing the critics a club to beat you with!) was canceled. Frank Merrill joined the growing list of actors whose careers were ruined by the advent of the talkies. When 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man was being cast, no one called Merrill. It must have seemed bitterly unfair, because Merrill had worked long and hard to earn his leopardskin panties. As early as 1921 he’d stunt-doubled for portly Elmo Lincoln in The Adventures of Tarzan. He was a gymnast with a magnificent physique, he had the aristocratic features suitable for Lord Greystoke, and he was the one who invented the business of Tarzan swinging from tree to tree on vines. His big break came in 1928 when Joe Bonomo had to drop out of Tarzan the Mighty due to injury, and Merrill was chosen to replace him.

Tarzan the Mighty is now lost, but was apparently enough of a success in its day to warrant a sequel, and Merrill apparently suitably heroic enough to be  invited back for a second outing as the Ape Man.  The scriptwriters turned once again to Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar for inspiration. The result is Tarzan the Tiger. It’s another 15-part serial and, while it is not entirely unwatchable, mostly it’s… really dumb.

Setting aside that sad, sad little soundtrack, most of the drama revolves around Tarzan taking a blow to the head that gives him amnesia for most of the film. It also takes about half his IQ points with it; Tarzan supposedly reverts to his primitive, authentic nature, but the effect is more like George of the Jungle with a misogynistic streak. Tarzan not know Jane! Tarzan not understand this thing called Love! Tarzan need no mate! Hey, who stole Tarzan’s bag of pretty pebbles he found in treasure chest in Opar? Tarzan really mad now! Tarzan gonna summon Tantor and chase bad people all over jungle!

Other problems: while Natalie Kingston was perhaps the most beautiful actress ever cast as Jane (in fact she and Merrill make a very attractive pair), the plot doesn’t give her much to do except cringe when she’s menaced, which is pretty much all the time. Lustful renegade explorers, gorillas, a whole host of Arabs of varying denominations, degenerate Oparians, Tarzan himself at one point— it’s Jane as Victim the whole way. Not that one ought to expect a fearless feminist heroine in this kind of serial, but, jeez, the scriptwriters might have been a little less repetitive with the menacing thing. 

In fact, they might have been less repetitive altogether; the plot loops around itself in the same tracks several times. One Arab Chieftain after another plots with the main villain Werper (and how’s that for a name?), gets killed, and is replaced by an ever more lustful and dishonest Arab Chieftain. Jane faces the slave auction block not once but twice, and people run in circles looking for Opar which seems to be either a fifteen-minute walk or a month-long journey away, depending on what the plot requires at that particular moment.

There is also a bizarre double standard as regards, ahem, decency. Jane is reduced to ever-skimpier costumes and even has a brief topless scene. There are scantily-clad maidens in the slave market and in the Temple of Opar. Yet Tarzan has never been more covered-up, in his matching leopardskin ensemble of panties, caveman top, headband and booties, with portable jungle vine accessory. Having cast an actor with a dishy physique, Tarzan the Tiger does its best to hide his charms.

Worth watching: the exotic and mysterious Mademoiselle Kithnou as Queen La, a decided improvement over Lillian Worth in the same role. Very little is known about Kithnou; she was purportedly either an Anglo-Indian or a Euro-Indian, either from Pondicherry or Mauritius, first discovered as an exotic dancer in any case. Lean, lithe and steely-eyed, she is one ruthless bitch and would have been great as a recurring villainess. Sadly, Tarzan the Tiger was her last film as well.

What she found to do with herself afterward is a mystery, but Frank Merrill decided he wanted to work with children and spent the rest of his life as a recreational director and gymnastics instructor for various departments of the city of Los Angeles Parks & Rec. One hopes he bore patiently with the generations of kids who yodeled Weissmuller’s Tarzan yell as they flung themselves from the monkey bars…

Alpha Home Video is your source in case you’re a completist and wish to own this epic, but it’s also watchable for free online at the Internet Archive. Your correspondent, however, has had enough of leopardskin. Yes, it’s time to bid the Wazari a fond goodbye, pat Cheeta on the head, and hit the jungle trail. It’s October! Shouldn’t we be looking at some scary silents?


Kage Baker is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and a regular blogger for Tor.com. When she was eight years old she fractured her left shoulder falling while swinging from a tree. This effectively persuaded her that pretending to be Tarzan’s Daughter was a dumb game.

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