Tarzan and His Mate is one of the most notorious of all Hollywood pre-code movies. In fact it was considered so brazen and shameless at the time of its release in 1934 that it became one of the main reasons for the tightening up of the Production Code. Until fairly recent times it’s only been available in a savagely cut version, with all that pre-code naughtiness removed.
It’s also possibly the best of all the Tarzan movies, and one of the greatest of all jungle adventure films. You could almost say it’s the Citizen Kane of jungle adventure films! Even now it still seems remarkably fast-paced and action-filled. There’s a considerable reliance on stock footage (in fact quite a lot of the footage is from an earlier MGM movie, Trader Horn) and on rear-projection. The process shots don’t seem very realistic today, but back in 1934 this movie offered spell-binding excitement. In fact even today it’s pretty exciting.
The plot is somewhat involved for a jungle movie, with an old flame of Jane’s setting out on an expedition to find the fabled elephants’ graveyard and the enormous cache of ivory it contains. He wants the ivory, but the real prize that he seeks is Jane. Harry is a decent sort of chap really but his partner is another matter. He’s motivated purely by greed, but disguises these base motives under an exterior of charm and affability. To reach the elephants’ graveyard these two mismatched explorers will need the help of Tarzan.
Johnny Weissmuller gives his standard performance as Tarzan, and it works. While he can’t really act he does manage to convey a certain sense of fun which makes Jane’s decision to share his jungle life reasonably understandable.
The supporting cast is quite adequate. Neil Hamilton is very good as Harry, a decent fellow really but we know that he’s not likely to be able to win Jane away from Tarzan. Paul Cavanagh as Harry’s partner Martin makes an effective, very sneaky and very caddish, villain.
The real highlight though is Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. Wearing very little clothing (one of the reasons the movie is so controversial) she’s feisty and sexy and charming and bubbly and generally adorable.
There’s a staggering amount of sexual innuendo in this movie. The combination of Maureen O'Sullivan’s overtly sexy performance as Jane and the extraordinary skimpiness of her costumes this would have been enough to get the moral watchdogs of the day in a lather. And then there’s the infamous nude swimming scene. As Jane dives into the water, her dress catches on a branch and is ripped off. There’s an extended underwater sequence in which none of Jane’s charms are left to the imagination (although in fact a body double was used). If you don’t think 1930s American movies can be erotic then you haven’t seen this one. White it is erotic, it’s also playful and oddly innocent.
It’s probably worth pointing out that the movie is not quite as immoral as it seems. It’s made quite explicit that Tarzan and Jane consider themselves to be married.
It’s also an exceptionally violent movie, at some points quite disturbingly so.
Tarzan the Ape Man had made an enormous amount of money for MGM in 1932 and for the follow-up movie, Tarzan and His Mate, the studio was prepared to be very lavish in the budgetary department. The action scenes are quite spectacular. The climax, with Jane along with Harry and Martin facing an entire army of lions, is certainly memorable. The elephants’ graveyard is another visually impressive sequence.
I caught this one on cable TV here in Australia but there have been several DVD releases.
If you’re only ever going to see one Tarzan movie, this is the one to see. It remains highly entertaining, and its notoriety makes it a must-see. Highly recommended.