The Dream Vaults of Opar

Son of Tarzan (Film)

    I keep thinking that someone out there must have noticed by now that I’ve been reviewing these silent Tarzan movies in reverse order--starting with the almost-talkie Tarzan the Tiger (1929), following that with Elmo Lincoln’s serial Adventures of Tarzan (late 1921), and now finally finishing up with Son of Tarzan (early 1921). Before any unfortunate conclusions are drawn concerning my organizational abilities, I might as well point out that I’m reviewing these movies in the sequence in which I’ve been viewing them, and that that sequence was determined by my desire to watch the best and most complete films first. (Yes, I know; it’s not everyone who’d watch a batch of series movies backwards, on purpose.)
    Dr. George Jones, from whom I acquired my videotapes, tells me that no good prints are in circulation of The Son of Tarzan, which stars P. Dempsy Tabler as Tarzan and Karla Schramm as Jane. Gordon Griffith (who played the boy Tarzan in Tarzan of the Apes three years earlier) portrays Korak as a boy and Mae Giraci is the youthful Meriem; Kamuela Searle and Manilla Martan portray those characters in their late teens or early twenties. My copy serves at best as a preview and appetizer for the complete film. It appears to be patched together from different sources, and a great deal of the movie is missing.
    There is enough footage, though, to venture a number of observations. The story line generally follows the Burroughs novel. One marked variation is that here Paulvitch is not killed by the ape Akut; instead he survives and follows Korak to Africa where he attempts to recapture him, apparently as a way of revenging himself upon the boy’s father. Late in the film Paulvitch even kidnaps Lady Greystoke.
    The child actors perform adequately. Tabler’s Tarzan is a disappointment, heavy and middle aged, but Jane is suitably portrayed as a beautiful older woman. Burroughs’ wonderful story probably wowed audiences from the first episode, but the film doesn’t come completely alive until Searle appears. The Hawaiian actor was very muscular and throws himself into his portrayal of Korak with real verve. In appearance he reminds me a bit of Miles O’Keeffe, but there the comparison ends. Searle was a superb athlete who seems to delight in the various acrobatics demanded of him, and his Korak is convincingly savage. He has “presence,” too, much as Lincoln did, and makes Korak an impressive and commanding figure. Manilla Martin portrays Meriem as a spunky lass, forever struggling energetically against those who would abduct her. Her performance and Searle’s are the most interesting aspects of the film.
    Arboreal footage is abundant and generally good, with many sequences of both Korak and Meriem in the trees. (Vine swinging seems not to have been thought of yet.) One particularly atmospheric scene has Korak attend a Dum Dum--and here the film departs from the book again, if only in a minor way. The serial has Korak voice the victory cry of the bull ape; true fans will recall that Korak could never bring himself to do that--the influence of his early civilized upbringing, I suppose. As the plot develops, the writers seem to be pressed for suitable thrills. Korak and Meriem are tied to trees more often than seems reasonable, and at one point Korak even fights a lion to rescue Meriem’s doll!
    It’s been rumored among Burroughs fans for many years that a love triangle had developed on the set between Searle, Martan, and the film’s director. Here are a couple of direct quotes that, perhaps, shed a bit of light on this sad but interesting footnote to what may well have been one of the best Tarzan films ever made. First, from Gabe Essoe’s Tarzan of the Movies, page 33:
    Then tragedy struck. While filming chapter fifteen, “An Amazing Denouncement,” a sequence in the Village of Death called for Tantor the elephant to rescue Korak, who was bound to a stake. The elephant, which was supposed to lower him to the ground gently after carrying him to safety, instead slammed him down so violently that the heavy stake, to which Searle was still tied, shattered. Searle later died of injuries sustained in the accident. Final scenes had to be shot with a double.
    Now consider the following bit of dialogue from Tarzan and the Lion Man, pages 41-2. The characters are actors in a movie being filmed on location in Africa:
    “No,” she acquiesced thoughtfully, “that wouldn’t be so good. He’s got a nasty temper, and there’s lots of things a director can do if he gets sore.”
    “In a picture like this he could get a guy killed and make it look like an accident,” said Obroski.
    She nodded. “Yes. I saw it done once. The director and the leading man were both stuck on the same girl. The director had the wrong command given to a trained elephant.”
    This certainly represents an interesting correspondence between an accident that actually happened during the filming of Son of Tarzan and the words that Burroughs put in the mouths of his characters a decade or so later. But if you want to let your imagination go to work for you, take another look at the cast photograph on page 35 of Tarzan of the Movies. It’s quite suggestive.
    --March 16, 1989

 [1999 Note: George McWhorter informs us that he has documentary evidence that Searle did not die as a result of the accident, but several years later of cancer, so my interesting conjecture appears to be completely unfounded. A complete, high-quality print of Son of Tarzan has been found and eventually should be available on video.]
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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.