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The on-screen chemistry between choice physical specimens Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan was electric, and their sensual swim together in Tarzan and His Mate (1934) still ranks as one of the sexiest pas de deux in cinema. But shooting those movies on location in the jungle (actually, Wakulla Springs, Florida) was brutal for the actors. "I was never more consistently sick and miserable in all my life," moaned O'Sullivan, "never without an ache or pain...never completely or comfortably warm . . . never without a bite from one of the monkeys."
For her sixth Tarzan film at MGM, O'Sullivan couldn't escape from any of the chomp-happy simians playing Cheeta, Tarzan's chimpanzee sidekick. (Also, Tarzan and Jane's love life, at the insistence of the easily rattled Hays Office, had simmered down with the adoption of Boy (Johnny Sheffield) in Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939).) But O'Sullivan was probably thrilled that most of Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942) would take place outside the jungle.
The shortest Tarzan movie at 71 minutes (everything's faster in New York?) tells how Tarzan is visited by shady circus owner Buck Rand (Charles Bickford) who kidnaps the acrobatic Boy to perform in a circus back in the States. Tarzan, Jane and Cheeta venture to what Jane calls "my jungle" to rescue their son, an adventure that leaves Tarzan less than enchanted with a civilization that requires him to wear a suit and venture into nightclubs that, to him, "smells like Swahili swamp. Why people stay?" (The irony was that for an "Ape Man" known for his loincloth, Weissmuller was quite comfortable in a suit. After being drubbed by New York reporters for wearing a turtleneck sweater to a press conference for Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), he always dressed smartly in public, right down to a custom-sewn golf wardrobe crafted by Beverly Hills tailors.)
6'3" former Olympic swimmer (and 6 time medalist) Weissmuller was a virile 28 years old when first cast as Tarzan. Here, a decade later, he's still fit but looks tired. The early 1940s were busy years for Weissmuller. In addition to this film and Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941) being filmed back to back, Weissmuller was a new parent (to son Johnny Jr. and daughter Wendy) and spent much time touring with names like Bing Crosby and Bette Davis in support of the war effort, as well as running special swimming seminars for GIs, including classes about the proper technique for swimming under water alight with flaming petroleum!
Still, Weissmuller was in good enough shape to do many of his own stunts (including Tarzan's city rooftop escape and the climactic clamber up the Brooklyn Bridge) but he often generously turned stunt work over to his longtime Tarzan double Paul Stader so his pal could earn a "bump" (a bonus for completed stunts, equal to half his daily rate). While the real Brooklyn Bridge makes an appearance in this final scene, credit must also be given to the magnificent trompe l'oeil matte paintings mocking up the New York skyline. They were created by MGM special effects painter Warren Newcombe, whose work is most famously seen in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Given how much of the movie is taken up with animal hijinks, credit must also go to animal trainer George Emerson. A former Barnum and Bailey animal handler (and primarily an elephant trainer), Emerson joined MGM in 1932 to deal with an uncooperative rhinoceros on the set of Tarzan the Ape Man. Elephant wrangling is no joke - Emerson was named as a witness in an industrial accident trial in 1936 when an animal handler under his employ was trampled to death by an elephant; Emerson would also double for Weissmuller in scenes involving contact with animals. (African-American comic Mantan Moreland avoided contact with Cheeta in their one notorious scene together, where Cheeta jibbers over the phone and Mantan scolds "You ain't getting' fresh with me, is you, colored boy?" The scene was subsequently removed from many prints struck for television.)
MGM's option on the Edgar Rice Burroughs story lapsed in 1942, and executives were leery about slow returns on Tarzan movies in foreign markets with the outbreak of WW II. Tarzan's New York Adventure was the last MGM Tarzan film before the series was handed over to the more budget-minded RKO. Weissmuller and Sheffield stayed on to do Tarzan Triumphs (1943) and Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943) but O'Sullivan called it quits, deciding instead to devote her time to parenting a large brood that included daughter Maria "Mia" Farrow. When one of the chimpanzees purported to be Cheeta died in 2011, Mia tweeted "My mom, Tarzan's Jane, referred to Cheeta-the-chimp as 'that bastard' - saying he bit her at every opportunity."
Producer: Frederick Stephani
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Myles Connolly (story and screenplay); Edgar Rice Burroughs (characters); Gordon Kahn (uncredited); William R. Lipman
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: David Snell
Film Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane Parker), Johnny Sheffield (Boy), Virginia Grey (Connie Beach), Charles Bickford (Buck Rand), Paul Kelly (Jimmie Shields, Pilot), Chill Wills (Manchester Montford), Cy Kendall (Col. Ralph Sergeant), Russell Hicks (Judge Abbotson), Howard Hickman (Blake Norton, Tarzan's Lawyer).
by Violet LeVoit
Weissmuller, Johnny and W. Craig Reed. Tarzan, My Father. ECW Press, 2008
Parish, James Robert. Great Child Stars. Ace Books, 1976
Nochimson, Martha. Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of 2. University of Texas Press, 2002.
Abbott, Sam. "Animals, Too, Are Movie Stars". Billboard, Apr 7, 1951
Rosen, R.D. "Lie of the Jungle: The Truth About Cheeta the Chimpanzee". Washington Post, December 7, 2008