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Tarzan's Secret Treasure was the fifth film in MGM's Tarzan series starring Johnny Weissmuller as pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs' durable ape man. Released late in 1941, just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor and America's entry into World War II, the fast-moving film was popular with audiences anxious to escape the grim world news during the Christmas season.
Synopsis: Boy (Johnny Sheffield) and Cheeta are cavorting in the jungle and soon join Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) for a swim in the lake at the base of their escarpment home. Boy finds several shiny gold stones on the lakebed; he prefers these heavy stones for his slingshot. Jane explains to Boy that there is much gold to be found there; that it is precious and can buy many things in the outside world. Curious, Boy leaves their tree house at night, leaving a note that reads, "Gone to see civilzashun - back tomorrow." During his trek, Boy saves a native boy named Tumbo (Cordell Hickman) from a charging rhino. Tumbo's village is being decimated by sickness and Boy is about to be burned at a stake by the superstitious witch doctor when he is rescued by a scientific expedition which emerges from the jungle, armed with guns and a large truck. Professor Elliott (Reginald Owen) introduces a grateful Tarzan to the rest of his team: photographer Dennis O'Doul (Barry Fitzgerald), associate professor Medford (Tom Conway), and their guide, Vandermeer (Philip Dorn). Tarzan offers to guide the explorers to a shortcut; on the way Boy lets slip about the gold on the escarpment, and Medford and Vandermeer conspire to kidnap Boy and Jane to make Tarzan reveal the whereabouts of the gold.
Upon the release of Tarzan's Secret Treasure, the Hollywood Reporter noted that "MGM wisely allows sufficient time to elapse between Tarzan pictures so public appetite is whetted for the continuation of the ever-popular series." There had been a two-to-three year interval between each film in the series since the first, Tarzan the Ape Man, was released in 1932. The entry for 1939, Tarzan Finds a Son!, introduced Johnny Sheffield as "Boy," Tarzan and Jane's adopted son. The seemingly happy family had known some dissent in the ranks by that time; busy actress Maureen O'Sullivan had grown tired of the role of Jane and pleaded with MGM to let her out of the series. The character, in fact, had originally been killed off at the end of Tarzan Finds a Son!, but both Burroughs and audiences at test screenings objected loudly to the notion that the jungle pair should be broken up, so Jane survived at the end of the film and O'Sullivan was once again pressed into service. There is no evidence of any lingering resentment; O'Sullivan is charming in her brief scenes, particularly in the opening sequence when she uses "Jungle Modern" conveniences to prepare dinner (such as a "refrigerator" made of bamboo thatching and cold running water).
One of the hallmarks of the MGM Tarzan movies is the strength of their supporting casts, and Tarzan's Secret Treasure sports an impressive array of reliable character actors. Tom Conway and Philip Dorn bring considerable heft to their villainous parts; they are willing to play for keeps in their effort to get their hands on the gold, as they let one of their "friends" die of the sickness in order to silence him. Barry Fitzgerald manages the surprising feat of stealing scenes from Cheeta himself and ends up as the main comedy relief of the picture. (Which is not to say that there aren't long sequences of solo Cheeta action; during one the chimp gets into the personal belongings of photographer O'Doul and unspools a reel of film on the ground, drinks a bottle of whisky, and drunkenly walks on his hands, the empty bottle still clutched in his feet above his head.) Tarzan's Secret Treasure also boasts some well-executed effects shots, including matte paintings of dangerous cliff faces that our heroes must cross at great peril. Some of the new swimming footage was filmed in the crystal-clear waters of Silver Springs, Florida. Tarzan's Secret Treasure also displays its fair share of stock footage - the sequence of Tarzan battling a crocodile was first seen in Tarzan and His Mate (1934).
Edgar Rice Burroughs held only some power over Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when it came to the Tarzan series. The studio had rights to the characters but never produced straight adaptations of the Burroughs books. Burroughs gave his opinions, however, and did have some say over the depiction of Tarzan himself. In his book Tarzan At the Movies (Citadel Press, 1968) author Gabe Essoe relates an incident concerning Tarzan's Secret Treasure in which Burroughs "...objected to a scene in which Tarzan threw back his head and laughed long and loud at the reaction of the treasure hunters to their first glimpse of the gold. Burroughs, who was not inclined to laugh at money, demanded the sequence be deleted. Tarzan, he said, was reserved, and boisterous laughter was strictly out of character." The scene was cut from the film.
Most reviews for Tarzan's Secret Treasure began with the premise that the film was "light" fare for the holiday season and the whole family. The reviewer in Variety wrote that the "picture is a par entry in the series [and the] early section of the yarn displays the usual animal stuff...[but] swings into straight meller for the second half..." This critic has praise for director Thorpe, who in his estimation "...lards the swift action with plenty of laughs and generally treats the material in a pseudo-serious manner for top-notch results." On the other hand, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the picture "...just another Tarzan film, that's all, and not an anthropologist's nightmare, as a serious person might suspect." Crowther dismisses it as "comic-strip hyperbole" but admits "it is all in the spirit of fun [but] there is nothing about it which would distinguish it from other Tarzan films... save the introduction of Barry Fitzgerald as a kindred soul in the wilds and the fact that Johnny Weissmuller has added a few words to his vocabulary..."
The next film in the series would be Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942), the last in the series to feature Maureen O'Sullivan, and the last before the series moved to RKO.
Producer: B.P. Fineman
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Myles Connolly, Paul Gangelin (screenplay); Edgar Rice Burroughs (characters)
Cinematography: Clyde De Vinna
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: David Snell
Film Editing: Gene Ruggiero
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane Parker), John Sheffield (Boy), Reginald Owen (Professor Elliott), Barry Fitzgerald (O'Doul), Tom Conway (Medford), Philip Dorn (Vandermeer), Cordell Hickman (Tumbo)
by John M. Miller