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One of MGM's most crowd-pleasing franchises developed during the 1930s was its series of jungle adventures based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan. Although filmmakers have tried their hand at adapting Burroughs' fiction since the days of the silents, no such efforts before or since captured the public's fancy like those pairing Johnny Weissmuller as the "Lord of the Apes" with Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane Parker, the Englishwoman who tamed his heart. As evidenced by the title, the fourth Weissmuller/O'Sullivan opus, Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939), has the distinction of introducing Johnny Sheffield to the series' mythos as "Boy," beginning the young actor's eight-year association with the role.
While Burroughs' tales had no moral viewpoint on Tarzan and Jane having a son of their own, Hollywood's Production Code was more leery of their somewhat nontraditional family arrangement. As a result, the screenplay of Tarzan Finds a Son! opens with a fateful plane ride to Cape Town for the little family of Richard Lancing (Morton Lowry), the heir apparent to the title and fortunes of the earl of Greystoke. (This would be the only time that the MGM Tarzan films would make a reference to Tarzan's aristocratic roots, a detail from Burroughs' novels.) The aircraft crashes in the proximity of Tarzan and Jane's jungle abode, leaving Lancing's infant son as the sole survivor. After the ape-man retrieves the foundling, the immediately smitten Jane urges his adoption.
In the five years that pass, the child develops his adoptive father's facility at swinging through the trees and giving out with the familiar jungle call, as well as a penchant for getting himself into danger. The idyll is eventually interrupted by a safari mounted by Lancing's uncle Thomas (Henry Stephenson), desperate for some clue as to the survival of his nephew's family. Along for the trip is the conniving Austin Lancing (Ian Hunter) and his wife (Frieda Inescort), who stand to inherit the Greystoke fortune. Thomas wears down Jane's effort to conceal Boy's identity; Austin, with control of the estate as his motive, wheedles her into believing that a return to civilization would be in his best interests. His machinations lead to a betrayal of Tarzan by Jane, and the departing safari's capture by a savage tribe, setting up a rousing rescue attempt courtesy of Tarzan & Son.
While a handsome-looking production, the costs of Tarzan Finds a Son! were kept at a tidy $880,000, thanks to the extensive use of stock footage from earlier series entries as well as from Trader Horn (1931). Sheffield, seven years old at the time of filming, won the role - with Weissmuller's approval - that over 300 youngsters had tested for. Their rapport was evident in the striking underwater sequences shot in Silver Springs, Florida, as they frolicked with a baby elephant and sea turtle. "Big John developed a strong affection for Little John (as he would be called), and they were close during the decade in which they filmed their eight Tarzan pictures together," David Fury recounted in his comprehensive Kings of the Jungle: An Illustrated Reference to Tarzan on Screen and Television (McFarland & Company).
As originally conceived, Tarzan Finds a Son! was supposed to mark O'Sullivan's departure from the series, with Jane sustaining a lethal spear wound in the climactic sequence. The beautiful actress was prepped to put her career on hiatus for family; she was pregnant with her first child by director John Farrow during production, and she was frequently shot above the waist or holding a conveniently placed prop in order to conceal her impending motherhood. It didn't take many test screenings for MGM to feel the swell of fan outrage, however, and a happy ending with a recovered Jane was substituted. O'Sullivan would ultimately team twice more with Weissmuller and Sheffield, in Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941) and Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942), before abandoning the role for good.
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Director: Richard Thorpe
Screenplay: Cyril Hume
Cinematography: Leonard Smith
Film Editing: Gene Ruggiero, Frank Sullivan
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: William Axt, Sol Levy
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane), Johnny Sheffield (Boy), Ian Hunter (Mr. Austin Lancing), Laraine Day (Mrs. Richard Lancing), Henry Stephenson (Sir Thomas Lancing).
by Jay S. Steinberg