Tarzan the Fearless
The history of the Tarzan movies is a tangled affair. MGM was distressed to learn that as their production was beginning, a serial based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories was about to go before the cameras under the guidance of independent producer Sol Lesser, known as a bold wheeler-dealer ever since his first film, Last Night of the Barbary Coast, a silent short cobbled together from on-the-fly footage taken in 1915 as San Francisco officials were cleaning out and closing down the notorious Barbary Coast district. Lesser had acquired the rights to several Tarzan films that Burroughs had optioned to another producer in 1928. When that producer went bankrupt, the contract was believed to have lapsed, leaving MGM free to purchase screen rights. Lesser took the case to court and, thanks to tricky wording, prevailed in his efforts to make his own serialized lord of the jungle pictures. Some sources say MGM paid Lesser to delay production until after their film came out. The series was shot under the working title "Tarzan the Invincible," but changed to "Fearless" by the time the film hit the screen.
There was one initial hang-up with the Lesser contract. Burroughs' daughter Joan was married to All-American football star James Pierce, who turned to both film acting and football coaching after graduating college in 1921. Pierce had made a silent version of his father-in-law's tales, Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927), but Lesser didn't think the burly ex-center was in shape for the role, an opinion bolstered by the fact that although the Pierce Tarzan film was popular enough with audiences, it was blasted by reviewers. The problem was that Burroughs had already included a clause in the contract requiring his son-in-law to play the part. One story has it that Lesser tricked Pierce into giving up the role in favor of $5,000 and a screen test Lesser had arranged for him at MGM. According to this story, Pierce bombed in his test, a Shakespearian soliloquy for which he was woefully unsuited, leaving Lesser free to cast Buster Crabbe, a former Olympic swimmer who had just appeared as Kaspa the Lion Man (a Tarzan-like character) in Paramount's King of the Jungle (1933). Pierce did have some compensation; he and his wife appeared as Tarzan and Jane in a radio series that had great success in the U.S. and abroad from 1932 to 1934.
Some sources credit Pierce with having created the first Tarzan yell, but others say it was first heard from the mouth of Frank Merrill in Universal's part-talkie serial Tarzan the Tiger (1929), leaving one to wonder just how many studios actually bought the screen rights from Burroughs. Still another source says that neither one was used in this picture, settling on one recorded by film cutter Tom Held, who also happened to be Crabbe's father-in-law.
In the Universal picture, Tarzan's home is destroyed by Arabs and Jane is sold into slavery. Arabs are also the villains in Tarzan the Fearless. There's no denying the highly negative portrait painted of Arabs in this picture, but the fact is, the Tarzan series was notorious for trading in the worst stereotypes. Chief among these were the Africans who usually came across as bloodthirsty, pagan savages, but even the "civilized" English were often shown in an unflattering light. Almost anyone except Tarzan, Jane, and their animal friends were suspect to one degree or another.
One of those friends, Cheetah the chimp, was brought into this story more or less to keep it connected to MGM's successful version, where the animal friend was introduced. In addition to the chimp, Lesser also had Crabbe, another star athlete in the lead (who had reportedly tested for the MGM version back in 1931), and he was instructed to speak in the same monosyllables and grunts scripted for Weissmuller in Tarzan the Ape Man. (In the books, Tarzan is as well-spoken as one would expect from an orphaned British lord.) There was one slight difference between the two pictures, however. Lesser left the character of Jane out of his production, opting instead for an extremely similar young woman named Mary, who gives up civilization to live with Tarzan in the jungle.
Despite Lesser's machinations, his production did not do well. It was cheaply shot (at Iverson's Movie Ranch), suffered from poor sound recording, and had long stretches of silent stock footage of jungle animals. Complicating matters, the feature film was distributed with a trailer announcing future weekly chapters of the story at the theater, but some exhibitors did not show the trailer, leaving audiences confused about the movie's abrupt ending. One reviewer noted: "If Mr. Burroughs' Tarzan books are not beyond the reach of an eight-year-old mind, the movie versions of them may be said to reduce the age limit by three or four years. In fact, even an intelligent child may find something embarrassing in the manner in which an unfortunate young athlete named Buster Crabbe is required to jump from tree to tree, caress synthetic Hollywood apes, and make hideously inhuman noises."
For his part, Crabbe hated making the series (the only time he would portray the character before moving on to the far more successful Flash Gordon series), and complained that the chimp playing Cheetah kept biting him. Tarzan the Fearless was his only foray into this popular franchise, and he later claimed it was the worst of them all: "We had two animals--an elephant that had retired from the circus and a lion with no teeth. But there were a lot of good fights in it, so the kids liked it." Nevertheless, Crabbe is very appealing in the role and performs his stunts admirably.
Tarzan's romantic interest in this version is played by Jaqueline Wells, who under her later name, Julie Bishop, played sweethearts to such male stars as John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Humphrey Bogart. A licensed pilot and stage actress with Shakespearian roles to her credit, she gave up movies in the late 1950s and pursued her interest in painting until her death in 2001.
Edward Woods, who plays Bob Hall (billed here as Eddie Woods) was supposed to get his big break at Warner Brothers as the star of The Public Enemy (1931), but after viewing dailies, director William Wellman had Woods change roles with James Cagney, the second lead. Cagney became a star and Woods was left to flounder in material like this. He did get a role in a major production, MGM's all-star Dinner at Eight (1933), but he quit acting in 1938 in favor of a successful career as a theatrical producer, director, and manager.
Ironically, when Lesser took a job with RKO in the 1940s and brought his Tarzan rights with him, he hired an aging and increasingly paunchy Weissmuller to play the part there for six more pictures. Lesser continued to make Tarzan movies until the end of his career in 1958 with Lex Barker and then Gordon Scott in the lead.
Director: Robert F. Hill
Producer: Sol Lesser
Screenplay: Walter Anthony, adaptation and scenario by Basil Dickey and George Plympton, based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Cinematography: Joseph Brotherton, Harry Neumann
Editing: Carl Himm
Cast: Buster Crabbe (Tarzan), Jaqueline Wells (Mary Brooks), E. Alyn Warren (Dr. Brooks), Edward Woods (Bob Hall), Frank Lackteen (Abdul).
by Rob Nixon