I’ve recently been running a series of articles about the so-called ‘Pre-Code Era’ in Hollywood. This was a time period in which there was officially a production code which governed the content of films but this code was routinely ignored–especially in the early 1930s.

Tarzan and His Mate Grade: A

Many films of the Pre-Code period would shock many viewers today due to the inclusion of many adult topics, such as homosexuality, abortion, premarital sex, cursing and much, much more. I would like to talk about one of these shocking films that only has recently been restored to its original form–as the only version available for years had been a heavily edited one and the original unedited film is surprisingly good.

Tarzan and His Mate finds a group of hunters heading to Africa in search of riches. One of the men is a nice guy, played by Neil Hamilton (who you might recognize as Commissioner Gordon from the old Batman TV show) and the other is a guy who turns out to be a vicious scumbag–who not only wants riches at any cost, but to take Jane for his very own. Can Tarzan manage to protect the jungle from plunder as well as spare Jane from this evil cad?

So what is so Pre-Code about this plot? Tarzan and His Mate was a film that clearly pushed the boundaries of sex, and you’ll soon notice if you see the full movie. MGM wanted this film to appeal to all audiences–rural and urban, religious and not so religious. So, they released three different versions of the film and which one you saw often depended on where you lived. Two featured a notorious nude bathing scene. Up until recently, the most explicit of these versions was thought lost but has recently been discovered and restored to the DVD print. And, if you see it, you are bound to very shocked. Instead of brief and rather chaste glimpses of the nude pair like you see in one version (you see nothing in the third), the swimming sequence is very lengthy. This scene is actually amazingly beautiful and artistic, though it does show a lot! Heck, there wasn’t much that it DIDN’T show–especially of the nubile stunt actress playing Jane (apparently, Maureen O’Sullivan either refused to film this nude scene or else she just wasn’t a good enough swimmer to perform it).

This is not the only adult portion of the film. Well before the safari meets up with Tarzan and Jane in the middle of Africa, there are HUGE numbers of very violent scenes–and some may be more troubling to parents today than the famed (but very tasteful) nude scene. In a battle with cannibals, there are arrows sticking out of people’s heads and knives plunging into bodies–all with copious amounts of blood. After evading these nasty brutes, the group is then set upon by apes (actually, just guys in chimp costumes) and the animals begin tossing people off the mountain to their very grisly deaths! Finally, late in the film, practically everyone is eaten by lions! Clearly, this is NOT a G or PG or possibly even PG-13 rated film–but is the sort of stuff kids probably would have loved! So, despite being shockingly sexy and violent, is the film worth seeing? Absolutely. Would you let a kid see it? Possibly, as it’s rather artsy and not especially prurient in its style.

There were a huge number of jungle films made over the 1930s-50s and most of them were cheap and used tons of terrible stock footage (often of animals not even from Africa!). In light of this, Tarzan and His Mate is terrific. Even with guys dressed as apes and a rather fake looking crocodile and rhino, you can’t help but admire the good and appropriate footage that they did use. Plus, the production values of this and all the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan films were so much better than those of the cheaper Tarzan films that followed–of which, frankly, there were way too many. Additionally, the film is very well acted and written–possibly even better than the previous film in this series, Tarzan the Ape Man. I also appreciate how the film makes you think and care about the animals and conservation–something you didn’t often see in these jungle epics. It’s a gem–and now a complete gem thanks to conservators who found the original version in all its Pre-Code glory.

By the way, if you do watch the movie, note the elephants. The film makers tried to make the Asian elephants they had look like African elephants. While I appreciated their using prosthetic trunks and ears to make them look like the real thing, in hindsight it really didn’t work–the ears look pretty goofy. While I am usually a huge stickler for such details, I can understand them not using African pachyderms as they are notoriously difficult to train and are unpredictable and dangerous–much more so that the smaller and gentler Asian ones.

By Martin Hafer