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An Elephant Stampede: A Look at Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953)

Joyce MacKenzie and Lex Barker

In 1952, three Kurt Neumann films were released and in turn became a concise assessment of the director’s versatility and excellent handle on varied theme, genre and tone. These films were also powered with social commentary and reinstated the fact that non-major studio B pictures could successfully possess tangible political scrutiny in a world coming into a period of supposed halcyon serenity, having just come out of World War II and the repercussions of such a crisis. In a sense these films were “left alone” during the Production Code and could happily “pose” as escapist genre pieces but be driven by the essence of what would be considered the “message movie”. Neumann’s sport drama The Ring dealt with the brutal reality of bigotry and institutionalised racism where a Mexican boxer wishes to gain independence and respect from a white audience who flock to his fights, Hiawatha depicted the tensions shared between the Ojibway people in relation to the Dakotah tribe and was read by critics as analogous take on pacifism being linked to communist sentiments during the rise of the Red Scare, and even the playful and frivolous Son of Ali Baba, released by Universal-International and starring contract players Tony Curtis and Piper Laurie – both looking beautiful and exhibiting their physical prowess in glorious Technicolor – suggested a sly critique on gender roles and sexual indiscretions. Of course, Neumann would follow up this busy year by returning to what audiences and historians would know him mostly for – his entries in the long history of cinematic representations of Tarzan, the Ape Man.

In 1953, Tarzan and the She-Devil would be Neumann’s last offering of the jungle dwelling classic literary character, and it would also be the first time he would have an actor outside of Johnny Weismueller playing the role. Neumann would take on three Weismueller Tarzan films: Tarzan and the Amazons (1945), Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946) and Tarzan and the Huntress (1947), all wonderfully fun and energetic films respectively co-starring the likes of Maria Ouspenskaya as the diminutive queen of an amazon tribe, Acquanetta as a glamorous high priestess leading a cult of “leopard whisperers” and Patricia Morison as a big game huntress. Here in this Lex Barker outing, director Neumann pits his muscle-bound hero against the likes of Lyra, the she-devil of the title, played by Belgian-born actress and dancer Monique van Vooren. Lyra is a villainess that represents a Neumann antagonist coming from a fifties sensibility – a woman completely devoid of compassion and sympathy and someone who comes to reflect a post-war invention that is unable to connect or nurture and is without the capability of reasoning or understanding. Ruthless and “in it for herself”, she is not a forties monstrous feminine, but instead a new decade’s sadistic socialite, hellbent on slaughtering elephants to build an ivory trade and enlisting equally maniacal men to do her bidding, including her number one henchman Vargo, played with cold blooded zeal by the enigmatic Raymond Burr. As brilliant as Neumann’s Weismueller films are, this entry with the hulking Lex Barker as Tarzan and the lovely Joyce MacKenzie as Jane (the eleventh actress to play such a coveted classic role) is endlessly riveting, visually sumptuous, taps into remarkably dark turf, has a highly charged sexual energy and most importantly, features a heavy political edge that gives the film its much needed heftiness in what is a relatively angry jungle adventure picture complete with a dramatic finale that has a stampede of elephants enact revenge upon their human oppressors, making this film a powerfully pro-animal outing posturing as a jungle adventure romp.  

Taking its lead from Hiawatha, Tarzan and the She-Devil dissects the ugliness of oppression and the cultural abuse coming from the exploitive powers that be with a burning intelligence. It also delivers cinematic nasties with a bleak and uncompromised bite that keep them steering clear from assumed flamboyance that audiences expect to see in such rigorously joyous entertainment. Raymond Burr’s Vargo is a menace without any “moustache twirling” endearing quality that one would get from general action fuelled movies of the same period, instead he plays the role right down and dirty and with a clear brutality that is unsettling and grim. Joining him for the ride is British character actor Tom Conway who revels just as much in his villainy, although taking on the more underhanded and slimy sinister method which would become staple in regards to English crooks who didn’t share the overt machismo expressed by American counterparts. Under the rule of Lyra, these men exploit the natives of the land, and of course it is up to the noble Tarzan to liberate them. However, here in this feature (and in many others) there is a sturdy notion made that these rightful owners of their land are just as vital in bringing down the oppressive evil-doers. When Jane is nursed back to health by these noble people, there is a wonderfully sweet solidarity represented here on screen that diminishes the role of race and binds people together outside of skin color. Tarzan, Jane and the “good people” come in all forms (and a lot of times, not even human) and this is something that the long legacy of these remarkable films examine and celebrate. Directors like Kurt Neumann understand the power in this kind of storytelling and message, and as much as the Tarzan mythology makes use of the psychology behind Darwinism, the complexities shared between man and nature, what is “civil” and what is not, the roles of animals in response to human kind and the politics of the land, it is also a grand provider of a steady entertainment factor and generous in thrills and cinematic fun. To find such a perfectly realised balance is an absolute achievement and the legacy of the Tarzan franchise has proven this over and over again. But it is in Tarzan and the She-Devil that this is in fact an important consideration when looking at the lasting endurance of these films, that there is more than meets the eye going on but also never letting it step outside the arena of sheer entertainment and escapist bliss.

The film features some of the most intimate and complex sequences shared between Tarzan and Jane, in that there are scenes that feature conversations that scrutinise their relationship. Early in the film, Jane jokes that she will run away from Tarzan which prompts worry and possible disillusionment in what is supposedly a perfect romance. However, Jane asserts that she was just joking and has initially made this comment simply because she had been thrown into a river in order to “wake up”. The primal nature of Tarzan who has been raised in the jungle in comparison to Jane who understood the world of “civility” but in turn has rejected it in favour of living within the realm of the natural world, is all there on the table in this moment. Her annoyance at Tarzan is real and understandable, but she is forced to assure him that she will always stay with him, hence bringing a sigh of relief to an audience who will always know that their love is here to stay. Later in the film, before the dramatic moment where their treehouse is burned to a crisp by Lyra’s poachers, Tarzan and Jane discuss the outsiders that they have encountered and it is a close-up revelatory sequence that brings up a hinted possibility of sex outside their committed and heated union. Tarzan remarks on how beautiful Lyra is and Jane comments on how handsome Vargo is. Here we have these two – Tarzan and Jane – wildly beautiful people who are not only the epitome of good health and vitality, but also live in the surroundings of the picturesque jungles, critiquing one another’s external sexual fantasies. It is interesting to note that when they admit to such desires (no matter how playful or meaningless they be) their world is turned upside down and Tarzan is next seen tied up in ropes, completely at the mercy of the violent Lyra and her viscous men while Jane becomes “woman in the storm” completely swamped by a literal swamp and preyed upon by crocodiles and pythons. The narrative structure here makes a warranted assumption that if ever (God forbid) Tarzan and Jane left one another to pursue some illicit affair, the world will be burned down and damaged. This wreckage is given a visual cue with the image of Tarzan and Cheetah returning to their burnt out home. It is a heart wrenching vision in that it is not only a comment on the devastating aspect of our hero having his world jeopardised, but also an environmental warning against the dreaded notion of colonialism that has ravaged the likes of Tarzan, Jane and Cheetah’s beautiful and peaceful existence. The natives are exploited and elephants are under threat, and this in turn is affecting Tarzan and his beloved. Lex Barker has had more to do in other Tarzan outings (this film would be his last in the role) but his presence is still as dynamic and alluring as always. Throughout the film he is put upon – whipped, in bondage, left out looking over damaged sites etc – and all of this add to the somewhat bleak and harsh nature of the film, as well as a possible anecdote to Barker’s personal feelings about playing such an iconic role for the last time. On a personal level, Barker would be dating sweetheart and cult movie favorite Mara Corday at the time, and she would feature in the film as an uncredited extra, so Barker’s presence on-camera may come across as being caught up in a cloud of distraction if one looks closely. However, he swaggers through the film with great prowess and sex appeal, and locking eyes and lips with co-star Joyce MacKenzie is a treat for fans of Golden Age Hollywood sex on screen. For instance, the moment where Tarzan and Jane are looking into each other’s eyes discussing the very notion of Jane running away, dripping with beads of fresh water and breathing heavily, is a delight in carnal sensuality presented on screen. And the film is loaded with vivid imagery that propels what would be considered a vastly more gritty excursion in what usually is a glamour-fuelled genre. 

The elephant rescuing Jane from dying of exposure is a remarkable condensation of how animals understand the “good people”, and of course, Jane being someone in tune with animals, it is a sweet moment in the film. Along with the great interactions shared between animals and human co-stars in the film, there are some excellent pieces of stock footage (a classic ingredient in the Tarzan films from both RKO and MGM) including a ferocious battle between a leopard and a boa constrictor. Cheetah also has a terrific light hearted moment early in the piece where he steals an egg from a nesting ostrich that chases her but then “bribed” by being fed fruit by the cheeky chimp. Electric in style – complete with a mesmerising montage that showcases Jane’s terror in losing Tarzan and set to a nightmarish musical motif – the film is a fine balancing act of social commentary, interpersonal insight into characters that we have come to know and love and most importantly respect and also a solid departure from straight up jungle movie escapism. Tarzan and the She-Devil sets up its profound meatiness from the opening, with an introduction to Africa described as a place that shall promise to provide an abundance of raw drama, and that is sure does, however, it is also a character unto itself in that it also is a mirror to the turmoil as well as the beauty and majesty that is presented within the character of the people who occupy the space on film in Kurt Neumann’s tribute to the empowerment of the natural and the aforementioned “good people” painted up in his universe.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

One comment

  1. No mention of Farmer’s abuse of Turner’s daughter?

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