Tarzan the Fearless

Principal, 12 Chapters (only partially surviving), 1933. Starring Larry “Buster” Crabbe, Jacqueline Wells, Edward Woods, Philo McCullough, E. Alyn Warren, Matthew Betz, Mischa Auer. 

Archaeologist Dr. Brooks (E. Alyn Warren) is lost in the African jungle while searching for remnants of the ancient quasi-Egyptian civilization of Zar. His daughter Mary (Jacqueline Wells) and her fiance Bob Hall (Edward Woods) lead an expedition in search of him, encounter the mighty ape man Tarzan (Buster Crabbe), and incur the wrath of the reclusive and hostile surviving denizens of Zar. The expedition is also threatened from within by its self-seeking guide Jeff Herbert (Philo McCullough), who wants (a) the prized emeralds of Zar, (b) a reward placed on Tarzan by the representatives of the Greystroke estate, and (c) Mary herself. However, Mary soon acquires another admirer in the person of Tarzan, who continually protects the girl from jungle dangers.

Above: Tarzan swings through the trees of his jungle realm (Sherwood Forest is the actual location).

In most reviews, I leave comments on the state of extant prints for a footnote, but Tarzan the Fearless, like Clancy of the Mounted, is so incomplete that its condition needs to be noted at the start of the review. For many years, the only footage surviving from the serial was an 85-minute British feature film consisting mostly of footage from the first four episodes and the last two; more recently, an incomplete portion of Chapter Nine surfaced as well. In 2016, Eric Stedman of the Serial Squadron edited these fragments into an ersatz “restored” DVD version of the serial, using a copy of the serial’s original script to order the scenes correctly; he filled in a few narrative gaps with stills, but over half of his recreated episodes still ran significantly shorter than the originals. The resulting concoction makes for somewhat jarring and choppy viewing (a terrible new drum-themed soundtrack in the gap portions didn’t help matters), but Stedman’s reconstruction is very worthwhile for the serial historian, since it provides a better look at the cliffhanger endings and overall story structure of Tarzan the Fearless than the feature version ever did.

Tarzan the Fearless was the first of two serials turned out by Sol Lesser, a theater-chain owner and independent producer who often made B-films for distribution by the bigger studios, and who didn’t work on the shoestring budgets of other 1930s independent serial producers like Harry Webb, Sam Katzman, or the Weiss family. Thus Fearless, like Lesser’s second serial, The Return of Chandu, doesn’t look or feel like a independent chapterplay; its editing, camera work, and action scenes are all comparable to those of contemporary Mascot and Universal serials. Again like Chandu, Fearless was designed to be easily editable into a feature film; thus, the first four episodes essentially follow the same story arc as the successful MGM feature Tarzan the Ape Man, which Lesser was obviously determined to imitate: an expedition enters Tarzan’s territory, Tarzan falls in love with a girl on the expedition, and ultimately saves the lives of the expedition members. Once this arc concludes, writers Basil Dickey and George Plympton (and their “supervisor,” Wiliam Lord Wright) fall back on the myriad machinations of Jeff–his designs on Mary, his attempts to kill Tarzan, and his theft of one of the emeralds of Zar–to keep the plot wheels spinning for another eight chapters, supplemented by the attacks of the forces of Zar.

Above: Buster Crabbe arrives to rescue (left to right, center picture) E. Alyn Warren, Philo McCullough, and Edward Woods from the leonine executioners of Zar, in a sequence that would have served as the climax of Lesser’s feature version. 

Although this story structure necessitates a good deal of repetitive plotting, repetition isn’t the biggest flaw of Fearless’s screenplay; instead, the serial is continually sabotaged by the ineptitude with which Dickey, Plympton, Wright, Lesser, director Robert Hill and star Buster Crabbe try to ape MGM’s depiction of the Ape Man. Lesser and company follow MGM’s lead in ignoring Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books and making Tarzan wholly wild and primitive–but also wind up making him seem like an annoying idiot, instead of the savage but heroic figure of the MGM movie. Lesser’s Tarzan, like MGM’s, can barely speak English, is playfully childlike at times, and reacts with puzzled confusion to all facets of civilization–but entirely lacks the solemnity, wistfulness, and fierceness that made the MGM Tarzan a compelling and believable combination of human and animal. Instead, Lesser’s Tarzan grins and laughs boisterously, leers knowingly and delightedly at Mary, seems peeved rather than ferocious when faced with enemies, and overall appears so thoroughly human that his inability to talk to other people comes off as the result of sheer willful stupidity, instead of a logical part of his character.

Above: Buster Crabbe’s Tarzan gleefully introduces himself to Jacqueline Wells. 

To make matters worse, Tarzan also becomes more and more passive a character as the serial proceeds: although he regularly rescues Mary and even saves some of the other characters during the first half of Fearless, he spends far too much time in the second half either wandering around the jungle or lying around recovering from cliffhanger-induced injuries. He still periodically fights with with the villains, but usually just to defend himself; when he tries to rescue the expedition from the forces of Zar at the end of Chapter Ten, he winds up unconscious, and it’s up to Bob Hall to end the Zar threat (with rather comical ease) once and for all in the following chapter. The handling of the Hall character, incidentally, is yet another misstep by the writers; MGM took care to make Tarzan’s rival for Jane somewhat cold and stuffy, and obviously not as tough or courageous as the Ape Man, which made it easy to root for Jane’s eventual choice of Tarzan over her fiance. Bob, on the other hand, is chipper, easygoing, and heroic, not to mention much brighter and less irritating than Tarzan, which makes it very hard to sympathize with Mary when she ultimately dumps Bob in favor of Tarzan–and which, combined with Tarzan’s brainless and frequently ineffectual behavior, makes it hard to get at all emotionally involved in the Tarzan-Mary “romance.”

Above left: Tarzan (Buster Crabbe), attended by a chimpanzee friend, lies unconscious in the jungle (not for the first or last time in the serial’s second half). Above right: Bob (Edward Woods) faces down the High Priest of Zar (Mischa Auer). 

Although the disastrous depiction of Tarzan is by far the biggest flaw in Fearless, the serial’s script has several other ones–its above-mentioned thin and repetitive plotting chief among them. The only two elements in the story that actually derive from Burroughs’ books–the lost civilization of Zar (obviously inspired by Burroughs’ Opar) and Tarzan’s true identity of Lord Greystroke–could have been used skilfully to pad out the serial’s narrative and make it feel less like a clumsy imitation of the MGM movie, but Dickey and Plympton fail to exploit them very effectively: Zar is not developed as a full-fledged lost city, consisting merely of about a score of Egyptian-garbed cultists who live in a cave, while the Greystroke-heir subplot only serves to give Jeff a financial reason for trying to kill Tarzan in addition to his personal jealousy. There are hints of a more intriguing subplot that might be have been lost, however; one tantalizing recap card hints at the idea that the witch-doctor of the native tribe recruited by Zar to track down Tarzan and the Brooks expedition may have genuine magical powers.

Above: The worshippers of Zar cluster around their idol in their cavern headquarters. 

Weak as its script is, Fearless is far from a total loss: its outdoor “jungle” locations (principally the upper canyons of Iverson’s Ranch and the forest at Lake Sherwood) are convincing, visually appealing, and very well-photographed by cinematographers Joseph Brotherton and Harry Neumann. Its action scenes are also quite strong; George DeNormand handles some of the stuntwork, while animal trainer Melvin Koontz and his invaluable lion Jackie contribute an excellent fight scene in the first chapter, and a shorter fight in the second episode–with help from Buster Crabbe, who can be clearly seen grappling with Jackie himself in some shots. Another nice—and amusingly offbeat–piece of animal action occurs in Chapter Seven, in which a gorilla (synthetic, of course) and an elephant (genuine) team up to rescue Tarzan from some lions and a pit trap. Unfortunately, a probably entertaining clash between Tarzan and the gorilla in Chapter Five is part of the serial’s missing footage.

Above left: Melvin Koontz (doubling Buster Crabbe) seems to be losing his tussle with Jackie the lion at the moment. Above right: Tantor the elephant to the rescue. 

Other good pieces of action include Tarzan’s spectacular landing at the Arab slavers’ camp in Chapter Three, the subsequent horse stampede, the tough-looking fight between Bob and the villainous guide Nick in Chapter Two, Tarzan’s ensuing plummet through the roof of a hut after lightning strikes his tree, Tarzan’s battle with some natives in Chapter Eight, and the final fight between Tarzan and Jeff in Chapter Eleven. The stampede, the fall through the roof, and the Tarzan/Jeff fight also all form the basis of effective cliffhangers; the killer-vine attack on the heroine at the end of Chapter Eight is nicely imaginative, but (like most scenes of its kind) looks more than a little unconvincing. The Chapter Six ending, with lions jumping into a pit to finish off an unconscious Tarzan, is good too, as is the Chapter Ten fall from a rock.However, the Chapter Nine ending falls entirely flat: it tries for emotional instead of physical drama, by having a misunderstanding Mary be heartbroken by catching Tarzan in seeming dalliance with a priestess of Zar—but, because of the above-referenced flaws in the serial’s portrayal of Tarzan, it’s impossible to feel at all concerned about the potential destruction of the Tarzan-Mary romance.

Above left: A lighting bolt sends Tarzan and his tree branch falling onto a hut containing the Brooks expedition, in a rather impressively staged shot. Above right: Another nice (albeit dangerous-looking) piece of staging, as Jacqueline Wells (or her stunt double) flees a herd of stampeding horses without the benefit of any process-screen work. 

The cast of Fearless is by and large a good one, although its star definitely did much better work in all his other chapterplays: serial king Buster Crabbe makes a very inauspicious genre debut as Tarzan. Though he was a much better actor than his fellow-Olympian Johnny Weissmuller, he does a much poorer job as Tarzan—seeming, as aforementioned, far too cheerful, casual, and stupid. Doubtlessly a share of the blame for Crabbe’s failed performance should rest with director Robert Hill, whose instructions to the inexperienced Crabbe probably didn’t extend far beyond “try to mimic Weissmuller,” and who either didn’t understand or didn’t care about the subtleties that MGM director W. S. Van Dyke helped the even more inexperienced Weissmuller to convey.

Above: Well, at least he looks the part: Buster Crabbe strikes a good Tarzan pose in the treetops. 

Jacqueline Wells, on the other hand, is excellent as the serial’s heroine; though her dialogue is frequently clumsy (particularly when she tries to engage Tarzan in conversation), her delivery of that dialogue and her facial expressions bring actual emotional depth to her part, whether she’s intently and almost obsessively pushing her expedition onward in the search for her father, or reacting with a convincing combination of alarm and gratification to the realization that Tarzan loves her.

Above: Jacqueline Wells ponders what to do about Tarzan’s display of romantic interest. 

As Wells’ ill-used fiancé, Edward Woods delivers a tough, assertive, but youthfully chipper performance decidedly in the Tom Brown vein; E. Alyn Warren is amusing at times as Wells’ absent-mindedly professorial father (what was probably his best scene, a deception of hostile natives by means of the classic eclipse trick, is another of the serial’s unfortunately missing segments).

Above: Edward Woods and E. Alyn Warren.

Reliable heavy Philo McCullough is crafty and swaggering as the conniving Jeff, but is also curiously likable at times; his matter-of-fact, sardonically unconcerned attitude towards both the indignation of the good guys and the perils of the jungle evoke a kind of reluctant admiration, and his hopeless infatuation with Mary is shown to be something more than typical villainous lustfulness by his dying speech, which McCullough handles quite well. Matthew Betz, as McCullough’s slow-witted henchman Nick, is killed off far too early; his puzzled reactions to McCullough’s schemes and sarcastic remarks are amusing while they last, as is his priceless line (concerning Tarzan’s wardrobe, or lack of same) in Chapter Two.

Above: Matthew Betz hitches up his pants while Philo McCullough cogitates.

Mischa Auer plays the High Priest of Zar with all the somberness, dignity, and intensity needed to make the bizarrely-costumed character into a convincing threat instead of a laughable figure; one only wishes he had more screen time. As the priestess of Zar, Carlotta Monti is effectively smug and sly, but almost all of her footage is missing from the serial’s surviving prints.

Above: Mischa Auer discovers that one of the “jeweled fingers of Zar” is missing. 

Frank Lackteen figures in the first two chapters as the expedition’s Arab head porter, who turns out to be a slaver and kidnaps the heroine; Symona Boniface is his wife and accomplice, and Philip Sleeman is the odious-looking sheikh who appears to be their best customer. Al Kikume can be spotted as one of the warriors of Zar; Ivory Williams evidently played a comic-relief black porter named Unga in the original serial, but all of his dialogue and almost all of his “comic” scenes are absent from surviving prints. Jack Leonard, who played an ape in the MGM feature, does similar duty here; there’s also a genuine chimpanzee on hand to screech, do backflips, get chased by bigger animals, and generally imitate MGM’s “Cheta.”

While it is highly likely that the full print of Tarzan the Fearless contains some additional worthwhile action scenes, and even (possibly) a few good additional character moments, it is hard to believe that any amount of additional footage could remedy the serial’s great weakness: its ill-advised and clumsy depiction of its title hero. As a serial devotee, I still hope to someday see the rest of the serial–but, at the same time, I entertain very little hope that a complete version would be work much better as a whole than the extant version does.

However, the restored version would undoubtedly contain more footage of the redoubtable gorilla Bolgani (pictured above). 

4 thoughts on “Tarzan the Fearless

  1. Glad to see your return to the serial board. I ve only watched bits and pieces of this serial, Im one of the few that doesnt care for Flash Gordon, and Buck Rogers. I like Crabbe in his B westerns but his serials leave me outside looking in. Good revue as usual but no ranking from me on this one.Again welcome back Dan.

  2. The best part of this one star out of five was the swinging in the trees by Crabbe or his double. His trampoline flop off a swing was the pinnacle of the serial. Poor Crabbe. He was made to look like the village idiot. He was either knocked out or dizzy for too long to be the hero. Edgar Rice Burroughs is turning over in his grave. Why do people change the original character? Was Herman Brix (Bruce Bennett) the only one close to the “real” Tarzan. However, great thanks to Eric and Serial Squadron for making the serial available. The add on music, however, was bad.

  3. Saw the feature version of this, and the story is a mess. Hopefully, the serial presentation more coherent. Buster Crabbe’s performance (or lack thereof) can probably be attributed to producer Lesser, who produced Tarzan movies for twenty five years and each one featured the inarticulate character Weissmuller created in 1932. Buster certainly looks the part, and his vine swinging is the best part of the film. Overall, this film strikes me as a quickie made to capitalize on MGM’S hit of the year before. Fortunately Buster Crabbe was better served by the genre three years later.

  4. The chapter version is just as bad and I agree that the swinging through the trees was the best part of the production. However, I am sure I would have loved it at age 10.

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