There’ve been countless Tarzan movies. And though we have sadly yet to have a truly classic Tarzan film, there have nonetheless been quite a few entertaining ones.
Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1948) is one of the entertaining ones. It’s one of a series of skillfully-made B-movies featuring the Lord of the Jungle produced by RKO during the post-war years. Lex Barker is appropriately athletic and capable as Tarzan and Brenda Joyce is a very pretty and personable Jane.
The script was co-written by Curt Siodmak and Harry Chandlee. Siodmak was a great storyteller—his other work included scripts for a few of the classic Universal monster movies (with The Wolf Man being the most important of those). He also wrote a weird and atmospheric science fiction novel titled Donovan’s Brain, in which a disembodied brain gains telepathic control over someone else’s body.
Siodmak had a talent for taking a fantasy premise and weaving a coherent plot around it. Tarzan’s Magic Fountain involves a hidden civilization that has access to a Fountain of Youth; an Amelia Earhart-like aviatrix who crashed in the jungle 20 years; and several greedy outsiders who want to find the secret of eternal youth. On top of all this, a few inhabitants of the city are led to believe Tarzan has betrayed their location and opt to assassinate him.
The plot hangs together quite well and there’s some really neat visuals scattered throughout the film. This may have been a low-budget B-movie, but it was made in an era when B-movie makers were skilled at getting the most out of the resources they had available to them.
The jungle sets are quite good and manage to convey a sense that the story really is taking place in Africa. A scene in which Jane and several others are caught in a ravine during a flash flood is very well done. Some matte paintings used for the establishing shots of the mountain pass leading to the hidden city are effective in terms of basic storytelling as well as being beautifully photographed. There’s a nifty looking wrecked plane, covered with foliage and with a skeleton seated in the pilot’s seat—and a snake weaving its way through the skeleton.
My favorite image from the movie results from the death of one of the villains. He and a small party are searching for the hidden city and find the mountain pass. But the pass is watched by guards equipped with a wonking big crossbow. The villain (who wears an eye patch) is pinned to a tree by a flaming arrow.
Later on, in a scene that would have taken place some weeks later, Tarzan and several other characters pass this location. They find an eye-patch-wearing skeleton still pinned to the tree by the arrow. Now that’s just plain cool.
The supporting cast is good as well, as was typical in an era when there were so many good character actors under contract to the studios. The main bad guy is played by Albert Dekker, who can always be depended on to be an effective villain. Watch him as a mad scientist in Dr. Cyclops (1940) or a crime boss in the excellent film noir The Killers (1946) for other “good” turns as a bad guy. (In fact, those two films along with Tarzan’s Magic Fountain would make for an odd but enjoyable Albert Dekker triple feature.)
The movie isn’t perfect. There’s too much time spent on Cheetah’s antics in an effort to generate some comic relief. (I’m pretty sure Western Civilization exhausted the possibilities of getting humor out of monkeys some time during the 1930s.) The ending needed a little bit more action—it’s not a bad climax at all, but Tarzan needed some opportunity to kick some villainous butt rather than spending as much time as he did just running away. Someone else gets to do in the bad guys, which can’t help but be disappointing.
But the good stuff outweighs the bad. This movie recently became available through something Warner Brothers is calling their Archives program. These movies aren’t released on DVD through regular commercial venues. Instead, you buy one online and they print the disc on demand. There’s no extras and the chapter stops are put in a ten-minute intervals, making them kind of random. But what the hey—the movie itself is the important thing. With shipping, it’s a little too expensive for me to be buying many of these, but I remembered that eye-patch-wearing skeleton from seeing this movie on TV years before and I knew I would have to splurge a little to get it. I’m glad I did.