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TARZAN'S BAD MOVIE MYSTERY
In any polling for the best of Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies one film not likely to garner many votes is the 1943 Tarzan's Desert Mystery, which has been denigrated by both fans and critics. But sometimes even a bad movie has its rewards and certainly its share of secrets.
The title itself is something of a misnomer. The film was originally to be called Tarzan Against the Sahara but before release the title was changed to Tarzan's Desert Mystery. What did RKO want viewers to expect? Tarzan as a loin clothed sleuth? Detective films were then becoming popular and stranger things were happening. In the 1944 Call of the Jungle, sarong clad Ann Corio (who supposedly was once considered to play Jane) portrayed an island jungle queen who solved a crime mystery.
But Tarzan was not to play such a role in his film. In fact, it is difficult to see what "mystery" there is in the story. The villains who are German agents working undercover are revealed to the audience very early while the American heroine's secret mission for a sheik is explained in her first scene. The biggest mystery may not be in the story but in the making of a movie with its curious plot shift and an apparent late rewrite from the original scenario.
By almost any standard, Tarzan's Desert Mystery seems a bad movie. For most of the film the story is shifted away from Tarzan's usual jungle habitat to the desert. Burroughs, himself has portrayed Tarzan in such a setting. But in this movie, aside from freeing a wild stallion, Tarzan has little to do in this new environment. Then despite this (or because of it) Tarzan is locked away and kept off screen for a long stretch of time. When he reappears he takes part in a rousing rescue and then the film shifts to a jungle locale with prehistoric (and possibly ahistoric) monsters. There is no explanation for this (the mystery of the title?) nor for the fact that a jungle with dinosaurs exists a short ride away from a village without anyone seeming to notice. In these jungle scenes there is no interaction between Tarzan and the dinosaurs who obviously were produced from stock shots. And there is a final mechanical monster, a giant spider which is, to say the least, not totally convincing.
Why the strange change of tone in the movie's last few minutes? On Geoffrey St. Andrews' Johnny Weissmuller website the film's original pressbook is cited showing a different climax. When the sinister Nazi spy played by Otto Kruger was exposed, Kruger gave the signal for a general uprising. There ensued a pitched battle in the town between his forces and those of the sheiks aided by Tarzan with the Ape Man and his allies triumphing.
Why was this sequence changed and probably never shot? St. Andrews suggests that the expense of shooting such a big action scene may have persuaded producer Sol Lesser to use a different ending with stock shots from "One Million Years B.C." But couldn't Lesser have also used stock shots of a different nature to minimize the expense of shooting this scene?
Perhaps there is another explanation. The original climax of this movie is virtually the same climax to the previous Tarzan adventure, Tarzan Triumphs. Normally, viewer amnesia was always counted on for repetitive scenes in Tarzan movies, especially as each entry was released a couple of years apart. But because of the big box office success of Tarzan Triumphs, RKO decided to rush the release of the next Tarzan just ten months later. Lesser may have had second thoughts about whether this ending would work under the circumstances and the temptation of providing a different and more fantastic finale on the cheap may have proved overwhelming.
Ironically, some of the strategies used in Tarzan's Desert Mystery would prove useful in the 1950s. In the trend of low budget monster movies, which were often independent productions, the use of stock footage would become a popular device. And there would be movie monsters even more poorly constructed than the giant spider in "Mystery". One could even argue that Tarzan's Desert Mystery was a decade ahead of its time in its badness.
If the "monster" portion of this movie looks to the future, the creaky espionage plot is surely a fixture of its era, the kind of exotic derring do adventure that could still pass muster when the Germans were the enemy in World War II. But there is another mystery here. Why does the script have Tarzan absent so long so that the leading lady can take the risks?
Again, without access to studio memos one can only speculate on the reasons. There may be other equally plausible explanations but I'd like to suggest one possible answer.
The big financial success of Tarzan Triumphs suggested that Tarzan might still have an adult audience and by late 1943 with so many men away at war, a very large part of that audience would have to be female. More women oriented films were appearing and there was something of a vogue for films of "women in peril". The concern with a more empowered female audience might also explain why a group of sympathetic Amazons were at the center of the last Tarzan movie shot before the end of the war.
As Connie Bryce, the heroine of Tarzan's Desert Mystery, Nancy Kelly was a talented and versatile actress who seemed to lack star power. But when Tarzan was offscreen she was the heroic figure. And the dastardly Otto Kruger spent almost the entire second half of the movie trying to do away with Ms. Kelly.
Not all of the critics have been unkind to this movie (e.g. Leonard Maltin) and there are reasons for this. Kelly is a definite plus and while credibility is non-existent, she and her co-stars Weissmuller and Johnny Sheffield maintain audience empathy. Even if it is one of the weakest of the Weissmullers and for all its silliness, this "Tarzan" is more watchable and more fun than some somewhat better crafted (and duller) Tarzan movies to come.
After this movie Jane would return but the RKO plots for Tarzan would remain on the "fantastic" side.
Dissatisfaction with "Mystery" would sever its director William Thiele from work on future Tarzan movies though Thiele had helmed not only the successful "Triumphs" but a hit "female Tarzan" adventure The Jungle Princess starring Dorothy Lamour. A German emigre Thiele was destined never to hit the big time as a director. But he would make a film that would win him some cult status. In their book on Human Monsters authors George E. Turner and Michael H. Price refer to Thiele's 1946 movie The Madonna's Secret as "a superior one, rich in ideas and pictorial beauty, a more personal work than such Thiele hits as The Jungle Princess and Tarzan Triumphs". Perhaps a remake starring the title's current namesake might help revive interest in Thiele.
Otto Kruger had already played a Nazi spy in Alfred Hitchcock's The Saboteur. But the year after "Mystery" he turned up in a musical! Though he did not sing, Kruger appeared with Rita Hayworth in the color extravaganza, Cover Girl. (There may have been a missed opportunity here. Imagine Otto and his spider pal from "Tarzan" reunited for a duet.) Kruger would also get to play in a "real movie mystery", the 1944 Murder, My Sweet adapted from Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely.
Nancy Kelly would continue to roam through Hollywood's B Movie jungle, but more regally, cast as an island queen in the 1945 Song of the Sarong. Eventually, Kelly quit the movies for better opportunities on the Broadway stage. She would find a very good one in the play The Bad Seed. Kelly would also star in the movie version and win an Academy Award nomination.
But during her B movie career Kelly also had vehicles to show off her talents. The 1945 The Woman Who Came Back was a low budget psychological horror film done with some skill and subtlety and a plot similar to the current Bruce Willis movie Unbreakable.
Kelly is the only survivor of a bus accident but she grows to believe that this is because the spirit of a witch is taking over her body. As the descendant of a New England witch hunter she becomes convinced that this is a form of supernatural retribution. Are these feelings real or imaginary? Helping Kelly through this crisis is the local minister, a kindly and sagelike man of the cloth played by . . . Otto Kruger.
Frederic Lombardi has written about films for Variety and its
subsidiary publication, Variety's International Film Guide.
He currently writes for the Director's World website on
the internet publication, Creative Planet.
TARZAN'S DESERT MYSTERY (1943)
SAHARA'S SANDS AFLAME - DEATH AND TREACHERY ON SAHARA'S SANDS!
Turbaned terror rides the dunes, seeking out Tarzan and the doomed beauty he's protecting!
Director: Wilhelm Thiele (also directed Tarzan Triumphs (1943))
Producers: Sol Lesser and Kurt Neumann
Writing credits: Edward T. Lowe Jr. (Also scripted Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond and Charlie Chan movies)
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures Inc. USA
Filming Locations: Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, Lake Sherwood, California and Wakulla Springs, Fla ~ USA
Technical Specifications: Film negative format 35 mm ~ Cinematographic process ~ Spherical ~ Aspect ratio 1.37 : 1
Original Music: Paul Sawtell
Genre: Action / Adventure (more)
Plot Summary: A letter from Jane, who is nursing British troops, asks Tarzan's help in obtaining a malaria serum extractable from jungle plants. Tarzan and Boy set out across the desert looking for the plants and wind up ruining a German's attempt to capture a wild horse. They arrive in an Arab city and rescue a stranded American lady magician, sentenced to be hanged for carrying a secret message to the Sheik. To obtain the plants, Tarzan must fight prehistoric monsters, Nazis, and so on. Summary written by Ed Stephan
At-A-Glance Film Review: In this slow-going episode of the Tarzan series, Jane, absent for the second of two films in a row, is away helping the war effort as a nurse. She writes Tarzan, asking him to gather some of the medicinal herbs that can only be found in a jungle on the other side of a desert. On the way, they run into an espionage plot, a flighty helpless messenger (Nancy Kelly) posing as a magician, and a wild stallion.
Leonard Malton Summary: Tarzan vs. Nazis, take two, with some evil Arabs and prehistoric creatures (including a giant spider) thrown in for
good measure. (2 1/2 Stars)
IMDB Fan Rating: 6/10
Johnny Weissmuller ~ Tarzan
Nancy Kelly ~ Connie Bryce, American Magician
Johnny Sheffield ~ Boy
Otto Kruger ~ Heinrich, alias Paul Hendrix
Joe Sawyer ~ Karl Strader
Lloyd Corrigan ~ Sheik Abdul El Khim
Robert Lowery ~ Prince Selim
Frank Puglia ~ Arab Dignitary
Philip Van Zandt ~ Kushmet
Dice ~ Jaynar
George J. Lewis ~ Hassan
Nestor Paiva ~ Prison Guard
Also Known As:
Tarzan Against the Sahara (1943) (USA: working title)
Tarzan and the Sheik (1943) (USA: working title)
Tarzan's Desert Mystery
Runtime: USA: 70m
Color: Black and White
Sound Mix: Mono
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Matt's Tarzan Movie Guide
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Oak Park Tourist Tarzan Movies and Movie Guides
Internet Movie Data Base: Tarzan's Desert Mystery
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Tarzan Films and Serials
Tarzan Film Locations
Bad Cinema Diary: Tarzan's Desert Mystery
Johnny Sheffield Images
Tarzan's Desert Mystery Photos
Movie Making Exterior Locations
Jerry L. Schneider's Movie Making Locations
Kings of the Jungle by David Fury
Bruce Hershenson / eMovie Poster
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