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Volume 6719

ERB of the Silver Screen
A Resource Guide to the Movies of Edgar Rice Burroughs
An ongoing ERBzine and ERB C.H.A.S.E.R. ENCYCLOPEDIA project

From TARZAN ON FILM by Scott Tracy Griffin
Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #181
After two Tarzan films without Jane, producer Sol Lesser finally decided to recast the role (former Jane Maureen O’Sullivan was pregnant with her third child with husband John Farrow, daughter Mia), and hired blonde Brenda Joyce to play opposite Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and Johnny Sheffield (Boy) in “Tarzan and the Amazons” (1945). Joyce remained in the role for five films.

Joyce was born Betty Leabo in Excelsior Springs, Missouri on February 20, 1917. After her parents’ marriage dissolved, she moved to Southern California with her mother. While attending UCLA, she began appearing in national modelling campaigns for products like hosiery, shoes, toothpaste, and automobiles.

Her modeling work earned the attention of 20th Century Fox executives, who gave her a contract and launched her career with a role as Fern Simon in “The Rains Came” (1939), as the newly christened Brenda Joyce. After several supporting roles, she received the lead in the Fox comedy “Marry the Bo$$’$ Daughter” in 1941. She also married her high school sweetheart Owen Ward that year, a union that produced three children. Following her final ape-man picture, “Tarzan’s Magic Fountain” (1949) with Lex Barker, Joyce retired from acting to focus on her family.

Later in life, Joyce worked with Refugee Services in Washington DC for 10 years, followed by a stint with Catholic Resettlement in Seaside, California. Joyce died of complications from pneumonia on July 4, 2009 in a Santa Monica, California nursing home.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #182
To helm the third of his Johnny Weissmuller RKO Tarzan films, producer Sol lesser tapped his associate producer Kurt Neumann, who had directed re-shoots on “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery” (1943). Neumann was given a term contract to direct “Tarzan and the Amazons” (1945) and the succeeding films “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman” (1946) and “Tarzan and the Huntress” (1947). He returned to the series in 1953 to helm “Tarzan and the She-Devil” with actor Lex Barker in the lead.

Neumann is best remembered to genre fans as a director of Atomic Age science fiction films like “Rocketship X-M” (1950) and “Kronos” (1957). Born in Nuremberg, Germany on April 5, 1908, he was brought to the U.S. by Carl Laemmle, Jr. to direct German- and Spanish-language versions of Universal pictures. Neumann moved over to Slim Summerville comedies and then freelanced; he was assigned to direct “The Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), but was replaced by James Whale, who had shot the film’s predecessor, “Frankenstein” (1931). Neumann later contributed to the horror scripts for “Dracula’s Daughter” (1936) and “The Return of the Vampire” (1943).

Ten days after wrapping his final picture, “The Return to King Solomon’s Mines” (subsequently re-titled “Watusi”), Neumann was admitted to the hospital emergency room and died the following day, August 21, 1958, shortly after the release of his film “The Fly.” His wife pre-deceased him on July 12, 1958 after a lengthy illness.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #183
An August 8, 1944, “Hollywood Reporter” brief reported that director Kurt Neumann sought 48 tall, athletic women to play Amazons in his picture “Tarzan and the Amazons”; “Los Angeles Times” entertainment columnist Edwin Schallert further noted that Neumann was back from a tour of New England, the South, and the Midwest seeking “Glamazons.” On September 11, columnist Hedda Hopper stated that Neumann had scouted Utah and the High Sierras for a location to match the African veldt, before settling on Baldwin Park (now the Los Angeles County Arboretum).

Among the statuesque beauties chosen to portray uncredited Amazons were Margery “Muffy” Marston (a 5’10” former Miss Florida, who had shared the title with her sister) and Christine Forsyth; RKO offered a life-sized cardboard standee of Forsyth in her Amazon costume for theatrical promotions.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #184
The events of “Tarzan and the Amazons” (1945) are precipitated by by Athena (Shirley O’Hara) a kind-hearted Amazon rescued by Tarzan and returned to her city—leading to a tragic encounter with looters from the outside world.

Born in Rochester, Minnesota on August 15, 1924, O’Hara’s high school ambition was to be a newspaper reporter. Following her graduation, she vacationed in Hollywood, hoping to collect celebrity autographs. She took a job at Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills as a salesgirl and hosiery saleslady, where she met a producer’s wife, who referred her for an RKO contract.

After working for a couple of years as an extra and uncredited bit player, she won a term contract for her role in “Amazons.” O’Hara also appeared on television, where she won guest-starring and recurring roles. Later in life, she worked as a publicist for The Burbank Studios, retiring in 1995.

O’Hara was married twice, first to Jimmy McHugh, Jr., head of MCA, U.K., with whom she had son Jimmy McHugh III, and then to screenwriter Milton Krims, a founding member of the WGA. O’Hara died of complications from diabetes on December 13, 2002 in Calabasas, California.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #185

The Amazons’ matriarch and ruler in RKO’s “Tarzan and the Amazons” (1945) was played by Madame Maria Ouspenskaya. Frail and tiny, she used her imperious European mein to great effect in her film appearances.

Maria Alekseyevna Ouspenskaya was born in Tula, Russia on July 26, 1876 (though she often shaved a decade off her age). She aspired to be a singer, and studied at the Warsaw Conservatory until her money ran out, then moved to Moscow in 1906 enroll in Adasheff’s School of Drama, supporting herself by singing in church. She studied for three years at the Private School of the Artists of the Moscow Art Theater before joining the permanent company in 1911, one of 5 students admitted out of 250 applicants. As her dramatic talent gained renown, she toured the U.S. with famed drama instructor Konstatin Stanislavsky in 1922, and remaining in the States to pursue a career on the Great White Way.

She made her Broadway debut in “The Saint” in October, 1924. Richard Boleslavsky offered her a job at his Laboratory Theater, five years later she established her own drama school (teaching Stanislavsky’s “method”), moving it to Los Angeles in 1939, and changing the name to American Reparatory Theater Studio. Her students included John Garfield, Franchot Tone, Joan Crawford, Frances Farmer, Kate Hepburn, Anne Baxter, and Anne Seymour. She was called “Madame” by the students of her school, who were too respectful to call her Maria, but didn’t want to use her long surname.

To fund her school, she made her first U.S. film appearance at age 60, receiving critical acclaim and an Academy Award Best Supporting Actress nomination for recreating her stage role “Baroness Von Obersdorf” in “Dodsworth” (1936). This was the first year for Supporting Actor and Actress awards; the film was also nominated for best picture. Ouspenskaya received a second Academy Award nomination for the role of “Grandmother Marnet” in RKO’s “Love Affair” (1939), but lost to Hattie McDaniel’s performance of “Mammy” in “Gone With the Wind”. Despite her credentials, Ouspenskaya declined studio contracts, preferring to choose her own roles, like the memorable Maleva the gypsy in “The Wolf Man” (1941).

Ouspenskaya died of a stroke at the Motion Picture Country Home on December 3, 1949, three days after falling asleep while smoking in bed and suffering severe burns.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #186
RKO’s “Tarzan and the Amazons” (1945) offered a lost race tale in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels.

Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) rescues the injured Amazon Athena (Shirley O’Hara) from a leopard and returns her to her city, Palmyria, hidden deep in the mountains. Boy (Johnny Sheffield) surreptitiously follows to spy on the forbidden city.

When Jane (Brenda Joyce) returns from civilization with her friend, Sir Guy Henderson (Henry Stephenson) and a party of scientists, Cheta gives her a gold bracelet filched from Athena. The scientists are eager to learn the secrets of the lost city—but Tarzan refuses to betray the Amazons’ location. Led by the greedy local trader Ballister (Barton MacLane), the men convince Boy (Johnny Sheffield) to take them to Palmyria.

There, they are imprisoned, but loot the city and escape in a running battle. Boy is captured by the Amazons and sentenced for death for his role in the affair. Tarzan must chase down the rogues and regain the Amazons’ sacred artifacts to preserve Boy’s life.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #187
Sol Lesser’s 1946 Tarzan film was announced as “Tarzan and the Intruder,” to be written by his daughter, Marjorie Lesser Pfaelser and Griffin Jay. The concept was refined (or changed) to “Tarzan and the Leopard Men” before Lesser settled on “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman” to add a female menace to the series.

The cat cult featured onscreen and in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novel “Tarzan and the Leopard Men,” was based in reality: a secret society in central Africa who dressed as leopards (with knife-like claw bracelets decades before Freddy Kreuger was conceived) and committed ritual murder and cannibalism in the early 20th Century. The Leopard Men adherents were eventually brought to justice and the practice faded into obscurity.

“Leopard Woman” went into production in July 1945, with Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, and Johnny Sheffield reprising their roles as Tarzan, Jane, and Boy, respectively. Kurt Neumann directed his second ape-man film from a script by Carroll Young, who eventually contributed to five of Lesser’s Tarzan films. Oscar-winning lensmen Karl Struss, A.S.C. (“Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans,” 1929), shot the picture at RKO’s lot and the Los Angeles Arboretum in Arcadia.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #188
Seductive femme fatales are a frequent trope in the Tarzan novels that producer Sol Lesser was happy to capitalize upon. Lea the Leopard Queen, played by Acquanetta, provided the memorable menace of RKO’s “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman” (1946).

Acquanetta claimed that she was born in Cheyenne Wyoming to an Arapaho woman on July 17, 1921, and grew up with her father’s family in Pennsylvania, named Acquanetta (“Burning Fire, Deep Water”) by her birth mother.

She modeled for Harry Conover and John Robert Powers in New York, before crafting her “Venezuelan Volcano” identity and traveling to Hollywood, where she won a contract with Universal Studios. After small roles in “Arabian Nights” (1942) and “Rhythm of the Islands” (1943), Universal cast in in a female monster franchise, the films “Captive Wild Woman” (1943) and the sequel, “Jungle Woman” (1944), in which she transforms into a gorilla, but the pictures didn’t capture the public’s fancy like previous Universal monster releases. “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman” was the high point of her dramatic career.

Despite an invitation from Johnny Weissmuller to act in his “Jungle Jim” series, she left Hollywood in 1948. She conceived a son, Sergio, with Luciano Bashuk, a Mexican millionaire, but the child died of cancer at age five, and Acquanetta was unable to produce any evidence of a marriage when she sued Bashuk for support. Press coverage of the trial further revealed that she was actually Mildred Davenport of Norristown Pennsylvania, an alumna of West Virginia State College for Negroes, born in Newberry, South Carolina.

Acquanetta rebounded by marrying painter Henry Clive, 68, but that coupling was turbulent, too. Her final marriage, to Phoenix car dealer Jack Ross, lasted 25 years and produced four sons. Acquanetta died of complications from Alzheimer’s Disease on August 16, 2004 in the Phoenix suburb Ahwatukee. She was remembered for her flashy turquoise jewelry, outsize personality, and philanthropical contributions. She maintained her claims of a Native American origin throughout her life.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #189
“Tarzan and the Leopard Woman” (1946), Sol Lesser’s fourth Tarzan film starring Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny Sheffield, offered a unique menace inspired by the leopard men cults of Central Africa.

The plot: Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller), Jane (Brenda Joyce), and Boy (Johnny Sheffield) visit Zambesi, where the Commissioner (Dennis Hoey) requests the ape man’s help. A series of leopard attacks is stymying progress in the Bagandi territory, and foul play is suspected. The dirty deeds are courtesy of Dr. Lazar (Edgar Barrier) and his lover Lea (Acquanetta), who have created a cult of Leopard Men to repel outsiders. Lea’s little brother Kimba (Tommy Cook) befriends Tarzan’s family, hoping to earn his spots (so to speak) by killing Jane and delivering her heart to the clan. His attack is rebuffed, but Tarzan and family are captured by the leopard men and prepared for sacrifice. It remains to Cheta to rescue the trio so that Tarzan can destroy the cult’s temple and end the threat.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #190
Dr. Ameer Lazar, the villainous cult leader of “Tarzan and the Leopard Woman” (1946) was portrayed by versatile character actor Edgar Barrier, an RKO contractee.

Born March 4, 1907 in New York City, the son of a physician father and dentist mother, Barrier was schooled in New York City, Switzerland, and England, studied for three years at Columbia University, and toured with the renowned Jitney Players theater troupe. Barrier eventually matriculated to Broadway in plays like “Mary of Scotland” with Helen Hayes; “Idiot’s Delight” with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; and “Love from a Stranger.”

A skilled linguist who assumed numerous foreign accents with ease, he worked in on stage, film, television and radio. Barrier was a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater On the Air, and relocated to Hollywood under an RKO contract with Welles.

Barrier, whose wife Ernestine and son Michael also acted on film and television, died of a heart attack on June 20, 1964, and is interred at Westwood Memorial Park.

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