Anyone who didn’t know better might think I’m living through a second childhood.
On the contrary, what’s really happening is I’m re-living my first and just concentrating on the better parts.
There were few better parts of my childhood than Tarzan and Popeye, and thanks to the greatest channel on television, good old Turner Classic Movies, I was able to get up early enough on Saturday morning this summer to catch a twinbill. And in that the festivities didn’t start until 10, I didn’t even have to strain myself to do so.
First there would be a Popeye cartoon, a real classic with that irresistible theme song and the doors opening and shutting on the poop deck across the credits. What Popeye and Bluto saw in Olive Oyl, I didn’t know 55 years ago and I don’t know now.
But whatever hold she had was enough to have the two rivals beating the fool out of each other until Popeye finally ate his spinach and put an end to the carnage.
The best part was Popeye’s mutterings, which was a big reason he always put me to mind of another iconic figure of my childhood, manager Casey Stengel. Beat reporters who covered the Stengel’s Yankees couldn’t understand what he was saying either half the time, so they just called in Stengelese.
So every Saturday I’d be listening really closely to get off on Popeye’s Popeyese, which never failed to lay me out.
Then would come the main course of my Sunday morning feast, a full-length Tarzan feature. The run began at the beginning, all the way back to 1932, with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan the Ape Man. Yeah, I know there were earlier adaptations to Edgar Rice Burrough’s literary creation, with one even starring the yet-to-be-discovered Boris Karloff in the role of native chieftain up to all kinds of villainy.
But to me, Tarzan started – and in many ways – ended with Johnny Weissmuller in the lead role. Weissmuller was a five-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, and needed to be to out-distance all these angry Hippos riled up by Cheetah and, of course, swim down and kill those countless crocodiles intending to do Jane or Boy grave harm.
If you’ve seen Tarzan and a crocodile thrashing around in the water once, then you’ve seen it dozens of times. Close inspection reveals I’m being literal here. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer did the first six Weissmuller-as-Tarzan features, and RKO did the other six, but neither studio seemed to have the least bit of problem running the same footage over, and over, and over again.
My favorite episodes were the first six with O’Sullivan as Jane. The older I get the better O’Sullivan’s Jane looks in what is so often so close to the altogether.
But in the most scandalous (for the time) scene ever in Tarzan, it wasn’t O’Sullivan herself in the altogether. Instead it was another Olympic swimmer named Josephine McKim, a body double if there ever was one, frolicking nude underneath the water with Tarzan in the feature Tarzan and His Mate.
Those great kill-joys of history, the Hayes Commission, actually censored the scene for years until TCM came along and restored the movie to its original form.
Growing up in a mountain town far from the cultural centers of our state, it failed to register just how politically incorrect the depiction of the African natives was in Tarzan movies. It’s a debate that still rages today, as we could see in 2016 with the release of The Legend of Tarzan.
Did the studios actually become self-conscious about their portrayal? It certainly appears so with the later introduction of tribes of white natives in strange costumes doing all the things black natives did before. Who were the white people in the middle of the African jungle? Where did they come from?
Only on retrospection did I realize what heroes the elephants were in so many films. Not only did Tarzan and Jane train one elephant to hang around and pull the vine that raised the rigged elevator up to the tree house, but time and again an elephant would tenderly lift a grievously injured Tarzan and carry him out of harm’s way – often into the care of the Great Apes that raised our hero from childhood.
But being so big, the elephants really came in handy when Tarzan would let out his infamous yodel and have a herd of the beasts come rampaging through the village just as the natives were getting ready to do their worst to Jane or Boy.
In one episode, Tarzan Finds a Son, Cheetah and his chimpanzee pals actually ride the elephants to the rescue. Great stuff.
Tarzan, as mentioned, was never quite the same after Johnny Weissmuller got too old to rock a loin cloth, and had to gravitate to Jungle Jim. I really didn’t care much for the first replacement, Rex Barker. I liked Gordon Scott better, and can see why Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) was considered by many to be the best Tarzan movie of the post-Weissmuller era.
So for weeks on end, starting this spring, I would roll out of bed on Saturday all fired up to hunker down to another Popeye/Tarzan doubleheader. I even got into the habit of checking out the TCM schedule to see which episode was scheduled.
Then one sad Friday night I looked to find a Clint Eastwood movie, Every Which Way But Loose, in the usual 10 a.m. slot. It couldn’t be, I told myself. Surely it had to be a mistake.
But alas, I woke up on Saturday with no Popeye, and no Tarzan. To combat the withdrawal, I actually rented a double-feature Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan Finds a Son, from Netflix, and watched them last weekend.
Whoever said all good things come to an end is obviously not a fan of TCM. Unless I miss my bet, it will be only a matter of time until they start recycling all those Tarzan movies back over again.
My only hope is they pair them with a classic Popeye cartoon.