Monday, March 18, 2013

Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946)

Here we are, my final review of a Tarzan movie from the Weissmuller era. Yeah there were a few more made after this, but the sets I received contained only eight flicks, and I think I’ve seen the best the series has to offer. Does that mean this film ends my reviews on a high note, or is this the lowest point?

While Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) is on a shopping trip with Jane (Brenda Joyce) in the village of Zambesi, a horribly injured man arrives on an elephant. He’s been ripped up by horrible claws and claims the caravan that he was on was destroyed by a pack of bloodthirsty leopards. Tarzan is skeptical, because the wounds are claws only, and any good ape-man knows that leopards will bite their prey as well.

Soon a hunting expedition is organized to track down the leopards, and much to Tarzan’s chagrin, a whole mess of leopards are caught and killed. But Tarzan is correct; the whole thing is a ruse. A tribe of Leopard worshiping cultists is determined to destroy any semblance of civilization in the jungle. Their priestess, the lovely Lea (Acquanetta) has her sights set on our favorite jungle family. Will anyone survive unscathed in the battle between Tarzan and the Leopard Woman?

Good Points:
  • Tarzan is back in action with this film
  • The character of Kimba creates an interesting twist on villainy
  • The villains in general are a refreshing change of pace

Bad Points:
  • The antics of Cheetah come back with a vengeance
  • Contains some of goofiest moments in any of the Tarzan films
  • Jane is even more useless in this film

This is a definite improvement over the tepid Tarzan and the Amazons. Tarzan gets to use his strength and wits in several action scenes. Boy even gets in on the action when Jane becomes the target of a cultist. Unfortunately the leopard tribes’ outfits are so silly that it makes them look less than threatening. The leopard hunt is also unintentionally funny. With that said, it’s not a bad way to spend a lazy Sunday.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 3
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review
Tarzan saves a bevy of beauties this time around.
When it comes to Tarzan and the Leopard Woman you have equal parts goofy with equal parts adventure. There are some unusual elements to the plot and execution of this film. At the same time it is missing some of the key elements that made the earlier films so entertaining. In a way, it’s a middle of the road entry, and yet it’s also one that can be a lot of fun if you look at it the right way.

The jungle family from the previous film has returned, but there’s a bit more meat for everyone to chew on in this film. Weissmuller is back to the running, jumping and fighting that we expect. An exciting sequence has him attempting to rescue a band of young women from the deranged leopard cultists. It allows Weissmuller to show off his swimming, swinging and fighting techniques. But Tarzan also uses his brain to set up traps for the pursuers and use the jungle to his advantage. With the lack of jungle adventure in the previous two films this was a welcome bit of fun. The only thing missing is the traditional Tarzan call to summon his animal friends. Either this was considered cliché, or the call was owned by MGM and RKO couldn’t use it.

Boy doesn't trust Kimba, who is obviously not a white lion.
Boy and Jane get more to do in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, when they meet Kimba (Tommy Cook). This young man is about Boy’s age. He’s lost in the jungle and happens upon the family. Jane and Boy take to Kimba pretty quickly, but Tarzan senses something wrong about the lad. Of course, Tarzan is right, Kimba is a member of the leopard tribe and he has his sights set on killing Jane.

What follows is one of the most surprising elements of the film, an obviously homicidal and sociopathic young man plotting the demise of a woman who is treating him like a son. Cook does a good job playing the part, his eyes going cold when he thinks no one is watching him, and his friendliness coming across a bit strained. Eventually Boy figures out what is going on and attacks Kimba just as he’s about to murder Jane.

Tarzan and Jane go shopping... SHOPPING!
What follows is a hand-to-hand battle between Boy and Kimba. And once again the writers for Jane have no idea what to do with her. Instead of leaping to Boy’s aid, or trying to get help, Jane stands there and frets and gasps. Yes, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman offers no change the suburban mom portrayal of Jane. It’s easy to say Brenda Joyce is the problem, but I don’t think it’s the case. She’s playing the role she was given. And if that means going on a shopping trip with Tarzan in the opening moments of the movie – well then that’s what we get.

That brings me to the element of the film that keeps it from really taking off. There are some amazingly goofy visuals in this movie. The first is the entire shopping trip sequence. Seeing Tarzan in his loincloth and Jane in her jungle garb wandering around a bizarre and haggling for items is just plain odd. I kept waiting for Jane to hand Tarzan her purse while she tried on tunic. Of course some of this is played for laughs (especially the scenes with Boy and Cheetah getting into mischief with a snake charmer). But the visual oddity of it makes you wonder how much director Kurt Neumann was in on the joke.

Time for beddie bye with these cute leopard pajamas.
But the real humdinger here is the whole leopard cult. From Lea’s high priestess outfit, to the flailing about during the ceremonies to the assassin garb the leopard killers use – well it’s all pretty silly looking. The men end up looking hilarious in what almost appears to be leopard footy pajamas with sharp claws on the ends. Kimba’s killer outfit is the best, because it actually includes a mask over the eyes making him look even funnier. It is impossible to take any of the scenes seriously when these guys are running around.

The other element of comedy in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman is the leopard hunt itself. To throw Tarzan and the community of Zambesi off the scent of the cult, the villains actually unleash a group of leopards on the hunting party. This convinces the folks of Zambesi (and Boy and Jane) that real leopards were responsible for the lost caravan, and makes Tarzan look like an idiot for believing otherwise. It’s actually a pretty clever ruse by the villains. If only the leopards didn’t look so obviously stuffed. During this action climax hilarity ensues as stuffed leopards are tossed around at folks (with some footage of real leopards mixed in). These plushies seems to have strawberry preserves on their paws and they end up getting everyone they touch all messy with jam. Tarzan manages to tap some of them with his knife and that knocks them over long enough to save some of more important members of the hunting party. But in the end you just want to know if all the strawberry jam was used for toast or maybe a PBJ.

This poor man is terribly allergic to plush toys
and strawberry jam.
These moments make Tarzan and the Leopard Woman one of the most unintentionally funny Tarzan flicks I’ve seen. This is actually perfect for a movie riffing night. You also get the scenes where Tarzan is tied to a wooden pole while the leopard priestess threatens to hurt him… and well… the riffing just writes itself.

But there is an interesting serious side to the film. Of all eight of the Tarzan films I’ve seen, this is the first one to actually not feature the white civilized man as the primary enemy. Instead we have a cult of leopard worshipers who think nothing of killing women and children to get what they want. But what doe they want?

Here is the irony, the leopard cult actually wants what Tarzan has always stood for – to leave the jungle and it’s people and animals untouched. The leopard tribe fears that the white influence in the town of Zambesi will spread into the jungle and destroy their way of life. To protect their culture they attack caravans, attempt to murder a group of young teachers, and then attack Tarzan’s family.

Tarzan and the Temple of Doom?
What is strange is that Tarzan takes the side of the white civilization in this film. Much like Jane, who’s been completely suburban-ified. Tarzan has been turned into a defender of civilization – not the jungle. It’s an interesting twist, one that is made personal once Kimba attempts to kill Jane and Boy. Once that happens, Tarzan takes the gloves off. He literally wipes out the entire tribe by causing a cave in that crushes them all. Only the two traitors Kimba and Lazar (who pretended to be helping the commissioner of the village) survive, but just long enough to kill each other. The message here may be that savagery consumes and destroys itself.

To add another layer to the whole thing, the shining example of white imperial civilization in Tarzan and the Leopard Woman is in the form of the Commissioner (Dennis Hoey). This man is portrayed as clueless, stuck up, lost, befuddled and just plain moronic from the moment we see him. It’s all played for laughs, but you wonder why Tarzan would help this guy out, when in previous films someone like the Commissioner would be the first one to be eaten by lions. On the flip side you have Lazar (Edgar Barrier) who is capable, clever and resourceful (but also a bit full of himself). He’s the villain, but he feels more like the typical ally in one of these films.

I can’t decide if this switch is an attempt to break up the standard plot and give the whole thing a bit of freshness. Or maybe it was a conscious effort to make Tarzan more suitable to the times. Instead of fighting civilization, he is now defending it, a hero closer to the hearts of those folks in 1946, instead of the one who was born in Tarzan the Ape Man in 1932.

The Leopard woman is holding one hell of  a
back scratcher.
As far as production values go, this film looks a little better than Tarzan and the Amazons. There’s a bit more outdoor locations used, and the action scenes are filmed and edited well, building on each other. The chase scene is handled really well, and could have come from one of the better MGM flicks. The musical score by Paul Sawtell is typical golden age style scoring for an adventure flick. It contains lots of big musical moments with swelling strings and horns. Very influenced by the work done by Max Steiner for King Kong.

What it boils down to is that you have a fun jungle adventure movie that has enough visual silliness to make it entertaining for a riffing night. It falls in the middle of the pack of eight Tarzan flicks I reviewed, the best of the lot still being Tarzan and his Mate. It was fun revisiting these flicks, and I’m sure I’ll be giving one or two of them another spin in the future.


  1. I've seen all of these from when they were weekend daytime fare when I was a kid, but I'd forgotten most of the details of this one. Good observation about Tarzan's apparent domestication and accommodation with civilization -- too many afternoon teas in the (very) country house with Jane, perhaps. The switch probably was connected to spirit of the times, as you suggest, which was very much about restoring what the winners considered to be civilization in the aftermath of the war. As for Jane...well, there is probably material for a lengthy analysis of how her evolution/devolution tracked the trends of the times. But in any time, bad girls like the leopard woman always seem to have more fun -- until the cave-in anyway.

    Unlike your two anonymous posters of comments, I won't insist that you visit my weblog.

    1. I agree the bad girls do get all the fun. Tarzan stays tied to that pole for quite a while before he escapes. You could say he was waiting for his family to make a break for it... but I don't know. :)

      Yes the "anonymous posters" have been bombarding my comment sections of late. Some of the comments are actually pretty funny. I can't tell if they were written by computers or someone with only a passing grasp of written English.

  2. This is my favorite Tarzan film. Weissmuller was in superb shape, his powerful chest never looked better.
    Brenda Joyce,although very wholesome was a very lovely and shapely Jane.
    Acquanetta as Lea was off the charts for sex appeal. The scene where she threatens to torture Tarzan is very erotic and chilling!