Watching 1939: Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult.

1939 film:
Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)

tarzan finds a son

Release date:
June 16, 1939

Cast:
Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, Johnny Sheffield, Ian Hunter, Frieda Inescort, Henry Stephenson, Henry Wilcoxon, Laraine Day, Morton Lowry

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
Richard Thorpe

Plot:
When a plane crashes in the jungle, Cheetah the Ape finds there is a baby on board. Bringing the baby to Tarzan (Weissmuller) and Jane (O’Sullivan), they raise the child as their own in the jungle. When five years pass, relatives of the baby bring a search party (Hunter, Inescort, Stephenson) to find survivors of the crash, because an inheritance is at stake.

1939 Notes:
• The first MGM Tarzan movie in three years, because the studio let the film rights for the character lapse.
• By the numbers:
– Johnny Weissmuller was in one movie in 1939.
– Maureen O’Sullivan was in two movies released in 1939.
– Henry Stephenson was in three movies released in 1939
– Henry Wilcoxon was in four movies released in 1939.
– Johnny Sheffield was in two movies released in 1939. This was his first credited role and his second film role.
– Ian Hunter was in seven movies released in 1939.
– Frieda Inescort was in five movies released in 1939.
– Laraine Day was in five movies released in 1939. This was her second film under contract to MGM following her first Dr. Kildare film.
– Morton Lowry was in four movies released in 1939.

tarzan finds a song 4

Other trivia:
• The fifth MGM Tarzan film.
• The underwater scenes were filmed in Silver Springs, Florida.
• The original film was titled “Tarzan in Exile.” The title changed when the baby was incorporated into the story.
• Advertising said Johnny Sheffield was five years old when the film was released, but he was really seven years old. Sheffield was one of 300 children who answered the ad “Do you have a Tarzan Jr. running in your backyard?” Weissmuller handpicked Sheffield and taught him how to swim.
• Maureen O’Sullivan wanted out of the Tarzan series and her character was originally supposed to die. The character Boy was brought in as a replacement, but audiences were so angry that she died in the film, the ending was changed. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs also wrote a letter to the studio begging them not to kill off Jane.
• The elephant stampede was executed with the help of Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.
• Some of the nature shots were reused from TRADER HORN (1931).
• Maureen O’Sullivan was pregnant during the filming of TARZAN FINDS A SON.

tarzan finds a son2

Tarzan and Johnny Sheffield swimming in Silver Springs, Florida for TARZAN FINDS A SON.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
For some reason I love watching the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films during the summer. The swimming and nature just have a fun, summer feeling.

With the Summer Olympics upon us, I revisited TARZAN FINDS A SON one for Olympic medalist Weissmuller. It is probably my favorite of the Weissmuller Tarzan films — either at MGM or RKO.

The premise involves an ill-fated flight to Cape Town with a couple and their baby. The plane crashes and only the baby survives. When Tarzan and Jane find the baby, they decide to raise it as their own. The family lives happily for five years, until they come across a search party looking for a crashed plane and any survivors. It turns out the baby — who they determined to name Boy — is the heir to a family fortune. But some of the search party wants the fortune for themselves, and if he isn’t living, it allows them to have the money.

Though in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan books, the couple had their own child, the Hollywood Production Code was squeamish at letting Tarzan and Jane having a baby the natural way. Therefore, they found a baby in the jungle.

I mainly love this film because of the sweet baby who plays young Boy, albeit this is only for a brief time in the film.

There are several touching scenes in TARZAN FINDS A SON and some really sad moments.

The beginning when the couple on the plane (Morton Lowry, Laraine Day) realize the plane is likely to crash, they share an understanding look and kiss before hunkering down with the baby. I also felt sad for this poor baby that keeps cry (before Tarzan finds it). I often wonder what they did to make these babies cry in films, which really makes it more distressing.

Then there is an aspect with an elephant who has to leave it’s baby to go to the elephant grave yard after being shot with a gun. They really just hit you with several gut punches at the start of this film!

The supporting cast of Ian Hunter, Frieda Inescort, Henry Stephenson and Henry Wilcoxon are fun. Stephenson is kind hearted while Hunter and Inescort are very mean — a different kind of role for Ian Hunter. Hunter also ends up getting pushed or picked up and dropped several times by Weissmuller and I found this amusing.

One major highlight in the film is the beautiful underwater swimming scene with Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny Sheffield. This really allows Weissmuller to show off his swimming skills. Filmed in Silver Springs, Fla., the water is so clear, making for a beautiful picture.

Weissmuller enjoyed making this film, according to Johnny Weissmuller, Jr., and liked working with young Johnny Sheffield. In interviews, Sheffield said he idolized “Big John,” and the two became close.

The character of Boy was originally brought in so that Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane could exit the film series. Pregnant with her first child, O’Sullivan was wanting to take a break from her acting career. But author Burroughs and audiences were angered when MGM originally planned to kill Jane, so she lived for a few more films.

My only real criticism is the turn the film takes at the end. The group ending up being captured by a native tribe felt like a random element thrown into the mix which wasn’t needed — though we now see it was originally a way to kill of Jane (unsuccessfully). I feel it should have added with a stand-off of sorts with the Hunter and Inescort party and Tarzan, instead.

In the grand scheme of 1939, this Tarzan film may not be considered as important. But it was also the first Tarzan film in three years after MGM let the film rights lapse. This film also took a turning point in the Tarzan franchise by introducing a child into the mix.

Is it an outstanding work of art? No. But I enjoy TARZAN FINDS A SON and think it’s great fun.

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1 thought on “Watching 1939: Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)

  1. I love films from the Golden Age! And I loved your review of this film. Very well put! I will enjoy reading what you write about other films!

    Like

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