Tuesday, 1 November 2011

"Me Tarzan...You Jane": Mattes and Effects from the MGM series

Johnny and Maureen - the Serengeti  'A-List'.

Today's blog is a retrospective look at the mattes and visual effects used in the six Johnny Weissmuller-Maureen O'Sullivan original TARZAN series of films made at Metro Goldwyn Mayer from the early thirties, from TARZAN - THE APE MAN made in 1932 through to the 1942 TARZAN'S NEW YORK ADVENTURE.

The Edgar Rice Burroughs' characters and adventures were solid box office, with dozens of sequels, ripoffs and remakes - from the early silent era Elmo Lincoln incarnation of the loinclothed tree dweller through to nineties Disney animated super hits.  

Seriously though, there was really just one TARZAN - and that was Johnny Weissmuller (though in saying that, I'd give a serious 'thumbs up' to Christopher Lambert in the excellent 1984 version GREYSTOKE).  While Weissmuller was born for the lead role, no one (I repeat, no one) could hold a candle to the lovely Maureen O'Sullivan in the role of Jane - especially before the dreaded Hay's Code got into the act and diluted so much sensuality from her portrayal after the astonishingly bold - and arguably the best of the series - TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934). 

These pictures were produced economically, for the most part on the three huge MGM back lots with occasional day trips and second unit work at Lake Sherwood and other spots around Los Angeles.  A great deal of movie fakery was utilised to bring the films to life, with extensive stock footage - largely taken from the studios' earlier TRADER HORN - and a sizable amount of generally excellent rear screen process projection, most of which stands up remarkably well still today.  Of course, any adventure purporting to take place in the wilds of the uncharted and mysterious Dark Continent would necessitate the services of the studios' illustrious matte department, or, scenic art department as it was then known.

In order of release:
TARZAN ESCAPES (1935-unreleased.  Revised version 1936)

How come Mia Farrow never looked this good?
The first two films were particularly good, with number two, TARZAN AND HIS MATE being my top pick.  The later films in this MGM bunch were more for laughs and cute animal antics - although in saying that the on screen charm of Cheeta the Chimp and his antics were guaranteed crowd pleasers and highly amusing. 

The earlier pictures were amazingly sadistic - with many a scene of native spears in heads and carnage with an eye opening degree of graphic torture and elephant stomping mayhem which would have had audiences (and censors) spinning in their seats in the early thirties.  The same can be said of the jaw dropping (and most agreeable) overt eroticism - especially in the aforementioned TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934).  The utterly gratuitous two minute (count 'em) underwater nude swimming sequence (Jane was body doubled by Josephine McKim) would even put Roger Corman or Joe D'Amato to shame! No screen 'Jane' has ever looked as fetching as Maureen O'Sullivan in this film - and in a post new millennium era in which the Angelina Jolie's and Julia Roberts's and their ilk of this world are erroneously touted as the last word in screen sexuality, I'm afraid my vote stays with the O'Sullivan, Dorothy Lamour, Miriam Hopkins, Fay Wray screen presence of old (and I'm a 60's child, believe it or not).

I've written much about MGM's effects personalities and working methods in previous blogs so I won't retrace old ground, other than to list the key SFX team members.  The MGM effects department were at the time all under the rule of chief art director Cedric Gibbons, who wielded enormous, God-like powers.

James Basevi was in charge of overall special effects for the first three pictures, with his assistant A. Arnold Gillespie taking over the reigns for the reshoot of the third film, TARZAN ESCAPES (1936) and remaining in charge of the studio's effects department until the 1960's.  Gillespie handled all miniatures, physical effects and process work.  Max Fabian was Gillespie's visual effects cameraman and shot all miniatures and special work along with Tom Tutwiler and Jack Smith.  The matte art was all carried out under the supervision of Warren Newcombe with Mark Davis as principle matte cinematographer.  

The Metro optical department under Irving G.Ries was kept busy with alot of ingenious split screen effects to introduce wild animals and the cast into the same shot.  Many of Ries' innovations would include moving split screen mattes which would follow hot on the heels of the actor (or sometimes Cheeta the chimp) as a rampaging Rhino or Lion followed on in hot pursuit.  In addition to Ries' optical work, especially in the first two films, a great deal of special photographic effects work was outsourced to the two non-studio optical houses in town as the specialised work fell outside of the usual technology at hand in studio - the Frank Williams Composite Laboratory who were pioneers in density travelling matte processes of the day.  Certain difficult bi-pack trick shots were handed over to Williams' opposition, the Dunning Process Company run by father and son team Carroll Dunning and C.Dodge Dunning - names which would prove essential a year later with RKO's KING KONG effects shoot.  I should add that the many rear screen process shots are by and large extremely good, especially those with large process screen set ups carefully melded into the stage set where some stunning results may be seen.
An excellent behind the scenes look at the early process set up at MGM.   Later developments would expand to double or triple head projection on large single screens or strategically arranged multi screen set ups by Buddy Gillespie.

 The one thing which tended to ruin this series was the penny pinching of Louis B.Mayer, where not only are stock shots re-used in subsequent films but entire sequences are lifted, largely from the first two movies, and repeatedly 'spliced in' to pad out the running time of the other films.  As previously mentioned, even some of those shots of charging animals and such originate from the 1931 jungle show TRADER HORN.

The first in the MGM series - from 1932

One of the numerous 'top up' mattes from the Newcombe department.

The luminous Maureen O'Sullivan.

Newcombe painted shot with Dunning Process travelling matte composites of falling men and a rescue.

A running theme in many jungle adventures being the mythical Elephant's Graveyard - realised here in matte art.

More TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932) matte additions.

Two of the mattes which would crop up again and again in the series.

The 1934 sequel, and to my mind the best of the lot for a number of reasons.... mattes, mayhem and Maureen!

One of the finest visual effects ever produced... Maureen O'Sullivan's Jane of the Jungle.

Probably Hollywood simian performer Charlie Gemora in the ape suit.

The top left matte is an unbelievably shoddy affair with mismatch issues a-plenty.

The same stock painting modified for re-use six years later.

Bottom two frames demonstrate the re-use of the same painting for different scenes by optically flopping.

Grand vistas created on the MGM backlot substantially augmented with Newcombe pastel paintings.

TARZAN AND HIS MATE is the most extensive visual effects showcase of the series.

Weissmuller, Cheetah and Newcombe.

One of the glorious still surviving Newcombe pastel matte paintings and the final composite.

Magnificent Golden Era matte art of the elephant's graveyard:  TARZAN AND HIS MATE  (1934)

An example of the Williams Composite Process at work where the lioness attacks and is later killed by the elephant by means of Frank Williams' double matting technique put together outside of MGM's own facilities.

Frames from the monumental crocodile attack which still stands up today as a powerhouse effects showcase.  The left frame is a very effective travelling matte composite while the right is a  brilliantly choreographed dummy croc.

More croc effects- all of which would show up again in a subsequent TARZAN and a few other pictures.  Tremendous physical effects work by James Basevi and a young Buddy Gillespie that is superbly shot and edited.  The beast is a giant mechanical puppet made from steel and rubber.  This ancient 1934 FX sequence makes all later dummy croc sequences pale in comparison.  Terrific and terrifying stuff.

Filmed twice, with this being the only 'official' version (1936)

Comparatively light of effects shots, aside from alot of process projection and undercranked animal footage.

Mattes from TARZAN ESCAPES (1936 version)

Recycled matte shots seen in at least three of the TARZAN epics.

Fairly ordinary aside from some great monkey antics.

Buddy Gillespie miniature airplane in front of process screen.

More from TARZAN FINDS A SON (1939) with miniature plane comp at left and quite possibly a matte addition right.

Composite photography with vine swinging Tarzan optically doubled into possible real setting.  Incidentally, the amazing 'actual' tree acrobatic work featured throughout the series was the work of a circus troupe known as The Flying Cordonas, who doubled for all of the vine swinging principals to excellent, nailbiting effect.

Nicely evocative Newcombe matte shots from TARZAN FINDS A SON (1939).

How to set a film in Africa and never even leave the backlot...

A so-so 1941 jungle picture.

A great matte very similar to one reused in other TARZAN films but slightly different in detail.

The best matte in the series, seen here with figure clambering across ravine added by Irving Ries optical unit.

Several of the mattes which make up the escarpment set piece, though the top right has serious perspective problems.

A superb and beautifully blended matte which concludes TARZAN'S SECRET TREASURE (1941).

Aside from Cheeta, this 1941, and final entry is pretty forgettable.

Very few effects shots in this show, with this being a salvaged matte from a former film.

I'm unsure as to what this matte is from, but it does have a certain TARZAN look about it?

A composite, though whether the background is a genuine view process projected or a trick shot, I can't decide.

Matte shot with everything below the top of the ledge being added by Newcombe's department to excellent effect.

Well, that's it.  I may do a similar retrospective on the RKO TARZAN series as there are a good number of interesting matte shots to be found in some of those.  I'll not bother with the penny dreadful matte shots found in the later British made TARZAN films


  1. Nice article Pete.

    I've now got all the Weismuller and Barker films and there are some nice mattes in the RKO ones.



  2. What a terrific (and thorough) examination. Some of those mattes were real artwork. I kind of miss that look in today's films.

  3. Thank you for yet another incredible post. The examples that you've shown (particularly the amazing surviving paintings) are very informative.

  4. The pics of Maureen O'Sullivan are from 1934? That's an impressive amount of bare skin!

  5. Ohhhh yeahhhhhhhhh!

    The underwater nudity was a double, but the rest was pure Maureen. Phew!!!

  6. She makes me feel kinda funny...

    Oh, yeah, the visual effects and matte painting were stupendous!

  7. Fantastic work, well documented and very interesting to read and view!

  8. A beautiful article again Peter !
    I always enjoy reading and re-reading your pages.
    Your site is the BEST !!!

    1. Thank you for your kind compliments Rocco. It's very reassuring when a genuine matte master such as yourself offers positive comment on my attempts to chronicle old time VFX.