By MICHAEL KIMMELMAN
The New York Times
August 6, 2009
PARIS — Last week it was announced in Britain that “Me Cheeta,” the comic “autobiography” of Tarzan’s sidekick, now a septuagenarian, was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. Leave it to the French, meanwhile, to resuscitate Tarzan only to stick him in a semiotic jungle.
A movie poster for "Tarzan and the Leopard Woman," movie poster, 1946.
Photo: Sol Lesser Productions
Edgar Rice Burroughs’s famous ape man is the subject of a summer show at the Musée du Quai Branly here that mixes old comics and film clips with children’s action figures, a stuffed crocodile and the female robot from “Metropolis.” (Don’t ask.)
This being a serious museum, there are a few genuine African totems and shields, which look as out of place in this context as Maureen O'Sullivan did, toting her banana-leaf pocketbook and wearing a pair of homemade pumps, while standing in the bush beside the loinclothed Johnny Weissmuller and two forlorn elephants in the film “Tarzan Finds a Son!”
The show has been wildly popular.
Its organizers cogitate, with Gallic élan, on Tarzan’s proto-environmentalism; his philosophical roots in Rousseau and the 19th-century nudist movement; his literary antecedents in Kipling and H. M. Stanley; and his mythological reliance on the stories of Hercules and Romulus and Remus. The exhibition also makes hay about the first words Tarzan uttered not in ape grunts but the language of civilized men:
“Mais oui,” the young Lord Greystoke said.
And of course there is also the sex angle. “One can expound as much as one likes in scientific speeches about his mythical and universal nature, but one always gets back to the fact that Tarzan is a half-naked guy saving white-skinned young women, lost in the jungle and wearing their party dresses, from the claws of vicious gorillas,” noted Libération, the newspaper, in its review of the exhibition. “It’s all about torrid eroticism.”
So it is.
The show is a mess, truth be told. It has wonderful drawings from bygone comic artists like Burne Hogarth and Hal Foster, and it means to use Tarzan to help dissect how Western pop culture has (mis)interpreted the non-Western “other.” But it’s displayed in cramped galleries at a museum whose theatrical, heart of darkness installation of non-European cultures as diverse and unrelated as Inuit and Cameroonians — in meandering ill-lighted spaces connoting primitive, spooky peoples — is of a piece with the antediluvian ethos of the original Tarzan.
The highborn “killer of beasts and many black men,” as Tarzan unfortunately described himself in “Tarzan of the Apes,” was conceived just before World War I by Burroughs, a former gold miner and cowboy, in a climate of American expansionism, late colonialism and institutionalized racism.
Drawings from a Tarzan comic by Burne Hogarth on display in the exhibit.
Photo: Musee du Quai Branly
Before he died in 1950 Burroughs published about two dozen Tarzan potboilers, his fictional character becoming an increasingly fantastical figure, speaking a dozen languages while battling the teensy Minunians and dinosaurs. An easygoing guy with a fondness for golf who settled in what came to be called, thanks to him, Tarzana, Calif., Burroughs never bothered to set foot in Africa, which is why Tarzan also faced off against Asian tigers and killed lions by wrestling them into a full nelson. As Gore Vidal once phrased it, the author of Tarzan was “not one to compromise a vivid unconscious with dim reality.”
This turned out to make his work like catnip for Hollywood producers who, beginning in 1918, released Tarzan movies more frequently than Burroughs did books. They were the perfect vehicles for parading stars in various states of undress.
“In the first Tarzan movies,” said Charles Tesson, who picked the film clips for the show, “Tarzan wears a tuxedo. After Weissmuller took the role, he becomes a superhero, an abandoned child, an amnesiac, a naïf, pure but strong, très sportif.”
The exhibition’s principal curator, Roger Boulay, stressed how not just Tarzan films but also comics and books became a barometer of shifting political and social standards, in France no less than in America. The blue-blood colonialist defending Africa for white people for years played off against this country’s foreign escapades as well as its anxieties about miscegenation. Expurgated and unexpurgated versions of the comic strip were published here, one with Jane dressed for innocent French youngsters, the other with her in nature’s own to please more seasoned aficionados. An alliance of French Catholics and Communists eventually pushed through a law that, for a while, purged Tarzan from French movie theaters.
“For the Catholics it was the nudity,” Mr. Boulay explained. “For the Communists it was the fact that he was a violent, unemployed aristocrat who ate bananas.”
In America, Tarzan on screen, as he did in some of the later Burroughs books, went the way of late Dick Tracy in the funny pages. By the 1970s Tracy was battling outer space criminals on the Moon in a rocket-powered garbage can. Tarzan vanquished Vikings and ancient Romans and during World War II joined the Foreign Legion to fight the Japanese on Sumatra.
A movie poster from Edgar Rice Burroughs's "Tarzan and the Amazons," 1945, Sol Lesser Productions.
Photo: Musee du Quai Branly
The exhibition ends with a French television advertisement for men’s perfume, directed by the great Jean-Paul Goude, from 2005. A male model joins leopards and monkeys drinking at a watering hole. “Guerlain Homme,” a voice-over intones. “For the animal in you.” It’s a throwback to the Tarzan who hadn’t yet morphed into a time-traveling Superman.
That’s one plausible explanation for the show’s popularity: fondness for a gadgetless hero from the days before “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.”
There’s also the cachet of the eco-warrior, which the exhibition pushes hardest and which plays well here in France: Tarzan protecting the jungle from greedy commercial interests. But Libération no doubt had it right. The Parisian boys glued the other morning to a video monitor playing a clip from “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934) didn’t seem to be rapt by the concept of environmental preservation.
The movie was the first major instance in America of censorship under the Hays Code, which cracked down on racy Hollywood fare. In this case the outrage was over a skinny-dipping scene: a body-double for O’Sullivan briefly swimming underwater buck naked with Weissmuller.
The boys stared with great scientific interest.
Tarzan turns out to be a man for all times, having swung across the centuries, through eras of colonialism and multiculturalism, austerity and profligacy.
But some things never change.
Tarzan in Paris