TARZAN AND THE SHE-DEVIL was the fifth and final Tarzan film with Lex Barker, who took over the role from Johnny Weissmuller and who would pass it on to Gordon Scott. The 1950’s were a good time for Tarzan, relatively speaking. The Lex Barker series at RKO, begun in 1949, was quite successful and embraced by fans, the comic books done by Jesse Marsh in this period (which featured Barker on their covers--see pic) were equally popular and are now viewed as part of a “Golden Age” of Tarzan comics, and Tarzan was an important part of popular culture.
Edgar Rice Burroughs never visited Africa prior to writing the Tarzan books and stories, and for me they’ve always existed in that fantasy “jungle” world found in pulp novels and serials. Who cares if they mix up animals from one continent or another if this is supposed to be “Africa.” This isn’t a NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC documentary. People who care about that sort of thing would not want to watch a Tarzan or Jungle Jim film anyway. I’m the perfect audience member for this kind of film--it’s been explained to me ten times the difference between a crocodile and an alligator, and I STILL can’t remember which is which.
After a long work-week and then spending the weekend finishing up the last of the EIGHT (!!!!) reviews I have coming out in the next issue of UGLY THINGS, I wanted to wind down with some solid B-movie entertainment, so I dug TARZAN AND THE SHE-DEVIL out of a stack in the garage. I’ve probably seen this 10 or more times over the years, so I guess you can say I enjoy it. Every two years or so, I’m ready for it again.
This film does not get rave reviews among the Tarzan fraternity. Many consider it the worst of the Barker Tarzans...although pretty much everyone admits that it is fun and entertaining and has a great supporting cast. I’m not the kind of person to watch all five Barker films in order and look for continuity or development. There really is not any in this series, and why should there be. You can stick Tarzan in any situation (the way you could Hercules/Maciste in sword and sandal films) and just let him do his thing. I’m also not someone who is chained to “the canon.” I’ve read probably half of the ERB Tarzan books, and I’ve read years and years of comic strips and comic books and seen pretty much every surviving Tarzan film, including the Steve Hawkes ones! Does anyone reading this REALLY need to know the Tarzan backstory at this point? I think not, anymore than you need Billy The Kid’s or Sherlock Holmes’ or the Frankenstein monster’s. If an entry in a series film is well-done, it can be the fifth or the fifteenth in the series, and a viewer coming in for the first time can “get” who the character is. We don’t need long-winded expository dialogue and tedious re-telling of “origin stories.” I can promise you that someone whose first BOWERY BOYS film is their thirty-seventh one will totally “get” the key characters within the first four minutes of the film, if not sooner.
Tarzan is kept prisoner by the evil ivory poachers for at least half the movie here, so although we see him chained and/or incarcerated, he does not have a lot to do, so inevitably, the film is given over to the villains, and my do we have a colorful and memorable set of villains here. The She-Devil of the title is played by Belgian actress Monique Van Vooren, who later co-starred in ANDY WARHOL'S FRANKENSTEIN and in the odd pre-fame Jon Voight film FEARLESS FRANK. One of the locals, a boy, calls her She Devil, but really, the film should more accurately be called TARZAN AND THE HE-DEVIL, because even though Van Vooren is the head of the evil organization, she shows SOME humanity and is nothing compared to the great Raymond Burr as Vargo, one of the most over-the-top and brutal villains I can remember seeing. Not only does he sneer each line contemptuously through the whole film, he also brandishes a whip and often uses it on the locals he enslaves and denies food and water to. He actually gets excited seeing how long the enslaved locals can work without food and water, and when they drop, he tosses them aside and does not allow his fellow do-badders to assist them in any way when they try to give them water or heal their wounds. Burr was always a great bad-guy in his pre-PERRY MASON B-movie days, but this is surely one of his five best scenery-chewing bad guy roles. For Burr alone, the film is worth the price of admission.
As an RKO film, Tarzan and the She-Devil handles the jungle setting adequately, unlike PRC or Monogram or z-grade indie jungle films, where people react to grainy stock footage that looks 25 years older than the feature film. The RKO jungle sets are also larger than the poverty row ones, where people traipse around the same 25 square feet over and over (watch RAMAR OF THE JUNGLE for a good/bad example of that). Only two short clips (each about 3 seconds) here were obviously from another film. You need a lot of willing suspension of disbelief to enjoy a jungle film, but if you bring enough to this one, it works quite well.
Each Tarzan actor brings something special to the role, and for the Princeton-educated Barker, it was a certain elegance and a litheness of movement, almost like a gazelle or a cheetah. Barker had run track and played football, and brought an athlete’s grace to the role. As an actor who’d performed on the stage, and someone who’d worked his way up in films from small supporting roles, he also understood how to establish his character and his presence when not saying anything or when in the background, a very important quality in a Tarzan film....and especially in this one, where he says hardly anything during the half of the film where he’s being held captive.
The film moves very quickly, it’s only 76 minutes long, and with multiple sub-plots and the in-fighting among thieves, and with the brutal performance by Raymond Burr, I can’t imagine anyone in the mood for a 1950’s Tarzan film not enjoying this and going along for the ride.
Gordon Scott took over the Tarzan role after this, and he did five feature films and also a sixth which was cobbled together from three unsold episodes of a TV pilot. He brought his own special qualities to the role, and after his first few films, he changed the role quite a bit, moving toward a more literate Tarzan, but we can discuss that later. Scott and Barker, of course, both found much fame in Europe in the early 1960’s and became much bigger stars there than they ever were in the US. Unfortunately, I don’t believe they ever worked together in Europe. I guess European producers could afford only one imported American ex-Tarzan star per film, so it was either Scott OR Barker.