Urban Cinefile
"..it's quite painful yet tantalising, seeing myself at age of eight, despite having my wrinkles and double chin!"  -Franco Zeffirelli on making his autobiographical film, Tea with Mussolini
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday December 3, 2019 

Search SEARCH FOR A FEATURE
Our Review Policy OUR REVIEW POLICY
Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE

Help/Contact

TARZAN'S JANE

ME TARZAN, WHO SEX SYMBOL JANE?
Jane as a siren, a bimbo, a virgin, a lady… in 82 years of Tarzan movies, Jane has been from whore to mother and back. Now, Disney’s animated Tarzan takes her full (chaste) circle – and Maureen O'Sullivan (the first talking and definitely sexy, Jane) would not approve, argues our New York Correspondent JEFF SIPE, in this quest for the real Jane. If there is one.

" Jane says to her father: "From now on I'm through with civilisation. I am going to be a savage just like you". He looks her up and down, approvingly: "Attractive. Mighty attractive." The oedipal connotations of the scene are most clearly stated when Jane undresses in front of her father while he sniffs at the scent of her clothes. This scene is echoed later in the sequence where Tarzan also 'investigates' her appearance, scent, hair, clothing etc. When Jane's father realises his daughter is clad only in a scanty negligee, he becomes embarrassed and moves away. Jane says: "Darling, don't be silly. You're not embarrassed by me! Why you bathed me sometimes and very nearly spanked me too." Thus, father-daughter desire is represented but quickly repressed and displaced onto a scene in which the representation of the African as 'other' is constructed as the major signifier of taboo desires. In this way, the proper father-daughter relationship is also re-instated." - Barbara Creed, "Me Jane, You Tarzan: A Case of Mistaken Identity in Paradise"

"Jane has been around the block a few times"

What? Could this be our Jane, the love of Tarzan's life, the babe who breathed a breath of fresh if very sultry air into the African bush? She's got the hots for Pops? And vice-versa? Clearly, this ain't the Disney version we're dealing with here.

In the 82 year history of Tarzan movies, Jane has been around the block a few times, and when it comes to her role as a sex symbol, she's been both as hot as fire and as cold as ice.

We've come a long way since Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) brought a talking Tarzan, in the form of Johnny Weismuller, and Jane, in the form of Maureen O'Sullivan, to the screen. Disney's Jane in the new, animated Tarzan is cloaked in the high collar and ankle-length dress of turn-of-the-century England, a costume that remains on her and intact in every scene. There is a kiss or two in the course of the new film, but even then, "chaste" is the byword here. Could it be, perhaps, that we've come a bit too far?

"her saucy attitude and increasingly exposed body"

Were she alive today, O'Sullivan would probably respond with an unqualified "yes." After her rather disconcerting entrance, described above, O'Sullivan's Jane proceeded to titillate early audiences with her saucy attitude and increasingly exposed body. She effortlessly captures Tarzan's attention, then teaches him to talk, an almost revolutionary act given that the reins of language have traditionally been in the hands of men. Eventually, she teaches him to kiss. After one particularly passionate kiss, Jane and Tarzan embrace while gazing dreamily upwards at Tarzan's treehouse.

Fade out. Fade in to Jane reclining languorously on a thick branch, eyelids heavy and half-closed over glassy, satisfied eyes; all she needs is a cigarette.

In Tarzan and His Mate (1934), Jane just gets sexier. Now, she wears a leather, bikini-like top and two small squares of leather hang from her waist, one in front and one in back, while her thighs are completely exposed. Her scanty costume set off warning lights at the sex-hating Hays Office, the newly formed keeper of Hollywood's censorship code.

"It was a lovely and innocent concept, and yet very sexy," O'Sullivan once told an interviewer. "They tried different things to make Jane look sexy. We made a costume and it wasn't that bad at all, there was a little leather bra and the thongs on the side It started such a furor. Letters started coming in. It added up to thousands of women objecting to my costumes. In those days, they took those things seriously."

"the joys of making jungle whoopee."

But it was not only the costume that attracted attention. At one point, soon after awakening in the couple's tree house, Tarzan suggests an early morning swim in their favorite lagoon. When Jane later exits the tree house dressed in a formal white gown that two jungle visitors have given her, Tarzan's puzzled expression suggests more than any grunt or mangled sentence ever could.

"But darling," Jane tries to explain, "I have to put on clothes. There are other people here and they'd think I was immodest."

The concept of modesty is pretty much lost on a man raised by apes. He gives Jane a push, stepping on the hem of her dress as she tumbles from the tree branch into the lagoon. Jane hits the water totally nude and Tarzan - who can blame him? - dives in after her. The underwater pas de deux - replete with a bare-skinned Jane - is both erotically innocent and innocently erotic, highlighting what Salon, the online magazine, once called the true theme of the early Tarzan flicks: "the joys of making jungle whoopee."

"Kind of looks like Tarzan's been playing the jungle a bit."

O'Sullivan stuck with Tarzan for six movies even as her character was reduced to little more than a plot point. A liberated, sensual and sexually charged Jane was more than the Hays Office - and, apparently, much of America - could bear. After O'Sullivan's exit, there were two Jane-less Tarzan movies before producers decided to re-introduce the character in the form of blonde bombshell Brenda Joyce. "I don't know what the kids are going to think when they see me with a blonde Jane," Weismuller reportedly said. "Kind of looks like Tarzan's been playing the jungle a bit."

Given that, beyond an action scene or two in each of her five films as Jane, Joyce did little more than cook, clean and take care of Boy (their "adopted" son because an unmarried couple could never have a child of their own), there was not much danger that "the kids" were interested in anything other than Tarzan's adventures. Starting in 1950, producers did their best to recreate the chemistry that made Weismuller and O'Sullivan so unforgettable as jungle lovers. Vanessa Brown, Virginia Huston, Dorothy Hart and Joyce Mackenzie were all given a chance opposite new Tarzan Lex Barker. But nothing gelled, and, ultimately, producers reasoned that audiences would find a single Tarzan a whole lot sexier than a committed one. After all, wives and mothers were rarely sex symbols in the Hollywood of the 1950s. The Hays Office absurdly dictated that even married couples could not be shown sleeping in the same bed, so a potential love affair with jungle visitors would serve to keep sexual tension alive and audiences, both male and female, awake. Jane caught the next vine to civilization.

But after two more Jane-less films, Jane was back, this time in the form of Eve Brent, whose character looks like a cross between a 1950s American housewife and a mini-skirted Venusian from the Zsa Zsa Gabor starrer, Queen of Outer Space. She spent most of her time teaching Boy to read, chopping coconuts and sewing - just your typical housewife and mother.

"there has been no shortage of Tarzan"

Over the past forty years, there has been no shortage of Tarzan films and TV serials, just a shortage of Jane. But in 1980, John Derek decided that wife Bo epitomized Jane of the movies. As clunky and incomprehensible as Tarzan the Ape Man proved to be, it represents one of modern mainstream cinema's few overt nods to the jungle genre's true source of heat. Bo Derek as Jane is not only sexually aware but sexually-driven as well. She went into the jungle all but wearing her primitive nature on her sleeve well, on her arm, anyway, as there is a paucity of scenes in which Derek wears much of anything, let alone a sleeve.

It is little wonder that Derek as Jane was featured in a Playboy pictorial. This film itself is little more than a Playboy photo spread wrapped around an all but incoherent story line.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) remained largely faithful to Burroughs' original vision of Tarzan, which relegates Jane to something of a minor character in the unfolding drama. In this version of the legend, Andie MacDowell as Jane (oddly enough, Glenn Close's voice was dubbed for MacDowell's before the film was released, and Close provides the voice for Kara, Tarzan's ape-mother, in the Disney version, as well) does not even set foot in the jungle. Instead, cloaked in the asexual layers of Victorian clothing, she meets Tarzan within the confines of London society. Although the two fall in love, MacDowell's Jane is not about to follow her man back to the jungle. Nor will he forgo a return to his birthplace for his love of Jane. The lovers wave goodbye at the jungle's edge, each in his or her rightful place. A few sparks in a dimly lit boudoir in the English countryside were not enough to change their minds.

"As for Disney's Jane, we may have come full-circle"

Jane March (The Lover [L'Amant], Color of Night) was next to play Jane in 1998's abysmal Tarzan and the Lost City which featured Casper van Diem (Starship Troopers) in the title role. Set in 1913, this film gives Jane a 90s style feminist attitude that dissipates once she is in the jungle and finds herself in need of Tarzan's rescue. Whatever the subtext in the early Weismuller/O'Sullivan team-ups, it was the principals' innocence that makes them so charming. A loss of innocence, at least, in Tarzan and the Lost City, translates to an off-putting lack of charm. In her previous two films, March took her clothes off. A shame she doesn't in this one. It would not have helped the charm quotient, but, at least it would have given audiences something interesting to look at.

As for Disney's Jane, we may have come full-circle, the beginning of the circle actually resting 14 years before O'Sullivan's first turn in the role. In 1918, Enid Markey played the role opposite the barrel-chested Elmo Leonard in the silent Tarzan of the Apes. Despite the sweltering heat of deepest, darkest Africa, Markey remains in her calf-length, plaid skirt, ankle-high, white boots, and long-sleeve, high-collared blouse - not so unlike our animated Jane. Markey's silent successors -- Karla Schramm, Louise Lorraine, Edna Murphy and Natalie Kingston - discarded the matronly attire for gowns that were eventually shredded and ripped by all the jungle action. An ever-so-slight nod to verisimilitude and the power of an exposed calf.

"All About Jane"

Disney's Jane may be more like those silent heroines than the overtly sensual O'Sullivan, and it is tempting to dismiss any attempt to point out Freudian undertones as academic bombast. But think about it. O'Sullivan's Jane was unable to make a total commitment to her Tarzan because of her father's presence in the jungle. Once he dies, however, Jane is free to complete the transference of her fatherly love to the new man in her life. Most little girls, one of Disney's target audiences, are not able to imagine their father's death, so when Disney's Jane makes her decision to jump ship and return to her Tarzan, her father follows. It's all safe, clean and - who knows? - the perfect situation for a sequel.

Maybe they could call it All About Jane.

Email this article


Disney's Tarzan

See our REVIEWS


Maureen O'Sullivan & Johnny Weismuller


O'Sullivan, Weismuller & gang







© Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2019