Monday, 11 March 2013

BOY: The Facts of Fiction

Boy (Johnny Sheffield) and Cheeta
In many ways a film series is like an unfolding text. Each entry brings new information that shapes the narrative of the characters involved. Some times this has a retroactive effect, as new information is shared, bringing new insights into the story that were previously unknown, and informing a new reading of older chapters in a series. Budgetary considerations, location, casting and a range of production issues influence what appears on screen in ways that may not be obvious to the casual movie goer. However these shifts and changes can create interesting directions within the narrative, sometimes leaving gaps in the continuity of the series and changes of narrative direction that may not have been the studios first option. But coming out of all this is the fun of looking at an unfolded narrative as a whole and using information from the whole series to inform our understanding of it's story. This is no more true than when we look at the popular Tarzan movie character of Boy in relation to the MGM/RKO film series as a whole and the wider Tarzan mythos and we speculate and draw conclusions about the character's fictional biography.

The King Has a Son
 A main stay of the Tarzan film series was the character of Boy. As MGM studios steered their way from more adult films to a more family oriented fair, the character of boy was introduced in the film Tarzan Finds a Son (1939). The dilemma MGM had was that at its core their Tarzan films featured an erotic romance between Jane and Tarzan as seen in Tarzan and his Mate (1934). Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) has stayed on in the jungle and moved in with Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) with out an engagement or wedding. Unlike Burroughs' original version (1913's The Return of Tarzan)  and the silent movies (1920's The Revenge of Tarzan), where Tarzan/John Clayton and Jane are presented getting married, the MGM continuity presents them as seemingly living in unwedded sin in their jungle paradise.

The Hays Code
This was fine until the Motion Picture Production Code of 1930, also known as the Hays Code, was brought into effect and a new standard of censorship was introduced. Jane's skimpy jungle two piece became a modest jungle dress. The jungle love nest was replaced with a tree house and all seemed fine until it came time to bring a new bundle of joy onto the Mutia escarpment. For Jane and Tarzan to have their own son outside of formal wedlock was against the new code, so the Tarzan family had to grow by another means. And so an alternative had to be devised. Despite the fact that Tarzan and Jane had their own biological son, John Clayton/Korak in the novels, as well as in the silent film serial The Son of Tarzan (1920), their son in the MGM, and eventually RKO, continuity had to be a foundling. An interesting twist is that this son, by insinuation, would be a relative of Tarzan

Another Jungle Orphan
Up until Tarzan Finds a Son, the name Greystoke had never appeared in the MGM series and only once in the Burroughs produced serial The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935) and it's 2 edited feature versions. Another illusion to the Greystoke title is also found in the serial and feature version of Tarzan the Fearless, another non MGM production, which refers to Tarzan as Lord Greyfriar. In  Son, we are introduced to Richard Lancing (Morton Lowry), the favourite nephew of Lord Greystoke, his unnamed wife (Laraine Day) and baby son. While on a flight to Capetown, their plane collides with a flock of birds and all on board are killed by the crash or by natives except for the baby who is rescued by Tarzan's tribe of apes. Jane and Tarzan receive the baby and raise it as their own, unimaginatively naming him Boy. Boy (Johnny Sheffield) grows up as Tarzan's son, learning the ways of the jungle and keeping Tarzan busy rescuing him from various jungle dangers. All is fine until Boys family come looking for him. They come in the form of Boy's great uncle, Sir Thomas Lancing (Henry Stephenson), his nephew Austin Lancing (Ian Hunter) and his wife (Frieda Inescort), Boy's second cousins. They stand to inherit a fortune if they can prove that Richard Lancing and his family are dead, a fortune that would rightfully go to Richard Lancing's son if he was found alive. Ironically, as the child of the late Lord Greystoke's favourite nephew, assuming this refers to Tarzan's father, Boy is also Tarzan's first cousin once removed. The underlying subtext then is that, in reality, Tarzan is Boy's true next of kin.

Tarzan (Gordon Scott), Cheeta and Boy/Tatu (Ricki Sorenson)
 He hasn't just been found by Tarzan and become part of his family, he is in reality a blood relation of Tarzan's, a member of the same jungle accident prone family. Tarzan's connection to Sir Thomas and his nephew may be unclear, but his relationship to Boy is unambiguous. This is clarified even more when in the later movie within the MGM/ RKO series Tarzan's Savage Fury (1952) it is confirmed that Tarzan (Lex Barker) is the 10th Earl of Greystoke. Confusingly in this movie, Tarzan's cousin, Lord Oliver Greystoke, also appears, making it unclear his relationship to the Clayton Family, Tarzan's family name in the novels, and the Greystoke title. However, it does appear that some time between the events of Son and Savage Fury, Tarzan's true identity had been discovered by him, Jane and the rest of the world.

More Clayton Cousins
It's an interesting aside that in his fictional biography of Tarzan, Tarzan Alive (Playboy Paperbacks, 1981), Philip Jose Farmer decides that, after looking at some of the chronological discrepancies with Burroughs' Tarzan stories, that Korak, presented as Tarzan's biological son, is really his adopted orphan second cousin (pg 130). He rightfully points out that a boy born in 1913 could not possibly flee to the jungle, have adventures there, get married and fight on the Argonne front in 1918 (pg 129).
Unlike the MGM/RKO continuity, in Farmer's biographical version,Tarzan and Jane do have there own biological son, Jack, who is still a child when Korak has started his adult adventures (pg 130). Obviously no Hays Code held sway here.

The New York Adventure and Beyond
In the film, Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942), Boy is kidnapped and taken to America to work in a circus. After finding him, Tarzan and Jane are involved in a custody battle for Boy. This becomes difficult when it becomes clear that Tarzan and Jane are not his natural parents. In the internal continuity of the films, this must have occurred before Tarzan became aware of his true heritage and blood relationship to Boy, as this would have made the question of custody less of an issue. Eventually after a series of adventures with Tarzan and Jane and eventually just Tarzan, when Jane is in England nursing wounded soldiers (Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943), Tarzan Triumphs (1943)), Boy leaves Africa to go to school in England (1948's Tarzan and the Mermaids). It is here that the story of Boy becomes complicated. Despite his continued appearance in Tarzan comics, where many elements of the books, such as Lieut D'Arnot and Pal-ul-don, mingled with elements of the film series, such as Cheeta, the popular character of Boy was absent from the movies for 11 years and 9 films. In reality it was at this time that Johnny Sheffield grew too old to play Boy and went on to star in his own jungle movie series, Bomba the Jungle Boy. Unlike Maureen O'Sullivan, who left the series when it moved to RKO and was eventually replaced by Brenda Joyce, no replacement came for the role of Boy.
A frame from a 1957 Dell Tarzan Comic  # 95 by Jessie Marsh depicting Boy, 10 years after his last screen appearance and a year before his reappearance as Tartu.
The Reappearance
However in 1958, in the film Tarzan's Fight For Life, a young boy appears living with Tarzan (Gordon Scott) and Jane (Eve Brent). this young boy is named Tartu (Rickie Sorenson) and it is made clear that he had recently been officially adopted by Tarzan and Jane. On the face of it, this newly adopted son of Tarzan and Jane may have been another foundling taken in by the jungle couple, an adopted brother for the unseen Boy, who we assume is still living in civilisation studying or attending to Greystoke/Lancing business and hopefully making life difficult for his greedy second cousins. However a missing piece of the puzzle appeared in 1966 when a new Tarzan film premiered on U.S. television entitled Tarzan and the Trappers. This movie, which was actually edited together from three pilot episodes of a 1958 Tarzan TV series that was never given the green light but featured the same main cast as Tarzan's Fight For Life. In this movie Sorenson's character is known primarily as Boy but is also referred to as Tartu. It can then be assumed when watching these two films together, which wasn't possible until 1966, that the Boy of the Weissmuller era and the Tartu of Gordon Scott's  movies were one in the same character. Both these movies are reminiscent of the films of the later Weissmuller era, featuring a Tarzan family, and quite at odds with the other films of Gordon Scott and his successors in the MGM/RKO and soon to be, Banner Films series. These stories generally portray Tarzan as a lone adventurer, occasionally accompanied by Cheeta, fighting evil both in Africa and jungles further abroad. But here in these two films we find Tarzan living with Jane and Boy/Tartu in the jungle tree house in a way that hadn't been seen since Tarzan and the Huntress (1947).  From a continuity perspective, these two stories would fit well into this earlier era of the characters life. We may be that around this time in the series continuity that Tarzan became aware of his true origin and  consequent blood relationship to Boy and chose to officially adopted Boy before his attendance at school in England. It may that at this point too he was given a jungle name, Tartu, as he moved into young adulthood and eventually out of the jungle.

Tarzan, Boy and their friend Professor McWhirtle run for their lives in Pal-ul-don.
Tarzan Annual (1961)
Whats in a name?
Whatever Boy's real name was it was never mentioned. Like Tarzan, he may have shared a name with his father and been Richard Lancing as well. The name Boy is very accurate and is a good example of the MGM's Tarzan's lack of English vocabulary. How ever the name Tartu is one potentially loaded with meaning, and I suspect a potential meaning that the writers of Tarzan's Fight for Life were unaware of. Some I have spoken to have suggested that Tartu merely means 'Tarzan 2', which  I agree was probably the writers intention. However I like to think that with in the name a deeper meaning is held. In the language of the Great Apes created by Burroughs, Tar means white, as in the name Tarzan or 'White Skin'. The second half of Boys ape name is Tu, which means broken, as in the name of Tarzan's adopted ape father, Tublat or 'Broken Nose'. Directly translated into English, Tartu's name means 'white broken', which makes no sense unless it was actually a name that encapsulated his adopted ape family tree. He is Tartu, son of Tarzan, son of Tublat, of the tribe of Kerchak.We can imagine that as Boy left the jungle to get an education in England, going to embrace his birthright as the son of Richard Lancing and the adopted son and cousin of the ever absent 10th Earl of Greystoke, he went with a new name, an ape name that would forever remind him of his jungle identity, Tartu, son of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.