Monday, March 26, 2012

TARZAN - SEASON 1, VOLS. 1 & 2

By the late 1950s, the long-running "official" Tarzan film franchise had become stale. Older moviegoers found the films repetitive and juvenile, and even adolescent audiences were tired of the formulaic stories, pidgen English, chimpanzee comic relief, and the too-domestic dynamic of Tarzan-Jane-Boy. But independent producer Sy Weintraub thought there was still some life left in the jungle king, and purchased the rights to the character. He immediately discarded Jane and Junior, reduced the chimpanzee antics, and made the movies more adult, with realistic action and a tougher characterization of the iconic ape man.

He spent the next few years producing and releasing big-budget, Technicolor Tarzan adventure films that garnered large, appreciative audiences of all ages and generally positive reviews, and, by the mid-Sixties, was ready to bring Tarzan to the tube. In the fall of 1966, the hour-long weekly adventure series, TARZAN, starring Ron Ely, premiered on NBC television, where it ran for two seasons. Now, Warner Archive has made the first of those seasons available on manufactured-to-order DVD, with two 4-disc, 16-episode volumes.

Set in the then-current Sixties, the athletic Ron Ely (DOC SAVAGE, MAN OF BRONZE) portrays an educated and erudite ape man, who has returned to his jungle home after being educated in America. This Tarzan is a bachelor, but does care for a young orphan named Jai (Manuel Padilla, Jr, who had appeared in different roles in two prior Tarzan feature films) and his ever-present chimp sidekick, Cheeta. Each week, this very modern Tarzan strives to maintain the peace of his African home, despite the best efforts of a seemingly endless horde of poachers, treasure hunters, gunrunners, escaped fugitives, and warmongers.

The first half-dozen episodes are a bit rough - the series, shot on location in Mexico, had a very troubled production early on - but once it all comes together around week 7 or 8, it's a terrific adventure show. The stories are fairly adult, the production values are high, and the guest casts are generally excellent. Jock Mahoney - who had played Tarzan himself in two of Weintraub's films - shows up as three different characters in the first season, most memorably as a would-be warlord known as The Colonel. Other notable guest stars include Woody Strode, Rockne Tarkington, Nichelle Nichols, Russ Tamblyn, Jack Elam, Sally Kellerman, Julie Harris, Ralph Meeker, Ruth Roman, Henry Silva and William Marshall.

Of course, it's the charismatic Ely who makes the show work. His commitment to the role is astounding, performing nearly all of his own stunts (in nothing but a leather loincloth, no less), and never condescending to the character or the audience. His no-nonsense Tarzan is actually quite faithful to the character's portrayal in the original pulp novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs - a capable, sociable, articulate gentleman, but one who can become a genuine badass when the situation demands it. Physically, Ely isn't as muscle-bound as some of his cinematic predecessors, but he is slim and athletic, and utterly convincing in action. It's simply perfect casting.

The MOD discs from Warner Archive sport surprisingly sharp and colorful, 1.33:1 "full frame" transfers. Picture quality does vary a bit from episode to episode, and the copious stock footage of exotic jungle wildlife (much of it culled from the previous Tarzan color features) is often scratchy and grainy. But, overall, the show looks terrific, and certainly much better than I expected. As I said above, the first season has been split into two volumes, each containing sixteen 50-minute episodes on four discs. Audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono. There are no bonus features included.

The lush location shooting and jungle locale makes the show seem far less dated visually than many of its contemporaries. The writing is sound and the performances are solid. There's plenty of action, adventure, humor and even heart. If you're a fan of the character, you'll probably love this show. If you're already a fan of the show, who watched it in reruns in the 70s, I think you'll find that it holds up extraordinarily well. Warner Archive's set is bare-bones, but looks terrific. Recommended.

BUY: Tarzan - Season One: Part One

BUY: Tarzan - Season One: Part Two