Tarzan Finds a Son
The fourth and last truly good film of the Tarzan series, Tarzan Finds a Son is a solidly well-formatted piece of entertainment complete with a compelling story line, a great cast and lots of dramatic action and jungle adventure.
No one would ever suggest that Johnny Weissmuller was a born actor. However, he was a natural when it came to portraying the Lord of the Apes. The Olympic swimmer’s first turn as the Arthur Conan Doyle hero in the 1932 version of Tarzan was amazing in its very realistic presentation of a man abandoned in the jungle left to be raised by the native wildlife. He just moved like the chimpanzees in every way and aspect. His every look and gesture demonstrated a kinship to the inhabitants who had adopted him. And even though it is the second installation of the series, Tarzan and His Mate that is considered the finest film of the dozen made with Weissmuller, Tarzan Finds a Son still holds many of the same fine qualities of the films that precede it making it one of the stand out productions of 1939.
The story centers on a child that Tarzan and Jane have come to consider their own. “Boy” (as he is called by his adopted parents) is the sole survivor of a plane crash that killed his mother and father. Five years later some relatives come looking for the heir to their family fortunate with the intent of taking him home in order to legally access the estate that has been tied up in a trust. Sadly, greed gets the better of several of them. They manipulate Jane into tricking Tarzan, allowing them to kidnap Boy. By the time Jane figures out she has been duped the whole party is under mortal threat by the local natives. Jane then risks her own life in order to sneak Boy out of captivity in an effort to find Tarzan and bring him back to save them and earn his forgiveness.
Every inch the product of the famed well-tuned MGM movie making machine, Tarzan Finds a Son was directed by Richard Thorpe (Jailhouse Rock, Ivanhoe), shot by Academy Award winning cinematographer Leonard Smith (The Yearling), and stocked with a capable bunch of supporting actors including Ian Hunter (King Richard in The Adventures of Robin Hood), Henry Stephenson (Mr. Laurence in the Katharine Hepburn version of Little Women) and a very young Laraine Day (Foreign Correspondent) as the orphan boy’s birth mother. With such a corral of talent even the most standard story points (scheming relatives, human sacrifice) are presented with a panache and style that defies cliche.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the production was the impeccable casting of the role of Boy. Hollywood in the 1930s was packed with an amazing amount of exceptional child actors (Jackie Cooper, Freddie Bartholomew, Dickie Moore, and Mickey Rooney just to name a few) so it’s particularly notable that the filmmakers went with complete newcomer, Johnny Sheffield. Weissmuller (who took it upon himself to teach the young thespian to swim) handpicked the seven-year-old Sheffield, and his instinct couldn’t have been better. The pair had a natural camaraderie and chemistry that evoked a powerful father and son bond that showed in every moment of screen time they shared together. The two would make eight Tarzan films before Sheffield out grew the role and moved onto his own series of Bomba, The Jungle Boy films.
Although Tarzan Finds a Son was at the time considered by many to be just another installment in a series, it clearly stands out to day as a highlight amongst the other popular serials of the era. And with its enduring charm and depiction of familial love it will remain a fan favorite for eras to come.