Tarzan travels to the Guatemalan jungle, where he clashes with the agent of an unscrupulous munitions manufacturer and the strange natives of a lost city.
Those pesky Mayans! Not content with their calendar predicting the end of the world, they’ve invented an explosive to make sure that it happens. An English adventurer gets wind that the ancient discovery is hidden in the ‘Green Goddess’; an idol worshipped by the denizens of the Dead City deep in the jungle. Villains are also out to grab the loot so he turns to Tarzan for help.
There’s a lot to talk about here. Unfortunately, nearly all of it relates to how this 12-chapter movie serial was made rather than the finished results. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs was not enamoured of Hollywood. He satirised the whole industry in ‘Tarzan and the Lion Man’ (1934), a novel that saw a film company travelling to Africa to make a Tarzan movie, unaware that he is actually a real person. The Ape Man saves their bacon incognito and eventually travels to Tinseltown, where he auditions to play himself but only ends up in a bit part! It’s all a bit silly, but gives Burroughs plenty of opportunity to stick the knife in.
So, perhaps it’s not surprising that when Burroughs met aspiring film producer Ashton Dearholt in 1929, nothing professional came of it. However, he remained friendly with the producer and his wife, Florence. In 1934, when scouting locations in Guatemala, Dearholt fell in love with an American swimmer and brought her back to California. Unsurprisingly, Florence walked out and sued for divorce, finding solace in the arms of Burroughs! They got married a year later and Burroughs adopted her two children. At the same time, the author gave Dearholt his blessing to film a Tarzan serial and even agreed to put his own money into it! Burrough’s motivation was apparently friendship, but, of course, there may have been other factors involved.
Following in the accepted tradition of casting a non-acting athlete in the title role, Dearholt picked Olympic Shot Putter Herman Brix and for the female lead, who else but his new girlfriend? Billed as Ula Holt, her real identity remains a matter of conjecture. She only has one other acting credit (unbilled) and her name is simply that of her character (Ula) and a play on the name ‘dear-holt’. In another nod to stunt casting, Dearholt decided to play the villain himself, using the name Don Costello!
By all accounts, Burroughs was not really involved in the production itself but apparently approved of Brix, who was athletic rather than muscle bound. The character was also shown as articulate and cultured, which was more in line with the writer’s original concept of the character. Unfortunately, the production itself displays evidence of the chaotic location filming in Guatemala, from which the crew returned without all the footage they needed. Original pressbooks outline a different plot from the finished film, suggesting that the script was rewritten at least once.
Also there are significant structural problems. Tarzan travels to Guatemala not only to assist in Major Martling’s search for the ‘Green Goddess’, but also to look for his old friend Lieutenant D’Arnot; missing in the jungle after a plane crash. Along for the ride are Martling’s daughter and her fiancée, plus idiotic comedy relief Lewis Sargent. The Ape Man finds D’Arnot early on but, after Chapter 4, the Lieutenant, the daughter and the fiancée are simply written out, despite having their own title cards at the beginning of the early chapters! It’s fair enough in a way, because they don’t seem to have anything to do, but it is strange. This means that Sargent gets much more screen time, which is unfortunate as he’s very annoying.
Footage gets re-used periodically and the almost complete absence of a musical score over 12 chapters makes for a flat and rather weary experience. Dialogue scenes are stilted and clumsily executed. Obviously, it was not unusual in a serial to have a ‘flashback’ episode because of budgetary considerations but here it turns out to be the final one! The actual story ends really early in the chapter and we are then ‘treated’ to some edited highlights, courtesy of a gypsy fortune teller.
On the plus side, Holt may not have been an actress but she has personality and Brix wrestles various stuffed animals with some enthusiasm. Actually, some of the animal sequences are not at all bad, considering when the film was made. Brix actually ended up with a movie career, although it took some acting lessons and a change of name to do it. As Bruce Bennett, he was a popular second lead throughout the 1940s and is fondly remembered today as the stranger who threatens the goldmining trio in John Huston’s classic ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (1948) with Humphrey Bogart.
Dearholt never made another movie and died in 1942. The serial was recut into a movie three years later called ‘Tarzan and the Green Goddess’ (1938). For once, not a lot was lost in the process.