Oct 8, 2012

Johnny Weissmuller's Last Boyfriend

During the 1970s, my brother and I liked to watch Chuck Acri's Creature Feature on Friday nights at midnight (when we could get away with it).  It sprinkled the monsters liberally sword-and-sandal and jungle hero epics, and one night it showed Cannibal Attack (1954), with a 50-year old Johnny Weismuller, long retired from his MGM Tarzan movie, oddly playing a fully clothed version of himself: Johnny Weismuller.

The governor of an unnamed African colony hires him to find out who is stealing valuable shipments of cobalt. Only sinister foreign powers would be interested in so much cobalt, so he is looking for both a thief and a traitor. Johnny suspects everyone, but especially the governor’s ne’er-do-well brother, Arnold King ( David Bruce, left, from another movie). 

The governor is forcing Arnold to work in the mines in order to “make a man out of him” (e.g., make him heterosexual). Who better than a shady, sexually ambiguous middle-aged man to consort with the enemy?

But writer Carroll Young specialized in buddy-bonding jungle flicks and director Lee Scholem evoked the homoerotic male gaze constantly in such television programs as The Adventures of Superman, Maverick, Colt 45, Sugarfoot, and 77 Sunset Strip: neither would be content to let the two movie hunks remain antagonists. 

 So early in the film, Arnold saves Johnny from drowning. 

 A few scenes later, Johnny saves Arnold from a leopard. 

Arnold apparently enjoyed the rescue, so he splashes about in the river until a crocodile investigates, then calls out for help. Johnny comes running, but he trips and falls, knocking himself unconscious (he is fifty years old, after all). When Arnold realizes that he’s not going to be enveloped in the hunk’s arms, he pulls out a knife and dutifully saves himself.

Scholem believed that audiences could never tire of men holding each other and saying “Are you all right?." so he had the two rescue each other many, many times.  

They spend the rest of the movie with one’s hand pressed firmly on the other’s shoulder, sometimes for two full minutes (try this at home; it’s impossible: within sixty seconds, your partner will either break contact or want to kiss). 

Meanwhile Luora (Judy Walsh), the governor’s “half-breed” ward and secret girlfriend, falls all over Johnny, cooing and batting her eyes, but Johnny ignores her. She invites him on a midnight swim; when he refuses, she snips “are you that anxious to get rid of me?” He is. 

 When she sees the two men enter a cave together to do something that is none of her business, she pretends to be attacked by a crocodile, so Johnny will pry his hand from Arnold’s shoulder (or wherever it is at this point) long enough to rescue her. But after the faux rescue, Johnny rushes right back to Arnold again.

Luora turns out to be the culprit, conspiring with her handsome lover Rovak (Bruce Cowling) to sell the cobalt to the enemy and pin the blame on Arnold. She also happens to be the queen of a savage tribe, which she orders to feed Johnny and Arnold to a crocodile (the title is misleading: no cannibals threaten to eat anyone). 

They escape at the last moment (with the requisite hand-on-shoulder “Are you all right?”), and in the ensuing gunplay, the governor, Luora, and Rovak are all killed. To tie up all of the loose ends, Arnold is named the new governor.

In the last scene, his hand still superglued to Arnold’s shoulder, Johnny says “I guess it’s time to move on,” softly and hesitantly, as if he wants to be talked out of it. Arnold has no time to respond – there’s a crash in the office. It’s the chimp, Kimba, messing up the place. Fade out to laughter, and we never hear Arnold’s response to the question of Johnny leaving. This was his last movie – maybe he stayed.