Sep 23, 2015

Tarzan's Boy: Johnny Sheffield

When MGM executives wanted to expand the audience of their extremely successful Tarzan series by giving the Ape Man and his Mate (Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan) a child, they faced a quandary: since the couple was not married, Jane could hardly give birth to Korak.   Instead, Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939) envisions an airplane crash in the jungle with a sole survivor, a cooing infant whom Tarzan names Boy.

 It is an odd name, and evidently a last-minute change –  the trailers call him Tarzan Jr.  One wonders why Jane did not insist on Tarzan Jr. or John Clayton Jr., particularly if she expected the child to one day survive hazing at Eton.  But if Tarzan and Jane are the primal Man and Woman of a sexless heterosexual Eden, then their Boy must be the primal Boy, the archetype of all Boys everywhere.

The primal Boy was cast with seven year old Johnny Sheffield, hand-picked by Johnny Weissmuller from the hundreds of hopefuls.  Perhaps Weissmuller was shopping for a surrogate son of his own: he taught Johnny to swim and wrestle, and often took him places off-camera.  They were a common sight at premieres and Hollywood hotspots.  

Johnny was no ordinary Boy. In Tarzan and the Amazons (1944), Johnny at 13 could easily pass for a high school athlete.  In Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1945), he is 15, but he already sports the thick, heavy chest, flat belly, and deepened voice of young adulthood.  In Tarzan and the Huntress ( 1946), he is nearly 16 years old and six feet tall, with a chiseled torso that makes 42-year old Weissmuller look flabby and out of shape, a middle-aged businessman ludicrously enacting a Tarzan fantasy.  The Boy has surpassed the Man, and Johnny Sheffield must retire from the series.

Although the teenage Boy is handsome enough to compel most of his classmates at Randini High School to write his name amid hearts in their notebooks or scramble to ask him to the Spring Fling, he has few opportunities for jitterbugging.  The women he encounters are always older, and usually evil; indeed, a half-hour walk in any direction seems to lead to lost civilizations led by evil women.

Any cute boy he meets is likely to be evil, too.  In Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, a boy named Kimba (Tommy Cook) appears one day at the Escarpment, claiming that he got lost in the jungle.  The Tarzan family takes him in, but Boy is suspicious.  It turns out that Kimba belongs to an evil leopard cult, and plans to prove his manhood by murdering them all. Many jungle-story scripts would have Boy befriend and ultimately rehabilitate the troubled teen, but not here: the two Boys never express any sentiment but seething contempt, and the unrepentant Kimba is shot to death.

More often, Boy’s homoromantic interests are stymied by Daddy Tarzan himself.  In Tarzan and the Amazons, a scientific expedition visits, and Boy can barely contain his excitement; he wiggles up to one, then another, flirting his way into hands-on-shoulders, cool gifts, and an invitation to “come around anytime.”  Tarzan passively-aggressively suggests that Boy shouldn't pester the strangers.  “They’re not strangers!” Boy cries, over-reacting with teen angst. “They’re Jane’s friends, and mine. . .I don’t want to go hunting with you!  I won’t go hunting with you ever again!”

Tarzan is equally passive-aggressive about denying Boy peer companions.  In Tarzan and the Huntress, the Tarzan family visits the kingdom of Teronga, where Boy befriends the teenage Prince Suli (Maurice Tauzin).  But when Boy asks to stay longer, Tarzan says no.  Later they find Prince Suli in the jungle, left to die by his evil usurper-uncle. Surely the long and dangerous trek back to Teronga would provide many opportunities for buddy-bonding, but Tarzan has other ideas: “Boy, go home, tell Jane!” he barks. “We go to Teronga!”  Boy protests, but Tarzan stubbornly leads the Prince away.

What is the significance of these denials?  Of course the movies are about Tarzan, so he must wrestle all of the crocodiles, rescue all the princesses, and supervise all of the shifts from absolutism to democracy in lost-civilization governments, but surely allowing Boy some friends would not threaten his status as Busybody of the Jungle.

Yet perhaps Tarzan is threatened after all.  As Boy hardens into adolescence, his role becomes paradoxically soft and passive – his muscles become purely decorative, to be displayed for their beauty just as Jane’s curves, and as useless for fending off crocodiles.  Indeed, Boy usually takes Jane’s place as the objective of Tarzan’s chest-pounding heroics.

The three pre-Boy movies all end with Tarzan swooping down to rescue Jane.  Afterwards, she is captured along with Boy twice, and in four movies, Boy is captured alone, tied to something, muscles straining, until Tarzan swoops down to the rescue.  (And in one, Cheetah comes to the rescue.)

During Boy’s adolescence, he and Tarzan are constant companions, leaving little time for Jane, who confesses without complaint “They’re used to doing everything together. Why, they often leave me alone for days!”  They leap into the lagoon together, enacting the quintessential moment of jungle romance.  They are even shown sleeping together, curled up on the same mat, Boy’s head pillowed by Tarzan’s bicep (Jane’s sleeping arrangements are left unseen).

If the homoromantic Arcadia is a displaced fantasy of adulthood, then the viewer must desire the sight of the primal Man and Boy diving into the lagoon together as eternally as the primal Man and Woman. Tarzan must contain his Paradise against threats to Boy as well as to Jane, and he must guard as jealously against any other love.

Johnny Sheffield continued wearing a loincloth through the 1950s as Bomba the Jungle Boy, to the delight of gay kids everywhere.  Johnny Weissmuller put a shirt and pants on to buddy-bond as Jungle Jim.

See also: Why is Bomba the Jungle Boy always tied up?