Saturday, May 15, 2010

Welcome to Tarzan-istan: Tin-Tan, El Hombre Mono (Mexico, 1963)

I came across the DVD of the Mexican Tarzan spoof Tin-Tan, el Hombre Mono at a street sale on my block just this past weekend. Despite the fact that it being a comedy coming to me without the benefit of English translation makes it impossible for me to fairly and properly assess its virtues, the just as un-ignorable fact of it virtually dropping into my lap in the middle of Jungle Adventure Month makes me feel that I’m obligated to cover it.

My discovery of the film also provided me with another opportunity to wonder at both the universality and astonishing elasticity of the Tarzan character -- all the more wondrous for the fact that so much evidence of it exists despite the notorious litigiousness of the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate. Of course, films like El Hombre Mono and Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan, being parodies -- and thus being presumably protected under the idea of fair use -- are immune to such penalties. But others are simply too numerous and far-flung to be caught within the estate’s legal net. Thus were able to flourish such off-brand cinematic versions of the famous ape man as those many produced in India, as well as those from Turkey, China, Portugal, Russia, Italy, Bangladesh and beyond. If you broaden the scope to consider appropriations of the character that took place outside the world of film, you’ll see that even Japan got into the game, by way of a Tarzan manga that was at one time drawn by the master himself, Osamu Tezuka.

Continuing on that tack, I just recently learned that Tarzan had been the subject of phenomenal popularity in Israel, peaking in the early-to-mid 60s, when the character was the star of a series of homegrown -- and wholly unauthorized -- stories featured in an astonishing number of Hebrew language pulp magazines produced by several competing publishers. These stories featured Tarzan in an array of fantastic scenarios, including fighting off invasions from outer space and tracking down Nazi war criminals. One adventure even had him meeting up with his Indian counterpart Zimbo. But, most interestingly, they also enlisted Tarzan in Israel’s fight against its Arab neighbors, with competing versions of the character intervening on the nation’s behalf in the Suez crisis and even becoming an agent of Mossad. In response, Syria and Lebanon -- countries in which Tarzan also enjoyed enormous popularity -- created their own series of tales in which the character fought to defend their respective homelands against Jewish antagonists.

In the case of Israel, Tarzan’s popularity sprang in part from a belief on the part of many Israelis (mistaken, it turns out) that Johnny Weismuller, the actor most identified with his screen incarnation, was Jewish. This extended to Tarzan himself being considered an honorary Jew, and even to the character, as a typically lone figure fighting a just battle against overwhelming opposition, becoming a symbol for the state of Israel itself. In other countries, particularly those in the developing world, the Tarzan story often seemed to function as an expression of anxieties over encroaching modernization, with the pure and incorruptible son of the jungle standing in opposition to dastardly interlopers -- urban fortune hunters, unscrupulous scientists, fugitive criminals and enemy agents -- from the so-called “civilized” world.

In contrast, the makers of Tin-Tan, el Hombre Mono follow another well-trod -- not to mention noble -- path by appropriating the Tarzan mythos in order to good-naturedly mock a beloved gringo pop cultural icon, while at the same time using its milieu as an excuse to feature a lot of shapely women in skimpy jungle attire. Thus we get lots of exotic dance numbers presented under the diaphanous guise of primitive rituals, along with Mexican actors with face paint and bones through their noses cooking up pith-helmeted explorers in over-sized cauldrons. Oh, and, of course, lots and lots of stock footage of various jungle critters. In other words, El Hombre Mono is exactly the movie that I expected Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan to be, and which Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan surprised me by turning out to be very different from indeed.

The Mexican actor German “Tin Tan” Valdez had crossed my radar previously via some late career comic relief roles in 1970s lucha films -- most notably the Blue Demon efforts La Mafia Amarilla and Noche de Muerte, in which he played Blue’s goofy, albeit direly unfunny, sidekick. Actually, Valdez’s heyday had occurred during the late 40s and 50s, when he portrayed a zoot-suited, “pachuco” type figure in a string of successful comedies. El Hombre Mono finds him mid-career, essaying the role of the bumbling and cowardly jungle hero “Tin-Tan”.

Opposite Tin Tan, and providing a generous portion of the film’s eye candy, is Mexican sexpot Ana Berthe Lepe (whom diligent Lucha Diaries readers may recall from such examples of Mexican fantastic cinema as La Nave de los Monstruos, Santo contra el Rey del Crimen, and El Asesino Invisible) in the role of jungle princess Konga. European sexploitation starlet Ingrid Garbo (Cemetery Girls, Maniac Mansion) is also thrown in for good measure, playing the micro-shorts wearing daughter of a hapless jungle explorer whose serial imperilment requires Tin-Tan’s frequent attention and, as a result, incites Konga’s jealous ire. Finally, cementing the film’s lucha movie affiliation once and for all, is the presence at the helm of Frederico Curiel, the director of more touchstone Mexican wrestling films than can be listed here, here doing his usual workman-like job of providing a film that is modestly handsome within its means without reaching for anything even remotely beyond that.

Like I said, El Hombre Mono’s lack of English subtitles prevents me from evaluating how successful it is both as a film and, more particularly, as a comedy. I can’t tell you how funny its jokes were or what their overall level of sophistication was. Although, if it’s any indication, its hard to imagine any of its visual gags -- like Tin-Tan’s ridiculous facial hair, or the one involving him being trapped inside an alligator’s stomach -- going over anyone’s head, no matter what their age or level of smarts.

What I can tell you is that the film’s parade of leopard-print-clad bathing beauties and ogling, cartoonishly wolfish men made it play, for the most part, like an extended burlesque show skit. A lot of the action involves Lepe and Garbo fighting over Tin-Tan like a jungle-bound Betty and Veronica, with Lepe swinging around a comically large club for added effect. There’s a bit about one of the explorers discovering oil which doesn’t seem to have much of a bearing on anything, and then, for the final five minutes, the movie switches from black and white to Technicolor and the entire cast does the twist in fast motion to some vanilla sounding rock & roll music. It’s all kind of enjoyably dopey -- I find that I have a much higher tolerance for Mexican comedy than I do Mexican comic relief -- but one definitely gets the sense that its not the most nuanced or highfalutin take on Burroughs’ jungle man out there.

And that’s alright, really. After all, Tin Tan’s is also, apparently, far from being either the most ideologically freighted or the most anti-Semitic Tarzan, which can only be a good thing. It takes all kinds, after all. Even when all of them are Tarzan.

This review is part of "Stranded in the Jungle", a month of jungle adventure themed posts at 4DK.


Tars Tarkas said...

Wow, I was unaware of Tarzan's adventures in the middle east. Time to get to researchin'!

Tin-Tan was in a bunch of films, the DVDs showed up quite a bit at the Rite-Aids and K-Marts near Watsonville in the cheap bin.

Anonymous said...

Wow... that's a trip about the Zionist and anti-Zionist Tarzans. And I didn't know that Tezuka did a version of him. Of course, I'm not surprised, since he also did a manga biography of Beethoven!

BTW, don't know if you've seen this already, but here's a cool pic of one of the Chinese Tarzans.

LOL... it seems that we are all Tarzans, aren't we!

Todd said...

Tars: The guy I bought this DVD from probably did get it in the $1 bin, which means that he made a 150% profit when he sold it to me.

Dave: Thanks for providing visual proof of the Chinese Tarzan, which is another concept that was kind of blowing my mind.

Kamagra said...

Oh good Lord that can't be true, i mean, I already thought Tarzan was something way too stupid, but this is got to be the proof that there is always something worst!