Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ismail Yassin's Tarzan (Egypt, 1958)

Oh, Tarzan. Why do you fascinate the world so? Is there no escaping your influence? Here we are, two reviews into Jungle Adventure month, and I've gone from covering what was just one of India’s seemingly infinite number of cracks at your legacy to Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan, a less than respectful potshot from the number one screen comic of Egyptian cinema’s golden age.

Of course, whether they feature Tarzan or not, one need only watch a few examples of these jungle romps to see the appeal of the thematic template they provide. Whether made by American, Turkish, or Indian hands, they almost invariably serve as a means of exploring, with varying levels of commitment, the bestial nature of man (and -- in the Indian examples, especially -- of woman). This applies especially to those damned city folk, who generally show up in the jungle for the sole purpose of demonstrating, by way of their wanton violence and greed, that they are the least civilized creatures of all. It all goes some way toward showing that, wherever you look in the world, when popular cinema is used as a tool for moral instruction, it is generally as a means for very wealthy professionals to inform poor folks of the virtues of poverty.

In its treatment of this particular theme, Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan proceeds as if written by Egypt’s answer to Rod Serling, so crisply does it dispense its dollop of instructive irony. However, while the basic message is expected, much of what the film otherwise delivers is anything but. In fact, writer Abu El-Soud Al-Ebyari’s screenplay only appropriates the Tarzan mythos as a jumping off point for what turns out to be a much broader and more city-bound social farce. And when that mythos serves no purpose to the narrative at hand, it is unceremoniously pushed to the background without so much as a look backward. It’s hard to even call the film a parody, since that suggests a focus on the traditional Tarzan story that’s clearly outside its agenda. But to the extent that it does focus on that story, it displays an admirable level of irreverence.

The film begins with the family of Mr. Morad (Stephan Rousty) all doing their best to conceal their elation over the death of Morad’s wealthy brother. Soon the lawyer arrives at the house for the reading of the will, which, as is so often the case, turns out to have some unforeseen stipulations. In order for this greedy and clownish lot to obtain their share of the inheritance, they must first track down the decedent’s son, Tiger, who was lost in the jungle some twenty-five years ago, and, upon finding him, marry him off to Murad’s daughter Hassanat (played by comedienne Zenat Sedky, a regular fixture in Yassin’s films).

With this economical little set up out of the way, Murad and his loutish son Andil (Abd El-Salam El-Naboulsy) are off to the jungle, where, after a couple of the requisite perils (mostly in the form of some harmless looking snakes), they are soon face to face with the legendary Tarzan, portrayed by a pot-bellied and preposterously mustached Ismail Yassin. It is quickly established, by way of a tell-tale birthmark, that Tarzan is indeed the lost relative that they are looking for. However, upon the arrival on the scene of Cheetah (played, in this case, by a person in an ape suit even shoddier than the one seen in Jungle Love) it becomes apparent that the family’s grand scheme will be more difficult to execute than expected.

It turns out that this Cheetah is a female Cheetah, and not only is she Tiger/Tarzan’s trusted animal companion, but his fiancé, as well. And, in case you thought that that designation might just be an error in translation, we’re shown Tiger lovingly kissing his monkey mate on the lips as the rest of the cast winces in revulsion. (And if that’s not explicit enough, another character later refers to Tarzan/Tiger being “used to bestiality”.) To top things off, Cheetah is also the jealous type, and has a tendency to go berserk whenever another woman comes within Tiger’s orbit.

Eventually it is discovered that Tiger has a weakness for music, and so one of the many musical numbers in Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan is used to lull him into compliance. Once back at the family home, the rest of the Morad family is held hostage to his animalistic ways, so afraid of losing out on their big payday that they’re forced to look on approvingly as he and Cheetah cheerfully lays waste to all of the expensive tchotchkes adorning their spacious estate. During this section of the film, Yassin’s performance is a dialog-free combination of physical gestures and eruptions of gibberish, and he does a great job of injecting an infectious merriment into Tarzan/Tiger’s role as a bringer chaos and server of just desserts.

So much more monkey than man is Tiger that the lawyer eventually determines that, in order for him to legally meet the conditions of the will, he must first undergo some serious civilizing, which should first and foremost entail the mastery of Arabic. After a few disastrous attempts, this task ultimately falls to Safy, a distant cousin who, despite living in the same household, is treated by the family as a servant. (Safy is played by former child star Fayrouz, here making her debut as an adult actress –- a fact that is somewhat nauseatingly trumpeted in the film’s original trailer by referring to her emerging as “a flower in full bloom” or some such.) Safy shrewdly chooses to teach Tiger via song, which not only makes for a couple of amusing musical numbers, but also within weeks transforms Tiger into a perfect caricature of upper-class sophistication, complete with crisp suit, pocket square, and neatly trimmed pencil mustache.

Of course, this process also results in Tiger and Safy falling in love, which in turn results in the Morad family, now further from the loot than ever, resorting to some surprisingly nasty methods in order to see their scheme through. And if you think that, in the course of confronting those methods, Tiger and Safy come to some foregone conclusions about the relationship between money and happiness, you’re absolutely right. Hey, you must have seen this one before!

Over the past months, I’ve become something of a cheerleader for these classic Egyptian comedies, and for the films of Ismail Yassin in particular. And I have to say it: Ismail Yassin’s Tarzan is another winner. I also have to say, though, that I’m a bit surprised to be saying so. With this film, I was expecting just another lame send-up of all of the typical Tarzan tropes, but underestimated the care that would be taken in crafting the film to fit Yassin’s distinctive comic persona. In his films, Yassin definitely fools around, but is never, at the end of the day, the fool, and rather is usually revealed to be the smartest guy in the room despite appearances. Thus the typical caricature of Tarzan as an oafish simpleton won’t work here. Yassin instead makes of him a force of gleeful anarchy who upsets the balance of hypocrisy in the Morad household and entertains the bejeesus out of us while doing it. Go Tarzan!

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


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

Holy crap, the bestiality part sounds influenced by Lovecraft's Arthur Jermyn. Although I'm quite sure it isn't.

Todd said...

I may just have a sick mind, but I imagine that the idea of Tarzan getting funky with his monkey was one that was shivering just outside the door of public consciousness, waiting for someone to let it in, for some time. So, uh... thanks, Egypt?

Tars Tarkas said...

You are going to have to do another animalympics just for all the monkey-suited actors in these films.

Word verification: munch

Todd said...

You're right. I could include whatever that Taiwanese movie is with the two kung fu fighting gorillas. Best monkey suits ever.

Keith said...

Gorilla suits in kungfu films could be a whole subgenre all their own. Shaolin Invincibles is by far the best, because it also features those long-tongued ghosts. I believe Bruce Le throws down against a man in a monkey suit in Bruce Lee the Invincible.

So there must be something abut the word "invincible" that causes gorillas to come lopin' and capering' into the scene.

my word verification: blongring. Someone should be recording these so we can build a proper language out of them.

memsaab said...

ZOMG! Who knew that Egypt had a Jagdeep as well? (last screencap)...

my word: imoto :)

Todd said...

Keith: Yeah, Shaolin Invincibles. That's the one I was thinking of. "Invincible" is obviously Taiwanese street slang for a guy in a gorilla suit practicing kung fu.

Memsaab: Jagdeep is legion. Man, I just scared myself.