Friday, April 4, 2008

Kimba, Mon Amour

In Altus, Oklahoma, in the early 1960s, weekday afternoons after school belonged to Tarzan. Every day, around 3:30 or 4:00, the local TV station showed highly condensed versions of the old Johnny Weissmuller MGM adventure films, just before the evening news and Yogi Bear or Top Cat.

In the movies featuring Johnny Sheffield as Boy, I imagined myself as Boy, and somehow in my mind, though vaguely, the main coupling in these films was Tarzan and Boy--forget Maureen O'Sullivan, forget Brenda Joyce--Janes I and II.

I still have a vivid recollection of a dream in which I clutched Tarzan's feet while he trapezed a path through the treetops of Hollywood's version of Africa, from which I awoke with a prepubescent hard-on.

I have another, embarrassing memory of trying to convince a skeptical classmate at school that Johnny Weissmuller was my big brother, not even realizing the man was born 49 years before me--even Boy could have been my father.

The proto-homoerotic aspects of my Tarzan/Boy fixation were subliminal for me as a child--naming of them as such, of course, came much, much later.

But the strongest of these feelings surfaced once while watching one of the later films of the series, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, starring Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, Acquanetta (how can you not love that name?), Johnny Sheffield, and Tommy Cook as Kimba, the Leopard Boy.

In it, Tarzan battles the Leopard People, who are, for all intents and purposes, early anti-globalization activists--a cave-dwelling cult determined to halt the encroachment of "civilization" into the heart of the African continent. Critical theorists may notice that the film manages to displace Tarzan's own earlier antipathy to Western society, having already rubbed elbows with big-city life in 1942's Tarzan's New York Adventure, after 10 years of fighting capitalist greed in the form of ivory hunters (i.e., colonialist robbers of third-world natural resources).

In 1945, when this film was shot, both Sheffield and Cook were young teenagers. In TatLW, Boy acquires a playmate and a rival in Kimba--someone dark-haired and olive-skinned to Boy's Anglo-Saxon blondishness, someone slender, agile, and sinister to complement Boy's beefy, brash heroism. Both of them scantily clad, with the unruly curly hair of all child stars of the day.

From that day on, this was my image of the ideal relationship--two athletic youths, playmates and rivals, one the shadow of the other. The scene when Boy discovers Kimba's treachery and the two fight hand to hand and chest to chest was a touchstone of my earliest onanist scenarios. Kimba, with his leopard's claw weapon, has the upper hand until Cheetah bonks the kid on the head with a branch, allowing Boy to subdue him and lock him in a handmade cage.

Just the fact that Kimba was a child villain--something I had rarely seen before--excited me, because by then Hollywood had assured me that villains and villainesses were the most interesting people in the world ... they had all the wit, all the taste, all the jaded charm, all the best lines, and, more often than not, spectacular death scenes--I especially liked the ones who fell off precipices--or, better, those who were hurled to their deaths by monsters of their own creation.

Villains, I already knew, may have short lives, but they had miles of exoticism and fashion sense--much preferable to the dumb, earnest do-gooders who would ultimately triumph.

The only other evil children I knew of were in Village of the Damned and an occasional episode of Twilight Zone--and these too enchanted me. The thought of one day being an evil genius--or at least playing one on TV--inspired me to apply myself diligently to books and homework, because clearly you had to be an intellectual if you ever were to succeed as a criminal mastermind.

Some years later, in sixth grade, I got to play Gary Martindale, "a scheming young man" (I quote the program), in a "mystery-comedy in three acts" called It Walks at Midnight. In my country abode, ominously called "Deep Shadows," I, along with my evil sister Elinor, terrorized a "nervous bridegroom" and his "bashful bride," with the help of the "ape boy" Jocko Wiggins, played by the handsomest boy in sixth grade, Kenny King. Kenny couldn't act his way out of a paper bag, but, thanks to beneficent hormones, already at age 12 had beautiful biceps and eye-catching pecs; in short, he looked splendid in his leopard-skin loincloth.

What is more, the ape boy turns out to have a heart of gold after all--it turns out he's been hypnotized or I forget what--and he helps out the miserable newlyweds. In the climactic scene, I imperiously command Jocko to follow my orders and the hunk lifts me off my feet and carries me offstage--moments later, I scream offstage left--yes! the ape boy has hurled me to certain death from the precipice upon which Deep Shadows rests!

So my glorious death was offstage. OK. Still, every night I got to swoon into Kenny King's bare arms.


At the end of Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, Kimba redeems himself (a disappointment, frankly) by killing Mongo, the corrupt "brains" behind the Leopard Woman and her cult, shortly before he too dies in the cave-in that crushes the rest of his people. Fade to Tarzan, Boy, Cheetah, and, oh yes, Jane, the happy jungle suburbanites, safely in the clear light of day, living happily and dully ever after.

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