Cast and Credits
Running Time: 70 minutes
Copyright Date: Nov. 26, 1943; Renewed Nov. 10, 1971
Release Date: Dec. 11, 1943
First showing in Canada: March 2, 1944
Working titles: Tarzan Against the Sahara, Tarzan and the Sheik
Le Mystère de Tarzan [Fr], Tarzan au désert [Belg]
Tarzan, Bezwinger der Wüste [Gr]
Tarzan contra i mostri [It]
Tarzan, o terror do deserto, Tarzan o vencedor, Tarzan e o mistério do deserto [Pg]
Tarzán el Temerario [Sp]
Tarzan and Boy, on an errand of mercy for Jane, rescue a stranded Vaudevillian, Connie Bryce, and a stallion they name Jaynar, on their way across the desert. When they reach Bir Herari, the girl’s destination, local big shot, Paul Hendrix, has Tarzan arrested as a horse thief. Connie takes charge of Boy and Cheta.
All is not what it seems; Hendrix is in reality a Nazi infiltrator, whose mission is to foment unrest among the Arab tribes, and Connie is an agent for the neighbouring Sheik Amir, and has come to Bir Herari to blow the whistle on Hendrix.
The next night, Hendrix and henchman Strader follow Connie to the palace, where the girl meets with Prince Selim, the local sheik’s son, to give him Amir’s message. When she leaves, Hendrix has Strader kill the Prince, and then frames Connie for his murder.
When Connie is sentenced to be hanged, Boy reports to Tarzan, who disables his jailer and escapes. Then before the sentence of death can be carried out, Tarzan summons the great stallion, and in the midst of a stampede, Tarzan rescues Connie. Hendrix and his men pursue them to a nearby jungle.
After a few strange encounters with nightmarish leviathans, Tarzan tosses Hendrix to a giant spider, and Strader is killed by a lion. Connie, with the corroborating message of Amir, returns to Bir Herari and is exonerated.
Now Tarzan and Boy can return to their escarpment, having secured from Connie a promise to deliver the fever medicine to Jane.
With his first film for R.K.O. a huge success, producer Sol Lesser was anxious for a sequel. The result was Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, finished eleven months after Tarzan Triumphs, again sans Jane, and featuring Nancy Kelly as a wise-cracking lady Vaudevillian. As might be expected, this rushed product was wanting in many areas, and suffered at the box office. It had been originally shot under the title Tarzan Against the Sahara, but Lesser was dissatisfied with what had been filmed and ordered much of it reshot under the title Tarzan and the Sheik. We cannot of course judge the merits of the original version, since we do not have the film, but the pressbook (43) gives us a plot summary of what we may take as the original story.
Tarzan, Boy and Cheta the Chimpanzee come out of their jungle to the fringes of the Sahara Desert seeking a curative herb for Mrs. Tarzan. In the desert they acquire a new companion, a beautiful stallion named Jaynar. They also learn that Nazi secret agents are striving to instigate trouble in the territories of two important sheiks, one of whom sends a beautiful American chorus girl, Connie Bryce, to warn his neighbor against the head agent, Hendrix. The sheik’s son, Prince Selim, also tries to warn his father, but is not believed. Meanwhile, Connie clashes with Hendrix and his henchmen. The clash brings Tarzan and the girl together, and they join forces in a common cause. Before she can deliver her message, however, Prince Selim is killed by the conspirators, who succeed in getting Connie tried for the crime, and condemned to die. Tarzan is also thrown into prison. Boy and Cheta aid Tarzan to escape. On Jaynar the stallion, Tarzan rides through crowds gathered to watch Connie’s execution, and rescues her. They hide in the desert, but the girl is captured by Hendrix, while Boy goes on to seek aid from the neighboring sheik. Tarzan sees this sheik, obtaining from him proof of Connie’s identity and the enemy plot. On his return, he finds Connie again about to face the gallows. He dashes in, confronting the enemy agents with the damning evidence of their guilt in the presence of the sheik. This forces Hendrix’s hand. He gives word for the uprising to start. Boy, meanwhile, is guiding a column of the neighbor sheik’s men to the rescue.
Tarzan’s audacity and quick action temporarily saves the situation at the sheik’s palace. He also prevents the insurrectionists from ambushing the column led by Boy. A pitched battle between the combined forces of the sheiks, aided by Tarzan, and the enemy forces, ensues. The latter are routed. Connie bids a fond farewell to her new desert friends and departs for London, bearing with her the medicinal herbs for Mrs. Tarzan.
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I find it surprising that Lesser would choose to reshoot a film that offered such action and adventure. What happened, of course, was that in eschewing the original script, he simply created some less expensive footage by adding some prehistoric jungle sequences from One Million B.C., thereby interfering with the continuity of the film. It is true that there are some exciting moments in this latter part of the film, but one has to wonder whether if was worth the trouble. As it turns out, the film was uneven. As Gabe Essoe points out in his book on the movie Tarzans, too much time is spent on Nancy Kelly, and not enough on Weissmuller. And one sees only a glimpse of the Olympic athlete doing what he does best: swim, and this is a clip from the earlier ...Triumphs.
Another explanation is given in the book Hollywood War Films .“This Tarzan episode was heavily recut and edited after early previews indicated that certain scenes were ‘too strong.’ The Mussolini reference occurs when a defiant Cheetah sticks out his jaw and has to be shooed away: You Mussolini - scat.” I must say that this explanation does not satisfy me. I suspect that, as was usual, the motive behind the change was purely pecuniary.
Among the actors assembled for the supporting roles were a number of familiar faces. Nancy Kelly plays Connie Bryce, the gal who has to fill in for the missing Mrs. Tarzan.
Born in 1921, Kelly started out as a child model. moved to the movies in the late thirties, and then on to the Broadway stage. She appeared in some impressive films, such as Stanley and Livingstone (39), and The Bad Seed (56). Among her other screen credits are Submarine Patrol (38), Tailspin (38), Jessie James (39), Frontier Marshal (39), Murder in the Music Hall (46) and Friendly Enemies (47).
Otto Kruger, at first glance, might seem a strange choice for a Nazi agent, even though he had already played such a role in Hitler’s Children (42). Other films included in his repertoire are The Intruder (32), Another Thin Man (39), Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (40), Cover Girl (44), High Noon (52), and Dracula's Daughter (56).
Joe Sawyer had an equally hard task, because even when he played a villain, it was usually for laughs. Such is not the case here. He is usually boisterous, whether in a comedy or a western. He appeared in more than 75 films during his career, starting with College Humor (33). He also made a series of hour-long comedies with William Tracy, the latter playing the role of Doubleday, the man with the photographic memory. Two of the better episodes were perhaps Yanks Ahoy (43) and Mr. Walkie-Talkie (52). Sawyer was also Sergeant Biff O'Hara in the long-running 50's TV series Rin Tin Tin. Other screen credits include Tarzan’s Revenge (38), The Grapes of Wrath (40), Sergeant York (41), Two Mugs from Brooklyn (42), The Outlaw (43), Sleepy Lagoon (43), Brewster’s Millions (45), Gilda (46), The Lucky Stiff (49), Blondie’s Hero (50), Comin’Round the Mountain (51), It Came from Outer Space (53), Taza, Son of Cochise (54), and North to Alaska (60).
Lloyd Corrigan plays the sheik who rules his city with blinders, despite constant warnings from his son. According to the first script, he is slightly more noble, standing up to Hendrix when the latter pulls out a gun. In the final version, however, this scene never takes place and his role is confined to that described earlier in this paragraph. It is all summed up in this brief exchange between father and son:
Selim: ...father, I'm really sorry, but that
man [Hendrix] never fails to make my blood boil.
Sheik: Why must you go out of your way to insult him?
Selim: I can't help it, father, I don't like him.
Sheik: Oh, you're just prejudiced.
Selim: No, it's more than that; he’s an alien. Haven’t you noticed that he surrounds himself, not with our people, but with men from the border tribes?
Sheik: Why, he’s employed hundreds of our people.
Selim: Yes, for the menial jobs, but the men in his confidence, the bazaar managers, the foremen, the caravan leaders are all outsiders. I don't trust him.
Sheik: You mean you don'’ trust your father’s judgment. don’t you?
Selim: Please, father, I didn’t mean that. It’s just that you’re too good a man, too forthright and trusting to realize how...how ruthless and domineering he is. Why, in America, he'd be called a racketeer.
Corrigan did some directorial work in the thirties in films like By Your Leave (34), Murder on a Honeymoon (35), one of the Hildegard Withers vehicles with the irrepressible Edna May Oliver, and Dancing in the Dark (34). Following this, he became strictly a character actor, usually in a benevolent, or at least, inoffensive role. Some of his films are The Great Commandments (39), The Ghost Breakers (40), Mexican Spitfire (41), Alias Boston Blackie (42), the first of a series in which he plays a recurring character, Hitler’s Children (43), The Thin Man Goes Home (44), in which he plays the unlikely murderer, The Fighting Guardsman (45), A Date with Judy (48), Dancing in the Dark (49), Cyrano de Bergerac (50), New Mexico (51), Son of Paleface (52), and The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters (54). He also had a recurring role on TV's Ozzie and Harriet, and made occasional appearances on others shows, such as Perry Mason.
Robert Lowery should have had a more illustrious career as a leading man. With his uncommon good looks and charm, he had all the trappings usually required for such a destiny. But seldom did he have the chance, and when he had, it was usually in a cheapie, such as the forgettable Queen of the Amazons (47). Lowery usually came off as a secondary lead, such as in . . . Mystery, playing the unfortunate prince Selim, the Sheik’s son, whose experience tells him that Hendrix is a ‘racketeer,’ but who is helpless to do anything about it, and is killed when he obtains the necessary evidence from Connie. Despite his bad luck in the lead department, Lowery did manage to play a variety of roles from pilot to playboy, from adventurer to gambler. He even played one of the title characters in the Columbia serial Batman and Robin (49), with Johnny Duncan playing the other. In the sixties, he became familiar to TV audiences as Big Tim Champion on Circus Boy and as the tongue-in-cheek saloon keeper out to get the Hanks’ property in Pistols and Petticoats which starred an ailing Ann Sheridan. His screen credits include Charlie Chan in Reno (39), The Mark of Zorro (40), Dangerous Passage (44), Big Town (45), I Shot Billy the Kid (46), Crosswinds (51), and a Bowery Boys entry Jalopy (53).
Other roles are ably handled by Frank Puglia, character actor, opera singer and ex-Vaudevillian; Frank Faylen, who is perhaps best remembered as Dobie Gillis’ father on television; Philip van Zandt, who is barely recognizable as an Arab. The Dutch actor had already competently played the vicious Captain Bausch in Tarzan Triumphs, the preceding Tarzan feature.
Cowboy actor Ben Johnson doubled for Johnny in the scene in which he leaps onto the horse. Unfortunately, he did not land properly, and sustained a painful reminder that there is a right way and a wrong way to jump on to a horse.
Tarzan’s Desert Mystery was a puzzler in many respects. Too many questions surrounding its production go unanswered. Why was Lesser dissatisfied with the first version? From the pressbook description, it would have been entirely satisfactory to the film-going public. Part of the answer may lie in the speed with which the film was being produced. Lesser was after all trying to cash in on the enormous success of his earlier film, Tarzan Triumphs. It may be that before the first version was even finished, Lesser had decided that it was going to be too costly, and preferred the second version, simply because of the stock footage he could resort to. In the final part of the film, there is no major expense, as compared with that of hiring a horde of extras and staging a battle à la Triumphs. Perhaps too, Thiele was taking too long to finish the film and costs were mounting. It is not even inconceivable that Neumann took over the reins of direction at some point even though Thiele was given full directorial credit. Such a thing happened with Tarzan Escapes (36). This inference is perfectly reasonable considering that Neumann continued his role as Associate Producer, and became director of Lesser's next three Tarzan films.
Whatever the case, I cannot believe that Lesser found the final version an improvement over the first one. The opening scene of the final version shows the sheik, his son, Hendrix returning from a hunt. In the original shooting script, however, another scene was to have preceded it. An emissary from the neighbouring sheikdom El Ece Bra, bearing a message from Amir to Prince Selim, enters a café‚ for some refreshment before leaving and heading for the palace. In a secluded street, the emissary is shot and killed by Strader.
I assume this scene was omitted as unnecessary since in their first exchange, Hendrix and Strader discuss the arrival of the emissary and his subsequent murder.
Another point concerns Cheta. It is very difficult to keep track of the various chimps that were used for the role of the ape man’s simian sidekick. According to the pressbook from Tarzan and the Amazons, a new Cheta was required because the former one had died of pneumonia. Still another report stated that the previous chimp had died in a fire. And another source suggested that the chimp was replaced simply because of old age. At any rate, this is the same chimp that was used in the final MGM films, and the previous ... Triumphs, and clearly a different chimp was used in ... Amazons.
Since Lesser secured the rights to the Tarzan films, Cheta had become indispensable. She was being used to save the situation, although occasionally she was the cause of the problem. In ...Triumphs, she recovers Tarzan's knife to free him; in ... Desert Mystery, she steals turbans to help Tarzan escape from his tower prison; in ... Leopard Woman, she fetches Lea's sacrificial claw with which she frees Tarzan of his bonds. It is unfortunate that the writers lacked enough imagination to consider other alternatives to extricate the principals from their various predicaments, unless producer Lesser insisted on it. In a sense, it emasculated the character of Tarzan, who should have been able to free himself.
A trick-performing horse named Dice portrayed the Arabian stallion Jaynar, and although he was a pinto, he was sired by an Arabian thoroughbred. Owned by freelance trainer Ralph McCutcheon, Dice had already been in a number of films including Arizona (40), and he was Gene Autry's mount in some of the latter's early films, and he later appeared in Duel in the Sun (46). He was also ridden by the likes of Bill Elliot and Richard Dix. The stallion even made it to Life Magazine, which touted him as “one of Hollywood's finest performing horses.” He could pull a revolver from a pocket, knock down cowboys, boost them by the seat of the pants, kneel, lie down and play dead, or smile and yawn on command. His last film before retiring was Thunderhoof (48). He lived to be 30 years old.
There is not much noteworthy dialogue in this film, although Faylen manages to amuse us by mangling English word order as shown by this speech to Connie Bryce, who characterizes it as giving “the King's English the St. Vitus Dance”:
"Because the English I so well speak, I, Achmet Nogash Segali, by my friends to address you have been selected. Is it true, o mystic lady, that one within this box placed, may in half be sawn and afterward in one piece put together be?... My friend Kushmet, three wives with the tempers of she-camels he possesses, upon two of which - the most homely - he would this strange magic perform, with failure, thereby bending to his will the mind of the third.”
The Hollywood Reporter
With a steady unfailing market that has endured for many years, any adventure of Tarzan is an assured box office property. And there has been no more popular player of Edgar Rice Burroughs' of this lord of the jungle than Johnny Weissmuller. Consequently, it must be reported that the Sol Lesser production of "Tarzan's Desert Mystery" is in the bag right now as a film attraction. But is also should be recorded that the entertainment falls below standard for the perennial series. It makes too many compromises and wanders too far from the domain where Tarzan is seen to his best advantage.
A letter from Jane, Tarzan's mate absent from his side to do her bit as a nurse in the war that is shaking the outside world, sends him to obtain a badly needed fever remedy. Boy begs to go along, and of course, Cheta, the chimpanzee is not to be denied the trip. On the desert they must cross to reach the place where the required medicine grows, Tarzan incurs the wrath of a German agent by refusing to allow him to capture a wild horse. He also meets and American girl magician who is carrying a message to the powerful sheik of an Arab tribe. This message reveals the German's duplicity. So both she and Tarzan are marked as enemies of the Nazi. Twice Cheta saves the day, once by stealing the message the girl carries, again by swiping turbans from Arabs that Tarzan may fashion a rope to escape from jail. Almost another picture starts in the final reels when Tarzan must fight off prehistoric monsters to obtain the fever cure. There is a seriously intended sequence with a giant spider that is almost as amusing as the delightful comedy contributed by Cheta.
Weissmuller's performance of Tarzan is as colorful as always, and Johnny Sheffield admirably portrays Boy. Nancy Kelly rises splendidly to her role of the girl magician, a square-shooting American trouper whom it is a pleasure to meet. Otto Kruger is the German, Joe Sawyer his henchman, Lloyd Corrigan, the kindly sheik, and Robert Lowery, his ill-fated son.
Direction by William Thiele is no more than acceptable because of the story meanderings, but the combined photography of Harry Wild and Russ Harlan is responsible for some handsome desert and jungle effects. Kurt Neumann served as associate producer, and the art direction is a dual credit to Hans Peters and Ralph Berger. Paul Sawtell's music score is rather ordinary.
Motion Picture Daily
The Latest Tarzan film is strictly kid stuff. The picture is one long string of events designed to stir up the youngsters to no end. Things happen so fast and furiously that Tarzan is scarcely given the time to draw a deep breath as he applies his strength and cunning to upsetting the plans of a Nazi agent to cause trouble between two desert tribes...
The film, produced by Sol Lesser, has been given
headlong direction by William Thiele. Edward T. Lowe concocted the
screenplay from a yarn by Carroll Young. Johnny Weissmuller plays
Tarzan in his usual stolid manner. Nancy Kelly enacts the chorus girl
adequately. Johnny Sheffield has lost none of his appeal as Boy. In
Otto Kruger, the role of the Nazi agent is in good hands. Joseph
Sawyer, Lloyd Corrigan, Robert Lowery are others who merit a good
word. Cheta the Chimp steals the show every time she's around.
Tarzan's Desert Mystery doesn't miss a thing with its quota of Nazis and gruesome animals, plus the usual Tarzan jungle scenes. The film should lure the juves in droves to the dual setup to which the pic is headed.
Picture opens with Johnny Weissmuller, Johnny Sheffield, and the chimp Cheta, setting out across a desert to find a cureall herb ordered by Mrs. Tarzan in London. On the way they run into Nancy Kelly, an American vaude performer who is on her way to warn a local sheik that Otto Kruger and Joe Sawyer are a couple of Nazi agents trying to stir up trouble. Things look tough for Tarzan and his crew when he is accused of stealing a stallion intended for the sheik and Miss Kelly is framed on a murder charge and sentenced to be hanged.
Miss Kelly, who has replaced Maureen O'Sullivan, as the femme lead in this Tarzan picture turns in a workmanlike performance as an American magician. Weissmuller, Sheffield and Cheta are per usual. Kruger just doesn't belong as a Nazi. Film is nicely paced and photography highly effective.
"Tarzan's Desert Mystery" is second Sol Lesser production based on the popular Edgar Rice Burroughs' character, none too adroitly handled in story pattern but very passable fare for Saturday matinees. Latter reels abound in suspenseful action, prehistoric monsters coming in for their moments and heavy meeting his well-deserved end under tentacles of a giant spider. Nancy Kelly is Johnny Weissmuller's running mate in this one., character of Jane, Tarzan's real mate, still among the missing she's mentioned as being still in England nursing soldiers and Johnny Sheffield enacts his usual role of Boy. And of course, there's Cheta, the chimp, to steal scenes.
Story is motivated by Jane writing Tarzan, asking him to send her malaria medicine which he extracts from certain jungle plants. En route to jungle where this certain growth is found, Tarzan must cross a desert, and it is here that ape-man is hurled into a plot which carries him into Arab city, where much of action unfolds. He saves Nancy Kelly, an American showgirl embroiled in a frame-up which gets her sentenced to be hanged, and in subsequent unreeling Otto Kruger, Nazi agent, and his henchman, Joe Sawyer, are killed. Film concludes with Miss Kelly leaving Tarzan and Boy to return to civilization.
This is the picture which Lesser remade, after
finishing it once. Film still is ragged but it possesses attributes
which will make it stand up as dual supporter, last two reels
compensating for slowness which distinguishes first half of picture.
Weissmuller, sans fights with wild animals, does not appear in as much footage as in past Tarzan films, and picture suffers accordingly, too much attention being directed to character portrayed by Miss Kelly. Actually, as film stands, Tarzan plays secondary character. Actor turns in highly acceptable performance, however, as does Boy, Cheta particularly a standout in greater footage than formerly. Miss Kelly seems out of character in her role, but she is quite adequate, and Otto Kruger and Joe Sawyer are sufficiently menacing. Robert Lowery is in for interesting bit as son of the sheik, part enacted by Lloyd Corrigan.
William Thiele handled direction from script by Edward T. Lowe, and Kurt Neumann acted as associate producer for Lesser. Both did capable jobs with what was at hand, music score by Paul Sawtell as directed by C. Bakaleinikoff adding to general acceptability of film. Hans Peters and Ralph Berger did atmospheric art direction job, and Victor Gangelin and Stanley Murphy followed suit with their interiors.
Three of the giant spider scenes from Tarzan's Desert Mystery