When I said yes to subtitling Tarzan And His Mate (1934), I was never expecting to learn so much about feminism in the 1930s and censorship in Hollywood. But then, that’s one of the perks of working with films: you can learn an awful lot of interesting things.
The plot is quite simple: two Englishmen go to the jungle to find ivory and to tempt Jane (who is happily swinging in trees with Tarzan) back to "civilisation". That annoyed me no end and I had to remind myself that in the 30s, civilisation still equalled white men while Africans were seen as little more than savages. And breathe. So what do they do to convince this strong, independent, brave woman that she must give up her life of complete freedom, a challenging environment in which she thrives and a man who treats her with the respect that is due to her? They bring her the latest dresses and perfume made in Paris, because "While there’s clothes, there is hope with a woman." At that point, I was scowling at my screen and shaking my head in disbelief.
Then I chatted with Meredith, a friend of mine who lectures in women’s studies. She helped me put the film into its context: women in the US had gained the vote in 1920 and after that major victory, feminists started looking at other rights they wanted to gain, particularly access to the workplace. This fight was very much alive in 1934, when the film was made. It made me wonder whether this film could actually be seen from a much more positive angle, as a metaphor for this issue. The jungle, a very challenging, brutal and male environment, could represent the workplace, while the dresses, make-up and perfume offered to Jane could represent the home where the two Englishmen would like her to return. From this point of view, seeing as Jane bravely turns down the make-up, clothes and other baits they take to her in favour of the life she’s chosen in the jungle, the film is extremely positive and supports the idea that women shouldn’t accept a fate predetermined by their gender.
During my research, I also found out that films like Tarzan and His Mate are at the origin of the ratings system that we know today. In 1930, fearing federal censorship on their films, the big studios decided to show that they were capable of auto-censoring themselves and appointed Postmaster General Hayes to create what came to be known as the Hayes Code. This series of 28,000 rulings set clear limits in terms of language, dress, behaviour and values and promoted a vision of the world where good always wins over evil. The Hayes code was completely ignored until 1934, when several films, including Tarzan and His Mate (where Tarzan struts around wearing the most diminutive of loin-cloths while Jane never wears more than a tiny bikini), shocked conservatives and provoked a boycott from the catholic lobby. The Hollywood studios were made to respect the Hayes Code, which survived until 1968, when a new ratings system was introduced. So Tarzan And His Mate is also a perfect example of how the big studios at the time tried to defy censorship, only to bring about even more constraints on their creativity.
All in all, I ended up spending more time researching the film’s background and cultural influence than subtitling it, and enjoyed every minute of it.
ps: check out Gail Armstrong’s blog (Open Brackets) for an eloquent (as if Gail could be anything but eloquent) piece on subtitling.