Magic Moments

Source: John Sutherland, Magic Moments: Life-Changing Encounters with Books, Films, Music … (London: Profile Books, 2008), pp. 1-2, 5, 8

Text: I could see stories before I could read them. And the first narrative I recall seeing is the film Tarzan’s Desert Mystery. I was around five years old. I’d had my Lacanian moment, in front of my mother’s dressing-table mirror. I knew I was I. Whatever that was.

All that ‘I’ can remember of the narrative of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery – stored haphazardly in the basement level of my sensibility – is a handful of vivid but disconnected snapshots. One such is the pulsing-beeping RKO logo (it carried one back, I now hypothesise, to the womb, and that life-sustaining maternal heartbeat). I had left that foetal haven just sixty months earlier. the only other residue is some scraps from the ten-minute chase scene which the makers of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery tacked on to the end of the movie.

That, alas, is it.

The Colchester Gazettte for that week in 1944 informs me that the film (which ran something under seventy minutes) was shown at the Hippodrome in a double bill with a cowboy film. Whether I sat through that other film, I don’t recall.

The narrative of the Tarzan movie, as I have recently re-experienced it (on DVD, after an interval of six decades), is bizarre …

… What stuck in my five-year-old mind (the only thing that, as it happens, did stick) were deadly sticky Venus flytraps, whose stamens shot up, without warning, nine feet out of the ground, creating a cage with quivering snake bars in which the victim was fatally imprisoned. Cheeta, I vividly recall, escapes by outjumping the deadly stamens. the less nimble Tarzan – Venus flytrapped – is assisted in his escape by his trusty, but bored-looking, pachyderm pals, summoned from their elephant grove by the famous Weissmullerian yell …

Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, as I experienced and archived it in my pinched little tabula rasa, squirming excitedly on my one-and-ninepenny seat, was all man-eating, octopoid vegetables, Triffids avant la lettre. the brain is very strange. I would carry those veggy-killers with me through life. Even now, I never look at fried calamari without thinking of them and somewhere deep inside, shuddering.

I remember where I saw the film film in more concrete detail than the flickering narrative itself. It was at the Hippodrome, in Colchester High Street. More precisely, in the downstairs stalls alongside my mother, who intended the outing as a treat for me. Her own treats at the time were more adult, and involved Americans who were carnal rather than celluloid. She, in her Colcestrian way, was a Venus flytrap.

Comments: John Sutherland (1938 – ) is a British literary critic and newspaper columnist, known for the literary puzzle books Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? His father had died the year before in a wartime accident when he was four. His childhood and early adulthood memoir is told through the books and films that made a vivid impression on him. Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (US 1943) starred the former Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. His chimpanzee companion was called Cheeta.

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