100 YEARS OF MOVIE TARZANS and TARZAN MOVIES
(Investigator 188, 2019 September)
THE SILENT TARZANS
In 1918 actor Elmo Lincoln (1889-1952) placed a foot on a lion's
carcass and emitted the victory cry of an ape. No one heard him because
it occurred in the first Tarzan movie, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), in the "silent era".
The movie grossed over $1 million and Lincoln achieved instant stardom.
He is often remembered as the first movie Tarzan but is actually the
second since in the same movie Tarzan as a boy is portrayed by Gordon
Griffith (1907-1958). Griffith was an actor from infancy and eventually
starred in 60 movies. His big break was Tarzan of the Apes
in which he did several nude scenes and his own stunts such as swinging
from vines, climbing trees, and playing with a chimpanzee.
The jungle hero Tarzan originated in the mind of American fiction writer Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875–1950). Beginning with Tarzan of the Apes (1912) Burroughs eventually authored 24 Tarzan novels.
The sequel to the first Tarzan movie was The Romance of Tarzan (1918) and again starred Elmo Lincoln. Actress Enid Markey (1894-1981) played Tarzan's love interest, Jane Porter.
Lincoln was not top-class as an actor, his physique was more portly
than muscled, and although barely 30 he looked too old. Therefore,
after appearing in the 15-episode serial The Adventures of Tarzan (1921) his career ended. He turned to mining but years later returned to the movies as an "extra", including in Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942) as a circus roustabout, and Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949) as a fisherman.
The Revenge of Tarzan (1920)
starred 6' 2'' New York fire fighter Gene Pollar (1892-1971) and is the
movie in which Tarzan married Jane played by American movie actress
Karla Schramm (1891-1980). Pollar then quit acting and returned to
He made news once more when he was 73 to declare himself the oldest
living Tarzan after NBC brought together some previous Tarzan actors
for a publicity event and wrongly called James A. Pierce, then aged 66,
the "oldest living Tarzan".
Serials, with cliff-hanger finales at the end of each episode or chapter, became popular from the 1920s onwards.
The first Tarzan serial, The Son of Tarzan
(1920) had P. Dempsey Tabler (1876-1956) as Tarzan, Hawaiian actor
Kamuela Searle (1890-1924) as Korak the son of Tarzan, and Karla
Schramm again as Jane. The very first Tarzan, Gordon Griffith,
reappeared to play Korak as a boy in Episode 1.
In the silent era actors usually did their own stunts which made acting
dangerous. During production Searle was thrown to the ground by an
elephant — and a double replaced him. Searle recovered from his
injuries and starred in one more film before retiring to focus on
sculpture and painting. The first "Jane", Enid Markey, also risked
death (prior to the Tarzan era) when almost asphyxiated by smoke during
the production of The Wrath of the Gods (1914) in a scene where lava destroys a village.
James Pearce (1900-1983), a former football player, played the lead in Tarzan and the Golden Lion
(1927) and in the following year married Burroughs' daughter, Joan. In
1934 they became the voices of Tarzan and Jane in the radio serial
Tarzan and Jane which went for 354 episodes.
Tarzan The Mighty (1928) and Tarzan The Tiger
(1929) both starring national title-winning gymnast Frank Merrill were
serials. The former was the last silent-era Tarzan production and the
latter the fist talkie. For the first time the audience heard the
famous Tarzan victory cry. Until Merrill, Tarzan always wore a leopard
skin extending over his shoulder but after Merrill a loin cloth.
Merrill's voice was considered unsuitable for talkies and "he devoted
the rest of his life to working with children..." (Wikipedia)
TARZAN SERIALS 1920s-1930s
1920 The Son of Tarzan; 15 episodes
1921 The Adventures of Tarzan; 15 episodes
1928 Tarzan the Mighty; 15 episodes
1929 Tarzan the Tiger; 15 episodes
1933 Tarzan the Fearless; 12 episodes
1935 The New Adventures of Tarzan; 12 episodes
Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984) was an ethnic
German from the Kingdom of Hungary who migrated with his parents to
America in 1905.
Beginning with Tarzan the Ape Man
(1932) he starred in 12 Tarzan movies, becoming the most famous of all
movie Tarzans, accompanied in six movies by beautiful Maureen
O'Sullivan as Jane.
Johnny Sheffield played Tarzan's adopted son, "Boy", in Tarzan Finds a Son (1939) and continued this role until 1947.
Brenda Joyce, a former photographers' model, replaced O'Sullivan in
Tarzan and the Amazons (1945) and played Jane in five movies.
Whereas in Burroughs' novels Tarzan became fluent in several languages
and behaved inconspicuously in civilized society the Weissmuller Tarzan
spoke ungrammatical phrases, often single syllables, and was deficient
in common etiquette.
Weissmuller had three less famous rivals:
• Larry (Buster) Crabbe in a 12-episode serial Tarzan
the Fearless (1933). The first four episodes were released as a feature
• Herman Brix (later known as Bruce Bennett) starred
in The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935), a 12-episode serial released
also as two movies —
Tarzan's New Adventure (1935) and Tarzan and the
Green Goddess (1936). Brix's Tarzan was a "cultured gentleman".
• Glen Morris — Tarzan's Revenge (1938) with Eleanor Holm as Jane.
Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948) was Weissmuller's final appearance as
Tarzan. Athletically he was declining and in weight increasing. He
switched from loin cloth to safari-trousers and shirt and became Jungle
Jim in 16 movies (1948-1955).
Weissmuller's melodious, jungle ape-yell, probably adapted from
yodeling competitions, became the definitive one — the one that
school-boys imitated and cried out at school. Larry Crabbe and Herman
Brix used weak alternatives.
In later years Weissmuller demonstrated his ape call in a television
interview and, when in his late seventies, would scare fellow residents
in the aged-care facility with it.
The next Tarzan, Lex Barker, was disowned by his family when he became
an actor. He starred in five movies from 1949 to 1953 which portrayed
the ape man more seriously and plausibly than previous films. Brenda
Joyce continued as Jane in Barker's first movie (Tarzan's Magic
Fountain) followed by four other actresses. Barker then did other movie
roles in Europe but had become stereotyped and faded into obscurity. He
returned to the USA where he died from a heart attack on a New York
After Weismuller and Barker the movies usually portrayed a more
sophisticated "ape man". Dialogue and acting got better, budgets got
bigger, settings became more realistic, and Technicolor arrived.
In 1954 tall, muscular, Gordon Scott became — if you've lost count —
the 12th Tarzan. He was popular and starred in six movies. Tarzan and
the Lost Safari (1957) was the first color Tarzan movie.
In 1959 MGM remade the 1932 Weissmuller classic this time starring
Denny Miller (better known as Duke Shannon in the Western series, Wagon
After Miller, stuntman Jock Mahoney starred in two movies, Tarzan Goes
to India (1962) and Tarzan's Three Challenges (1963) in which he became
at age 44 the oldest Tarzan-playing actor.
Then followed Mike Henry in three movies; and Ron Ely in four.
Ron Ely also starred in the first Tarzan television series in 1966-1968
which made Tarzan a regular experience in homes around the world. He
did his own stunts and suffered over 20 serious injuries including lion
bites and broken shoulders.
With Mike Henry and Ron Ely, Tarzan movies reached their half century.
In commemoration Parade magazine (No. 215, August 1968) published Fifty
Years of Screen Tarzans (John Francis Coffey) which includes some
interesting tidbits such as:
Burroughs ... in the last Tarzan book to be published ... Tarzan and
the Foreign Legion, he has one of the characters, on meeting Tarzan for
the first time, ask: "Is that Johnny Weissmuller?''
1918 Tarzan of the Apes (Gordon Griffith; Elmo Lincoln)
1918 The Romance of Tarzan
1920 The Revenge of Tarzan (Gene Pollar)
1927 Tarzan and the Golden Lion (James Pearce)
1932 Tarzan the Ape Man (Johnny Weissmuller)
1933 Tarzan the Fearless (Larry Crabbe)
1934 Tarzan and His Mate (Weissmuller)
1935 Tarzan's New Adventure (Bruce Bennett)
1936 Tarzan and the Green Goddess
1936 Tarzan Escapes (Weissmuller)
1938 Tarzan's Revenge (Glen Morris)
1939 Tarzan Find's a Son (Weissmuller)
1941 Tarzan's Secret Treasure
1942 Tarzan's New York Adventure
1943 Tarzan Triumphs
1943 Tarzan's Desert Mystery
1945 Tarzan and the Amazons
1946 Tarzan and the Leopard Woman
1947 Tarzan and the Huntress
1948 Tarzan and the Mermaids
1949 Tarzan's Magic Fountain (Lex Barker)
1950 Tarzan and the Slave Girl
1951 Tarzan's Peril
1952 Tarzan's Savage Fury
1953 Tarzan and the She-Devil
1955 Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (Gordon Scott)
1957 Tarzan and the Lost Safari
1958 Tarzan's Fight for Life
1958 Tarzan and the Trappers
1959 Tarzan's Greatest Adventure
1959 Tarzan the Ape Man (Denny Miller)
1960 Tarzan the Magnificent (Scott)
1962 Tarzan Goes to India (Jock Mahoney)
1963 Tarzan's Three Challenges
1966 Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (Mike Henry)
1967 Tarzan and the Great River
1967 Tarzan and the Perils of Charity Jones (Ron Ely)
1968 Tarzan and the Four O' Clock Army
1968 Tarzan and the Jungle Boy (Henry)
1970 Tarzan's Jungle Rebellion (Ely)
1970 Tarzan's Deadly Silence
1971 Tarzan and the Perils of Charity Jones
1981 Tarzan the Ape Man (Miles O'Keefe)
1984 Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (Christopher Lambert)
1989 Tarzan in Manhattan (Joe Lara)
1996 Tarzan's Return
1997 George of the Jungle (1997)
1998 Tarzan and the Lost City (Casper Van Dien)
2016 The Legend of Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgard)
2018 Tarzan the He Man (Jayam Ravi — Hindi-dubbed)
SECOND HALF CENTURY
The 1970s saw a ten-year hiatus with no new Tarzan movies.
Then in 1981 came Tarzan the Ape Man starring footballer and former
prison counselor Miles O'Keefe, and Bo Derek. Leonard Maltin's Movie
Guide which rates movies from four stars for the best down to "BOMB"
for the worst says: "Deranged remake of original Tarzan film lacks
action, humor, and charm—and nearly forced editors of this book to
devise a rating lower than BOMB."
1984 Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, with
Christopher Lambert and Andie MacDowell. MacDowell's lines were dubbed
because her Southern accent was unsuited for the role of an English woman. The movie "met great critical acclaim".
• 1989 Tarzan in Manhattan — A made-for-television movie, starring Joe Lara and Kim Crosby.
• 1996 Tarzan's Return — Another television movie with Joe Lara.
• 1998 Tarzan and the Lost City — Casper Van Dien (the 20th screen Tarzan) and Jane March.
And some television series:
• Tarzan (1991-1994)
• Tarzan The Epic Adventures (1996-1997)
• Tarzan (2003)
A spoof or parody, and Hindi spin-offs such as Lady Tarzan (1990) and Love in the Jungle (1995) can indicate a genre in decline. George of the Jungle
(1997) is a Disney comedy about a clumsy Tarzan-like figure whose
escapades include swinging face-first into a tree trunk, and grabbing a
snake instead of a vine.
Another hiatus ensued — 18 years with only animations and non-English movies.
Then came The Legend of Tarzan
(2016) with Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgard. Tarzan here is a member
of the House of Lords, philanthropist, and abolitionist. At the movie's
climax he summons thousands of wild animals to rampage through the
Congo's port city, destroying it and the Belgian army and navy, ending
the enslavement of Africans. Jane (Margot Robbie) while once again a
sexy kidnap victim is also a feisty woman of action.
The reviews weren't positive. For example: "Tarzan ends up being a
garbled, clunky production that tries to please everyone and ends up
pleasing no one." (The Guardian, 2016, June 29)
That's it — 100 years of Tarzan movies, one of the most popular fiction heroes of the 20th century!
Will Tarzan still be swinging through jungle trees in movies after 1½ centuries?
Aside from several non-English movies, such as Tarzan the He Man
released in 2018 in Hindi by Indian film company Goldmines Telefilms,
the genre seems in decline. Perhaps technological innovations in
movie-making will pull audiences back. Or perhaps Tarzan's origin in
European superiority and African subservience has become too
uncomfortable. Or maybe we've simply had enough.