Tarzan 101 | Tarzan of the Films: The MGM Era

Celebrating Tarzan’s 101st anniversary by walking through Scott Tracy Griffin’s Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration.

Though the silent Tarzan movies were popular and profitable, it wasn’t until MGM stepped in that Tarzan became a bona fide film icon. In 1930, the studio released a wildly (pun intended) popular movie called Trader Horn. It stirred the U.S. public’s interest in Africa in a way not even the Tarzan novels themselves had accomplished and was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, but it also influenced Tarzan in a couple of significant ways. The production of the film inspired Burroughs’ novel Tarzan and the Lion Man, while its success inspired MGM to pursue the film rights for Tarzan movies. After all, MGM had somewhere near a million feet of location footage shot for Trader Horn and needed a way to use it. (Incidentally, the on-location safari filming of Trader Horn also inspired the creation of another movie icon, filmmaker Carl Denham from King Kong.)

MGM of course cast five-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. He wasn’t trained as an actor, but that wasn’t a problem. At Burroughs’ suggestion (insistence?) MGM didn’t base their movies on the novels, but came up with a whole new storyline featuring a less intelligent (but no less clever or charming), monosyllabic Tarzan. Newly discovered Maureen O’Sullivan was cast as Jane and the rest is history. Like with the silents, I’ll do a brief rundown of the MGM films, all six of which can be found in The Tarzan Collection, Volume 1.

Tarzan of the Apes (1932)

Departs from the novels in several ways, including telling the whole story from Jane’s point of view. Co-stars Neal Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon from the ’60s Batman TV show) as a friend of Jane’s father and a (not very strong, admittedly) rival for Tarzan’s interest in her. The famous Tarzan yell was created using a human voice (Griffin doesn’t specify whether or not it was Weissmuller’s, but there’s no reason it needed to be) that was sweetened by sound engineers, possibly with the help of some sort of woodwind instrument.

Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Apes‘ success yielded a sequel and continued the story of the first film with the return of Neal Hamilton’s character. It stands up excellently next to the first one (some argue that it’s even better and I won’t fight them on it), but is also infamous for including a scene of Jane skinny dipping (using Olympic swimmer Josephine McKim as O’Sullivan’s body double). The Hays Office’s Motion Picture Production Code was just finding its legs at the time and used Mate to demonstrate and solidify its power. The filmmakers were forced to reshoot the scene with Jane wearing clothes and the Hays Office went on to prohibit onscreen nudity and “suggestiveness”.

Tarzan Escapes (1936)

Originally titled The Capture of Tarzan, this film got toned down during production, including the removal of huge devil-bats that were decided to be too scary for kids. From that point on, the Tarzan movies were considered by the filmmakers as being primarily for kids. This is also the film that introduces Tarzan’s awesome, Swiss Family Robinson treehouse, so there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just that there’s a remarkable difference between the first two MGM Tarzan movies and the last four.

Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939)

Cementing the series’ identity as children’s fare, MGM introduced a young boy character. Since Tarzan and Jane weren’t legally married, the kid couldn’t be theirs by childbirth, so they find him in a crashed airplane. Interestingly, he’s a Greystoke heir, though that part of Tarzan’s heritage is never brought up in the MGM movies. Five-year-old Johnny Sheffield was cast as Boy (Tarzan’s first choice for his name was “Elephant,” but Jane put her foot down). By this time, O’Sullivan was getting tired of playing Jane and wanted out of the series (she was also pregnant at the time and looking forward to starting a family). In order to accommodate her, the filmmakers included a death scene for Jane, but preview audiences hated it and the movie was changed last minute so that Jane survived.

Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941)

Griffin doesn’t mention it and I couldn’t find any information on how MGM got Maureen O’Sullivan back for this film. They were obviously willing to let her go after Tarzan Finds a Son and I don’t know why they couldn’t have just written her out between movies. If anyone knows, please share in the comments. However they did it, she’s back. Other than that, there’s not a lot remarkable about this one. It’s fun, but doesn’t add anything new to the series.

Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942)

You can tell that MGM’s running out of ideas by this time. They’d actually thought they exhausted themselves after Tarzan Escapes and even let their rights elapse at that time, but changed their minds (more on that next week) and kept going. For this one, they uproot Tarzan’s family and transplant them in New York City for a fish-out-of-water adventure. They got this one last appearance out of O’Sullivan by telling her she could wear modern clothing instead of her leather dress.

It wasn’t O’Sullivan’s leaving the series that killed it, but other factors caused MGM to dump Tarzan. First, they truly were out of ideas for what to do next, but probably more important was WWII and the loss of opportunities to show the movies in other countries. But even though MGM was done with Tarzan, Johnnies Weissmuller and Sheffield weren’t.

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