Celebrating Tarzan’s 101st anniversary by walking through Scott Tracy Griffin’s Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration.
MGM’s Tarzan films did a lot for the character’s popularity, but they were a mixed blessing. While Burroughs had insisted that the studio create an original story for Tarzan of the Apes, he perhaps didn’t count on their also dramatically changing the character and certainly didn’t foresee that theirs would become the more popular version. The MGM films overshadowed the novels in terms of public appeal and Johnny Weissmuller became the Tarzan for most people. Naturally, that irked Burroughs.
To explain what he did about it, I need to clarify something I wrote last week about MGM’s interest in the series. I said that MGM “thought they exhausted themselves after Tarzan Escapes and […] let their rights elapse […], but changed their minds and kept going.” That’s not entirely accurate. Since Griffin separates each film “era” into its own chapter, it’s difficult to see how MGM, Sol Lesser, and Burroughs’ activities affected each other, and some details fall through the cracks between chapters. So I got the information about MGM’s letting its rights lapse from Wikipedia (shame on me), which claims that:
MGM had originally let the film rights elapse after Tarzan Escapes feeling there was little more mileage in the series [emphasis mine]. Independent producer Sol Lesser obtained the rights to make five Tarzan movies, but the first of these, Tarzan’s Revenge, proved to be a flop. The blame was placed on audiences unwilling to accept Glenn Morris in the role made famous by Johnny Weissmuller. (Lesser had been unable to obtain Weissmuller’s services as he remained under contract at MGM.) Ironically, this opened MGM’s eyes to the continuing power of Weissmuller as Tarzan and they bought out Lesser’s interest in the next three films, and restarted their series.
That’s almost entirely crap. It’s much more complicated than that and Wikipedia is combining various events into one story. I’m getting ahead of myself by sharing some of Lesser’s story, but it helps understand what Burroughs did since all of this went on at the same time. Here’s what happened as far as I can reconstruct it.
According to ERBzine, MGM’s initial contract with Burroughs was signed in 1931 and was for just two pictures, starting with 1932’s Tarzan of the Apes. Griffin’s section on Sol Lesser (which we’ll cover next week) adds that Lesser had bought out an old contract from a couple of producers who’d signed a five-picture deal with Burroughs, but never produced any films. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, Lesser was apparently entitled to make his film or films first, but either MGM paid him to delay production or he allowed MGM to go ahead, knowing that their budget and publicity machine would create more interest in Tarzan movies, including – he hoped – his own. No one’s really sure which and possibly it was both.
Lesser’s first film wasn’t 1938’s Tarzan’s Revenge as Wikipedia claims, but a 1933 serial, Tarzan the Fearless starring Buster Crabbe. It did indeed fail, and we’ll look next week at why that was. We’ll also look at Lesser’s second Tarzan film, Tarzan’s Revenge and why it also failed.
In 1934, MGM released its second film, Tarzan and His Mate, completing its contract, and here’s where we get to Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises. Burroughs took advantage of the end of MGM’s contract by forming his own movie studio and releasing a 12-episode Tarzan serial that was more faithful to the literary version. His buddy Ashton Dearholt produced and directed 1935’s The New Adventures of Tarzan and also played the villain. Herman Brix played Tarzan. I reviewed it several years ago in three parts and liked it a lot, especially the character of Ula Vale, a heroic woman who gets pulled into the story, stays involved because it’s the right thing to do, and even rescues Tarzan a few times. Brix makes an excellent Tarzan and while New Adventures isn’t completely faithful to Burroughs’ novels, it gets really close. It’s well worth checking out.
Unfortunately for Burroughs’ new studio, he was in desperate need of cash. Most of New Adventures was shot in Guatemala, which was more expensive than anyone foresaw. Burroughs was also in the process of divorcing his first wife and marrying his second, so he was strapped financially. To get immediate money, he re-optioned MGM’s contract for a third movie, Tarzan Escapes.
He also got some dough ($25-50,000 per film) for approving the sale of some of Sol Lesser’s options to MGM, but I’m not clear on the timeline for that. ERBzine says it was during the production of New Adventures, so around 1934-35, but Turner Classic Movies suggests that it was later, after the failure of Tarzan’s Revenge in 1938. Regardless of when it happened, Lesser sold the three unused films from his original five-picture contract to MGM, who turned them into Tarzan Finds a Son, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, and Tarzan’s New York Adventure.
Whether or not MGM already had the last three film options when New Adventures came out, it certainly didn’t want want to dilute audience interest in 1936’s Tarzan’s Escape. So, MGM flexed its muscles and kept New Adventures out of the top-tier theaters in the United States. It did well in Europe, but Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises wouldn’t make another Tarzan film and only released three more pictures, all in 1936: a crime drama (The Drag-Net), a Western (The Phantom of Santa Fe), and an Alaskan wilderness adventure (Tundra).
We’ll pick up the MGM-Burroughs-Lesser saga next week with 1938 and a closer look at Tarzan’s Revenge.