Tarzan 101 | Tarzan of the Films: Miscellaneous

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

Griffin actually calls this chapter, “Contemporary Films,” but since the first film discussed was contemporary with the start of Sy Weintraub’s era, I feel like “Miscellaneous” is a better description.

Tarzan the Ape Man (1959)

As the official Tarzan films were transitioning from Sol Lesser to Weintraub, MGM realized that there was a clause in their original contract that allowed them to remake 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man. So they did, casting Denny Miller as a wholesome, blonde Tarzan and Joanna Barnes as Jane.

Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981)

MGM remade Tarzan the Ape Man again in 1981, this time with Bo Derek (who’d become a pop icon the previous year in 10) and her husband John. Thanks to the success of 10, MGM had signed the Dereks to a three-picture contract with Tarzan being the first of them. True to the plot of the ’32 film, the movie’s told from Jane’s perspective, but Miles O’Keeffe’s Tarzan is even less verbal than Weissmuller’s. Knowing what the attraction was for Bo Derek fans, the film focuses on the steamy romance between Jane and the silent Tarzan.

Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1983)

Though Greystoke was released two years after the Dereks’ movie, it had been in the works since 1971, a few years after Weintraub’s last Tarzan film. Producer Stanley S. Canter picked up the option, but had a hard time getting the film made. The original version of the screenplay was an extremely faithful adaptation of the first Tarzan novel, but it was rewritten to keep elements of Burroughs’ story, but ultimately go its own way.

Christopher Lambert played Tarzan, though he’s never called that in the movie (he’s John Clayton instead). Andie MacDowell played Jane, but famously had her lines dubbed by Glenn Close. Ian Holm plays D’Arnot, which makes me want to watch it again right now. Rick Baker created the ape costumes.

Tarzan and the Lost City (1998)

It’s impossible to tell from watching it that Lost City is a sequel to Greystoke, but that’s how it was born. Canter immediately started planning it after the success of Greystoke, wanting this time to combine elements from Burroughs’ novels, The Return of Tarzan and Tarzan the Untamed, where Tarzan tracks a kidnapped Jane through the war-torn jungle.

Like with Greystoke though, it took over a decade to get it off the ground and neither Christopher Lambert nor director Hugh Hudson cared to be involved. Eventually, Canter signed on Carl Schenkel to direct and Casper Van Dien played Tarzan. Jane March played Jane and – true to the original intention for the plot – got abducted so that Tarzan could pursue her.

This was the first – and so far, only – Tarzan film shot entirely on location in Africa (South Africa, to be precise).

Tarzan (1999)

Just kidding. For some reason, Griffin gives a whole, separate chapter to Disney’s adaptation, so we’ll look at that next week.


Tarzan 101 | Tarzan of the Films: The Sol Lesser Era

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

I like how Griffin separates the Tarzan movies into chapters for each era, but as I mentioned last week, that format does present a problem with the years when MGM and Sol Lesser were competing with each other. It’s difficult to figure out from Griffin’s book how many times MGM’s option lapsed and for what reasons, but in Griffin’s defense, Internet research doesn’t make the picture much clearer.

We know that MGM’s initial deal with Burroughs was only for two films, concluding with Tarzan and His Mate in 1934. So that’s the first time their option lapsed. Then, in his chapter on Sol Lesser, Griffin says that it happened again after their third movie, 1936’s Tarzan’s Escape. What he doesn’t say is why.

The best information I can find is from an article on the Lesser film Tarzan’s Revenge at Turner Classic Movies: “According to The New York Times, after MGM had so much trouble making the previous Tarzan film, Tarzan Escapes, which starred Johnny Weissmuller, Sol Lesser made Burroughs a better offer than he had with MGM for the rights to use the character. Burroughs, reportedly, was to get a sum at the start of production and also share in the profits.” That doesn’t explain much, but it does suggest that MGM may have had a negative attitude following Tarzan Escapes.

If you’ll remember, Tarzan Escapes was the film where MGM decided partway through to turn the Tarzan films into a kids’ series. There were other production problems too (including a change in director), so it’s easy to imagine MGM’s growing frustrated and deciding to either end the series or put it on pause for a while. I haven’t been able to learn definitively which of those it was or how Sol Lesser’s rights figure into it.

Lesser originally bought options for five films. He made Tarzan the Fearless in 1933 and Tarzan’s Revenge in 1938. The other three he sold to MGM who made Tarzan Finds a Son, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, and Tarzan’s New York Adventure. So how did MGM get the right to make Tarzan Escapes? Did Burroughs negotiate a one-off contract for them? That’s as close as I can figure, but I can’t confirm it.

The feature film version of Tarzan the Fearless contains the first four chapters of the serial, but they’ve been edited-all-to-hell and are nearly unwatchable, which is too bad, because it looks fun and, hey, Buster Crabbe. Tarzan’s Revenge is almost unwatchable too, but that’s just because it sucks. If you’re interested though, both films can be purchased in a single collection on DVD.

Once we’re past Tarzan’s New York Adventure, figuring out the history of Tarzan films is smooth sailing. With Maureen O’Sullivan interested in leaving the series and MGM’s running out of story ideas, the studio relinquished the rights and Lesser stepped in, picking up Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny Sheffield’s contracts as well. Predictably, Maureen O’Sullivan didn’t return, but Lesser held her spot open for a couple of films and wrote Jane out in a way that could be undone later.

Here’s the rundown of the rest of Lesser’s Tarzan films. The first six with Johnny Weismuller are collected together in a DVD box set:

Tarzan Triumphs (1943)

A propaganda film with Tarzan and Boy helping a lost city fight Nazis. Eventually. There’s some analogy to the U.S.’s wanting to stay out of WWII, which leads to a genuinely thrilling moment when Tarzan finally decides to go to war.

Jane is written out as being in England to visit her sick mother, which makes it creepy when Tarzan flirts with another woman, but all in all, it’s a great adventure film.

Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943)

Jane’s still in England (stuck there because of the war), but the film makes the most of it by having that be the catalyst for the plot. Jane’s working in a hospital that could use a jungle remedy for its patients. Tarzan crosses a desert to find the right plants, but gets pulled into some intrigue surrounding a shiek and a European racketeer. It’s a fun spy movie and a huge change of pace for the series.

Tarzan and the Amazons (1945)

By this time, Lesser had given up on O’Sullivan’s ever coming back, so he cast Brenda Joyce as a new, blonde Jane.

Tarzan and the Leopard Woman (1946)

Acquanetta leads a leopard cult.

Tarzan and the Huntress (1947)

Tarzan vs. unscrupulous trappers.

Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948)

Weissmuller’s last time playing Tarzan and Lesser’s first time using location shooting (in Mexico). As you can see from the titles above, Lesser liked having Tarzan team up with or face off against women. This time it’s Linda Christian (who played the Vesper character – renamed Valerie Mathis – in the Barry Nelson Casino Royale on American TV) as a young woman who’s being forced by an oppressive high priest to marry someone she doesn’t want to.

After Mermaids, Lesser decided not to renew Johnny Weissmuller’s contract (Griffin implies that it may have been because of Weissmuller’s age). Johnny Sheffield also left the series to star in the Bomba the Jungle Boy movies, while Weissmuller would go on to play comic strip hero Jungle Jim (who was created by Flash Gordon’s creator, Alex Raymond).

Lesser cast Lex Barker for the next five films, collected in a box set on DVD:

Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949)

Inspired by the novel Tarzan’s Quest, Tarzan’s Magic Fountain has the ape man protecting a fountain of youth from outsiders. Though the Tarzan was new, Brenda Joyce played Jane one last time, creating some continuity with the last few Weissmuller films. From this point on, Tarzan would have a different Jane every time. Magic Fountain also features a cameo by silent film Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln, who also played a roustabout in Tarzan’s New York Adventure.

Tarzan and the Slave Girls (1950)

Vanessa Brown plays Jane and gets kidnapped with some other women as “brides” for a villainous tribe.

Tarzan’s Peril (1951)

The first Tarzan film shot on location in East Africa features the ape man fighting some gunrunners. Jane is played by Virginia Huston in this one, but stays offscreen for most of it. Lesser wanted this one to be shown in Technicolor, but some of the location footage was ruined and the film had to be released in black-and-white.

Tarzan’s Savage Fury (1952)

This time Jane is Dorothy Hart as Tarzan battles a couple of treasure hunters. Again.

Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953)

Raymond Burr plays in this as one of a couple of ivory poachers working for a powerful woman. Joyce MacKenzie played Jane.

Lex Barker felt he was getting typecast, so with his contract completed he declined to sign on for any more Tarzan films. Lesser hired bodybuilder Gordon Scott to replace him for the next six films, though Lesser would only produce three of them. The entire Gordon Scott collection is of course available on DVD.

Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1955)

Jack Elam is one of a couple of evil animal trappers in the final black-and-white Tarzan film. This one has no Jane, but Vera Miles plays a nurse and potential romantic interest.

Tarzan and the Lost Safari (1957)

RKO had distributed Lesser’s Tarzan films up to here, but starting with Lost Safari, MGM agreed to do it. Like Magic Fountain, Lost Safari borrowed elements from Burroughs’ novel, Tarzan’s Quest, specifically the part about Tarzan’s leading a diverse group of travelers through the jungle when their plane crashes. It was shot in color on location in East Africa. Jane is again absent.

Tarzan’s Fight for Life (1958) 

Jane returns to the series, now played by Eve Brent. Lesser also added a new adopted son, named Tantu and played by Ricky Sorensen. Lesser put the family back together in hopes of taking Tarzan to TV. He filmed a pilot, which became the 1958 TV movie, Tarzan and the Trappers (with Sorensen now called Boy), but sadly, no one wanted it.

Disappointed by his inability to get Tarzan on TV, Lesser sold the series – including Scott’s contract – to producers Sy Weintraub and Harvey Hayutin. And that’s where we’ll pick up next week.

Tarzan 101 | Tarzan of the Films: Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises

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.

Tarzan 101 | Tarzan of the Films: Silents

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

Griffin’s book covers a lot of ground in the chapters on the movies. He details the deals that led to each picture, interesting facts about their release and publicity, and the backgrounds and later careers of the various actors who played Tarzan and Jane. There’s no way I can do Griffin justice, so I’m opting for a quick checklist with some useful information about each film.

  • The Lad and the Lion (1917; lost): Not really a Tarzan film, but based on a Burroughs story and served as a sort of test run for filming actors with live animals.
  • Tarzan of the Apes (1918): Starring Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan and Enid Markey as Jane. Child actor Gordon Griffith played Tarzan as a boy. The film only covers the first half of Burroughs’ first Tarzan novel and about half the film appears to be lost. The surviving parts have been edited together as a special feature on Tarzan, Lord of the Louisiana Jungle, Al Bohl’s documentary about the making of the film.
  • The Romance of Tarzan (1918; lost): Again starring Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan and Enid Markey as Jane. A direct sequel to Tarzan of the Apes that tells the second half of Burroughs’ first novel. The movie’s production was a shady deal because the studio (National Film Corporation) was only supposed to do one film, but after the success of Tarzan of the Apes used a loophole in the contract to make Romance since it was adapted from the same book they’d bought the rights to.
  • The Revenge of Tarzan (1920; lost): Starring Gene Pollar as Tarzan and Karla Schramm as Jane. Produced by Numa Pictures, this was what Burroughs wanted to be the second Tarzan movie, an adaptation of The Return of Tarzan. It was renamed Revenge when theaters mistook Return as meaning that it was a re-release of Tarzan of the Apes
  • The Son of Tarzan (1920): A 15-chapter serial starring P. Dempsey Tabler as Tarzan, Karla Schramm as Jane, Gordon Griffith as young Korak, and Kamuela Searle as mature Korak. Adapts the novel of the same name.
  • The Adventures of Tarzan (1921; 5 chapters are lost): A 15-chapter serial starring Elmo Lincoln again as Tarzan and Louise Lorraine as Jane. Based on the second half of the novel, The Return of Tarzan. First movie appearance of La of Opar (Lillian Worth).
  • Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927): Starring Jim Pierce (Burroughs’ hand-picked actor who would go on to marry Burroughs’ daughter and also play Tarzan for radio) as Tarzan and Dorothy Dunbar as Jane. Adapts the movie of the same name and features Boris Karloff in one of his earliest roles as a native chief. 
  • Tarzan the Mighty (1929; lost): A 15-chapter serial starring Frank Merrill as Tarzan. It was loosely based on Jungle Tales of Tarzan and didn’t feature Jane. Instead, Natalie Kingston played a love-interest named Mary Trevor.
  • Tarzan the Tiger (1929): A 15-chapter serial again starring Frank Merrill as Tarzan. Natalie Kingston is back, but this time she’s playing Jane in an adaptation of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. Kithnou plays La of Opar. The last silent Tarzan film, Tiger was released in a semi-sound version with dubbed sound effects, including the first Tarzan yell (not quite the Weissmuller version, but historic nevertheless).

Tarzan 101 | Tarzan of the Radio

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

After the success of the Tarzan movies (which we’ll start looking at next week), you’d think that radio would be a step backwards, but there were still a lot of profits to be made by serializing Tarzan’s adventures for the air waves. Burroughs made the first attempt at setting up a Tarzan radio program in 1930, but it wasn’t until late ’31 that the same guy who’d launched the comic strips got involved and things started moving.

Burroughs was still heavily involved though and cast Jim Pierce in the lead role. Burroughs had met Pierce at a party in the ’20s and immediately wanted the actor to play Tarzan in the 1927 silent film, Tarzan and the Golden Lion. Not long after, Pierce and Burroughs’ daughter Joan fell in love and got married (staying so until Joan’s death in 1972), so Burroughs made it a family deal and cast Joan as Jane for the radio show.

The program debuted in September 1932 on KSTP, a Saint Paul radio station that still exists today, playing adult contemporary music. The series was one of the first pre-recorded radio shows (as opposed to live broadcast) and went for almost 300 episodes just adapting the first two Tarzan novels. The show was incredibly successful and spurred sponsor Signal Oil to start its Tarzan fan club that had to be aborted when it grew too large for the company to manage.

After the two novel adaptations, writer Rob Thompson wrote two original stories, Tarzan and the Diamond of Asher and Tarzan and the Fires of Tohr. The first was later adapted by Burroughs to become the novel Tarzan and the Forbidden City; the second became one of the early Dell comics. By the time Fires of Tohr came out in ’35 though, the program had run out of steam and was only playing on 10 stations.

Burroughs tried to get it going again in ’38, but it wasn’t until 1951 – after Burroughs’ death – that a second radio show started up. This one starred Lamont Johnson as Tarzan and was sort of a mix of the novel and film versions of the character. There was no Jane, but the show featured a lot of voice artists including some of the earliest work of future Bond girl (and Riddler henchman on the ’60s Batman), Jill St. John.

Tarzan 101 | Tarzan of the Funny Pages

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

In January 1929, the first Tarzan newspaper comic strip debuted, an adaptation of Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes by Hal Foster. That’s a sample above, via a wonderful tribute to Foster on the Collectors Society message boards. The adaptation was such a success that they kept it going with Return of Tarzan and beyond, though Rex Maxon was brought in to replace Foster, who got busy with other things.

The strip continued to adapt novels until it caught up with Burroughs and then moved on to adapting movies and even radio adventures. Griffin chronicles all of this and shows examples of strips from all the major contributors: Foster, Maxon, Burne Hogarth, Ruben Moreira, Bob Lubbers, John Celardo, Russ Manning, Gil Kane, Mike Grell, and Gray Morrow (who drew from freelance scripts, including one by Scott Tracy Griffin himself). The strip is still going and – according to Griffin – remains the fifth longest running strip today.

Here’s a quick chronology of who worked on the strip and when he started:

  • Hal Foster (daily: January 1929)
  • Rex Maxon (daily: June 1929)
  • Rex Maxon (debuted the Sunday color strip: March 1931)
  • Hal Foster (Sunday: September 1931)
  • Burne Hogarth (Sunday: 1937)
  • Ruben Moriera (Sunday: 1945)
  • Dan and Sy Barry (daily: 1947)
  • Burne Hogarth (Sunday: 1947)
  • John Lehti (daily: 1948)
  • Paul Reinman (daily: 1949)
  • Nick Cardy (daily: February 1950)
  • Bob Lubbers (1950; starting with Lubbers, one artist drew both daily and Sunday strips)
  • John Celardo (1954 )
  • Russ Manning (1967)
  • Reprints (1971)
  • Gil Kane (1979)
  • Mike Grell (1981)
  • Gray Morrow (1983)
  • Eric Battle (2001)
  • Reprints (2002)
  • Roy Thomas and Tom Grindberg (2012)

Tarzan 101 | Tarzan’s Africa

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

Like yesterday’s post on the Ape-English Dictionary, there’s no way for me to properly relay the information in Griffin’s section on “Tarzan’s Africa.” At least, not a way that I’d feel good about. It’s just maps, so I could scan them all and post them, but the point of these posts isn’t to steal from Griffin’s book.

His double-page spread of Mel Greifinger’s map above wouldn’t fit on my scanner anyway, but he also includes some smaller scans of nine maps from Burroughs’ own notes. I’d dig a whole atlas of enlarged scans of those, but they’re interesting even at the smaller size and include areas like Pal-ul-don, Pellucidar, the Lost Empire, etc. I don’t want to turn this into a direct ad for Tarzan: The Centennial Celebration, but this is a chapter best experienced directly.