Tarzan 101 | Tarzan of the Films: The Sy Weintraub Era

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

Sol Lesser’s inability to get a Tarzan TV show going may have contributed to his weariness with the series, or maybe it was just that after 25 years and 16 films it was time to be done. Whatever the reason, he sold his option to Sy Weintraub in 1958, including the last two films on Gordon Scott’s contract.

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959)

Weintraub wasn’t interested in Tarzan as a kiddie series. The first thing he did was get rid of Jane and Boy and relaunch as a gritty, realistic adventure: sort of a Western, but set in the jungle. He also saw how difficult chimpanzees can be to work with when surrounded by the distractions of filming in the wild, so he lost Cheeta too.

The plot is standard Tarzan fare – wicked treasure hunters come to the jungle and cause trouble – but the new Tarzan, though played by a familiar actor, was much more serious and dangerous in the way he handled them. Besides just being a really excellent Tarzan movie, Greatest Adventure is probably best known as one of Sean Connery’s earliest roles as one of the villains.

Tarzan the Magnificent (1960)

Weintraub liked to reuse good actors, so he apparently asked Connery back for Magnificent, but the actor had to turn him down because he was signed up for “some spy picture.” It wouldn’t be the last time James Bond had an effect on the ape man’s films.

Magnificent really made good on the “jungle Western” idea with a plot right out of 3:10 to Yuma or Ride Lonesome. The story has Tarzan trying to escort a bad guy to justice while the villain’s family (the Banton Gang, no less) attempt to liberate their kinsman.

Tarzan Goes to India (1962)

Gordon Scott left the series after Magnificent to go star in Italian sword-and-sandal films, so Weintraub replaced him with the bad guy from Magnificent, stuntman Jock Mahoney.

Starting with this film, Tarzan’s adventures go global and Tarzan becomes more of an international troubleshooter. This was probably too early to be a direct ripoff of Dr. No, also released in 1962, but filming in exotic locations around the world was already a trend in the early ’60s thanks to movies like Spartacus, El Cid, Hatari, and Lawrence of Arabia. Don’t worry though, ripping off Bond would come soon enough.

Tarzan’s Three Challenges (1963)

Mahoney plays the ape man again, this time visiting Thailand to escort a young prince to his new throne.

Tarzan in the Valley of Gold (1966)

Like Lesser, Weintraub had visions of television dancing in his head. Unfortunately for Jock Mahoney, Weintraub didn’t think the 44-year-old actor would go over with TV audiences, so the producer hired Los Angeles Rams linebacker Mike Henry to take his place as the ape man.

By now, Bond Fever was in full effect all over the world, and the Tarzan movies reflected this. I reviewed Valley of Gold for Flick Attack a while ago and talk about this some. I can imagine there are some fun-hating purists who take issue with Tazan’s killing villains with hand-grenade bolas and giant bottles of Coke, but they’re probably not reading this blog, so: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!

Tarzan and the Great River (1967)

Mike Henry is back, this time combining Tarzan and James Bond with the African Queen and Heart of Darkness. I loved this one and reviewed it for Flick Attack as well. As I said there, it’s not as over-the-top awesome as Valley of Gold, but makes up for that by having some great characters and interesting relationships.

Tarzan and the Jungle Boy (1968)

Sadly, I haven’t seen this one yet, but I can’t imagine not liking it. Judging from the first two, the Mike Henry Tarzan films are my favorites. Unfortunately, shooting three of them back-to-back without any breaks exhausted Henry and he gave up the role after this.

Henry’s leaving is bittersweet, because I like him, but it also opened the door for the next Tarzan who would become the one I grew up. Unlike Sol Lesser, Sy Weintraub’s efforts to get Tarzan on television succeeded and the producer gave up making movies. But we’ll save that for 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.