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.