Tarzan is one of the most popular characters of the 20th century to have leapt from the written page onto the silver screen. But for many years the portrayal of Tarzan in the movies, following the first sound production, was greatly at odds with the original literary form of the character. Instead of a literate, well-spoken jungle adventurer, Tarzan was portrayed as an illiterate character speaking in broken English, and was at times was rendered a virtually non-speaking figure. In many ways it was as if the character had struggled to find a voice when the transition from the silent movies to the world of sound was made. Tarzan, the last of the silent action heroes, who could shake the primordial forest with his famous cry but struggled to utter a human word, had a long journey to truly find his voice on the big screen.
The Written Word
In 1914 a man had a vision to create a character that would explore the influences of nature and nurture on the development of the individual. As Edgar Rice Burroughs sat down to write Tarzan of the Apes (1914) and create his iconic ape man, he gave him the genetics of an English nobleman and made his nursery the savage jungle. Rather than his genteel biological parents he would be raised by savage great apes. Burroughs said,As I got into the story, I realised that the logical results of this experiment must have been a creature that would have failed to inspire the sympathy of the ordinary reader, and that for fictional purposes I must give heredity some breaks that my judgement assured me the facts would not have warranted. And so Tarzan grew into a creature endowed with the best characteristics of the human family from which he was descended and the best of those which mark the wild beasts that were his only associates from infancy until he had reached man's estate. (E. R. Burroughs, The Tarzan Theme, ERBzine 0058 ~ Also reprinted in Legends of Literature: The Best Articles, Interviews and Essays from the Archives of Writers Digest Magazine, Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, 2007, pg 41-47)One of the concessions that Burroughs made was placing within his hero a intellect of genius proportions. It is this amazing mind, thirsty for knowledge, which drives Tarzan into the abandoned jungle cabin of his deceased human parents. It is here that he discovers the childrens picture books intended for him if they had reached their intended destination. Defying all developmental odds, Tarzan begins gazing at the pictures in these books, eventually making connections between the pictures and the words. After persevering for several years, Tarzan eventually teaches himself to read and write, instilling with in him a sense that he is different than his adopted anthropoid family. However he is unable to speak any language other than that of the great ape species, having only been exposed to English for the first year of his life.
This becomes a great plot device, with Tarzan able to leave Jane written notes but unable to speak to her. This leads her to believe that her handsome jungle man and Tarzan of the Apes were two separate people, she in love with one and the other professing his love in a note to her. Jane even leaves the jungle unaware that the object of her affections is learning to speak French and eventually English at the feet of a French naval officer, Lieutenant Paul D'Arnot. Barbara Creed, in her article "Me Jane, You Tarzan," says,Tarzan of the Apes was born a gentleman; a factor which nothing could disguise and which bubbles to the surface of his consciousness the minute he encounters a white woman. But the thing which clearly sets him apart from the apes is his ability to learn language. (Barbara Creed, ME JANE: YOU TARZAN!- A Case of Mistaken Identity in Paradise)Creed sees the true hallmarks of Tarzan's noble ancestry coming to flower upon his first meeting with Jane. But this noble ancestry is made all the more potent, empowering and able to lift Tarzan from the realm of the beasts, by his understanding of the written and spoken word. By the time Tarzan arrives in civilisation he is ready to find his place in the world of humanity. He is a self taught literate being, able to communicate just as well in the House of Lords as in the company of the smallest jungle monkeys. Along side of his superior physicality, this wide understanding of language gives him mastery over whatever locale he finds himself in.
The Silent Screen
It's interesting that when Tarzan first came to the silver screen in 1918 some of these plot devices were abandoned. In Tarzan of the Apes (1918) the young Tarzan, played by Gordon Griffiths, is taught to read from the books in the cabin and speak English by Binns, a sailor who had helped his parents survive the mutiny that had left them stranded in the jungle. In many ways Binns plays a similar role to D'Arnott in the novel. He is the one who guides Tarzan from the ways of the beasts to that of humanity. By the time the adult Tarzan (Elmo Lincoln) meets Jane (Enid Markey), he can fully communicate with her, simplifying for the screen some of miscommunication and mistaken identity that works so well in the novel. The Tarzan of the early cinema is a literate and verbal character although, due to the cinematic technology of the time, a silent one. And so for the next eleven years and eight movies, Tarzan swung through the world of silent cinema, literate, eloquent but virtually unheard. One silent Tarzan, James Pierce, star of Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927), did eventually get to give voice to the character in the Tarzan radio show (1932-1936) but never on the silver screen. 1929's Tarzan the Tiger, the last of the silent productions starring Frank Merrill, was a transitional movie that featured limited sound effects which included the first depiction of the Tarzan yell. Although very different than Merrill's, the next version of this call would become arguably one of the most recognisable sound effects in cinema history.
In 1932 MGM produced the first full sound version of Tarzan. The movie was a loose adaption of Burroughs' novel and rather than telling the story of Tarzan's childhood, began with a new story of Jane, her father, and his partner Harry Holt, heading into the remote parts of the Dark Continent in search of the elephant's graveyard. With no back story, Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) arrives in the story fully grown. There is no account of his self education or tutoring by marooned sailors. He is unfamiliar with the language of humanity and in many ways still a silent action hero. He is able to communicate with the beasts to great effect through the language of the apes and the now famous version of the 'Tarzan Yell' or 'the cry of a great bull ape (Tarzan of the Apes, page 219)' as Burroughs originally called it. However with English and the dialects of the native bearers he is ignorant. In fact, in the scenario presented by Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), it is Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) who becomes the bringer of human language to the Lord of the Jungle.
When Tarzan first meets Jane, the window to his humanity begins to open. This beast, that with a mighty yell could control the jungle, now childlike, utters his first human words. The silent era left us with a Tarzan whose 'Victory Cry' broke, not just the quiet of the jungle, but the silence of the medium itself. But it was the talkies that finally gave us a Tarzan whose first struggling steps out of the silence of animal ignorance could finally be heard. Both Barbara Creed and Frank McConell take note of the importance that the element sound brings to cinematic portrayal of Tarzan's first steps towards learning human language.
In his book, The Spoken Seen: Film & The Romantic Imagination, Frank McConnell argues that this is why Johnny Weissmuller, not Elmo Lincoln's silent Tarzan, has been remembered as 'the great type of the role'. 'For Tarzan represents a victory over silence, a fundamentally epistemological victory of the human mind over the mute universe of things, the primal tropical jungle. And for the representation of that victory the Tarzan films need sound. Weissmuller's famous guttural so like Karloff's speech in The Bride - is among the most eloquent of screen utterances.'(Creed)
And so the Tarzan who educates himself in the written word and who learns human speech at the feet of a male mentor is replaced by the Tarzan who learns to speak upon his first meeting with a white, and possibly any, human female, an exchange that has become inextricably linked with the concept of the character in the popular consciousness.
What makes this version of Tarzan's education all the more powerful are the mythological parallels that can be can be found with in it. Connections can be drawn with the story of the Garden of Eden in the Hebrew Bible, in particularly Chapter 2, where God asks Adam to find a suitable partner amongst the other beasts of creation. Thankfully Adam is unable to find one and God is led to create woman, who for both good and ill, leads Adam to make certain choices that lead to both expulsion from simplicities of the garden paradise but also from ignorance to an awareness of good and evil. In Jane, Tarzan meets "Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Gen 2: 23 NRSV), a female of his own kind that will lead him into complicated world of human interactions.
Connections can also be drawn with the story of the wild man, Enkidu, found in the ancient Sumerian The Epic of Gilgamesh (Penguin Books, London, 1999). In this story, the Gods decide to create an equal for the mighty and unrivalled Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, in order to curtail his increasing tyranny. Like Adam in the Garden of Eden, Enkidu is fashioned out of clay and becomes a feral man who runs with the gazelle. He is described as 'Enkidu the hero, the offspring of silence (The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 1, verse 104)' and he continues to live his savage life until he begins to cause problems for local hunters. Soon a plan is hatched to tame the wild man and a prostitute is sent to seduce him. After spending a week with her, he is unable to return to the herd and for the first time in the narrative begins to speak. The woman then convinces him to leave the wild for the company of people. As in Tarzan the Ape Man, it is contact with a human woman that initiates the wild man into the world of humanity, from the world of silence into the world of language, and eventually as the series progressed, into domesticity.
A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action
However as the MGM film series continued, Tarzan's abilities to communicate with humanity continued to be limited. Unlike his eloquent literary and silent counterparts, fluent speech and written word continued to allude him. Jane, and soon his adopted son Boy, would frequently act as Tarzan's guides to the ways of civilization. Jane would act as intermediary when outsiders would visit (i.e. Tarzan Escapes (1936) and Boy would read Jane's letters when she was away in England (i.e. Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943). In fact in some independent productions of the period, [Tarzan the Fearless (1933), Tarzan's Revenge (1938), and later MGM's own remake of Tarzan the Ape Man (1959)], Tarzan is rendered virtually mute once again, allowing he and the female lead to present a new version of his first spoken human words and the following romance.
Only one production, Edgar Rice Burroughs' own, The New Adventures of Tarzan (1933), presented an eloquent, educated Tarzan. This movie serial, and its two feature adaptations, was Burroughs' own response to the treatment of his character by MGM and its imitators. It presented an ape man closer to the way he had conceived him, speaking fluent English, equally at home being John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, as he was being the Lord of the Jungle. In many ways this film was more instep with the productions of the silent era in it's portrayal of the Ape Man and demonstrates the direction the creator of the character wished the other studios had taken. However, despite its literary authenticity, this production failed to have an impact on the portrayal of the character in the mainstream of Tarzan films. This may be in part due to the fact that it was felt that cinematically Tarzan worked best in a primitive jungle setting and to civilise his character too much might jeopardise this.
This may have seemed to be the lesson learned from the second silent Tarzan feature, The Romance of Tarzan, which saw much of the film take place out side of Africa in the USA. The Romance of Tarzan, after the massive box office success of Tarzan of the Apes, was a disappointment for the studio when it only managed to break even. Of this film, its star Elmo Lincoln said, "They made a mistake when they put Tarzan in clothes. Tarzan is a wild man and he does not belong in a drawing room (ERBzine)."
When Tarzan first donned clothes and left the jungle in the MGM's Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942) it wasn't to claim his birth right as Lord Greystoke, but to present him in a fish-out-of-water tale, as he and Jane, his continuing bridge to the world of human communication, seek to rescue Boy from the hands of unscrupulous circus operators. While Jane tries to solve the problem through the verbal and written world of the legal system, Tarzan, a man of few words, solves the problem with a stampede of circus elephants.
Tarzan was still very much a character with his feet still firmly planted in the silent era. He was a visual character of action whose most powerful form of communication was a yell that, although paradoxically first heard in the silent era, was just as much a mimed visual performance as it was a dubbed sound effect. With his hands cupped around his mouth and his head thrown back, the audience needed no sound to understand what Tarzan was doing.
This philosophy of action over words, both written and spoken, is beautifully highlighted in a passage of dialogue from 1958s Tarzan and the Trappers. The interchange between Tarzan and Jane takes place following a reading lesson that Jane had been having with Boy, now also called Tartu.Tarzan: Books little value in jungle, what man does more important than what man read or say.Unlike Burroughs' original character, that pushed himself headlong into understanding the written and spoken language of his own kind, the Tarzan of the talkie era chose to procrastinate in doing so. In the series started by MGM and it's imitators, Tarzan was Lord of the Jungle, words were for woman, children and lesser men of the civilised world. None of them could make the jungle quake or defeat villains in the heart of civilization with only a single cry.
Jane: You taught me that Tarzan, but you should learn to….
Tarzan: I learn.
However, by the mid-1950s things were beginning to change for the Tarzan film series and Tarzan's words, "I learn", would prove to be prophetic. In Tarzan's Hidden Jungle (1955) and Tarzan and the Lost Safari(1957), Tarzan appeared for the first time, since Burroughs' New Adventures, without either Boy or Jane (or romantic equivalent). Besides three throwbacks to the Weissmuller formula, Tarzan's Fight for Life (1958 ) and Tarzan and the Trappers (1958), both connected with a failed attempt to bring Tarzan to TV, and the remake Tarzan the Ape Man (1959), Tarzan (Gordon Scott) was now a lone adventurer in the jungles of darkest Africa with out a family in tow.
This move to shift Tarzan away from the family settings established in the films was an important one if the series was to have a future. Of this situation Nicholas Anez said, "The increased emphasis on Tarzan's domesticity as husband, father and owner of a cute pet had emasculated him." (Tarzan's Greatest Adventure, Films in Review, Issue Unknown).
However the greatest shift in the presentation of the character came in 1959 when Tarzan's promise to "learn" was fulfilled. In the face of a failed TV show, falling box office takings, a changing society and a new production company, Tarzan had to learn some new tricks (Anez). In 1959 the Tarzan of the cinema finally entered the sound era completely, finally learning to speak fluent English in Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (1959). This took some by surprise, who assumed that the non-verbal ape man characterization had its origins in Burroughs' stories.
The Variety review for Tarzan's Greatest Adventure stated "Tarzan (Gordon Scott) is a modern he-man, still adorned in loin cloth but more conversational than Edgar Rice Burroughs pictured him." (Variety Movie Guide 97, Hamlin, London, 1996, pg 933). Finally the Lord of the Jungle was being portrayed as a literate, eloquent, if not reserved, hero who could read and write. The '60s and '70s cinematic, and soon television, Tarzan was a hero closer to Burroughs' original vision.
Tarzan now could not only communicate with the beasts, but could communicate with people all over the globe, even leaving Africa in suit and tie to fight jungle evil in Asia and South America. He was the ape man who had left his savage home to be educated and who had returned to protect it from oppression, exploitation and to aid the cause of modern progress when appropriate. It was Tarzan who now taught his adopted son to read and who negotiated between the people of the jungle and the intrusion of civilization. This was a Tarzan, not just of the age of sound, who finally had a voice which was complete and unbroken, but a figure of the modern era who, like Burroughs envisioned, could be a Lord, not just in the jungle, but in the world of men.
In 1971 the lights came down on the series of 'talkie' Tarzan movies begun by MGM in 1932. Tarzan and the Perils of Charity Jones, originally a two part episode of the 1966-67 TV series, presented a very different character than had first appeared in the 1930s. Finally the cinematic portrayal of Tarzan had caught up with its literary counterpart. However, after nearly 40 years, it appeared as if the series had finally run out of steam. Although unauthorised productions such as the Spanish produced Tarzan and the Brown Prince (1972) would appear, it would be a decade before another authorised live action Tarzan feature would surface.
Since then, the release of new Tarzan productions on both the small and big screen has been idiosyncratic and spasmodic. With in these productions the portrayal of the character has oscillated between the non-verbal approach established by Weissmuller (i.e. Tarzan the Apeman (1981), Tarzan (1991-1994) and the more well spoken character (i.e. Greystoke; The Legend of Tarzan (1984), Tarzan and the Lost City (1998).
However when all the portrayals of the last 30 years are compared, it appears on the weight of it, that the eloquent Tarzan is winning. Finally the Lord of the Jungle has unchained himself from the shackles of the silent era and has ridden Tantor into the world of human language, a Tantor who still comes when he gives his mighty, savage call.
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