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ERB of the Silver Screen
A Resource Guide to the Movies of Edgar Rice Burroughs
An ongoing ERBzine and ERB C.H.A.S.E.R. ENCYCLOPEDIA project
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FILM CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION
PART X
From TARZAN ON FILM by Scott Tracy Griffin

  .
Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #90
On April 7, 1928, the front page of the studio paper “Universal Weekly” had the following announcement: “As the big super-serial for next year, Carl Laemmle has just acquired the rights to ‘Jungle Tales of Tarzan’ stories and will put it into work at Universal City immediately.” Laemmle’s brother-in-law, Arthur Stern, now vice president and general manager at Universal, held the option, which he had purchased from Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1922.
Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #91
On April 21, 1928, the studio paper “Universal Weekly” announced that the forthcoming serial based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sixth apeman novel, “Jungle Tales of Tarzan,” had been re-titled “Tarzan the Mighty.” The following week, “Universal Weekly” proclaimed, “There is a great rush amongst the mighty men of Los Angeles to play Tarzan.”
Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #92
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1.The autobiography of silent film actor and stuntman Joe Bonomo
2. Joe Bonomo and Louise Lorraine in the Universal Pictures serial "The Great Circus Mystery" (1925)
In his autobiography “The Strongman,” silent film actor and stuntman Joe Bonomo claimed that he was initially cast as the apeman in Universal’s “Tarzan the Mighty.” On the third day of filming, a vine snapped during a swinging stunt, and he hit the ground, compound-fracturing his leg and injuring his hip. Seven weeks in the hospital ended his Tarzan aspirations, and the hip injury eventually ended his stunt career.

It’s not clear from his account when this occurred (according to some internet sites, the fracture occurred on the set of the Swiss Family Robinson serial “Perils of the Wild,” shot in 1925); Bonomo’s part in the Tarzan role went unmentioned in the trade papers of 1928, which noted on May 19 that Frank Merrill had been cast in the role shortly after the serial’s casting call was announced.

Born Christmas Day, 1901 to Albert and Esther Bonomo (who had emigrated from Turkey and sold Bonomo Turkish Taffy on Coney Island), Joe was a six-sport star in high school who later played for the Hiltons, Coney Island’s professional football team. In 1921, he entered an amateur wrestling tourney in New York City, losing the championship bout to Nat Pendleton, who went on to compete in the Olympics and work on camera as an actor. Bonomo began competing as a professional wrestler under the name Joe Atlas, and was undefeated in more than 100 bouts. He worked out at the famed Bothner’s Gym in New York City, training under pros including Jim Londos, Ed “Strangler” Louis, and Bull Montana.

Friends with Charles Atlas and a fellow pioneering physical culturist, Bonomo entered a “New York Daily News” contest to find a Modern Apollo (a precursor to today’s Mr. America contest) and won a Hollywood contract to appear in “Light in the Dark” (1922) over 5,000 applicants. Despite his hard stuntwork, his role was an uncredited extra role. A stunt injury later put Bonomo out of the running for the “World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man,” a contest won by his friend, launching Atlas’s career as a muscleman.

The industrious Bonomo soon found more stunt work in films; one of the first stunts he did in “Hurricane Hutch” (1921) was to jump a motorcycle from a pier onto a departing ferry. Bonomo later set a motorcycle jump record of 126½ feet. He could straighten horseshoes, bend iron pipes into the letters of the alphabet, and squat lift a car full of people in a specially constructed harness. He dove from a flying plane into water without a parachute and slid 150 feet down a rope for Lon Chaney in Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).

Bonomo was a valuable member of the Universal stable; not only did he perform his own stunts, he often designed and coordinated them, and was second only to Yakima Canutt as the premiere stuntman of his day. He played pirates, gypsies, adagio dancers, doormen, policemen, sailors, and cowboys, and was the tiger-man in “Island of the Lost Souls” (1933) and a gorilla in “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932). The bulky Bonomo was surprisingly graceful on his feet for such a large man, an award-winning ballroom dancer who married dancer and actress Ethel Newman, with whom he had a daughter, Joan.

Bonomo wrote action sequences for films without credit, and also served as a fitness trainer to other stars in the Universal lineup. Bonomo conceived shooting “The Great Circus Mystery” out of sequence, saving the studio $80,000. Studio head Carl Laemmle offered him a job as a producer, but he declined—what he really wanted to do was act.

After his biggest hits, “Circus Mystery” (with Louise Lorraine, Elmo Lincoln’s Jane in “The Adventures of Tarzan”) and “Perils of the Wild,” Bonomo announced his intent to leave Universal when his contract expired in six months, Laemmle valued his contribution, so Laemmle sent a cable from Europe dictating that the studio keep the actor at all costs. Bonomo was quickly cast as Tarzan, and filming began the following week—according to Bonomo.

Bonomo was unable to translate his screen success to the talkie era, due to his thick Brooklyn accent and trouble memorizing his lines. Retiring from Hollywood, he became a successful businessman, dying March 28, 1978 in Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital of a kidney ailment and pneumonia. Ethel died April 26, 1995 in Culver City California; the couple are buried in Live Oak Memorial Park in Monrovia, California.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #93
After a talent search encompassing “hundreds” of candidates, champion gymnast Frank Merrill was selected to play the lead in the Universal Pictures serial “Tarzan the Mighty” (1928). Merrill had previously appeared in “The Son of Tarzan” (1920) as the villainous Sheik Amor Ben Khatour, and performed stunts and appeared as an Arab guard in “The Adventures of Tarzan” (1921).

Born Otto Adolph (Arthur) Poll on March 21, 1893 in Newark, New Jersey, Merrill began competing as a gymnast in his teens, specializing in rope climbing, Roman rings, and parallel bars and earning 55 National, Metropolitan, and Southern California championships, plus YMCA and city championships. A 1944 “Los Angeles Times” article claimed he’d held 27 world records. Unfortunately for Merrill, the 1916 Olympics were cancelled due to World War I, so he was unable to compete against the best in the world.

While pursuing his athletics, Merrill served three years on the Newark police force, with accomplishments ranging from rescuing a woman from a burning building to overcoming two armed bandits and marching them to jail at gunpoint.
In spring, 1919, Merrill took a leave of absence from the police department to compete in a gymnastics meet in Los Angeles. He did not return to New Jersey until 1930, transferring his allegiance to the Los Angeles Athletic Club and continuing to compete while pursuing stuntwork and extra work in the film industry.

In 1923, Popular Pictures was founded in Pasadena, California to produce “educational and religious films” focused on college athletes. Poll, “America’s greatest all-round athlete,” would produce the films under his Hercules Films Productions banner, with the “approval of many prominent educators and clergymen in the East and Southern California.” In 1924, the Los Angeles courts denied Poll’s request to change his name to Frank Merriwell (after the hero of a popular boys’ book series) when publisher Street & Smith filed a complaint; this was probably the genesis of his eventual stagename Frank Merrill.

After playing the lead in the film “Perils of the Jungle” in 1927, Merrill was selected by director Jack Nelson to play the lead in “Tarzan the Mighty.” Nelson’s young son Bobby also appeared in both films.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #94
Tarzan’s (Frank Merrill) love interest in “Tarzan the Mighty” (1928) was not Jane, but a castaway named Mary Trevor, stranded on the African coast with her little brother Bobby (Bobby Nelson). Perhaps this was due to the fact that Jane does not appear in the source material, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sixth apeman novel, “Jungle Tales of Tarzan.” At any rate, author Burroughs was not happy to have Tarzan’s love life complicated onscreen in this manner.

Mary was portrayed by actress Natalie Kingston, a beautiful brunette and trained dancer from an old California family. She earned the distinction being the first woman to play two different female leads in the Tarzan series when she was cast as Jane in the 1929 sequel, “Tarzan the Tiger.”

Born Natalie Ringstrom in Vallejo, California, on May 19, 1905, she was educated at the San Rafael Convent, and trained in music and dance from an early age. After running away from school, she resumed her education in San Francisco, where she was dancing in a revue when she was hired by the brother-sister dance team Fanchon and Marco to tour the West Coast.

She then appeared at the Winter Garden in Broadway; after returning to Los Angeles, she was dancing onstage with Fanchon and Marco when Mack Sennett’s director Richard Jones began casting her as a bathing beauty in comic shorts in 1923. After a few months, she moved to Paramount to appear in feature films. In 1927, she was named a Baby Wampas Star, an honor reserved for up-and-coming Hollywood starlets.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #95
Bobby Nelson, age 6, the son of “Tarzan the Mighty” (1928) serial director Jack Nelson, played little Bobby Trevor, a child marooned in Africa with his older sister Mary (Natalie Kingston) and rescued by Tarzan (Frank Merrill).

Nelson played the first orphan foundling in the Tarzan film series, which had previously cast juvenile Gordon Griffith to play both Tarzan as a boy, and Tarzan’s son Jack as a boy. The Tarzan films of MGM and Sol Lesser continued the theme of Tarzan rescuing a foundling to rear as his own, rather than siring a biological son (due to the fact that he and Jane were never married onscreen, although they were in the novels).

Robert John Nelson was born on January 17, 1922 in Santa Monica, California. He made his film debut at age 4 in 1926, and continued acting through age 15. After leaving the film industry, her served as a PFC in the U.S. army during World War II and later became an accountant. He died December 5, 1974 in Los Angeles and is buried in the Los Angeles National (Veterans) Cemetery in Westwood.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #96
In the Universal Pictures serial “Tarzan the Mighty” (1928), the apeman (Frank Merrill) is bedeviled by Black John (Al Ferguson), the leader of a band of castaway pirates holding Mary Trevor (Natalie Kingston) and her little brother Bobby (Bobby Nelson) captive.

A popular silent screen villain with more than 300 film credits, Al Ferguson rejoined Merrill and Kingston for a second Universal serial, "Tarzan the Tiger" (1929) portraying heavy Albert Werper from the novel Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar.

Alfred George Ferguson was born in Rosslare, County Wexford, Ireland on April 19, 1888, and served in the British army before emigrating to the United States. He died of prostate cancer in Burbank, California on December 4, 1971 and is inurned at Forest Lawn Glendale in Southern California.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #97
The 1928 Universal Pictures serial “Tarzan the Mighty” went into production after studio head Carl Laemmle purchased an option for the sixth Tarzan novel, “Jungle Tales of Tarzan,” but the serial bore little resemblance to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book.

After his parents’ death in the African jungle, Tarzan (Frank Merrill) has grown to adulthood among the apes, and has learned rudimentary English from the books in his parents’ cabin. He and the apes prey on the cattle and crops of a tribe descended from stranded pirates, let by the unscrupulous Black John (Al Ferguson), a disgraced British noble-turned-beachcomber. Castaways Mary and Bobby Trevor (Natalie Kingston and Bobby Nelson) join the tribe when they are marooned in the jungle, and Black John immediately tries to coerce Mary’s hand in marriage. The siblings find a champion in Tarzan, who rescues them time and again from peril in the ensuing 15-chapter serial.

When Lord Greystoke (Lorimer Johnston) comes to the jungle seeking the lost Gryestoke heir, Black John disposes of Tarzan and assumes the Greystoke identity, returning to England with Mary to claim the title. Tarzan recovers from Black John’s attack and follows the party to England, where his true identity as Lord Greystoke is revealed.

Two plot strands remaining from the novel are the Lost Tribe’s capture of Taug the ape (and Taug’s subsequent rescue by Tarzan), and their attempt to stampede Tantor into a pit trap, into which Tarzan falls (with little Bobbie) while diverting his pachyderm friend.

When the initial chapters of the serial were released, it proved so popular that Universal Pictures expanded it from 12 chapters to 15, and began immediate preparations for a sequel.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #98
As with many film serials, directorial chores on Universal Pictures’ “Tarzan the Mighty” (1928) were shared by two men, Jack Nelson and Ray Taylor.

John Claude Nelson, born in Memphis, Tennessee on October 15, 1882, began his career as an actor onstage, appearing with the Oscar Morosco company before earning roles as a young leading man onscreen, where he debuted in the 1910 short “Spoony Sam.” He eventually graduated to directing. After helming Frank Merrill on the 1927 serial “Perils of the Jungle,” the pair re-teamed for “Tarzan the Mighty,” with Nelson’s young son Bobby also appearing in both serials.

After earning scores of credits as an actor and director, Nelson moved to North Bay, Ontario, Canada to manage the Capital Theatre. There, he arranged Victory Loan Drives for World War II. He died November 10, 1948 in North Bay.

Raymond Edgar Taylor was born December 1, 1888 in Perham, Minnesota. His father, a travelling auditor with the Santa Fe railroad, also owned a stock company in which Taylor’s mother appeared as an actress. After two years of studying pre-med in Columbia, young Taylor dropped out of college to rejoin his family in Hollywood and appear onstage.

His career was interrupted by World War I, where he served as a Second Lieutenant in a Machine Gun Battalion and fought at Marne and Chateau Thierry. In 1920, Taylor became a script clerk at Fox Studios, later working as an assistant director for John Ford. Taylor followed Ford to Universal Studios, where Taylor was promoted to director. “Tarzan the Mighty” was one of his early directorial efforts; he also shot B-unit action sequences on big-budget films. In 1934, Taylor explored Egypt, India, and the Malayan jungles with Frank Buck, shooting footage for Buck’s “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” series.

Taylor counted model railroading and gardening among his favorite hobbies. He married the former Helen Vescia, a non-professional, and had a daughter, Mimi and son Raymond E. Taylor, Jr.

Taylor, Sr. died February 15, 1952 in Hollywood, survived by his wife and children. In 1957, Ray, Jr., began working as an assistant director, later working extensively in television under the name Ray Taylor.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #99
Trainer Mel Koontz and Jackie the wrestling lion

1. Lion trainer Melvin Koontz, 18,doubling for Frank Merrill with Jackie
2. Melvin Koontz gives an unhappy Jackie the wrestling lion a bath

Tarzan films often featured scenes of hand-to-fang combat between Tarzan and lions, portrayed to good effect by Jackie the wrestling lion and his trainer, Mel Koontz. Koontz doubled for three Tarzans (Frank Merrill, Johnny Weissmuller, and Herman Brix) and for Buster Crabbe in the picture “King of the Jungle,” despite the fact that Koontz was only 5’6” and 140 pounds—a fraction of the size of the men he doubled (but which only made Jackie seem larger on-camera).

Melvin Lawrence Koontz was born in Fort Scott, Kansas on December 1, 1910, one of nine children. During his childhood, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Koontz’s brother Clarence began training big cats at the Selig Zoo while Mel, age 12, sold popcorn and peanuts. At 15, the younger Koontz began training the cats.

Koontz stressed that it was important that big cats become habituated to their trainer from birth, and began handling Jackie the day after the lion’s 1927 birth. Jackie appeared in 500 films, starting with the Frank Merrill Tarzan films, earning Koontz $100 per day for their act. Jackie was the second Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion, after the original, Slats, retired.

On weekends, Koontz and Jackie performed at the Selig Zoo (later Luna Park), moving to Jungleland in 1945, where Koontz became the head cat trainer the following year when Louis Roth retired. The original Jackie died at Jungleland in Thousand Oaks in 1952.

Koontz worked as a trainer on 600 movies, and appeared in 300. In addition to his work in Hollywood, he put 20 trained lions, led by Monarch, through their paces at Frank Buck’s Jungleland at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.

His eyesight failing, Koontz retired in 1964, after he was badly bitten on the thigh by a lioness. He moved back to Fort Scott in 1975, where he died on October 27, 1992, survived by his son and second wife.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #100

"King of the Gorilla Men," Charles Gemora prepares for an assignment.


Tarzan (Frank Merrill) administers jungle justice to a recalcitrant ape (Charlie Gemora)
in the 1928 Universal serial "Tarzan the Mighty".

Dubbed “the King of the Gorilla Men,” specialists who portrayed the apes in custom-built suits, Charlie Gemora’s early assignments included playing simians Taug and Toka in the Universal serial “Tarzan the Mighty” (1928) and Taglat and Chulk in the sequel “Tarzan the Tiger” (1929), both starring Frank Merrill and Natalie Kingston as Tarzan and his love interest.

Carlos Cruz Gemora was born on June 15, 1903 on the island of Negros, Philippines, the youngest of nine children. After his father’s death, he ran away from home; upon finding him, his family put him in a monastery, where he studied art books.

As a young teen, he stowed away on a U.S. vessel bound for San Francisco. Arriving in California, he worked on a fruit orchard in Colusa, then a dairy, later moving to Los Angeles.

There he camped out at the entrance to Universal studios, sketching portraits. While working as an extra on “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923) his artistic talent won him a job on the production as a sculptor. He helped design the ape suit worn by Bull Montana in “The Lost World” (1925). While crafting the gorilla suit, he decided this was a good career outlet for one of his 5’4” stature, and began studying gorillas at the San Diego Zoo (the only facility in California at that time that housed gorillas) to imitate them, hoping to lend his apes more verisimilitude. Gemora continued to refine his suits as his skills and the technology advanced, including water-filled bladders to simulate the rolling muscles beneath the apes’ skin.

Gemora played a gorilla opposite Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, the Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey, Hope & Crosby, and Our Gang. He also played the alien in “War of the Worlds” (1953), after he and his daughter responded to a production change and worked overnight crafting the creature. Gemora’s final gorilla suit was made for “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” (1954).

Gemora joined Paramount in the early 1930s, where he worked in the makeup and effects department there until his 1961 death. His daughter Diana attributed his untimely death at age 58 to the toll taken by long, hot hours spent in the 75-pound gorilla suit, with a bottle of oxygen nearby; he had a heart attack after making “The Gorilla and the Girl” (1941).

Gemora, who had three children, died of a heart attack in Hollywood on August 19, 1961, while working on the makeup for “Jack the Giant Killer” (1962).


Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Tarzan of the Apes in film with
SCOTT TRACY GRIFFIN and his TARZAN ON FILM
PART I :: PART II :: PART III :: PART IV :: PART V :: PART VI :: PART VII :: PART VIII
:: PART IX :: PART X :: PART XI


ERBzine SILVER SCREEN SERIES
www.ERBzine.com/movies

TARZAN OF THE APES (1918)
www.erbzine.com/mag5/0503.html
THE ROMANCE OF TARZAN
www.erbzine.com/mag5/0504.html
THE SON OF TARZAN: SERIAL and FEATURE FILM
www.erbzine.com/mag5/0589.html
THE ADVENTURES OF TARZAN
www.erbzine.com/mag5/0590.html
TARZAN AND THE GOLDEN LION
www.erbzine.com/mag5/0591.html
TARZAN AND THE GOLDEN LION: Photoplay Edition
www.erbzine.com/mag4/0496.html
TARZAN THE MIGHTY
www.erbzine.com/mag5/0592.html




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