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Ninety Years of Tarzan
by Steve Allsup
|This essay was originally written for a course on
Pop Icons that I took at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in the
spring of 2003. The course covered the books of Dracula, Frankenstein,
Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan. Because I was a Burroughs Bibliophile, Dr.
Paul Yoder allowed me to supplement my paper with a full class hour presentation.
I have a Master of Divinity degree from Southwestern Seminary, and am working
on a Master of Arts in English. For more writings on ERB, see my column
at Tangor's Erbmania website, "Korak in Pal-ul-don"
Edgar Rice Burroughs was 36 years old when he finally found success as a writer, with the magazine publication of both A Princess of Mars and Tarzan of the Apes in the year 1912. Both found a home in All-Story magazine, which would be the main periodical publisher of his works through the years. He was in 21 issues of All-Story, 12 issues of All-Story Cavalier, 20 issues of Blue Book, 10 issues of Argosy, and also in many other titles including science fiction magazines like Amazing Stories and Thrilling Adventures (Zeuschner, passim). His first actual book was Tarzan of the Apes in 1914.
Burroughs was such an old man when he finally began writing, that he is known as the "grandfather" of American science fiction rather than the "father" (Burroughs, 8). He was the next great sci-fi writer after Jules Veme and H. G. Wells, and although the Tarzan stories are fairly straight forward adventure tales, they are also full of fantasy elements such as lost cities and unknown species. Earlier in the century, Burroughs had made an abortive attempt into writing to see if he could be the next L. Frank Baum, but his one fairy tale novel was never published in his lifetime. However, he became so popular from the early Tarzan books that he was able to move from Chicago in 1919 and buy the huge Tarzana ranch formerly owned by the late General Otis, founder of the Los Angeles Times (Porges, 305).
Some facts about the Tarzan series -- with the sixth volume. Jungle Tales ofTarzan (1917), Burroughs tried an experiment by making the book an interconnected series of short stories set in the apeman's youth during chapter 12, second paragraph of TOA. Then, in 1919, he decided to kill off Jane in Tarzan the Untamed. Jane is killed by the Germans when they raid the African plantation during WWI, while Tarzan is away. Hitler was so enraged by the anti-German rhetoric in the book that he banned and burned all Burroughs books. For most of the rest of the series, Tarzan goes it alone and Jane is seldom ever mentioned again. Queen La returns throughout the series. After her introduction in The Return of Tarzan, she and the city of Opar make three further appearances in the books Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Tarzan the Invincible, and Tarzan and the Golden Lion. And in Tarzan's Quest (1935), Tarzan discovers a strange hidden city of white men who are hundreds of years old because of the pills they developed long ago. After Tarzan does the U.S. marines number on their compound, he takes the pills himself, thus accounting for his ability to remain in perfect physical condition decade after decade.
The first Tarzan movie was released in 1918, starring Elmo Lincoln as the apeman (Fury, 13). The movie was based on the first novel, but departed from it in several instances. One major difference was that in the movie, a poor old castaway sailor named Binns befriends Tarzan as a boy and teaches him how to read. Lincoln starred in three of these early films about Tarzan, based from the first two volumes, which we are reading in class. Altogether, five actors played Tarzan during the silent years, and most of these silent films are reasonably recognizable adaptations from the books. Unfortunately the prints of most of them have been lost.
In 1927, Tarzan and the Golden Lion, Burroughs' 9th Tarzan novel, was adapted into a movie and the actor cast as Tarzan was named James Pierce. Pierce then married Burroughs' daughter Joan, and throughout the thirties they were the definitive Tarzan and Jane of the radio program (Taliaferro, 257). Burroughs had three kids. Jack, Joan, and Hulbert.
In 1931, Burroughs became one of the first authors to incorporate his own publishing company, when he began printing his own first editions under the Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., publishing name. Before such publishers as McClurg and Metropolitan had published his first editions, but from then on until his death in 1950 he would publish his own books. Grosset and Dunlap, however, would still retain the mass market reprint rights (Porges, 342).
Over the years, Tarzan has been extremely fortunate to have some of the greatest graphic artists of all time draw his comics. While the artist most associated with illustrating Burroughs' books was J. Allen St. John, and later, in the thirties and forties, Ed's nephew Studley Burroughs, as well as his own son, John Coleman Burroughs, Tarzan's true artistic claim to fame came by way of the comics. On January 7, 1929, the syndicated Tarzan comic strip debuted in American newspapers (Barrett, 112). Considered by many historians as the first non-funny adventure comic, the strip began with a full length adaptation of TOA drawn by Hal Foster. Foster drew a legendary run of the Tarzan color Sunday funnies until May, 1937, when he departed in order to create his own strip. Prince Valiant (Taliaferro, 234-5). An artist even greater took over then, Burne Hogarth, who drew the Sundays until Burroughs' death in 1950.
Meanwhile, MGM was busting down Burroughs' door to get the rights to do a big budget sound film of Tarzan. Since the rights to the first novel were still tied up with the company that filmed "Tarzan of the Apes," Burroughs told MGM they could make a Tarzan movie as long as they did not adapt any books and thus require the rights for that particular volume. Essentially, they were simply obtaining the rights to the character of Tarzan alone. However, MGM felt that they needed to start off their series of Tarzan movies with an account of Tarzan's origin and how he met Jane, so they wrote an alternate version which contradicts the book to get around the restriction for adapting the novel. They could then say quite accurately that "Tarzan the Ape-Man" was not an adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes. They changed the name of the Porters to the Parkers, though retaining Jane's first name, changed William Cecil to Harry Holt, and changed the cannibal tribe from the tribe of Mbonga to a tribe of pygmies. In addition, the ape words for various animals are changed to Swahili, such as Tantor to tembo, Tarzan says umgawa instead of kreegah, etc (Taliaferro, 248).
But the most legendary contribution of the film was the creation of the definitive bull-ape cry that Tarzan oftens gives in the books. So good a job did they do recording the sound of it, that it is still to this day the only version of Tarzan's cry that is instantly and uniquely recognizable. Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic Gold medalist swim champ, was picked to be the most famous of all screen Tarzans. Indeed, it is the tremendous success in the thirties of this MGM series, though not necessarily so much the first film per se, that made Tarzan into an international household word. Weissmuller would go on to make a total of 12 Tarzan pictures, after six of which 0'Sullivan bailed out. Burroughs felt somewhat bitter about the fact that his creation Tarzan had finally come into such fame and yet in an almost unrecognizable form. In 1935 he decided to use that wave of popularity to see if he could produce an authentic film such as he had envisioned for the apeman. Herman Brix was the actor hand picked to play the real Lord Greystoke, and the filming was done on-location in the jungles of Guatemala (Fury, 129). Burroughs developed a story which he then had professional screenwriters turn into a film. It was not based on any of his actual novels. The results of this enterprise was two very long sequential serials about Tarzan's adventures in coming to South America: "The New Adventures ofTarzan," and "Tarzan and the Green Goddess." The films did not turn out as well as Burroughs had hoped. Even he had to admit they were less than a success, especially at rivaling the MGM Weissmuller model, because they were so long and boring.
When MGM (and O'Sullivan) decided to bail out of the Tarzan series in 1943, complicated contractual considerations enabled Sol Lessor, who had previously produced "Tarzan the Fearless" with Buster Crabb and "Tarzan's Revenge" with Glenn Morris, to take over the Weissmuller series. Eventually, after his 12th Tarzan picture, "Tarzan and the Mermaids," in 1948, Weissmuller grew too old and paunchy to play Tarzan, so he retired from the role, going on to play a character named Jungle Jim (Fury, 99).
Burroughs was now nearing the end of his life. He had written seven Tarzan novels in the teens, 6 more in the twenties, not counting his one children's book Tarzan and the Tarzan Twins, and 8 more in the thirties. During the ninteen-thirties he had divorced Emma, wife of his youth and mother of his children, on the claim that the then two hundred something pounder had unresolvable alcoholic problems, and married a much younger divorcee. Burroughs had then taken to the constant enjoyment of booze himself and the excitement of restaurants and bridge games. Eventually his second wife left him in the early forties, before the war, leaving him in Hawaii by himself.
He wrote two late Tarzan novels during this period, Tarzan and the Madman (1940), and Tarzan and the Castaways (1940), but was unable to find a magazine publisher for either of them, and as a result did not bother to publish them in hardback. They were later published posthumously in the 1960's. However, he scored one last success with his novel of 1944 about Tarzan fighting against the Japanese during WWII, called Tarzan and "The Foreign Legion," inspired by his experiences as a war correspondent (Taliaferro, 353). He also left the first half of an unfinished Tarzan novel begun in 1946, and which was not completed and published until 1995 under the title Tarzan: The Lost Adventure, by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Joe Lansdale.
After Burroughs died, his fame went into a dormant phase during the fifties. Sol Lessor continued to make Tarzan movies, first with Lex Barker as Tarzan and then with Gordon Scott. These continued the continuity of the Weissmuller concepts, with the tree house, Boy, and Cheetah. In 1959 Sy Weintraub took over from Sol Lessor as the producer of the series, and an important new phase began that would see some of the apeman's greatest film moments (Fury, 171). In Scott's fourth Tarzan movie, "Tarzan's Greatest Adventure," Weintraub replaced the old Weissmuller character with the Tarzan from the books. Gone are Jane, the tree-house, and Boy. "Scott portrayed Tarzan in a grim-faced, determined manner that gave new depth to the apeman. After three previous Tarzan pictures, he had matured and finally mastered the role, so much so that in this
particular adventure it's easy to believe that Scott really was the legendary Tarzan. Four years after breaking in as Tarzan, and now at age 31, he had taken on a more hardened set to his features, a wiser look in his eyes. His speech was unbroken, his thoughts were explicitly expressed, and every word spoken by him was clearly understood. Scott barely cracked a smile in this picture, as if to say that this business of murder and manhunting was serious" (Fury, 171).
The Great Burroughs Revival
In 1963, perhaps stimulated by the new Weintraub movies, Ballantine Books began what is known as the "great Burroughs explosion" (Lupoff, 298). For over a decade Tarzan had been available to the public almost exclusively as mediocre comic books and movies, and Burroughs had disappeared from the bookstores. Ballantine Books released into paperback, in a move that broke publishing records, all 24 Tarzan books and the complete Mars series in uniform mass market paperbacks.
At the same time, another paperback publisher. Ace Books, assumed that Burroughs was in public domain so they also began issuing a large number of his paperbacks. Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc. and Ballantine Books put a stop to this, but Ace emerged with the rights to those series that Ballantine did not have, at that time, the resources to issue: the seven-volume Pellucidar series, the four-volume Venus series, and a number of miscellaneous science fantasies. Ace was forced to withdraw their Tarzan and Mars paperbacks, which then became rare collector's items.
In the wake of the Burroughs revival. Gold Key comics decided to initiate a new phase in 1965 by beginning a series of authentic adaptations from the Tarzan books. Russ Manning, considered to be the third and last of the great trio of Tarzan comics artists, was assigned to the Tarzan comic. He drew definitive versions of the first 10 Tarzan books and also drew the first 11 issues of a new companion comic, "Korak, Son of Tarzan," before being lured away by the newspaper syndicates to draw the Tarzan comic strip until 1979 (Barrett, 111).
Meanwhile, Weintraub had been releasing Tarzan movies with Mike Henry, a former professional football player. The success of these later films led into the long coveted opportunity to do a network Tarzan TV show. Henry felt that the role was too demanding physically and departed, leaving his stuntman, Ron Ely, to take on the TV show (Fury, 201). In terms of the number of hours on camera, Ely was by far the most prolific Tarzan of all time, filming 57 one-hour episodes in 1966 and 1967. That is the approximate equivalent of 28 feature length motion pictures, over twice Weissmuller's output as the apeman. The cancelation of this series ended the original great continuous run of the sound Tarzan films, and the movie Tarzan rested for over ten years.
A bit of trivia -- it is a well known fact that Elvis completely decorated an entire room of Graceland and called it his Tarzan room, where he would go for hours on end to meditate upon Tarzan.
In the seventies, author Philip Jose Farmer pulled off a famous hoax with the publication of his book, Tarzan Alive, in 1972. The book was issued by the publishers as non-fiction biography, since Farmer claimed that he had discovered the identity of the real Lord Greystoke and had a fifteen minute interview with him. As a young boy, I myself was greatly taken in by this clever hoax.
Ballantine Books planned a new paperback edition of Tarzan with half the covers done by famous Batman comics artist Neal Adams, and the other 12 done by Boris Vallejo, the most famous of the Frazetta generation wannabies. This "black" edition was the only complete edition of Tarzan available for the next fifteen years. Even to this day, the current Ballantine edition is the only complete set of Tarzan.
Tarzan made a dramatic double return to the silver screen in the early eighties, with "Tarzan the Ape-Man" (1981) and "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan of the Apes" (1984). Tarzan the Ape-Man was MGM's lush erotic remake of the 1931 Weissmuller classic, starring Bo Derek as Jane and directed by her husband. It featured British actor Richard Harris as Professor Parker, Jane's father, and was rated R for a good deal of Jane in the nude (Fury, 206-9). Greystoke, on the other hand, produced by Wamer Brothers, was a serious attempt to adapt the novel, and was the last film by Sir Ralph Richardson, as Tarzan's grandfather. It was directed by Hugh Hudson, and starred Andie Macdowell as Jane and Christopher Lambert as Tarzan (Fury, 209-215). It was a classy, atmospheric film that deviated from the novel in the last half of the book, having Tarzan go to London with D'Arnot before meeting Jane. For years, a sequel was considered, since in the end of the movie Tarzan leaves Jane and returns to the jungle. Finally, in 1998, Wamer Brothers came out with their version of Burroughs' The Return of Tarzan, long after Lambert had grown too old to reprise the role, called "Tarzan and the Lost City." This time the young hero from "Starship Troopers" was chosen to play the apeman, Casper Van Dien, and he gave the role much more of a gymnast's physicality than had the much smaller-built Lambert. It was very loosely based on the second novel, with Tarzan returning to Africa to become involved with helping the Waziri, and then rescuing Jane from the lost city of Opar. As in the book, the two are married in the end.
Besides the famous Disney cartoon film, Tarzan had two other incarnations in the 1990's. From 1991-93, Wolf Larson played a blond Weissmuller-inspired Tarzan in a half hour syndicated TV series with a French anthropologist named Jane. Then from 1996-97, a more serious series ran which attempted to adapt elements from the books, such as the lost cities. It was called "Tarzan: The Epic Adventures," and starred Joe Lara as Tarzan.
Where is Tarzan today? While we are still waiting for the five years to be up in which Disney is sitting on the rights to the character, fans can enjoy the new series of scholarly text editions of Burroughs that the University of Nebraska Bison Press is releasing at the rate of about two a year, with 10 already out. And Quiet Vision press is publishing a budget series of Burroughs works, available in library binding, to be used to fill the shelves in libraries across the country that have been sacked by unscrupulous Burroughs collectors.
There is currently another Tarzan TV series being aired, this one about a modem Tarzan rescued and brought by his relatives in the Greystoke Corporation to live in New York City. This kind of production sounds very ominous to many Tarzan fans. My own personal dream is that someday, perhaps, tinsel town can make a three-hour definitive adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes and The Return of Tarzan to be a prime time network TV mini-series. Assuming I can get back in shape in time, that is. . .
Barrett, Robert R. Tarzan of the Funnies. Louisville: House of Greystoke, 2002.
Burroughs, Edgar Rice, and Joe Lansdale. Tarzan The Lost Adventure. Milwaukee: Dark Horse Books, 1995.
Fury, David. Kings of the Jungle. Jefferson: McFarland, 1994.
Lupoff, Richard. Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure. Revised and enlarged ed. New York: Ace Books, 1975.
Porges, Irwin. Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan. Provo: Brigham Young Univ. Press, 1975.
Taliaferro, John. Tarzan Forever. New York: Scribner, 1999.
Zeuschner, Robert B. Edgar Rice Burroughs- Exhaustive Scholar's Descriptive Bibliography. Jefferson: McFarland, 1996.
Appendix: Chronological Tarzan Filmography
1918 Tarzan of the Apes................................Eimo Lincoln
1918 The Romance Tarzan............................Eimo Lincoln
1920 The Revenge of Tarzan ..........................Gene Pollar
1920 The Son of Tarzan.......................P. Dempsey Tabler
1921 Adventures of Tarzan........................... Elmo Lincoln
1927 Tarzan and the Golden Lion..................James Pierce
1928 Tarzan the Mighty ................................Frank Merrill
1929 Tarzan the Tiger................................... Frank Memll
1932 Tarzan, the Ape Man .................Johnny Weissmuller
1933 Tarzan the Fearless.............................Buster Crabbe
1934 Tarzan and His Mate...................Johnny Weissmuller
1935 The New Adventures of Tarzan.............Herman Brix
1936 Tarzan Escapes.......................... Johnny Weissmuller
1938 Tarzan's Revenge .................................Glenn Morris
1938 Tarzan and the Green Goddess..............Herman Brix
1939 Tarzan Finds a Son! .................. Johnny Weissmuller
1941 Tarzan 's Secret Treasure .......... Johnny Weissmuller
1942 Tarzan's New York Adventure .. Johnny Weissmuller
1943 Tarzan Triumphs ........................Johnny Weissmuller
1943 Tarzan's Desert Mystery ........... Johnny Weissmuller
1945 Tarzan and the Amazons.............Johnny Weissmuller
1946 Tarzan and the Leopard Woman ..Johnny Weissmuller
1947 Tarzan and the Huntress.............. Johnny Weissmuller
1948 Tarzan and the Mermaids............ Johnny Weissmuller
1949 Tarzan's Magic Fountain ......................... Lex Barker
1950 Tarzan and the Slave Girl......................... Lex Barker
1951 Tarzan's Peril........................ ...................Lex Barker
1952 Tarzan's Savage Fury .............................. Lex Barker
1953 Tarzan and the She-Devil..................... .....Lex Barker
1955 Tarzan's Hidden Jungle...........................Gordon Scott
1957 Tarzan and the Lost Safari......................Gordon Scott
1958 Tarzan's Fight for Life ...........................Gordon Scott
1958 Tarzan and the Trappers........................Gordon Scott
1959 Tarzan's Greatest Adventure .................Gordon Scott
1959 Tarzan, the Ape Man ............................Gordon Scott
1960 Tarzan, the Magnificent ..........................Denny Miller
1962 Tarzan Goes to India............................Jock Mahoney
1963 Tarzan's Three Challenges.....................Jock Mahoney
1966 Tarzan and the Valley of Gold....................Mike Henry
1967 Tarzan and the Great River........................Mike Henry
1968 Tarzan and the Jungle Boy.........................Mike Henry
1970 Tarzan's Deadly Silence...................................Ron Ely
1970 Tarzan's Jungle Rebellion..................................Ron Ely
1981 Tarzan, the Ape Man.............................Miles O'Keeffe
1984 Greystoke, The Legend of Tarzan..Christopher Lambert
1989 Tarzan in Manhattan........................................Joe Lara
1999 Disney's Tarzan.................................Animated Feature
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