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Chattering From The Shoulder #11
June 12, 2000
Twice the Hero
By David Fury
(A Review by David Adams)
Being in the generation of kids who grew up in the 1940’s Johnny Weissmuller was always the real Tarzan for me. We saw all of his movies at the Saturday matinees, then went home to practice our Tarzan yells and swing from ropes hung up in the neighborhood trees. It was a national phenomenon.
Reading David Fury’s excellent, definitive book on Johnny Weissmuller made another thing clear to me. More than anything else in our young lives, we wanted to swim, swim, swim.
Johnny Weissmuller was the Tarzan of the water. He seemed to always be dripping wet, a tall, bronzed god come up from some jungle pool bidding us to enter this aqueous, primordial womb, sealing all of our youthful desires in a Baptism that would make us one with him, our hero from the watery depths.
David Fury’s book has the power to awaken long-forgotten memories.
For many of us, Johnny Weissmuller was a father-figure. For me, it was a special case, for my own father did bear a striking resemblance to Weissmuller both in his handsome good looks and in his tall, lean, muscular frame that he kept in trim by swimming and lifting weights. Reading about Johnny’s early years in the bracing waters of Lake Michigan reminded me of all the Minnesota lakes we visited on summer afternoons in my youth where swimming was the order of the day rather than a suggestion. It explained to me my delight in swimming with my own children into the clear, cold mountain rivers in Northern Minnesota. My daughter even wanted to extend our swimming excursions to Lake Superior, but the water there is too cold and dangerous for anything but sturgeon.
I can’t stop talking about this book with everyone I meet. It seems I find a way of slipping it into the conversation because it is so much on my mind.
Weissmuller’s swimming records are impressive; more than this, they are simply astounding. I’ve become convinced that he was the greatest swimmer who ever lived. Between 1921 and 1929 -- when he “retired” from competition at the age of 24 -- Weissmuller set some 67 world records. Yet, as imposing as this sounds, it does not tell half the story. Fury inundates us with the facts and figures, almost making us dizzy with the details, but his account is a human one, putting us in the stands at the many races, making us gasp for air with this unprecedented hero.
We cheer Johnny on to victory after victory. (He was an unbeaten athlete throughout his entire career.) We come to realize that this man came to the role of Tarzan in the movies to enlarge the legend of ERB’s greatest creation in a way no other man could have possibly done.
The reason Weissmuller’s Tarzan was the quintessential Tarzan of course hinged upon his swimming ability. One of the the triumphs of Fury’s book is the fact that we come to see clearly that his personal stature expanded a fictional legend into a real one. We cannot imagine Tarzan without Weissmuller. He truly set the mark by which all other Tarzans pale in the shadow of this great, heroic American.
Fury’s skill as a biographer improves with every book he writes. The depth of detail and understanding displayed in this Weissmuller book is overwhelming. Fury leaves no stone unturned. By the time you are finished reading “Twice a Hero” you feel you have lived next to this man from childhood to the grave, and that is the goal every biographer wishes to attain. Old fans of Big John come to love him more - - new fans become impressed enough to become believers in the legend.
Johnny moved into his Tarzan role as smoothly as he cleaved the water. He hydroplaned over the critics despite his lack of training as an actor because he was a natural for the role. His cat-like grace of movement made everyone else seem stiff and formal, which acting still largely was in the 1930’s. He could stand almost naked with comfort amongst a group of people in clothing because as a swimmer he had done this most of his life. He had the relaxed attitude of a champion because he was an unbeaten champion in real life, and the look in his eyes (a thing that cannot be faked) was that of a man who was completely aware of his own powers.
Many of us have been over this water before in Fury’s “Kings of the Jungle,” but this biography allows him the room for an expansion of details that makes each movie come alive again in a personal way. Now we can see Johnny’s movie career with the added perspective of his many marriages and other triumphs and failures in his life.
For me, the swimming chapters were the real eye-openers, but as in Weissmuller’s career they always serve to inform and explain his success as the greatest movie Tarzan. In a way, as a child of the 1940’s, I feel I am a part of that extended family of Weissmuller, O’Sullivan, and Sheffield because I grew up with them picture by picture. (Johnny Sheffield wrote the Foreword to this book.) Due in part to this Tarzan family, I too can declare with Sheffield, “I was BLESSED with an extraordinary and wonderful childhood.”
Fury gives us an honest and balanced account of Johnny Weissmuller’s life. He is not afraid to show us all the wrinkles and scars of his difficult marriages, especially the tumultuous five-year relationship with Lupe Velez, the “Mexican Spitfire.” It gives us some idea of what a marriage between Tarzan and La might have been like. Fury approaches Weissmuller with great enthusiasm, yet his account does not slip into haigiography. The fact of the matter is, this man WAS larger than life. His heroic acts on-screen and off need not be exaggerated.
If some Tarzan fans are dismayed at Weissmuller’s movie portrayal of the Jungle Hero for one reason or another, it will serve them well to take another look at Johnny through the photographs and accounts in this book. I found some of the rare movie stills to be simply astounding, as though the fortunate cameraman had the opportunity to capture the ape-man himself on film. For me, the photographs alone in this splendid collection are worth the $40 price of admission.
Weissmuller was a giant of a man whose great strength allowed him to almost leap out of the water as he swam. He performed many of his own movie stunts with apparent ease, lifting men over his head, riding on elephants, swinging on vines with grace and style. “In his role he is what Hollywood calls “a natural.” He stands six-feet-three in his bare feet and weighs 190 pounds. His body is hard and supple ... slim-waisted... narrow-flanked. He might have indeed been the original model for Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fictional hero.” (Fury, 139.)
Johnny Weissmuller made 12 Tarzan movies, then portrayed Jungle Jim in 16 films for Columbia Pictures between 1948 and 1955. This khaki-clad Weissmuller is the logical extension of a Tarzan without the benefit of kavuru pills. The reason these B-movies worked so well was indeed because we saw an older and wiser Tarzan, one mellowed by age and experience. The fire of old sprang forth from time to time, and we all knew the true powers of the man under the wide-brimmed hat.
Johnny Sheffield too played the older, grown up “Boy” in his “Bomba” series. The Umgawa was in force -- the magic of the film Tarzan family had a life of its own -- and this life has proved over time to be truly immortal. Weissmuller’s role as Tarzan has overshadowed his remarkable swimming records. This book helps to put his life back into its true perspective. Like Johnny said, “I have been the luckiest man alive and I love the people who made me what I am. I could do it all again, easy. All twelve Tarzan films and fifty Jungle Jim shows."
"It’s been a wonderful life!”
Valley of The Light Cemetery
I count 48 unnumbered, double-sided pages of glossy photographs in this book besides the many other photos on pages with print. There are 360 pages of text -- 104 more pages than Fury’s “Kings of the Jungle." It is a long book with it’s slight quarter-inch page margins. In outside dimensions, it is the same as Taliaferro’s “Tarzan Forever” but thicker, due to its slightly larger font. Its inside dimensions are discussed above.
The dust jacket is glossy (and heavy -- no torn dust jacket to worry about) with the title in raised gold lettering. The front dj photo is a great Weissmuller shot in his Tarzan role with a scar across his forehead. (It is posed on the left side like all of Weissmuller’s close-ups because of the real scar on the right side of his neck which he would not allow to be photographed). The binding is black cloth on boards with impressed gold lettering. The inside cover is metallic silver-gray, which David inscribes with a gold marking pen. It is a very attractive book on the shelf with Johnny’s cover photo reproduced on the spine.
Since the circulation of my reviews are to Burroughs fans, I am just preaching to the choir, but this is one of the most inspiring books I have read in a long while. I heartily recommend it, and of course your ERB collection will be sorely incomplete without its august presence. There is also a deluxe, numbered edition for $60 with additional color plates.
June 12, 2000
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