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Volume 6393

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

From TARZAN ON FILM by Scott Tracy Griffin


Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #111
On October 30, 1931, starlet Maureen O’Sullivan was personally chosen by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production head Irving Thalberg to star opposite Johnny Weissmuller in the first Tarzan talkie, “Tarzan the Ape Man.” O’Sullivan was given a studio contract and hired at $300 per week, $50 more than Weissmuller. Filming began the following day.

Maureen Paula O’Sullivan was born on May 17, 1911 in Boyle, County Roscommon, Ireland, to Major (later Colonel) Charles Joseph O’Sullivan and Mary Fraser O’Sullivan, in a tiny apartment above a draper’s store. Her father, a member of the elite Connaught Rangers, was stationed at the barracks nearby.

She attended convent school in Dublin, then transferred to the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Roehampton, where she came in second to Vivien Leigh in a vote among the student body for the most beautiful girl. O’Sullivan completed her formal education at a Parisian finishing school.

O’Sullivan was discovered by director Frank Borzage at the Dublin International Horse Show dance in September 1929. O’Sullivan, now 18, was cast in the role of Eileen O’Brien in “Song O’ My Heart,” filming on location.

Borzage signed her to a 20th Century Fox contract, and brought her to Hollywood to finish the picture, chaperoned by her mother. After six unsuccessful pictures, she was released from her three-year contact. Down to her final $250, rather than purchase a ticket to Ireland and return home in defeat, she gambled on new headshots, which won her a screentest with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer—and the role of Jane Parker opposite Johnny Weissmuller in six Tarzan films. Petite and feminine, she complemented Weissmuller’s brawn perfectly, and their onscreen chemistry made them one of Hollywood’s great romantic couples.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #112
The first talkie Tarzan picture, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1932) reunited the Academy Award-nominated crew from “Trader Horn,” including director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke, cinematographer Clyde De Vinna, editor Ben Lewis, scripter Cyril Hume, and recording director Douglas Shearer. Van Dyke and De Vinna were location experts, having travelled together to Wyoming to shoot Westerns, Tahiti for “White Shadows in the South Seas” and “The Pagan,” and Africa for “Trader Horn.” After wrapping Tarzan, the duo headed to the Arctic to film “Eskimo.”

Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke was born in San Diego, California on March 21, 1889. His lawyer father died the following day, and Woody’s mother took him on the road with her when she resumed her career as a concert pianist. The pair later toured the country in stock productions until Van Dyke reached his teens, when he settled with his grandmother near Mount Ranier to attend high school, working as a lumberjack after graduation.

Woody returned to the stage, landing in Hollywood, where he began working as an assistant director for D.W. Griffith. Van Dyke was soon directing his own pictures, developing a reputation for ruthless efficiency as “One Take Woody.” Following “Ape Man” he directed “Thin Man” films and operettas starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

Van Dyke served in the Marine Corps reserve during World War II, before a weak heart forced him out. After a six-month illness, Van Dyke died February 5, 1943, in Brentwood, California.

Clyde De Vinna, who won a Best Cinematography Oscar for “White Shadows,” in the second Academy Awards ceremony, was born in Sedalia, Missouri on July 13, 1890 and graduated from the University of Arkansas. He began in show business as a still photographer in 1915, switching to filmwork that same year at Inceville Studios.

After his successful run with director Van Dyke, De Vinna served with the Marines in World War II, coming under fire on Saipan and in the Marianas. Following the war he returned to Hollywood to resume work in film and television. De Vinna died suddenly of a heart attack at his home in Los Angeles on Sunday, July 26, 1953, age 63, survived by his widow Marcelle. He is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #113
When Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs signed a contract for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios to produce the first talkie Tarzan, he changed his strategy. After a succession of unhappy experiences licensing his novels to silent film producers, he licensed only the character of Tarzan, not the novels, to MGM. This launched a trend of Tarzan films based on an original continuity, rather than a book, which continued until screenwriter Robert Towne returned to the Tarzan origin story, “Tarzan of the Apes” (1912) when scripting “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes” (1984)

MGM’s first draft for “Tarzan the Ape Man” had Trader Horn leading a trek to the interior in search of a lost city of moon worshippers, who make sacrifices to a huge gorilla. A female scientist accompanying the expedition scientist abducted by the ape man, who later returns to rescue the party from gorilla sacrifice.

The story was reworked, with Horn replaced by trading post proprietor James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith), whose daughter Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) arrives from England just in time to accompany her father and his young partner Harry Hold (Neil Hamilton) on their search for the fabled elephants’ graveyard and a fortune in ivory. As with the previous iteration of the script, Jane is abducted by Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) for a romantic jungle interlude; after Jane is returned to her party, they are captured by the lost tribe for sacrifice to the giant gorilla god, and it’s Tarzan to the rescue!

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #114
After a strong showing by MGM’s “Tarzan the Ape Man” at a February 1932 advance screening, Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs sent director Woody Van Dyke a congratulatory letter full of effusive praise:

“. . . now that I have seen the picture I wish to express my appreciation of the splendid job you have done. This is a real Tarzan picture. It breathes the grim mystery of the jungle; the endless, relentless strife for survival; the virility, the cruelty, and the grandeur of Nature in the raw. Mr. Weissmuller makes a great Tarzan. He has youth, a marvelous physique and a magnetic personality. I am afraid that I shall never be satisfied with any other heroine [than Maureen O’Sullivan] for my future pictures . . .”

On May 31, two months after the film opened, Burroughs wrote to MGM producer Bernard Hyman, suggesting an annual spring Tarzan film, to be anticipated like the circus “to which the Tarzan picture is analogous”. He was disappointed that Van Dyke wouldn’t direct the sequel.

That September, “Los Angeles Times” reviewer and columnist Edwin Schallert touted the film as an Oscar finalist, but it was not nominated. The film finished in the Top 15 box office earners for the year and the National Board of Review selected it as one of the top 10 films of 1932.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #115
1. Circus aerialist Alfredo Codona, who doubled for Johnny Weissmuller on vine-swinging sequences in the Tarzan films.
2. The grave of circus aerialists Alfredo Codona and Lillian Leitzel in Inglewood Park Cemetery, California.

Circus aerialist Lillian Leitzel

The world’s premiere aerialist, Alfredo Codona did the trapeze and vine-swinging work for lead Johnny Weissmuller in MGM’s “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1932) after Frank Merrill, the previous Tarzan and a champion gymnast, declined the offer. Shot in Sherwood Forest, California, near Lake Sherwood, the vine-swinging footage was recycled for several Tarzan pictures. Alfredo’s brother Lalo donned an ape suit as his “catcher.” The brothers and their three sisters were from a Mexican circus family, and were a star attraction with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus in the early 1930s.

It was in the big top that Codona met Lillian Leitzel, another aerialist from a circus family, billed as “The Queen of the Air,” who was to become the most popular and highest paid female circus performer until her untimely death. Known for her fiery personality, tiny size (4'9" and 95 pounds), and unparalleled skills, her solo performance occupied the center ring, where she was known for executing 100 one-arm planges (though 249 was her record), a grueling maneuver where she spun vertically while holding onto a ring with one hand, partially dislocating her shoulder and re-snapping it into place with each turn.

The pair had a tempestuous marriage until Leitzel’s equipment failed and she fell to her death in 1931. Codona became increasingly reckless, injuring his arm and ending his career. Codona married aerialist Vera Bruce in 1932, but their union was also torn by strife. On June 30, 1937, during a conference with a divorce lawyer, Codona fatally shot Bruce and killed himself.

Codona is buried with Leitzel in the Inglewood Park Cemetery, their graves marked by a 17-foot-tall statue of an angel carrying a woman away. Leitzel was the first performer elected to the Circus Hall of Fame in 1958; in 1961, Codona was also inducted.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #117
Tarzan’s yell in the Metro-Goldwyn Mayer films was created by Academy Award-winning sound engineer Douglas Shearer (actress Norma’s brother). It was claimed that he mixed a hyena’s yowl played backwards, a camel’s bleat, the pluck of a violin string, and a soprano’s high-C note. According to forensic sleuthing by visual effects supervisor Craig Barron and sound designer Ben Burtt, the Tarzan yell is a palindrome of a human yell, the same forward as backwards, just as strong at the end as the start; the high note in the middle is believed to be from a clarinet. Though the original cry was electronically sweetened, Weissmuller learned to emulate it, and was not shy about doing whenever and wherever he felt the urge.
Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #118

Englishman Sir C. Aubrey Smith played Jane’s father, trader James Parker in “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1932), with Neil Hamilton portraying his young partner, Harry Holt, who has eyes for Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan). Hamilton returned to the role of Holt in the “Ape Man” sequel, “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934).

In his laudatory letter to Ape Man director W.S. “Woody” Van Dyke, Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote, “. . . Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Smith have added a luster of superb character delineation to the production that has helped to make it the greatest Tarzan picture of them all . . .”

Playing Jane Parker’s father was a bit of typecasting for Sir C. Aubrey Smith, who was a popular choice to play crusty Brits onscreen. The son of physician, he was born in London, England on July 21, 1863. He attended Charterhouse and St. John’s College in London, and spent time mining gold in South Africa before he joined a traveling stock company in 1892 while pursuing his passion for cricket.

After alternating roles on the British stage in in film, he eventually arrived in Hollywood, appearing in more than 100 films and founding the Griffith Park Cricket Association with fellow British expatriate actors, including Boris Karloff, David Niven, Rex Harrison, and others. He was awarded the CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1938 and was knighted in the 1944 for his services to Anglo-American amity.

Smith married Isobel Wood in 1896, with whom he had one daughter, Honor, and two grandchildren. He died unexpectedly of double pneumonia at home in Beverly Hills on December 20, 1948.

James Neil Hamilton was born on September 9, 1899 in Lynn, Massachusetts. Hamilton decided to pursue acting as a child, and, after dropping out of high school to work a series of factory jobs, he moved to New York at age 17 and began appearing as an extra in silent films shot at Fort Lee, New Jersey. He worked as a model for artist Joseph Leyendecker and soon garnered attention the "Arrow Collar Man" in the shirtmaker’s ads, running prominently in the “Saturday Evening Post.”

He began appearing onstage in stock productions, where he met his life-long wife, stage manager Elsa Whitmer, whom he married in 1922; the couple adopted a daughter in 1931.

Moving to Hollywood, Hamilton began appearing as a young leading man onscreen after director D.W. Griffith cast him in “The White Rose.” He became a top silent film star for Paramount before moving to MGM, touted as the most handsome actor in pictures. There he portrayed Harry Holt, James Parker’s trading partner, in “Tarzan the Ape Man” (1932), returning for the sequel “Tarzan and His Mate” (1934), to unsuccessfully woo Parker’s daughter Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan).

Hamilton’s fortunes hit a snag when he declared bankruptcy after a bad investment in the San Francisco World’s Fair, and his acting work floundered. He contemplated suicide, but was talked out of it by a Catholic priest and rededicated himself to his faith. Later in life, he achieved his greatest fame as Commissioner Gordon on the “Batman” television show starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Following his retirement, Hamilton died at home in Escondido, California on September 24, 1984, suffering complications from asthma. He was cremated and his cremains were scattered over the Pacific Ocean.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #118

Jim Pierce and Joan Burroughs in a publicity still from the hit "Tarzan” radio serial 
of the early 1930s, in which they portrayed the ape man and his mate Jane.
With MGM’s “Tarzan the Ape Man” one of the hits of 1932, producer Sol Lesser decided it was time to put his Tarzan film option into production. On January 10, 1933, Lesser forwarded the script for his serial, "Tarzan the Fearless," for Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs to review. Burroughs was satisfied that it didn’t infringe on any of his novels, and made a few suggestions, such as toning down the “sex suggestiveness.”

However, the casting of Jim Pierce was a stickling point. Lesser wanted Burroughs’ help in convincing Pierce to void his contract, believing Pierce was too out-of-shape to be credible in the role. However, Burroughs had promised Pierce (the star of 1927’s “Tarzan and the Golden Lion”) a second Tarzan role as a wedding present when Pierce married Burroughs’ daughter Joan in 1928, and insisted that Lesser negotiate directly with Pierce.

Lesser threatened to make the film a burlesque, with comic scenes of Jane helping to boost Tarzan into the trees, but Burroughs was unmoved. Meanwhile Pierce was furiously working out at the Hollywood Athletic Club, trying to shape up. The stalemate was resolved by May 17, when Lesser and associates Mike Rosenberg and Ben Zeidman delicately noted that they sought a “different type” and offered Pierce a $5,000 buyout on the role, which Pierce accepted.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #119

Crabbe and Jackie the Wrestling Lion in "King of the Jungle." 
Jackie's wrestling trainer Melvin Koontz doubled for Crabbe in the production. 
(See "Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #99")
With Jim Pierce out of the running for the lead in the “Tarzan the Fearless” serial, producer Sol Lesser cast Olympic swimming champion Buster Crabbe, who had recently appeared as another feral man (this one raised by lions), in the 1933 Paramount film “King of the Jungle,” based on the pulp magazine stories of C.T. Stoneham.

Clarence Linden “Buster” Crabbe was born February 7, 1908 in Oakland, California. In 1913, his family, which included younger brother Edward “Buddy” Crabbe, Jr., moved to Hawaii, where his father worked as the foreman on a pineapple plantation and later sold real estate. Buster and Buddy attended Honolulu Military Academy, which merged with Punahoa in 1925. Buster won 16 letters in football, basketball, track, and swimming, and won five ROTC medals as best soldier.

He idolized Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku, a local hero, and became a distance swimmer, winning the 1928 U.S. championships in the 400M and 1500M events. Crabbe caught the flu on the ocean voyage to the Amsterdam Olympics that summer and only won a bronze medal in the 800M relay.

Admitted to Yale, he dropped out to nurse his ill grandmother, accepting a swimming scholarship to USC. He graduated in 1931 with a degree in political science, intending to attend law school, when his destiny was changed by winning the 400M event in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics (bettering Johnny Weissmuller’s record by nearly four seconds). Crabbe, who had been appearing as an extra and stuntman in films (and had unsuccessfully auditioned for the lead in MGM’s “Tarzan the Ape Man”) was given a Paramount contract and the lead in “King of the Jungle.”

Unfortunately, “Tarzan the Fearless” suffered by comparison to MGM’s previous big budget apeman effort, but Crabbe later won cinematic immortality as comic strip hero Flash Gordon in three Universal serials, also playing Buck Rogers onscreen. Crabbe also played Billy the Kid in a series of low-budget Westerns for PRC, and endorsed swimming pools and fitness products.

Crabbe died of a heart attack at his Scottsdale, Arizona home on April 23, 1983, survived by his wife Adah and two of his three children. He is buried in Scottsdale’s Green Acres cemetery.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #120

Jacqueline Wells on the set of "Tarzan the Fearless" 
with Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs 
and a co-star, probably the chimp Jiggs (the original Cheeta), 
who appeared in Fearless with Wells and Crabbe.
Starlet Jacqueline Wells was cast as “Mary Brooks,” the love interest of Buster Crabbe’s ape man, in the 1933 Sol Lesser serial “Tarzan the Fearless.” As with MGM’s “Tarzan the Ape Man” storyline the year prior, the young woman has come to Africa seeking her father, and finds love with Tarzan.

Jacqueline Brown was born on August 30, 1914 in Denver Colorado. Her father, William Wells Brown was a prominent Texas banker and oil executive. Jacqueline and her mother moved to Los Angeles in 1919, following her parents’ divorce; there her mother enrolled her in dance class, and Jacqueline began appearing onscreen in silent films and Hal Roach comedies under the stage name Jacqueline Wells.

A WAMPAS Baby Star of 1934, she had a prolific career in B-movies before signing a contract with Warner Brothers and changing her professional name to Julie Bishop. Under her new identity she appeared opposite some of Hollywood’s top leading men, including Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Alan Ladd, and Ronald Reagan.

She was married three times, to Walter Booth Brooks III, Colonel Clarence Adelbert “Shoopy” Shoop (a test pilot and Hughes Aircraft vice president with whom she had two children), and Beverly Hills surgeon William Bergin, following Shoop’s death. Daughter Pamela Shoop also worked as an actress, with more than 60 television guest appearances, while son Stephen became a physician.

Wells died of pneumonia at her home on her 87th birthday, August 30, 2001. She is interred with Shoop at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.


Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Tarzan of the Apes in film with



Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of Tarzan of the Apes in film with

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