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Volume 6718

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 #171
With Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios now out of the Tarzan business, independent producer Sol Lesser hoped to continue the series in the same vein, with Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and Johnny Sheffield (Boy) reprising their roles, while Maureen O’Sullivan declined to join her former co-stars.

Born February 17, 1890 in Spokane, Washington, Lesser inherited his family’s San Francisco nickelodeon in 1908 when his father died. In 1913, Lesser and his cameraman Hal Mohr filmed the documentary “Last Night of the Barbary Coast” in San Francisco’s notorious red light district, and began buying theaters with the profits from his hastily-shot exploitation film.

From this modest beginning, Lesser organized the Golden Gate Distributing company, which grew into a chain of 175 West Coast Theaters by 1923. After selling the movie palaces, Lesser focused on producing films under his Principal Productions banner. The under-performance of his two previous ape-man efforts, “Tarzan the Fearless” (1933) and “Tarzan’s Revenge” (1938) did not deter him, and he produced a string of Tarzan pictures starring Johnny Weissmuller, Lex Barker, and Gordon Scott, eventually totaling 16 entries into the series, all of them profitable world-wide.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #172
With Maureen O’Sullivan unwilling to join her co-stars Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) and Johnny Sheffield (Boy) in his new Tarzan series for RKO Pictures, producer Sol Lesser offered the “Jane” role to Ann Corio, a B-movie actress and touted “Queen of Burlesque.”

Corio was one of 12 children born to poor Italian immigrants in Hartford, Connecticut. She got her start as a dancer at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway, attaining the heights of her striptease profession from 1933-42.

While appearing onstage as “Tondelayo” in a revival of “White Cargo,” she was offered a contract by Poverty Row outfit Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) to appear in “Swamp Woman” (1941), earning $1,000 for a week’s work. Upon learning that the producer sold the $18,000-budgeted film for $60,000 and pocketed the difference, she upped her demand to $5,000 per week and a part opposite PRC leading man Buster Crabbe. They appeared together in “Jungle Siren” (1942), a Charlie Chan script that was rewritten with Corio in the lead. She appeared in brown-skin in the film, accompanied by a monkey that liked to lick off her body paint.

Instead of signing with Lesser to play Jane, Corio deftly re-negotiated her PRC contract again, now earning $10,000 a week and 25 percent of the films’ gross, with a makeup man, hairdresser, and wardrobe paid for by the studio (no word if the monkey was included in the new deal). Corio (who earned a new sobriquet: “Queen of the Quickies” for her films) later estimated her earnings at one-half million dollars for the succeeding three pictures: “Sarong Girl” (1943), “The Sultan’s Daughter” (1944) and “Call of the Jungle” (1944).

Unhappy with her Hollywood work, Corio returned to the stage, later teaming with (and eventually marrying) Broadway producer Michael P. Ianucci to stage the “family-friendly” show “This Is Burlesque!” for three years on Broadway, followed by a successful national tour, book, and HBO special. Corio died March 1, 1999 in Englewood New Jersey, survived by Ianucci and two of her sisters.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #173
After Ann Corio turned down the “Jane” role in Sol Lesser’s Tarzan film series, he decided to hold out for Maureen O’Sullivan’s return, instead casting Frances Gifford as the female lead Princess Zandra of the lost city Palandrya in “Tarzan Triumphs” (1943).

Gifford had recently appeared in the Republic Pictures serial “Jungle Girl” (1941), playing lead Nyoka Meredith. Although the film took its title from one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, the storyline did not follow Burroughs’; nevertheless, it is considered one of the best jungle serials of the era.

Mary Frances Gifford was born in Long Beach, California on December 7, 1920, the only child of an electrician father and housewife mother. A stellar student, she had enrolled in UCLA as a pre-law student when a tour of Samuel Goldwyn Studios resulted in an on-the-spot offer for a screentest, which garnered a studio contract. She soon moved to RKO and married actor Jimmy Dunn, but the marriage later failed.

Following “Triumphs,” Gifford signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, whose executives declined to her further participation in the Tarzan series. Gifford retired from film after a serious car accident on New Year’s Eve, 1948, resulted in a head injury and lacerations to her face and hands. She battled severe depression, and later worked for the American Cancer Society and as a volunteer typist at the Pasadena Public Library. Gifford died of emphysema at a Pasadena convalescent center on January 22, 1994, age 73.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #174
With the U.S. now at war against the Axis powers, Sol Lesser struck a deal with the U.S. state department to shoot his film “Tarzan’s Triumph” (1943) as war propaganda. He hired Jewish Austrian director William Thiele (who had departed Germany after the Nazis came to power) to shoot he script by Roy Chanslor and Carroll Young.

Thiele, born Wilhelm Isensohn on May 10, 1890, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, began his career as a stage actor in 1909, and began writing and directing German movies in 1923. He helmed more than 40 films and was one of the earliest television directors, moving into the medium in 1949; he is credited with discovering Dorothy Lamour after casting her in her first lead in “Jungle Princess” (1936). Thiele died September 7, 1975, in Woodland Hills, California, survived by his wife and three children.

The plot pitted Tarzan against Nazi invaders of his domain. German paratroopers invade the peaceful lost city of Palandrya, enslaving the townsfolk and capturing the strategic tin and petroleum supplies. Princess Zandra (Frances Gifford) begs Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) for help, but the ape man (a metaphor for isolationist America) resists involvement—until the Nazis capture Boy (Johnny Sheffield) and leave the ape man for dead. After Zandra nurses him back to health, Tarzan must infiltrate the city and break the Nazi stranglehold before Colonel von Reichart (Stanley Ridges) can radio for reinforcements. Lesser later recalled that audiences jumped to their feet and cheered when Tarzan, finally cognizant of the Nazi menace, grabs his knife and growls, “Now Tarzan make war!”

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #175
With “Tarzan’s Triumphs” a commercial success, producer Sol Lesser immediately began work on a follow-up. His second war propaganda film went into production in April 1943, as “Triumphs” continued the theatrical run begun two months prior. Working titles included “Tarzan Against the Sahara” and “Tarzan and the Sheik,” and saw Tarzan squaring off against the Nazis amid the sand dunes, oases, and Arab villages of North Africa.

Director William Thiele, scripter Carroll Young, and composer Paul Sawtelle remained as the creative team, in an effort to retain “Triumphs’” successful formula, with Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny Sheffield reprising their roles as Tarzan and Boy. The film shot desert locations at Olancha Dunes, outside Lone Pine, with village and jungle locations at the RKO studio lot and Los Angeles Arboretum.

The film was released as “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery” on December 8, 1943 and was later paired on a double-bill with its predecessor, “Tarzan Triumphs.”

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #176
With Maureen O’Sullivan still unwilling to return to the role of Jane in his Tarzan films, producer Sol Lesser decided to retain the successful formula of “Tarzan Triumphs” (1943) and include a female lead who wasn’t a romantic interest.

Lesser issued a casting call for a “pert, bold, alluring blonde, mettlesome, smart-cracking” lead, a “Maisie type,” (from the successful film heroine of that name, played by Anne Sothern) for “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery,” which would begin production on April 27, 1943. Starlet Nancy Kelly, a former child actress, won the role of Connie Bryce, a travelling magician and spy for the Allies, sent to north Africa to foil a German plot.

Kelly was born into a show business family on March 25, 1921 in Lowell Massachusetts. Her mother Nan was an actress, and her father Jack a Broadway ticket broker; brother Jack was also an actor. Nancy was a child model and appeared in 52 films by age 6, dubbed “America’s Most Photographed Child” by a group of professional photographers. She attended Bentley School for Girls, while appearing in school plays and on the radio. She won a 20th Century Fox contract after appearing as Blossom Trexel in “Susan and God” on Broadway in 1937. She gained renown opposite Tyrone Power in “Jesse James” (1939) and Spencer Tracy in “Stanley and Livingston” (1939).

Kelly’s greatest fame came from the role of Christine Penmark, the mother of the titular child in “The Bad Seed,” a role Kelly originated on Broadway (earning a Tony award for Best Dramatic Actress) and played in the 1956 film (earning an Academy Award nomination), one of Warner Brothers' highest-grossing films of that year.

Married three times, Kelly died of complications from diabetes at her Bel Air, California home on January 2, 1995, survived by her daughter and granddaughters.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #177
Jane, offstage nursing the troops in England, writes Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Boy (Johnny Sheffield) to request medicinal plants for the war effort. With Cheta, the two set across the great desert to procure the herbs. On the journey, the trio rescue a wild stallion, Jaynar, that the cruel Karl Stader (Joe Sawyer) is trying to capture.

Arriving at an oasis astride Jaynar, they encounter travelling magician Connie Bryce (Nancy Kelly), touring to entertain the Allied troops, and accompany her to the city of Bir-Herari. There, Tarzan is arrested for horse theft, and the party becomes embroiled in wartime intrigue, as Connie seeks to warn the benevolent sheik (Lloyd Corrigan) that the ruthless merchant Paul Hendrix (Otto Kruger) is actually the Nazi agent Heinrich, who is working with his henchman Stader to further the German war effort.

Tarzan, Connie, Boy, and Cheta escape the city on Jaynar and flee to a prehistoric jungle teeming with exotic dangers. There, they must harvest the plants and defeat their pursuers, Heinrich and Stader.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #178
Dice (also called Pair O’ Dice), a brown-and-white paint stallion, portrayed Jaynar the Arabian horse in “Tarzan’s Desert Fury” (1943) offering a novel angle for an ape man film. Cowboy actor Ben Johnson doubled star Johnny Weissmuller on the horse-mounting scene in Tarzan’s climatic escape sequence.

Dice was owned by trainer Ralph McCutcheon and was trained with voice commands and hand signals, rather than coercive methods like whips. Dice was a mixture of Arabian, Thoroughbred, and American Saddlehorse.

Like Cheeta the chimp, Dice had a vast repertoire of tricks. He could smile, yawn, bow, count with his hoof, lie down, and play dead. He also had stunt and photo doubles, and loved to drink Coca-Cola.

Dice starred in many Westerns in his long Hollywood career, including “Zorro Rides Again” (1937), “The Great Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok” (1938), and “Arizona” (1940), and also appeared in “Duel in the Sun (1946), ridden by Jennifer Jones and Gregory Peck. Dice died at the age of 30 in 1958.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #179
The villainy in “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery” (1943) was supplied by Otto Kruger and Joe Sawyer, as German agent Paul Hendrix (Heinrich) and his henchman, Karl Straeder.

A native of Toledo, Ohio, Kruger was born September 6, 1885. His ancestry was Dutch; his great-uncle Paul Krüger served as President of South Africa. An accomplished musician who conducted a symphony at age 12, Otto enrolled in Columbia University to study music, but decided to pursue drama, debuting on Broadway in 1915, often portraying sophisticated leading men onstage.

A versatile character actor, he made his first film appearance that year, but didn’t work steadily in the medium until he signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1932. Kruger married his Broadway co-star Susan MacManamy in 1919 after a one-week courtship, and had one daughter, actress Ottilie. Kruger logged more than 100 film and television credits, including that of Judge Percy Mettrick in “High Noon” (1952).

A stroke forced his retirement from acting following his role in “Sex and the Single Girl” (1964). He died on his 89th birthday, September 6, 1974 at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills, California.

Sawyer was born Joseph Sauers on August 29, 1906 in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. He usually played tough-guys, cops, or heavy roles, accruing more than 200 film and television credits. Sawyer attended Hollywood High School and USC, and launched his dramatic pursuits by taking night classes in drama at the renowned Pasadena Playhouse, while working his day-job as an appraiser for a building and loan association.

A workaholic who refused to be idle, he continued designing and building homes throughout his acting career, commuting from the Corriganville set of ABC-TV’s “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” (he played Sergeant Biff O’Hara) to oversee construction of a Santa Paula housing tract. Sawyer pulled double duty as a Tarzan villain, previously portraying duplicitous safari guide Olaf Punch in “Tarzan’s Revenge” (1938) opposite Glenn Morris and Eleanor Holm.

Sawyer married twice, and had five children with his second wife, June Golden. He retired to Indio, California, later relocating to Ashland, Oregon, where he died of liver cancer on April 21, 1982.

Celebrating the Tarzan Film Centennial #180
Character actor Lloyd Corrigan portrayed the benevolent sheik Abdul El Khim opposite Johnny Weissmuller and Johnny Sheffield in “Tarzan’s Desert Mystery” (1943).

Born October 16, 1900, Corrigan was the son of stage and silent screen actors Jack Corrigan and Lillian Elliott, and the older brother of Jack H. Corrigan, who later worked as a writer and film editor at Columbia Pictures and Universal Studios. Lloyd attended Hollywood High School, Santa Clara College, and the University of California, Berkeley, studying English. Following his 1922 graduation, he began working as a writer for Paramount Pictures.

After working as a gag writer for comedian Raymond Griffin, he began scripting scenarios for Bebe Daniels and Clara Bow, and wrote the first Fu Manchu film, “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu” (1929), starring Warner Oland, and two sequels.

Although he made his acting debut on “The Splendid Crime” (1925), he resumed writing, and began directing in 1930; among his credits is the Academy Award-winning short “La Cucaracha” (1934). He also worked as a film editor before moving into acting full-time in 1939, compiling scores of credits on film and television through the mid-1960s.

Following a lengthy illness, Corrigan died November 5, 1969 at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, California.

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