Elmo Lincoln was tagged to play
the adult Tarzan, and Burroughs was not pleased with the choice. His Tarzan
was a graceful yet powerful man, muscled like an Olympic gymnast. Elmo
was muscled like a wrestler. Make that two wrestlers. Elmo was a huge barrel-chested
man who looked like he could knock a tree over instead of swinging from
one. But audiences loved Lincoln, and in typical Hollywood fashion a sequel
was quickly made. Other studios started to make Tarzan films and other
muscular men were fitted out in loincloths: Gene Pollar (a New York fireman),
P. Dempsey Tabler (an opera singer!), Jim Pierce (a football player who
would eventually marry Burroughs' daughter Joan), and Frank Merrill (a
gymnast at last!).
All these early Tarzan films
were from the silent era of cinema, but "Tarzan the Tiger" (1929) had a
crude soundtrack (sound films were just starting to appear) and so it was
Frank Merrill who was the first to voice a Tarzan yell. Unfortunately,
it came off sounding as if an elephant had stepped on his toes. It was
not until 1932 that sound movies would change the image of Tarzan forever
Tarzan was big in magazines,
big in books and big in the movies. Time to conquer new territory ~ the
In 1927 Joe Neebe, an advertising
man, approached Edgar Rice Burroughs with the idea of adapting Tarzan for
the newspaper comics. At this time the "funnies" were just that ~ humorous
cartoons like Barney Google or Mutt and Jeff. Others, like Little Orphan
Annie, were similar to serials, with each day's adventure continuing on
to the next day's installment. This is what Neebe had in mind for Tarzan.
Neebe hired Hal Foster to
adapt Tarzan of the Apes for the daily newspaper strip. Foster would achieve
his greatest fame as the creator of Prince Valiant, but at the time he
started with Tarzan he was an advertising illustrator. The Tarzan strip
debuted on January 7, 1929 (the same day as the first Buck Rogers strip).
Foster managed to cram the first Tarzan novel into ten weeks (sixty daily
strips altogether). Eventually this strip was published in book form, technically
making it the first Tarzan comic book.
Foster's dynamic retelling
of the Tarzan story was a welcome change from the usual comic fare, and
soon newspapers across the country were clamoring to carry the strip. But
if Tarzan in a black-and-white daily strip was something ~ wait until Tarzan
hit the Sunday color comics! This debuted in March of 1931. First illustrated
by Rex Maxon, after six months (and a lot of pressure from Burroughs) he
was replaced by Foster, who quickly made Tarzan the first thing America
wanted to read Sunday morning. All the wild adventure that Hollywood couldn't
get into a movie was in full display in Foster's pages.
When Hal Foster left Tarzan
in 1936 in order to work on Prince Valiant, he handed the reigns over to
Burne Hogarth, who quickly made Tarzan into one of the most vivid and action-packed
comics ever seen. His mastery of human and animal forms, the unconventionality
of his layout, and his ability to make the images leap off the page earned
Hogarth the title "The Michaelangelo of the Comics." These classic Foster
and Hogarth strips have been reprinted by NBM Publishing, Inc. and are
as exciting to view today as they were sixty years ago. The Sunday Tarzan
comic is also still going strong. Why not ask your local paper to start
In 1931 Metro Goldwyn Mayer
mogul Irving Thalberg approached Edgar Rice Burroughs with the idea of
producing the first of a series of sound Tarzan movies. These would be
big budget "A" pictures stocked with lots of action, stunts and thrills
a'plenty. Good idea, thought Burroughs. There was just one problem: he
had already sold the film rights to Tarzan of the Apes, and MGM wanted
to film the first Tarzan tale. What to do?
Of course, the solution was
simple: Rewrite Tarzan! Abandoning Burroughs' complex tale, MGM came up
with a story that was a great deal more streamlined. How Tarzan actually
got to Africa is never explained. The American Jane Porter became the English
Jane Parker. The movie would take place entirely in the African jungles,
so no need for Tarzan to learn the ways of civilization. In fact, Tarzan
really didn't need to do much speaking at all. This allowed the MGM casting
department to find a man who really looked like Tarzan.
And they found him in twenty-seven
year-old Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller. Considered one of
the most perfectly formed men on the planet, Weissmuller was a natural
for the role. With his outstanding athletic ability and sheer physical
presence, Weissmuller didn't have to say much in order to be Tarzan. Paired
with the beautiful Maureen O'Sullivan, this Tarzan and Jane remain one
of the classic Hollywood film couples of all time.
"Tarzan the Ape Man" debuted
in 1932 and was a huge hit. Filmed in various Los Angeles locations and
at Crystal Springs, Florida (with a great deal of authentic African footage
that had been shot for the earlier movie "Trader Horn"), "Tarzan the Ape
Man" gave Depression-weary movie goers a unique form of escapist entertainment.
And even though Tarzan didn't talk much, Weissmuller did come up with one
of the most memorable sounds to emerge from cinema: The famous Tarzan yell.
Suddenly Burroughs' "victory cry of the bull ape" was given form, and kids
across America were now hanging from trees and yelling at the tops of their
The MGM Tarzan movies made
Tarzan books and comics more popular than ever. Everyone was happy ~ except
the Hollywood censors. It seemed that Tarzan and Jane's jungle outfits
were a bit too, well, revealing. As the series progressed both Tarzan and
Jane would show less and less skin. And then there were the household arrangements.
It appeared as if Tarzan and Jane were living in their tree house together
without the benefit of a marriage ceremony. If movie goers were shocked
they certainly didn't complain, as each new film was a big success. But
still, later movies were downplay the romance between Tarzan and Jane,
and emphasize action and adventure. Oh, and Cheeta the chimp, too!
Sound movies had given a
voice to Tarzan, but they had also greatly simplified Edgar Rice Burroughs'
character. Movies, no matter how elaborate or expensive, just can't match
the images of each reader's imagination. But if you didn't want to pick
up a book there was still one way to let your imagination run wild: Listen
to the radio!