SWINGING CINEMA: Tarzans Galore! Part I

by Jake on November 8, 2012


Ever since Edgar Rice Burroughs first created Tarzan, the character has undergone a number of changes – largely because of the motion pictures.

The typical perception of Tarzan is that of a savage who can barely speak. Not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but basically good people. He swings on vines and gives out a strange, yodeling scream to summon animals – or just because he can!

He is uncomfortable with the trappings of civilization and prefers his loincloth to modern clothes.

He has a companion, Jane, an adopted son called Boy (since they weren’t actually married in these ¬†films, Tarzan and Jane could not be portrayed as having children of their own) and a chimpanzee named Cheetah.

The truth is, with the sole exception of Jane, this is not the Tarzan of the novels at ALL. This concept of Tarzan comes largely from the Johnny Weissmuller films.

The original Tarzan does start out a savage in the jungle, but then he is exposed to language and civilization and becomes an adventurer who later settles onto a thoroughly respectable estate in Africa while also maintaining property in England. He is, in fact, an aristocrat, with wealth and privilege in modern society. He is intelligent, well-spoken and well-mannered. He is quite properly married to Jane and has children the old-fashioned way.

But he retains that legacy of his savage upbringing, possessing the strength, agility and ferocity he gained being raised by a tribe of apes in the savage jungle.

During his adventures, Tarzan encounters ancient civilizations, magic, prehistoric creatures and the many evils of that most deadly of beasts, human beings.

Pretty far cry from, “Me, Tarzan, you, Jane”!

So I thought I’d take this opportunity to recommend some films that present various different interpretations of Tarzan, some of them more in keeping with the character as originally presented. These movies and shows are an odd mix, but they each have something interesting to recommend them.

Tarzan of the ApesTo start at the very beginning, we have 1918′s ‘Tarzan of the Apes‘. This is a silent film which adapts the first half of the very first Tarzan novel of the same name. It is possibly the most faithful adaptation ever done, and the changes which are made are actually improvements over the book, which relies a great deal upon coincidence to move the plot along. Elmo Lincoln stars as Tarzan and, well, all I can say is he is a fine example of the difference between 1918 and today in terms of what constitutes an impressive specimen of manhood. He’s large and strong enough, but he certainly does not look like an athlete! The wig doesn’t help, either. Still, great movie. The second half of the book was used for the sequel, ‘The Romance of Tarzan‘. This, frankly, was not nearly as good, nor as faithful, and the second film is believed to be lost forever.

Tarzan, the Ape Man‘ (1932) is the first of the Johnny Weissmuller pictures. It is the one which gives us the common misperception of Tarzan as an inarticulate simpleton. It’s also a great movie! The plot bears almost no resemblance to anything in the novels, except that it’s Africa and you have Tarzan and Jane there. One issue a modern viewer may have is the rather jarring use of rear-screen projection in this movie; not only when actors are meant to be escaping from wild beasts, but also when, in an early shot, they are supposed to be standing in front of African tribesmen! It looks really weird, now.

Weissmuller played Tarzan in twelve movies over sixteen years, so it’s not surprising that he is the stereotypical Tarzan! From these movies, we got Cheetah, Boy, the “Tarzan yell”, most of the things one typically associates with the character.

Edgar Rice Burroughs was not happy to see his character reduced to a yodeling halfwit, so in 1935, he helped put out as competition ‘The New Adventures of Tarzan‘, a 12 part serial which is VERY faithful to the books while still telling an original story. It’s pretty good and Herman Brix is okay as Tarzan, but there is one problem: the Tarzan yell! In the novels, Tarzan frequently gives out the roar of a bull-ape, which is what they should gave gone with here.

The yodeling call of the Weissmuller films was well-known, though, so the producers of this serial gave Tarzan a cry of “Man-GAN-IIIIIII!!!!!” which sounds like a farmer’s wife calling hogs! To be fair, the Mangani are the apes which raised Tarzan, but still…

Meanwhile, Weissmuller finally hung up his loincloth. In the 1950′s, his replacements continued the inarticulate and simpleminded portrayal of the character up until a new direction in the 1960′s.

Part II Coming Soon!

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