King of the Swingers: The Pre-Code Tarzan Films

(Illustration by Kaelin Richardson)
"I do not understand what you mean exactly by fear," said Tarzan. - Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes (1912) 

May 1st, 1989. The Disney-MGM Studios, a theme park inspired by show business and itself an actual operating production studio, opened its doors to the public at the Walt Disney World Resort for the very first time. Transported to the Golden Age of Hollywood, you could stroll down the Sunset Boulevard of a bygone era, star in an episode of I Love Lucy in front of a live studio audience, and dine at the Hollywood Brown Derby. My favorite restaurant in the world is located next to a cinema bookshop, Sci-Fi Dine-In, which is modeled after a 1950s drive-in theater where you are served food by carhops on roller skates while parked in a convertible under the stars watching old science fiction and horror movie trailers and vintage cartoons on the big screen. A dark ride located inside the park's replica of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood's most famous movie palace, delivered on its promise to me as a kid to be "A Spectacular Journey Into the Movies". The Great Movie Ride transported you to the Old West, the rooftops of London, the far reaches of space, and along the yellow brick road. John Travolta's character from Pulp Fiction might have described this attraction as "a wax museum with a pulse," as it featured Audio-Animatronic figures recreating iconic scenes from classic films throughout motion picture history. You'll see dancers from Busby Berkeley's musical spectacular Footlight Parade (1933) to your right, and Gene Kelly literally Singin' in the Rain (1952) to your left. The ride journeys to the seedy underbelly of Chicago to showcase the birthplace of gritty and violent gangster films of the Great Depression with James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931), then to the legendary American wild frontier with Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" on your right, and John Wayne (or Duke) on your left. From there you would find yourself aboard the Nostromo from Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) alongside Ripley with some terrifying Xenomorphs bursting from the walls and dropping from the ceiling, eventually arriving at a scary scene inspired by the very first horror film, Georges Méliès' The House of the Devil (1896). It was incredible to find all of this in a Disney ride and I credit the park with sparking my love for film. In the 90s I was actually able to see movies made here, including watching animators working on Disney's 37th animated feature film version of Tarzan. Too bad that the park has since been gutted of all its charm. Anyways, from a mummy's tomb aglow with the red eyes of creepy skeletons, we move into Africa... 
"This is the jungle home of the most famous movie character of them all, Tarzan. The movies' most popular Tarzan is undoubtedly Johnny Weissmuller, who starred in twelve films as the King of the Jungle." In this gorgeous room we see the beautiful Jane (based on Maureen O'Sullivan) sitting atop an elephant to our left and the mysterious Tarzan swinging on a vine through the trees to our right, belting out his iconic jungle call (one of the most recognizable sounds of the 20th century). And of course the couple's ape friend, Cheeta, is present as well. This ride was remarkable and inspired me to seek out dozens of classic films upon the return home from my Orlando vacation. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm a sucker for movies featuring men in monkey suits, which I've admired in everything from Dizzy Detectives (1943) to Trading Places (1983), so Tarzan landed on the top of my list, but I had no idea just how much I would end up loving these films. Starting with W.S. Van Dyke's Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), the MGM pictures had wonderful production value and elaborate sets, and most importantly endlessly entertaining performances by its lead actors Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan, and (of course) Jiggs the chimpanzee as Cheeta! 

"The best known... the most loved character ever conceived in the mind of man." - Ridiculous text from the trailer of Tarzan and His Mate (1934). 

Before the Hays Code was strictly enforced in 1934, which regulated rigid moral guidelines in motion pictures, movies were allowed to be sexy - and boy, were these ape-man movies ever sexy! Jane and Tarzan spend the entirety of these pictures practically naked, there's even a nude swimming scene in the first sequel, Tarzan and His Mate (1934), which was originally banned from the final cut but restored once a print resurfaced around 1987. But it wasn't just the flashes of skin that made these pictures burst at the seams with its steaming fervidity, it was the performances of the actors who with just a glance could set the celluloid on fire. Beyond the extravagant sets and erotic romance, these movies were both wildly fun and funny. Found in O'Sullivan's timing and delivery of dialogue is some highly underrated comedy, and it's refreshing that her character is not a girl who is in constant need of being saved - instead, the charm of Jane's relationship with Tarzan is that he needs her just as much as she needs him. I loved that she translated his language for those intruding in their jungle home. O'Sullivan showcased intelligence, femininity, tenacity, and a great sense of humor - and she almost wasn't cast in the part.
Maureen O'Sullivan sailed to New York in October of 1929 from her home in Ireland on her way to Hollywood aboard the British steamer, R.M.S. Baltic. Her film career began when she met director Frank Borzage, who suggested she take a screen test. She did and won a part in a movie, which led to appearing in six films for 20th Century Fox. "Fox fired me, saying that I was poison at the box office," said O'Sullivan, "and I pointed out the window at some oleanders saying that they were poison and they're beautiful." In 1932 she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer where, after several roles, she was chosen by head of production Irving Thalberg to play Jane Parker in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). In the books Jane was American, but in the films (six in total) she was to be portrayed as British. "My dad always loved Maureen," says Johhny Weissmuller, Jr., "she was a good buddy and consummate professional." When O'Sullivan was asked about a real life romance with her co-star, she replied, "I went out with Johnny once, and that was only because the studio made us." She spoke fondly of her time working with him, saying, "He was a big kid who enjoyed having fun with people. I got sick of it for a while being known as Jane, but as the years go by, I'm happy."

Johnny Weissmuller wasn't MGM's first choice, either, with Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks already in talks to play Tarzan. However, director Van Dyke wanted "someone who looked natural undressed." Weissmuller spent his formative years in a pair of trunks as, pre-Tarzan, he was an Olympic swimmer who won five gold medals and one bronze in the 1920s. Weissmuller also won 52 United States championships and set 67 world records, he never lost a race and retired with an unbeaten amateur record! In regards to looking natural undressed, he truly fit the bill, having been a model for BVD and appearing in nothing but a fig leaf for Paramount's wonderful musical comedy, Glorifying the American Girl (1929). Still, he'd never had acting lessons, and producer Bernie Hyman said that he didn't like his name, determining that it was "too long." Weissmuller's name came up after screenwriter Cyril Hume recognized him at the Hollywood Athletic Club and asked him to test for the part. Ultimately, Hyman's entourage convinced him that Weissmuller came with built-in publicity, having already achieving fame as the world's fastest swimmer. There was also something very "cat-like" about him. 
Swedish poster art for Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
Author Edgar Rice Burroughs, though pleased with Weissmuller's performance, hated the studio's depiction of a Tarzan who barely spoke English. Some phrases, like "ungowa", were created for the films. A fun drinking game will be taking a shot every time you hear this phrase used, seemingly meaning something different each time it is uttered. Weissmuller, though not cinema's first Tarzan (that credit goes to Elmo Lincoln), was the first to yodel the Tarzan yell, and it remains the greatest of all the jungle calls. The yell was created by the sound department as a mix of three vocalists spliced together - a soprano, an alto, and a hog caller. In addition to Jane's origins, another deviation from the book involves comic relief in the form of a chimpanzee by the name of Cheeta. This animal actor, named Jiggs, had been raised and trained by Tony and Jacqueline Gentry, brought up alongside a collie named Spanky. Jiggs refused to do any film work without the dog present, who was used to control him on the set. 

The first film was shot on Lot One of the MGM Studios in Culver City, and would co-star lions and elephants from their Movieland Zoo. The elephants were from Indonesia (it used to be thought that you couldn't train an African elephant) where these are domestic animals who in the movies have giant rubber ears glued on (along with fake tusks) to make them look African, which stand out terribly but, hey, at least they tried. Woody Van Dyke, the director of the first film (and a ghost director on the second), was known as "One-take Van Dyke" - as recounted by O'Sullivan, "I'd ask if I could do a scene again and he'd say, 'No, you should have thought of it the first time." Van Dyke also used a wealth of stock footage from his successful 1931 film, Trader Horn, to create Africa for scenes that were shot in Toluca Lake. For all its influences, one thing that you don't ever hear is the line of dialogue, "Me Tarzan, you Jane." This is a line invented by the public that caught on but does not officially appear anywhere in the original films or books, it is interestingly the most famous quote in connection with Tarzan.  
Tarzan and His Mate screening in Shanghai's Concert Hall in 1934.
Tarzan the Ape Man was MGM's biggest film of the season, a tremendous box office success which made a great deal of money, with an average of seven screenings per theater each day. 1933 saw the release of King Kong, which inspired a big sequel to Tarzan - it would be the most expensive and longest in the series, along with a showcase of the richest production value and most action. Tarzan and His Mate (1934), in my opinion, is the greatest Tarzan movie ever made. It is a direct sequel which picks up right where the first one ends. It is without a doubt the sexiest, something that would be watered down in the remaining sequels - Moving forward, our characters would be modestly clothed and Jane's costume (the most revealing onscreen costume of that time) would never be worn again. "The second costume, the risqué one, was the good one," said O'Sullivan. Jane sleeps in the nude, swims nude, is constantly touched by Tarzan... they even sleep together, which was considered "startling" by Hollywood standards at the time. This picture has acquired cult status but was not a success like its predecessor, yet it is the only Tarzan movie to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registration by the United States Library of Congress. What made this second film so great? Was it the return of our wonderful actors reviving the characters we fell in love with in Tarzan the Ape Man? Was it the complex and gorgeous matte paintings and miniatures? Was it the film's spirit of naughty sexual freedom? Was it the lavish practical sets? (Just look at that elephant's graveyard!) Was it the insane stunt work? Was it seeing a man riding a rhinoceros for the first time on film? Was it the nude swim scene? Was it the outrageous violence and gruesome killings of the bloodthirsty onscreen massacres? Was it the screenplay by James Kevin McGuinness, who would go on to write A Night at the Opera (1935) and Rio Grande (1950)? Was it the men in ape suits? To all of this, I'd say: Yes. 

"When Tarzan killed he more often smiled than scowled, and smiles are the foundation of beauty." - Edgar Rice Burroughs 

It should not go unmentioned that these movies are racially insensitive, including the use of blackface for the natives who seem to be in the picture only to be used for massacres and torture scenes. Filmmaker John Landis says, "It's a racist idea, this white man being lord of the jungle." This is typical of American cinema in the earlier part of the twentieth century, sadly. See The Birth of a Nation (1915) for one of the more extreme examples of a highly regarded American film that is inherently racist. King Kong (1933) is sometimes credited with tackling racist issues, but I feel it was unintentional and that the original film is meant to be as racially insensitive as others produced at the time. Racist stereotypes were wrong then and they are wrong now, but as Whoopi Goldberg points out in regards to animation, "It reflects some of the prejudices that were commonplace in American society, especially when it came to the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities. Removing these inexcusable images would be the same as saying they never existed. They reflect a part of our history that cannot, and should not, be ignored." Films are more than just entertainment; they are a window through which we view American culture. Thankfully, we have come a long way as a country, but we still have a very long way to go.
Sharon Tate & Margot Robbie filling the shoes of Jane - Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966)/ The Legend of Tarzan (2016)
The Johnny Weissmuller/Maureen O'Sullivan Tarzan films were not the first, and certainly not the last, to be made about the ape man. They began in the silent era, with 1927's Tarzan and the Golden Lion featuring a then unknown Boris Karloff as the villain! Weissmuller continued making Tarzan films long after O'Sullivan left the series in 1942 (other studios were already making Tarzan films simultaneously, including Buster Crabbe as Tarzan in a 12-part serial), hanging up his loincloth for good after 1948's Tarzan and the Mermaids. Moving forward, Tarzan became unpredictable in his many incarnations, including a gritty (and Jane-less) adaptation in 1959 with Gordon Scott in the lead role of Paramount's Tarzan's Greatest Adventure (co-starring Sean Connery), an MGM remake of the original film that same year with Denny Miller in Tarzan, the Ape Man, and Tarzan-turned-James Bond (Mike Henry) in 1966's Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (which almost starred Sharon Tate in the "Jane" role, who pulled out at the last second). In 1981, Bo Derek would play Jane in a soft-core porn that is commonly referred to as one of the worst films of all time (though Ebert found it to have a certain charm), Tarzan, the Ape Man. In 1984, Andie McDowell would play Jane (alongside Christopher Lambert) in the well received Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes - what a lengthy title! Harry Potter director David Yates brought Tarzan back to the screen with Margot Robbie playing Jane (alongside Alexander Skarsgård) in 2016's The Legend of Tarzan with an impressive all-star cast, including Samuel L. Jackson. However, the only Tarzan to win an Oscar has been Disney's 1999 animated adaptation, Tarzan. This list doesn't even begin to touch on the character's representation in books, comics, television, theater, radio, and video games. 

Over 30 actors have portrayed Tarzan for film alone, but none match the chemistry and magic of the Weissmuller/O'Sullivan era. Johnny Weissmuller would go on to open a chain of California health food stores in 1969, and in 1970's oversee a Florida theme park called Tropical Wonderland. Maureen O'Sullivan, mother of actress Mia Farrow, would continue to act - even appearing in such later films as Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and Francis Ford Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). But the Tarzan films would be their greatest creative achievement. A testament to this fact is that they both have stars facing each other on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 
The pre-Code Tarzan films are movies whose importance were ingrained in me from the age of seven thanks to The Great Movie Ride, and were unconsciously a part of me even before having ridden it. I imagine that's true of everyone, whether or not you've seen any of the Tarzan films, you probably feel like you have. I'm fascinated by iconic properties that transcend their medium and become a part of our culture. I'd like to see Tarzan used in creative ways we've never imagined before... if I ever make a film, perhaps it will be Tarzan Goes to Space, or maybe even a horror picture starring the ape man. Imagine the monkey suits! Don't steal these ideas, even though they are golden. Until then, do yourself a favor and check out the wonderfully sexy and classic adventure films, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934). 

"Men were indeed more foolish and more cruel than the beasts of the jungle. How fortunate was he who lived in the peace and security of the great forest." - Tarzan of the Apes