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Despite the many different Tarzans who have graced the screen, from the silent Elmo Lincoln to the decidedly contemporary Christopher Lambert, there is only one Tarzan in the eyes of true film lovers - Johnny Weissmuller. When the 28-year-old Olympic swimmer took on the role of Tarzan, the Ape Man for MGM in 1932, he became a Hollywood anomaly, the only star to build his career almost entirely around a single role. His popularity also helped make MGM's backlot epic the definitive Tarzan film.
Originally, MGM executives planned to feature Tarzan in a sequel to their popular 1931 adventure Trader Horn, the first sound film to feature extensive location footage shot in Africa. In fact, the studio had so much location footage left over after making Trader Horn that they were looking for another story that would let them use it. Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs' general manager suggested teaming the heroic Trader Horn with Tarzan, so MGM picked up the rights. Then they decided to focus on Tarzan alone.
The studio considered several candidates for the title role, including Clark Gable, Joel McCrea, Charles Bickford and two future Tarzans, Olympic swimming champion Buster Crabbe and the gold-medallist in the shot put, Herman Brix (later known as Bruce Bennett). Then they found Weissmuller. The swimming star had won five gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, in addition to 67 world and 52 national titles. He had broken 174 individual records, including every freestyle record from the 100 yards to the half-mile. There was only one problem. He was under exclusive contract to model BVD underwear. To win Weissmuller's release, MGM had to work out a deal for their top stars - from Greta Garbo to Marie Dressler - to appear in BVD ads.
For a while, it was just as hard to cast Tarzan's mate, Jane. They couldn't find anybody with the right combination of sophistication and innocence until casting received a photo of a young Irish actress named Maureen O'Sullivan. They immediately signed her to a long-term contract, and she made her MGM debut in Tarzan, the Ape Man.
The stock footage was added to location work shot in the then-undeveloped Toluca Lake region north of Los Angeles, where the only delay was caused when two trained rhinos being used in the film were given a bath in the lake and refused to leave. Sound technicians created the famed Tarzan yell by amplifying and repeating Weissmuller's voice. They even played parts of his yell backwards to get the right effect. The result was so distinctive it turned up in Tarzan films for almost 50 years.
Tarzan, the Ape Man was a huge hit, bringing in almost $1 million in profits, leading MGM to feature Weissmuller and O'Sullivan in five sequels. Ironically, Edgar Rice Burroughs, the character's creator, was not happy with the MGM version, which turned his cultured British lord of the jungle into a monosyllabic ape man. Others have derided the film for its depiction of native Africans as bloodthirsty savages, its cheesy man-in-a-gorilla suit monster and the rampant sexuality of Tarzan's relationship with Jane, which was frowned upon by religious groups. Yet, if anything, these are all part of the mix that has made the film an enduring classic.
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg
Director: W.S. Van Dyke II
Screenplay: Cyril Hume, Ivor Novello
Based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Cinematography: Harold Rosson, Clyde De Vinna
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Georges Richelavie
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane Parker), C. Aubrey Smith (James Parker), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Cutten), Forrester Harvey (Beamish), Johnny Eck (Bird creature).
BW-101m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Frank Miller