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Johnny Weissmuller's tenure as a big screen Tarzan, first for MGM and then at RKO, lasted seventeen years and a dozen feature films and cost him three wives (the second, "Mexican Spitfire" Lupe Velez). When the former Olympic gold medal swimmer reported for duty in Acapulco to film Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948) he was already well-acquainted with and a regular habitu of the Mexican resort city, whose seaport and complement of fashionable hotspots were a lure for Hollywood's glitterati - among them Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Fred MacMurray, Frank Sinatra, John Wayne, and Red Skelton (some of whom partnered with Weissmuller to purchase the glitzy Los Flamingos Hotel). Budgeted at slightly over $1 million, this sixth series installment for RKO was the most expensive Tarzan production to date but it would also be Weissmuller's last. At age 44, and growing more barrel-chested every year, the actor would find himself replaced the following year by the 30 year-old Lex Barker for Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949).
Tarzan and the Mermaids was notable as well for the absence of series costar Johnny Sheffield, who had signed on to play "Boy" for Tarzan Finds a Son! in 1939 and had stuck by Weissmuller through the abdication of their Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) after Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942) and the handover of the series from Metro to RKO with Tarzan Triumphs (1943). Having matured from age 8 to age 17 in the role, Sheffield was deemed by producer Sol Lesser too old to continue; Boy was written out of the series so that the character could attend college in the civilized world. Tarzan and the Mermaids finds the empty nesting tree-swinger and his missus (Brenda Joyce, who played Jane four times opposite Weissmuller and once for Barker) coming to the aid of ritual sacrifice survivor Mara, incurring the wrath of high priest Palanth (George Zucco) and his pagan minions. (In the small role of Mara, Linda Christian rates an "Introducing..." credit despite having made three films prior to this).
Filming away from the RKO lot (whose "back forty" boasted an African jungle set complete with a lake and Ballona Creek, on the shores of which stood Tarzan's treehouse) left the production of Tarzan and the Mermaids vulnerable to the elements and the wages of shooting south of the border. Sets were destroyed by storms, Sol Lesser suffered a heart attack that necessitated his departure from the location, and Weissmuller experienced a case of sunburn which required him to wear make-up for the first time in his career. In preparation for a cliff dive written in as part of Tarzan and the Mermaids's thrilling climax, Weissmuller visited the La Perla Restaurant, where local divers entertained out of town diners. Diver Angel "Chupitas" Garcia challenged Weissmuller to a dive, a dare from which the actor had to be restrained by production assistants fearful he would break his neck mid-production. According to the July 31, 1947 edition of The Hollywood Reporter, Garcia was subsequently hired to double for Weissmuller in the film but was killed performing the stunt.
During his time in the treetops, Weissmuller had played only one non-Tarzan role. On loan to Paramount, he had traded his loincloth for street clothes to costar with Buster Crabbe in Swamp Fire (1946), the pair cast as bayou roughnecks in love with the same girl. Offered a fresh contract at Columbia, Weissmuller donned safari khakis to play Jungle Jim (1948), a bush guide who leads a fetching female scientist towards a cure for polio (from which Weissmuller had suffered as a child, leading to his use of swimming as a therapy). The actor reprised the character for fifteen sequels and a short-lived CBS TV series.
Largely retired after 1956, Weissmuller dabbled in private business and invested in an ill-advised theme park, marrying a total of six times and making occasional cameo appearances in films. (Weissmuller's iconic image was included on the collage cover of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.) Hobbled by a broken hip and leg in later life, he worked for a time as a greeter at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas until he suffered a series of debilitating strokes. On January 20, 1984, Johnny Weissmuller died from pulmonary edema at the age of 79, a year after being inducted in the US Swimmers Hall of Fame.
Producer: Sol Lesser
Director: Robert Florey
Screenplay: Carroll Young (story and screenplay); Edgar Rice Burroughs (characters); Albert DePina (uncredited)
Cinematography: Jack Draper
Art Direction: McClure Capps
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Brenda Joyce (Jane), George Zucco (Palanth, the High Priest), Andrea Palma (Luana, Mara's Mother), Fernando Wagner (Varga, Pearl Trader), Edward Ashley (Commissioner), John Laurenz (Benji), Gustavo Rojo (Tiko, Mara's Fianc), Matthew Boulton (British Inspector-General), Linda Christian (Mara).
by Richard Harland Smith
Kings of the Jungle: An Illustrated Reference to "Tarzan" on Screen and Television by David Fury (McFarland and Company, 2001)
Tarzan, My Father by Johnny Weissmuller, Jr., with William Reed and W. Craig Reed (ECW Press, 2008)