“I’m only ‘Me’ for me… To you, I’m ‘You’.”
TARZAN THE APE MAN
1 . WS Van Dyke II . 1931
There had been seven ape men (including the author’s future son-in-law, Jim Pierce) in five silent movies based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books, when the arrival of talkies – and much jungle footage leftovers from Trader Horn, 1931 – led to the most popular Tarzan of them all.
The Horn director, WS Van Dyke II, a DW Griffth protégé, was given a $652,675 budget.
Wanted: a younger Jack Dempsey,
“strong, well-built, reasonably attractive man,
not necessarily handsome.”
Oh yes, a competent actor but “the most important thing is that he have a good physique.”
Van Dyke (soon known as One-Take Woody) worked his way through college athletes, Olympians… and a few known actors. And rejected them all. Bruce Cabot, Preston Foster, George O’Brien (to be borrowed from Fox) and Randolph Scott – depends said the LA wags, if Cary Grant will be Jane!
Charles Bickford was “not young enough” at 43. Cowboy Johnny Mack Brown was tall in the saddle, but short on the vine. And although the ex-coal-miner, sailor, lumberjack, boxer, weightlifter, stuntman and future Phantom and Western Mesquiteer Tom Tyler had the right stuff, he was just not “muscular enough.”
As for Joel McCrea…
“Never heard of him.”
Two Olympians, worthy fellows bothg, were also rejected. Ex- wrestler Nathaniel Greene Pendleton (billed as Nat) from Davenport, Iowa, lost the loinlocth but won 113 other screen roles in 32 years. And, Buster Crabbe, gold-medallist 400-metre freestyle swimmer in the 1932 LA Olympics. Paramount later made him a copy-Tarzan called Kaspa, the Lion Man, King of the Jungle, 1933, and he became the actual ape man when James Pierce (by now wed to ERB’s daughter) quit Tarzan The Fearless, 1933. Crabbe went on to be Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers – but drew the line at Superman at 41 in 1948.
Even Clark Gable got the short-shrift treatment. Forget his eyes and those stuck-out ears. Van Dyke thundered:
… has no body”
Douglas Fairbanks Sr suggested Herman Brix, 23, Washington U’s all-American football star and the 1928 Olympic shot-put gold medalist. He got the job. But just before signing a contract, Brix busted a shoulder during his debut film, Touchdown. Later billed as Bruce Bennett, Brix was Burroughs’ favourite ape-man – heading up the author’s own production (and script) of the serial, The New Adventures of Tarzan, 1934; re-edited as a feature, Tarzan and the Green Goddess, in 1937. (You just knew ERB was in charge when the ape man was cultured – he spoke good English without grunting – and his chimp was correctly named Nkima, not Cheetah).
Also seen: the Irish-Cherokee Glenn Strange. A new hunk in town, he had the build, he had the height, he had the charisma (IMDb delights in calling him: this huge, towering (6ft 5ins) [some say, 6ft 7ins) beast of a man. Charming! He’d already been a rancher, deputy sheriff, rodeo performer, boxer (a protege of Jack Dempsey), and singer-songrwriter. But could he swim… ? Rejected for the jugle, he became a solid villain in B and TV Westerns, often opposite ex-Tarzan Buster Crabbe, another time opposite Johnny Weissmuller’s ex-wife, the Mexican spitfire Lupe Velez).(A tempestuous, nymphomaniac, she loved to embarrass Johnny when deciding to liven up their parties by pulling her dress over her head, demonstrating her lack of underwear). Among 361 screen roles in 43 years, he was Boris Karloff’s first succesor as Frankenstein’s monster at Universal in the 40s and Sam, the Gunsmoke bartender from 1961 to his ‘73 death.
Van Dyke then agreed to meet a swimmer
catching the eye of the film’s scenarist Cyril Hume
in their hotel pool.
The swimmer was 28 and proved to be an Olympic champ (five medals at the 1924 and 1928 events). Asked to strip to his shorts, he was given the role without going any further and he became the longest reigning ape man across in a dozen movies over 17 years: Johnny Weissmuller. Born in Friedhore, now part of Romania, in 1904 of German-speaking parents. He quit the loin-cloth but not the jungle in 1947, when his girth required clothes and he became Jungle Jim – aka Tarzan in a suit – for 20 films!
During the 40s, he co-starred with anothger swimming champ turned MGMmovie start, Esther Wiliams, in touring aqua shows. “At the end of every performance I’d have to run to my dressing room and lock the door,”she said years later on Australian TV, “because Johnny was always coming right after me. And when he couldn’t get to me, he’d chase all the other girls in the show.
“I once met Maureen O’Sullivan… and I asked her how she managed to keep him at bay when all he had in front of him was that little cloth covering his you-know-what. She told me she was forever running away from him on the Tarzan set, but one day, when he had her cornered, she just pointed at his little loincloth and laughed at him. He was so red-faced embarrassed, he never bothered her again.“
Hard to believe but this jungle caper was Ivor Novello’s one and only Hollywood crediot. The toast of London’s West End theatre, Novello was a supreme wit in his play and song writibg, Hailed as the epitome of male beauty, starred in Hitchcock’s first Hitchcockian film – and silent box-office triumph – The Lodge : A Story of the London Fog (US: The Case of Jonathan Drew), 1926. Howeever, he was way too, er, effete, for USAudiences. As he had been provided with an MGM house in Malibu, he was put to work – behind the camera. He came up with much of Tarzan’s dialogue and, or so it was claimed, Jane’s mememorale: You Tarzan, me Jane.
Much footage from this Ape Man classic (including an easily identifiable Johnny swinging on the vines) was used in the tawdry re-make…
2 . Joseph M Newman . 1959
This one was set up by Al Zimbalist and MGM, although the “official” series (produced by SolLesser and, whenhe sold up, Sy Weintraub) was still being made and (almost) seen. Zimbalist (whose celebrated father, Sam, started his own career withTarzan Finds A Son, 1939) decided upon a leaner, less muscularape man than the current star, Gordon Scott.
The usual 200 candidates (Scott had won his from 199 others, as well), were wittled down to two 24-year-olds:Denny Miller and William Smith.Millerwon theMGM contractIn its 20 months, he was the 12th, the worst and the first blond Tarzan… for a mere eight weeks.
Denny Miller was
a glitch in the franchise
– the jungle George Lazenby.
He was rapidly dropped as Scott continued to rule in Weintraub’s first productions, the finest ape man movies (sorry about that, Johnny), the aptly namedTarzan’s Greatest Adventure, 1959,and Tarzan The Magnificent, 1960.Sean Connery was inthe first, nearly both except “two fellas took an option on me for some spy pictures.”
Burrroughs’ grandson had high praise for Scott (originally named Werschkull – too close to Weisssmuller, ruled the suits). “He was an absolutely wonderful Tarzan, who played the character as an intelligent and nice man who carried himself well, much as my grandfather had originally written it,” saids Danton Burroughs.
Checking his loin-cloth at Reception, Gordon Scott began a busy Euro-career – following a similar, wise move by his predecessor, Lex Barker.In Europe, Barker’s double for a spell was the guy who Denny Miller beat to the jungle – William Smith. He was also beaten to the 1975 role of Doc Savage- Man of Bronze by, ironically, the 15th Tarzan, Ron Ely.
3. John Derek . 1981
Looking around for a good yarn where his wife’s nudity could slip in as easily as her clothes slid off, John Derek, Columbia’s 50s’ pretty boy turned Great Lover, photographer and sometime movie-maker, patched up a deal with MGM for another re-hash of the studio’s jungle classic.
This, though, was the first time in the series where the emphasis was not on the guy in the loin-cloth – but upon Jane. With no loin-cloth at all.
“It’ll be sexy, erotic, funny
– everything,” promised Derek.
It wasn’t. It was nothing.
Certainly not for Treat Williams, beaten to the vine by Lee Canalito, Sylvester Stallone’s brother in Paradise Alley, 1978. He wasn’t any luckier, being sackedafter five weeks’ shooting. Too sexy, said rumours. Too fat, said producer and co-star Bo Derek – unlikely for a heavyweight boxer once managed by Stallone, with 19 undefeated bouts. Too tall? More like it – 6ft 6ins.
“No, Lee hurt his knee filming,” is the version told me in Cannes by his successor, Miles O’Keeffe,“and it looked as I’d be needed. He healed. I assumed I wouldn’t be needed.Then, suddenly I was told to get on a plane to SriLanka.” And into the debutof an undistinguished screen career. (His stunt coordinator was Sally Fields’ ex-stunter step-father, Jock Mahoney, who twice played Tarzan in the 60s).
The Dereks also changed Jane Parker’s father. Or had to. The veteran British bad boy Oliver Reed was their first choice for James Parker but he was a member of the Screen Actors Guild – “and the strike was going on… and on.” When shooting resumed, he’d He moved on to Venom and Richard Harris deputised.
The movie resembled
an exotic Playboy shoot
by the Dereks (and became one, with more nudity than the Edgar Rice Burroughes Estate would allow in the movie). Derek was beaten – by a nose – as Worst Director by Michael Cimino for Heaven’s Gate at the 1981’s Razzie awards
Yet Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert praised John and Bo for answering all the usual questions about the sex-life – or none – of the jungle couple, “the savage, muscular jungle man,” said Ebert, “and the petite young girl with eyes as wide as her shoulders.
“When Tarzan and Jane first meet, the movie all but abandons its plot in favor of foreplay…? Jane’s expression as she looks at the unconscious Tarzan is entrancing. Her unabashed curiosity about him is sexier than any number of steamy sex scenes would have been.”
Ah yes, well, Roger also wrote a script for Russ Meyer!