Tonight: Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, with Neil Hamilton and C. Aubrey Smith, in the 1932 jungle epic Tarzan the Ape Man.
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote his first Tarzan story in 1912. It was novelized in 1914, followed by 25 more books, almost 40 films, four serials, a TV series and a comic strip, making Tarzan one of the most famous fictional characters in the world.
The first cinematic Tarzan was Elmo Lincoln in the 1918 silent film, Tarzan of the Apes. More than 16 actors have played the part subsequently.
But it was Johnny Weissmuller, who won five gold medals as a swimmer in the 1924 and 1928 Summer Olympics, who is best remembered in the role.
Weissmuller appeared in 14 Tarzan films. The first two, made for MGM, Tarzan the Ape Man (1932) and Tarzan and His Mate (1934) are the best.
Weissmuller’s cry became so famous that it was used in subsequent Tarzan films in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when other actors played the part.
Tarzan’s distinctive jungle call was reportedly created electronically by Douglas Shearer, actress Norma Shearer’s brother, by combining Weissmuller’s yell, played backwards, with other sounds (including a clarinet) in what is called an “audio palindrome.”
MGM made the first Tarzan film in this popular series because of the success of their 1931 jungle epic, Trader Horn, starring Harry Carey.
The studio originally intended their first Tarzan film to be a sequel to Trader Horn, with Horn meeting Tarzan in the jungle.
Trader Horn was eventually dropped from the story, and Jane was added. This is the film in which Tarzan and Jane first meet and Weissmuller speaks the immortal line, “Me Tarzan, You Jane.”
Maureen O’Sullivan played Jane. She played many other parts in MGM films in the ‘30s and ‘40s, but this is the role for which she is best remembered.
It is also a role that she disliked intensely. She and the chimps that played Cheetah hated one another.
Maureen O’Sullivan is Mia Farrow’s mother and she appeared in one of Woody Allen’s films (Hannah and Her Sisters) before Woody and Mia broke up.
We’ll see a good deal more of Maureen O’Sullivan in the pre-Code versions of Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate than in any other versions of the films.
Indeed, Tarzan and His Mate includes a memorable underwater swimming scene with Jane completely nude. The underwater scene was shot with a body double—an Olympic swimmer named Josephine McKim.
On April 10, 1934, Joe Breen, the head of MPPDA, rejected Tarzan and His Mate because of the shots in which Jane was shown topless or completely naked. And, of course, Tarzan and Jane were shown living together, without benefit of clergy.
Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer both appeared at the censorship hearing in which some scenes were determined as unacceptable and censored.
But in 1991, the censored scenes were restored for an MGM-UA home video release. The uncut version is what we will see this weekend.
Most of Tarzan the Ape Man was shot in a studio jungle, but some of the location work was done at Lake Sherwood, so named because Douglas Fairbanks shot much of his 1922 silent film Robin Hood there.
A trio called the Flying Codonas helped rig trapezes so Fairbanks could swing through the forest.
A decade later, Alfredo Codona was a world-renowned aerialist and doubled Weissmuller swinging from tree to tree in his Tarzan classics.
Tarzan the Ape Man was shot on an eight-week schedule in October and December 1931 on a budget of $652,675—big bucks for that time.
Weissmuller was paid $250 a week for the film and O’Sullivan, $300. Weissmuller was married to Lupe Velez at the time—one of his six wives.
W.S. “One Shot Woody” Van Dyke, who also directed The Thin Man and Manhattan Melodrama, directed Tarzan the Ape Man.
The film premiered on March 25, 1932 at the Capitol Theater in New York City. The domestic release followed on April 2.
Tarzan the Ape Man was a blockbuster, earning more than $2.5 million in its initial release and a profit of $926,325, or a 142 percent return on investment.
Contrary to reports, Burroughs was pleased with MGM’s adaptation of the Tarzan saga.
He wrote Van Dyke after the preview to say he thought Weissmuller was “great,” and O’Sullivan was “perfect.” Even though today’s perception of Tarzan owes more to the movies than the author’s highly educated Lord Greystoke.
So now, from 1932, Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan in Tarzan the Ape Man.