Friday, December 31, 2010
I started with the very first one: Tarzan of the Apes. Unfortunately I never got to finish it because I made the mistake of bringing it to school with me and somebody ripped it off. (Who the hell steals a Tarzan paperbook? They’re cheap. You can get it for free at the library. And no junior high school punk thief reads books anyway.) So I never finished that one. Luckily I already had a comic book adaption so I knew how it ended, and I was smart enough to never again bring one of my own books to school. Lesson learned. I read the second book in the series, The Return of Tarzan, cover to cover. And I loved it. And I loved the next one, and the next one, and the one after that (Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, probably my favorite). Let’s face it, Tarzan’s a wish-fulfillment character right in the wheelhouse of a 12 or 13-year-old boy, something I happened to be at the time. And say what you will about Edgar Rice Burroughs as a writer but those books move (no less a writer than Gore Vidal said Burroughs possessed a rare gift: he could “describe action vividly”). The books are never boring. Well, they aren’t unless you maybe try to read them all in a short period of time. I made it through the first 13 but put down number 14 halfway through and never picked it or any subsequent Tarzan book back up again. The repetition must have gotten to me. But I’ve never lost my affection for the character.
For most people Tarzan’s not a character from a book though. He’s a character from movies and TV. The 1932 movie with Johnny Weismuller was such a hit that it kicked off a movie series lasting over 30 years. The series kept on going well past the time Weismuller got too old to play Tarzan anymore. No problem. They’d just get a new actor to play Tarzan. And I saw a bunch of these movies. Not at a movie theater though. On TV. In the pre-cable era old movies constituted the programming lifeblood of countless local TV stations and where I grew up one station featured a little show on the weekend called “Tarzan Theatre”, which was nothing but the opportunity to show a cheap old Tarzan movie every Saturday. (This clip isn’t of “my” Tarzan Theatre but it's close enough).
At the time of my first exposure to the Tarzan movies I hadn’t yet cracked open the books but my know-it-all father had and he was kind enough to explain to me how the movie Tarzan was actually a much-bastardized version of Burrough’s fictional creation. The book Tarzan was not only clever and resourceful, he was the child of an English lord, the master of several languages including English, and was perfectly at home in either civilized London or primeval Africa. The movie Tarzan on the other hand was a simple but good-hearted man-child who couldn’t speak in complete sentences or comprehend modern civilization (though like his literary counterpart he would deal out some serious ass-kicking when necessary). And while the first couple of Weismuller Tarzan movies were well-done big-budget MGM affairs the later ones, with or without Weismuller, just kept getting worse. Stupid plots. Bad acting. The same stock footage used over and over again. Soundstages instead of location shooting. Even going to color didn’t improve things much. Until 1959.
After Weismuller retired the Tarzan producers replaced him with Lex Barker (for 6 films), and then Gordon Scott (nee Werschkul). But the budgets remained low and Tarzan remained the same monosyllabic character regardless of which actor donned the loincloth. That all changed with Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure. A new producer, Sy Weintraub, took over the series and changed things for the better. Realistic dangers. Sensible plots. Location shooting. And best of all, Tarzan acted and spoke like a normal intelligent human being. With a real script for once Gordon Scott proved to be a terrific Tarzan in his fifth go-round as the character and Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure lives up to its title. The follow-up, Tarzan the Magnificent was equally good. I loved those two films. The highwater mark didn’t last though. Scott didn’t want to get typecast at Tarzan so he set off for Italy to make a bunch of movies there during the height of the “sword and sandal” craze. After that he left show business altogether and kind of disappeared.
Finding that box with my Dad’s old Tarzan books obviously triggered a lot of memories. It also got me wondering about what ever happened to Gordon Scott, my favorite Tarzan. Luckily the internet allows such questions to be easily answered. Turns out that that Scott’s days as a celluloid hero made him a lot of fans and maybe the biggest was a guy named Roger Thomas, all of 14-years-old when Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure came out. As an older man he made it his mission to track down and meet his boyhood hero. After years of trying he finally succeeded and in 2001 he arranged for Scott to visit him in Baltimore. Scott arrived and that “visit” ended up lasting for six years. Scott just basically moved in with the Thomases. Scott was a kind of a mysterious character, a bit of a recluse really, but Thomas loved having his hero around. Can you imagine that happening to you? Your favorite childhood movie star coming to live with you years later? Becoming your close friend and eating dinner with you every night? Unfortunately, Scott developed some serious health problems, had to go into a nursing home, and died in 2007. But this article about the relationship between Scott and his biggest fan is really touching.
As for Tarzan, without Scott the series swung on with Jock Mahoney for two films but at 42 he was already a bit long in the tooth for the part. So Weintraub had to pick a new one from over 300 applicants (including Frank Gifford!) and here I can finally connect up this post to the National Football League because the man selected to play the next Tarzan was an active professional football player, Mike Henry. From the NFL gridiron to the African Jungle. A ninth-round pick from USC, Henry played linebacker for the Steelers from 1959 to 1962 and for the Rams from 1963 to 1965. (9 career INT’s and 6 career fumble recoveries). His 1962 Post cereal football card says “During the off season, Henry works as an extra in several movie and television studios in Hollywood.” But when Hollywood opportunity struck Henry chose movie stardom over NFL obscurity, retiring from the game in order to play the Lord of the Jungle. But Henry’s Tarzan wasn’t really much of a jungle dweller at all. The moviemakers refashioned the character as a globe-trotting hairy-chested James Bond type. Crazy huh?
Henry did three Tarzan films and there the series died. Luckily Henry didn’t die along with it. During the filming of Henry's second Tarzan movie Cheetah, played by Dinky the Chimp, used his fangs to rip open Henry’s jaw. Henry became delirious with jungle fever for several days but survived unlike Dinky the troublemaking chimp who was euthanized for his sins. Henry also suffered several injuries during filming and came down with dysentery, ear infections, and an infected liver as well (Plus a typhoon destroyed the set of his third Tarzan movie and brought with it a typhoid epidemic; bad juju). After making that third movie Henry was sick of the whole thing, called it a day and hung up the loincloth even though he had been all set to star in the TV series to immediately follow that third film. The part instead went to Ron Ely (who was good). The TV show lasted two years and several theatrical movies were cobbled together from some of the episodes but essentially the Tarzan movie series came to an end when Henry left.
A decade later Tarzan finally returned to the screen in two very different films: Greystoke (a fine period piece) and Tarzan the Ape Man (to this day the worst movie I have ever seen in a theatre). Then two more movies in the late 90’s: Disney’s Tarzan (not a bad cartoon) and Tarzan and the Lost City (unseen by me but I heard it sucked). Since then nothing. But in recent years we’ve seen Zorro and Sherlock Holmes refashioned into big-budget special effects blockbusters so I don’t see why the same can’t be done for Tarzan. But I have a feeling that when that future Tarzan movie appears it's not going to bear a whole lot of similarity to the original Tarzan books I read all those years ago.