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My year with Tarzan

Garp

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It's crazy to think that it's been two years since I completed a year-long movie project (My year with Godzilla), but then it's been a crazy couple of years, I suppose. I feel ready to tackle another subject I know next-to-nothing about, and the Lord of the Jungle is as good a prospect as any.

Tarzan films seem to have always been in the background on TV when I was growing up, but I can't recall ever watching one all the way through. Johnny Weissmuller is the actor that stands out in my mind, with his iconic yell, his faithful chimp and glamorous wife Jane. But what did he do when he wasn't swinging on vines? I have no recollection of any plots, but 'wrestling a lion' is probably in there somewhere.

And so I'm going to spend 2022 finding out. As before, I will watch one Tarzan film/TV show a week, plus some Tarzan-related bonuses, if I can squeeze them in. I'll review them in this thread, and post them later on Letterboxd. The order is not strictly chronological, as it makes more sense to group the actors playing Tarzan together. Looking over my list, I can say with certainty that I have seen 'Greystoke' before, but it'll be interesting to see if any others jog my memory as the year progresses.

Here's the 52 Tarzan films, serials and shows I've chosen:

Tarzan of the Apes [1918]
The Adventures of Tarzan [1921]
The Son of Tarzan [1920]
Tarzan and the Golden Lion [1927]
Tarzan the Tiger [1929]
Tarzan the Fearless [1933]
Tarzan's Revenge [1938]
Tarzan and the Green Goddess [1938]
Tarzan the Ape Man [1932]
Tarzan and his Mate [1934]
Tarzan Escapes [1936]
Tarzan finds a Son [1939]
Tarzan's Secret Treasure [1941]
Tarzan's New York Adventure [1942]
Tarzan Triumphs [1943]
Tarzan's Desert Mystery [1943]
Tarzan and the Amazons [1945]
Tarzan and the Leopard Woman [1946]
Tarzan and the Huntress [1947]
Tarzan and the Mermaids [1948]
Tarzan's Magic Fountain [1949]
Tarzan and the Slave Girl [1950]
Tarzan's Peril [1951]
Tarzan's Savage Fury [1952]
Tarzan and the She-Devil [1953]
Tarzan's Hidden Jungle [1955]
Tarzan and the Lost Safari [1957]
Tarzan and the Trappers [1958]
Tarzan's Fight for Life [1958]
Tarzan's Greatest Adventure [1959]
Tarzan the Magnificent [1960]
Tarzan goes to India [1962]
Tarzan's Three Challenges [1963]
Tarzan the Ape Man [1959]
Tarzan and the Valley of Gold [1966]
Tarzan and the Great River [1967]
Tarzan and the Jungle Boy [1968]
Tarzan's Deadly Silence [1970]
Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle [TV, 1976]
Tarzan the Ape Man [1981]
Greystoke [1984]
Tarzan in Manhattan [1989]
Tarzan [TV, 1991]
Tarzan: The Epic Adventures [TV, 1996]
Tarzan and the Lost City [1998]
Tarzan of the Apes [1999]
Tarzan [1999]
Tarzan and Jane [2002]
Tarzan II [2005]
Tarzan [2013]
Tarzan and Jane [TV, 2017]
Legend of Tarzan [2016]

I've accumulated some books to guide me ('Tarzan of the Movies' by Gabe Essoe, 'Kings of the Jungle' by David Fury, and 'Tarzan, Jungle King of Popular Culture' by David Lemmo, as well as 'The Tarzan Novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs: An Illustrated Reader's Guide' by David Ullery, and 'Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke' by Philip Jose Framer) and I have the first ten Tarzan novels on audiobook to plough through over the course of the year.

Many thanks to BionicBob for allowing me to tap into his well of knowledge on all things Rice Burroughs, and for giving me many ideas for bonus films to watch.

Feel free to join in, if you want, and add your own reviews as the year goes on. I hope you'll pop in occasionally and follow along with the many iterations of Tarzan. All being well, the first review should drop the first week of 2022.

Cheers.
 

Heavisyde

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That's a lot of tarzan. You should make an edit, a coupe scenes per film to tell the story of Tarzan.
 

bionicbob

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I am so curious to hear your reactions/reviews over this next year! It will probably inspire me to pull my Ape Man flicks off the shelf as you go along.

So happy to hear that you plan on listening to the audio books of the ERB novels! As fun as many of the movies and tv shows are (though there are a lot of duds too), none remotely capture the true character of the novels (well except Legend and Epic). I wonder if listening to the original book adventures make you like the movies more or less?

Are you planning on watching them in chronological order or randomly pick one every week?




nyle dimarco disney GIF by ABC Network
 

Garp

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Thanks Bob. I'm going to listen to the books in order, and I'll be watching the films in the order I listed above. Whether my opinions of the films change as I get more into the books is something I'm interested to find out too.
 

bionicbob

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Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke' by Philip Jose Framer

While an interesting read, it is not canon.

In many respects, Farmer was a professional fan boy and he was obsessed with creating a "shared universe" for all his favourite literary adventure characters like Doc Savage and Sherlock Holmes, thus leading to his Wold Newton Family books. I am not a real fan of these. Farmer's interpretation of the characters is rather dark and don't feel genuine. They read like well written fan fiction.
 

Garp

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Just starting reading that one, Bob. At the moment, it feels similar to a 'biography' of James Bond I read a while back. I think I'll probably like the concept more than the execution.
 

Garp

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That's one of my bonus films! Looking forward to it.
 

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Week 1: 'Tarzan of the Apes' [1918]

I start my yearlong journey with Tarzan with his first screen appearance, played by Gordon Griffith as a boy and Elmo Lincoln as an adult. This silent film is only available at a truncated 61 minutes (the original was around 95 mins), and only relates the first part of Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel. Still, it manages to pack a lot in, originating a lot of the tropes you would expect from our jungle hero. He wears a animal print loincloth, swings on vines, rides an elephant and kills a lion. Oh, and gets the girl at the end too.

I've yet to finish listening to the first novel, but this film is regarded as one of the more faithful adaptations. The first half of the film sets up the Claytons being caught up in a mutiny and being marooned on an island, then baby Clayton being adopted by an ape mother. The ape masks aren't the greatest, but the film is so dark and worn-out that it's easy to ignore. The movements of the ape actors are passable, akin to '2001' in places, but they don't get much screen time. Instead we get many good shots of Africa and its wildlife, which probably were reused as stock footage for decades to come.

Elmo Lincoln as adult Tarzan doesn't show up until the 30 minute mark. He's stocky and barrel-chested, like a circus strongman rather than a rippled Adonis, but it works. It's not entirely clear why Jane (Enid Markey) would fall for him, what with his frequent wide-eyed gurning and triumphant poses, but who am I to judge?

As a first entry in the Tarzan filmography, it's pretty good. The mix of jungle footage and the Louisiana locations pair well, and the shots onboard the ship are excellent. There are dozens of extras in certain scenes to make it feel epic (some racial stereotypes, of course,) and a good amount of backstory and action. I'm a sucker for good silent films, but for whatever reason I wasn't expecting much here. Colour me pleasantly surprised.
 

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Week 2: 'The Adventures of Tarzan' [serial] [1921]

Elmo Lincoln returns as Tarzan in a 15 episode serial based on the concluding chapters of the novel 'The Return of Tarzan'. Not having read that far as yet, I'm not sure how faithful this adaptation is, but I'd be surprised if follows the plot closely.

I watched an admittedly poor-looking version of this on YouTube, which condensed it all to a 3+ hour long film, with a sole annoying (and repetitive) organ soundtrack. It took me two evenings and, boy, it was a chore. Lincoln continues with his over-the-top poses, but does display Tarzan's signature jungle cry, albeit silently. Louise Lorraine plays the much put-upon Jane Porter. No doubt this played better as an episodic serial screened over several weeks, as the monotony of watching Jane getting captured, rescued then recaptured got to me several times over the two evenings. I dozed, I awoke to find Jane in peril again, and so it continued.

On the plus side, some of the sets looked good, and there are many (perhaps too many) shots of lions in action, and even a feral pig. (PETA would not have added their endorsement to the credits of this serial, I fear.) Negatively, the racial stereotypes fare worse here with obvious blackface (in fact, blackskin, as the natives are minimally attired) and the ape masks are just as poor. The plot is confusing, with many different villains and an implied suggestion that the viewer is already familiar with the story. The intertitles do a lot of heavy lifting in this serial, throwing us often into the midst of scenes, with exposition stating what just happened offstage. After enjoying Elmo's first outing as the jungle hero, this was disappointing to say the least.
 

bionicbob

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Elmo Lincoln's Tarzan..... I pretty much agree with your observations of both movies. While I have a fondness for them, I do not find them very rewatchable. I suppose the inherit strength of these was adaptations is they all pulled direct threads from the ERB novels, thus making them a more accurate depiction of the Apeman, compared the later MGM and other other fare.
 

Garp

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Week 3: 'Son of Tarzan' [serial] [1920]

I watched this 4-hour-long serial (15 episodes) over three consecutive nights, time which I would say was not entirely wasted. The first episode gives a very quick refresher on how Tarzan came to be, then zips right on into the main story. Tarzan is now a landed gent, with a loving wife and unruly son, Jack (played by Gordon Griffith, the original boy Tarzan in 1918). Through a series of misadventures, Jack finds himself back on Tarzan's home ground, renames himself Korak (the Killer) and rescues a young kidnapped girl called Meriem. They grow up together until Tarzan reappears to dampen their fun and bring them home.

The first 5 episodes deal with Jack and Meriem as kids, and were my favourites of the bunch. His exploits from civilization to jungle are fun to watch, and the plot is easy to follow. Once Korak the elder arrives on the scene, we get the usual capture/rescue/repeat scenarios that plagued the later 'Adventures of Tarzan' serial. Kamuela C Searle plays Korak and looks more convincing in his role than P. Dempsey Tabler as his father, when he first shows up in a loincloth. The climax of the serial involves Searle being rescued from a fiery death by Tantor the elephant, a sequence that resulted in the actor's actual death (in the last few scenes, a stand-in is filmed from behind). Searle is energetic in this serial, especially as he stands atop Tantor, riding him like a surfboard. Manilla Martan as the elder Meriem is attractive and displays a surprising amount of side-boob; however, her acting is too manic and over-the-top to be convincing.

Ultimately, there are too many villains to keep track of - a Sheikh, Paulovich (from an earlier novel), Swedes... - and I found myself dozing again on occasions. The ape masks are even worse than before, but the real life animals are used well. The cliffhanger endings are usual for the day: Korak is surrounded by lions! How will he escape this time? Answer - he climbs a tree. The print I saw (on Dailymotion) is jittery and has some lightning-quick cuts in places, making it difficult to watch sometimes. Overall, though, quite the romp.
 

bionicbob

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Most of the silent era Apeman films, including SON OF TARZAN, I never saw until well into my 20s and 30s, and well after half a lifetime of reading Tarzan books and comics, along with watching most of the other more recognizable films on television or at theatres. So it was very challenging to wrap my head around these earliest cinematic attempts of adapting the Lord of the Apes, since "my Tarzan" looked nothing like these first live action iterations. But once I got past that, I was always impressed by how faithful these first films were to the books, especially SON OF TARZAN. And in retrospect, it is crazy, that after all these decades, Tarzan's son KORAK was never truly adapted for the big or small screen. Instead, MGM would give Tarzan an adopted son, called "BOY" played by Johnny Sheffield, who would later go on to his own jungle adventure movie series BOMBA. And yet, in comics, KORAK would prove to be a very popular long running character for both Gold Key and DC Comics. Currently, there is a great KORAK THE KILLER strip on the ERB website.

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Garp

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Week 4: 'Tarzan and the Golden Lion' [1927]

An old escaped explorer discloses to Tarzan the whereabouts of a lost city filled with treasure. But Tarzan has a rival for the treasure, who kidnaps Tarzan's niece and uses her as a sacrifice to claim the jewels for himself. Can Tarzan overcome the famed Golden Lion to save her?

James Pierce takes over the role of Tarzan for the only time on screen, and he has an interesting history. He was discovered by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself, and he went on to marry the author's daughter as well as voice Tarzan for radio. He certainly looks 100% a jungle hero here, being broad-shouldered and square-jawed, and seems at ease during the acrobatic portions of this hour-long silent film.

The film itself has its pluses and minuses. The racial stereotypes are pretty bad, with Boris Karloff, of all people, getting blacked-up to portray a jungle chief. Again, there are more antagonists than necessary, with the 'bad' natives and a villain out to steal the treasure. But the plot is pretty simple overall, even if it sidelines our hero a fair bit to catch up on other characters. On the positive side, it looks great. The sets are good, and may have been an inspiration for Spielberg's 'Temple of Doom', if you squint. The use of animals is done well too, especially the lions, and there's even some actual chimps. Pierce gets up close to the king of the beasts and looks commanding doing so. The heroines (Dorothy Dunbar as Jane and Edna Murphy as Flora) have the usual damsel in distress roles, but manage to add a spark to these otherwise rote characters. Overall, a pleasant time-waster.
 
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Garp

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Week 5: 'Tarzan the Tiger' [serial] [1929]

Tarzan (Frank Merrill) is enjoying being a plantation owner in Africa with his wife Jane (Natalie Kingston), until he learns the old Greystoke estate is hard up for funds. Against Jane's wishes, he embarks on a journey to the hidden city of Opar to secure a few rare gems, joined by his 'friend' Werper (Al Ferguson). When Tarzan gets a bonk on the head and loses his memory, he reverts back to his primitive state, becoming Tarzan the Tiger! Can he rescue his wife, avoid the clutches of La, Queen of Opar, regain his memory and still walk home with the loot..?

This is Merrill's second go as Tarzan (the previous serial, 'Tarzan the Mighty' - also silent - is lost) and it's clear to see why he was chosen. He is the most obviously muscular of the Tarzan's so far, although the wardrobe department play down his physique and keep him fairly covered for a jungle hero, even providing him with a pair of animal print shorts. From certain angles, he reminded me of Christopher Reeve, but alas, not so in the acting. To be fair, once Tarzan loses his memory, he starts behaving like a dim-witted child, obsessing over his "Pretty pebbles" (diamonds), so perhaps I shouldn't be too harsh on poor Frank.

As usual, Jane's role involves being kidnapped, and Kingston is fine in that limited capacity, being naturally very wide-eyed. Better performances are to had from Ferguson as the double-crossing Werper, and the stunning Kithnou as La, Queen of Opar, who displays an unhealthy and tenacious obsession with our hero.

The sets are excellent here - very North African looking, and shown off by some more interesting camerawork: panning shots, POV, etc. The serial starts well, but does sag after Tarzan's amnesia. There are some fun action sequences and good cliffhangers, but too much is made of Jane trying to get Tarzan to regain his memory. And enough with the "Pretty pebbles" already! The serial is 4 and a half hours long, watched over 3 nights, and, to be honest, I was glad when it was finally over. If anyone wanted to turn this into a truncated film, keeping all the Werper and La scenes intact, I would give it a rewatch.
 
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bionicbob

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Good review as always. I agree, I like the beginning and ending but middle grows tiresome.

However, here is an interesting alternate review...

 

Garp

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Week 6: 'Tarzan the Fearless' [1933]

Buster Crabbe dons the animal print Speedos in this 12-part-serial-cum-feature film. This production came after Johnny Weissmuller's iconic first film in 1932 (I want to watch all of his films consecutively, so I'm jumping around a bit for a few weeks) and seems to take a few ideas from his portrayal. Here, Tarzan has shacked up with an anthropologist in search of a lost civilization. His daughter enters the scene to find him. There's another double-crossing villain and another city of jewels in this zippy but somewhat lacking film.

Crabbe, of course, fills the requirements of a muscular jungle hero. He's the skimpiest-clothed Tarzan so far, does an impressive yell (not his voice), and swings effortlessly through trees. He wrestles at least two lions that I recall, as well as a crocodile (or at least, his stuntmen do) and also gets to spank a monkey (not a euphemism). On paper, so far so good.

Unfortunately, despite the titles saying this was a new Rice Burroughs story, Crabbe's Tarzan is a mostly mute lunk. He grunts and points, and his vocabulary is limited to variations of 'Me Tarzan, You Jane' - or, in this case, Mary. Gone is the savage within the intellectual and sophisticated Lord, that Burroughs wrote about. We just see the savage. It's fine, I suppose, and makes for some exciting sequences, but there's nothing here in the way of nuance. Being originally a serial (I watched the 85 minute edited film), characterization is kept to a minimum; the emphasis is on cliffhangers and resolution.

Jacqueline Wells plays love interest Mary Brooks and does a good job, requiring rescuing much less frequently than normal. No other actors particularly stood out for me. This probably made a pretty good weekly serial (lost now, I believe) as the locations and action are good, and the story is relatively easy to follow (despite dozing a couple of times, I still figured out what was going on). With a more rounded Tarzan, in the vein of earlier portrayals, Crabbe could have been fantastic, rivaling his Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. As it is, we have a missed opportunity, but at least a fun one at that.
 
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bionicbob

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Tarzan the Fearless - never seen the serial, not sure if it even exists anymore (though Serial Squadron claims to be working on a restoration) but the film version I found lacking.... some fun bits and gags, but overall boring. The charisma Buster Crabbe displays as Flash Gordon is sorely missing in his Tarzan portrayal and the plot is one we have seen before and will see again dozens of times in the future.

Here is the first chapter from Serial Squadron...

But what I find the most interesting about this story is it was produced by SOL LESTER, a man obsessed with the Tarzan IP. He would produce TARZAN'S REVENGE (terrible movie) in 1938 and then snatch the Tarzan movie rights in 1943 after MGM let them expire. He would be the main guiding force for Tarzan's onscreen adventures until 1958 (14 films) until he would sell his rights to Sy Weintraub.
 

Garp

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BONUS: 'King of the Jungle' [1933]

Before Buster Crabbe became 'Tarzan the Fearless', he was 'Kaspa the Lion Man' in 'King of the Jungle', a cross between Tarzan and King Kong. Crabbe's family is killed by lions on a safari in Kenya when he is 3 years old. Instead of becoming lunch, Crabbe becomes part of the family and grows up to be the de facto King of the pride. He and his feline brood are captured and become the star attractions in a traveling circus. But when mayhem strikes, Tarz... I mean Kaspa must save the day.

If this was merely an audition role for Crabbe to become Tarzan, it clearly worked. He looks indistinguishable from his portrayal in 'Tarzan the Fearless', being mute for the early portion of the film. He gets to grapple lions, of course, and show off his impressive swimming skills. He even has a Tarzan-like yell. Yes, 'King of the Jungle' "borrows" heavily from the Tarzan novels. He learns to speak English, wear civilized clothing, and discovers (offscreen) that his family are of good English stock. However, he pines for the freedom of the jungle, which even the love of a woman (Frances Dee as Ann) can't diminish.

The plot is paper-thin and characters all one note. We have the comic relief in the form of Ann's roommate, the villain who wants revenge on the lion that ate his hand (!), the fame-and-glory circus owner, the femme fatale, etc... None of it adds up to very much, and the second act sags. How Kaspa becomes part of the pride is glossed over, and so what actually his relationship is with the lions in Act 2 is never clear. We see him pat and hug lions a lot, but I'm not sure why anyone would think that's a million dollar act. As Kaspa learns to speak and fall in love with Ann, he seems to become more depressed and the film starts to fizzle. The climax is filmed well, but the stakes are low and Kaspa's heroics don't amount to very much. An interesting enough time-waster for the curious, currently available on YouTube.
 

bionicbob

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While I have never watched "KING OF THE JUNGLE", I am vaguely familiar with KASPA THE LION MAN.

Kaspa was one of many, many Tarzan clones that appeared in adventure magazines, books and comics throughout the 20s, 30s and 40s, cashing in on the extraordinary popularity of ERB's creation. Kaspa was created by writer C.T. Stoneham and appeared in two novels.

Other popular Tarzan clones of the time include Jan of the Jungle created by pulp legend Otis Albert Cline, Bomba the Jungle Boy, Sheena of the Jungle, Ka-zar (later repurposed by Marvel Comics) and my personal favourite KI-GOR by John Peter Drummond ( a house name), who has the distinction of running continuously longer and having more published adventures than Tarzan.

According to articles I have read, ERB never attempted to sue any of the obvious Tarzan clones. Apparently viewing imitation as the best form of flattery and also as free publicity for Tarzan. Though some observers have commented ERB did not want to risk a copyright lawsuit as it might open the door to him being sued over the blatant similarities between Tarzan and Mowgli of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. And at the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding, as the majority of the Apeman clones are long gone and forgotten while Tarzan continues to swing through the jungle.
 
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