Volume 1656
Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Press
A Life's Journey Through the Newspapers of the World
A Collection of newspaper clippings and articles from 
Chicago to Tarzana  ~ around the world ~ and back to Encino/Tarzana 

by Thomas Wood
Collier's May 9, 1953

The Ape Man isn't witty, charming or debonair. He's a flop as a lover and knows only 150 words (not including grunts). But he can boast thirty-five years as a Hollywood star and 140,000,000 paying fans for every film he makes. Even the Russians love him.

Late one afternoon in 1948 during the Arab-Jewish war in Palestine, three heavily armed Israeli soldiers halted a car 25 miles outside Tel Aviv. Inside the care were Bartley Crum, an American attorney, and several members of a United Nations inquiry commission. For two or three minutes the battle-scarred soldiers spoke earnestly to the driver in Hebrew. The driver shook his head, put the car into gear and stepped on the accelerator.

"What's the matter?" asked Crum. "Trouble up ahead?"

"No," the driver replied. "They wanted a lift into town. A Tarzan picture is opening there tonight."

In the light of more serious matters at hand, Crum dismissed the incident from his mind. But the Tarzan opening that night couldn't be sloughed off so easily. The crowds that swarmed to the opening were so large and unruly that a police riot squad was called out. More men were needed to maintain order than were assigned to guard the Mandelbaum Gate in Jerusalem, which separated the warring Arab and Jewish quarters of the city.

By the time Crum left Tel Aviv, he had learned something that the producers of Hollywood's more distinguished movies know but hate to admit even to themselves: that Tarzan films, which never win any critical acclaim, let alone awards, are among America's most popular exports.

Statistics show there is a ready world audience of 140,000,000 for every Tarzan picture released. Of the total, 75 per cent -- about 100,000,000 -- live outside the United States.

As a group Tarzan fans defy classification. They include men of sixty and youngsters, college professors and lady wrestlers. And they aren't demanding. In the 35 years that Tarzan has been on film, the face of the Ape Man has changed 10 times and that of his mate 14 times. Yet there never has been a peep of protest from their fans.

Audiences never seem to tire of Tarzan films, no matter how old. Except for such film epics  as Gone with the Wind and Quo Vadis, the domestic life expectancy of most Hollywood features is two years. Then, having played the second-run and neighborhood circuits, the are ready for retirement. But Tarzan pictures are shown until they disintegrate. On a recent trip through Switzerland, Sol Lesser, the producer who controls the screen destiny of the jungle muscle man, drove through Altstetten, a small town west of Zurich. The film attraction at the local Palast was Tarzan the Fearless, which Lesser made in 1933. What's more, it was doing good business.

The curious thing about Tarzan's popularity is that he has few of the attributes considered essential to a screen leading man. He is not witty, charming or debonair. He is not dashing or romantic, and his conversational powers are almost nonexistent. His acting requirements are few; he need do little more than beat his massive chest  when angry, splash his mate with water when happy, and swing from vine to vine when he wants to go somewhere.

Tarzan believes in action, not words, he has a total vocabulary of about 150 words (not counting animal grunts) and in an average picture speaks no more than 100 lines of dialogue. In Tarzan and the She-Devil, to be released next month by RKO, he speaks an all-time low of 83 lines. The grosses on his current picture, Tarzan's Savage Fury, have been a little slow, and Lesser attributes this fact to the Ape Man's loquaciousness.

"Tarzan spoke 137 lines in that one," Lesser commented recently. "Nearly talked himself to death."

Although he didn't originate the series, Lesser has become almost completely identified with Tarzan movies. Of the 29 made since Tarzan's film debut in 1918, Lesser has been responsible for 13. And the end is nowhere in sight. A few weeks ago the estate of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, extended Lesser's film rights to the series for another 20 years. Included in the deal were eight incomplete, unpublished novels and half a dozen fragmentary plots, jotted down by Burroughs shortly before his death three years ago.

A small energetic man, Lesser is dedicated to the film continuation of Burroughs' brain child. And his faith in Tarzan is justified by an annual world-wide box office harvest of $2,500,000.

Lesser has two or three Tarzan pictures in general release all the time; right now there are 850 prints of Tarzan films in circulation. It is Lesser's boast that there is always a Tarzan picture playing within a radius of 50 miles of any given spot in the world.

Films Go Over Big in Russia

The extravagant claim even includes countries behind the Iron Curtain, although Lesser has no hand in circulating the films in Communist lands, and his bank balance does not list any frozen rubles. The Reds go their Tarzan pictures in 1945, when the Russians stormed into Berlin and grabbed some German-dubbed versions. Since Tarzan was raised in the jungle by apes uncontaminated by the democracies, the Russians took the pictures back to Moscow and released them in the Soviet Union. Fragmentary reports indicate the movies are extremely successful there, too.

But for the record, Tarzan is a proven anti-Communist. In Tarzan's Savage Fury, he caught a couple of Red agents in the jungle and liquidated them.

Tarzan's greatest appeal, of course, is to children, as the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund can testify. Not long ago UNICEF medical authorities wanted to immunize children against tuberculosis in villages in the Bandung area of Indonesia. The children refused to come forward, however. Finally a farsighted theater operator in the district booked an old Tarzan picture and fixed the children's admission price at submission to immunization. The film played to standing room only for days, and a number of grownups tried to get in on the same terms.

The picture which won that particular battle against tuberculosis was Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, produced in 1945. But just about any other would have done as well. The plots of the Tarzan pictures are almost as similar and standard as the rules for boiling water.

Each movie opens with a view of Tarzan and Jane, his mate, in their idyllic treetop home. The dialogue, if any, runs to lines like, "Me Tarzan, you Jane." Suddenly Cheetah, the family's chimpanzee friend, chatters in with the news that a safari is coming through the jungle. Tarzan, who speaks and understands chimpanzee better than he does English, promptly mutters, "White man means trouble."

He's right, too. It develops that the safari has been organized for some illegal purpose, such as gunrunning, ivory stealing or fomenting a native uprising, and its leaders are plainly motivated by avarice and greed.

Despite his muscles, Tarzan's reflexes are slow and the nefarious intruders usually get the jump on him. In a matter of minutes, the safari has debauched a peaceful village, knocked off a few of Tarzan's close animal friends and captured Jane.

At long last Tarzan is aroused. He beats his chest and bellows his spine-chilling war cry.

This yell, which is a trade-mark of the Tarzan series, has always been a problem to the studio sound department. It is constantly being worked upon to improve its eerie quality. Back in the early days of sound, when Tarzan started to talk in his fashion, M-G-M technicians used the bleat of a mother camel that had just been robbed of its young. This whimper, souped up was used effectively until it was replaced, in in 1934, by something more apprehensive -- a combination of several different sounds, including the growl of a dog, the howl of a hyena (run backward) and the raspy note of an off-key violin G string.

Adding the Inhuman Quality

Now the yell is a series of sound tracks of screams of Lex Barker, who has played the Ape Man since 1948. Recorded at various speeds and fluttered or run backward, the combined tracks give the cry a proper inhuman quality.

When the leaders of the safari hear this outraged call in the jungle, they know the jig is up. In a third-act curtain, they try to save themselves. They jump off precipices, take refuge in the mouths of nearby crocodiles, or shoot one another in the back. None of the villains escapes. Yet from this carnage, because of the tremendous influence Tarzan wields over the impressionable people of the world, the Ape Man always emerges with unblemished character. The film makes it plain that when he kills, it is only in self-defense.

The history of this hero of the jungle goes back to 1912, when Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes. Farfetched though it was, the book about the son of an English peer reared by a she-ape in the jungles of darkest Africa was an instant success. It has since sold more than 3,000,000 copies and has been translated into 56 languages and dialects. It not only put Tarzan (which means "white skin" in ape language) in a class with such famous literary creations as Peter Pan and Sherlock Holmes, but also established a Tarzan empire that still exists.

Among the products of this empire are 54 novels, 29 movies, a syndicated newspaper cartoon, a radio serial and a series of comic books. (A by-product of the empire is a United States Post Office named Tarzana in southern California. It serves a township in the San Fernando Valley that grew up around the 600-acre ranch that Burroughs  bought in 1919.

Fee for Film Rights Raised

The empire, owned by the Burroughs estate, is manipulated by many hands, all operating independently. Lesser runs the motion-picture division. Up until a year ago, he paid a flat annual fee of $100,000 for the screen rights. Now the figure has been scaled upward to a percentage of the box-office earnings.

Lesser makes and releases Tarzan films at the rate of one a year on a current budget of $1,000,000 each. They are filmed, for the most part, in a permanent jungle compound which stretches over the five acres in Culver City. The set comprises a section of lush foliage, a river, a lake, a cliff, a tree house and several miles of reinforced swinging vines. It is valued by Lesser at $75,000.

The first Tarzan film, Tarzan of the Apes, was produced in 1918 by the National Film Corporation of America. It starred Elmo K. Lincoln, a circus strong man, in the title role. Enid Markey played Jane. Lincoln, who died last year, was the first of 10 Tarzans. He was followed by Gene Polar, P. Dempsey Tabler, James H. Pierce, Frank Merrill, Johnny Weissmuller, Buster Crabbe, Herman Brix, Glenn Morris and Lex Barker.

Pierce got into the act when he married one of Burroughs' daughters. The author gave him a Tarzan screen play as a wedding present and Pierce promptly sold the story, with himself as the star, to FBO (Film Booking Offices), now RKO. Most of the other screen Tarzans have been outstanding athletes picked for their physique rather than acting ability. Morris won the 1936 Olympic decathlon, Brix was a 1928 Olympic shot-putter, and Crabbe, a 1932 Olympic swimming star. Among them, they could lick everything except Father Time.

With the exception of Brix, who is now acting under the name of Bruce Bennett, screen Tarzans have found their subsequent careers handicapped by the casting. Lincoln, after his acceptance of the role was unable to get any other kind of part. His last film job was as an extra in Tarzan and the Mermaids, in 1947. Bitter over their similarly inability to get other film jobs, some of his successors gave up acting entirely.

Gene Polar became a fireman in Brooklyn and refused to talk to anyone about his brief reign as Tarzan. Until his retirement a year or so ago, Tabler was an advertising man in San Francisco. Merrill is now a city official in Los Angeles. Morris, when last heard from, was a rancher in Colorado. Pierce is a businessman in the San Fernando Valley.

Only the present Ape Man, Barker, and three of his predecessors still have any connection with grease paint. Brix has gone on to bigger and better roles. Weissmuller, who outgrew the loincloth that is Tarzan's uniform, now plays Jungle Jim in films. And Buster Crabbe is appearing in television in the East.

Present Tarzan "Wants Out"

Just how long Barker will retain the part is anyone's guess. He has already served notice that he wants to branch out professionally. "My career has reached a crisis," he said recently. "It's time for a change. I'm definitely determined to get out of the jungle although I have nothing personal against plaing the part. Actually I don't regret having taken the role of Tarzan because with it I achieved a sort of stardom which I would never have gained any other way. Buy I'm not signing any more term contracts. If I do make another Tarzan, it'll be strictly a one-picture deal."

The screen mortality rate on Janes has been even higher. Chosen for beauty rather than durability, 14 girls have shared the treetop and star billing with Tarzan. Among them have been such glamor queens of their day as Louise Lorraine, Edna Murphy, Natalie Kingston and Brenda Joyce. Joyce Mackenzie, by the way, is the present Jane.

The most famous Tarzan-Jane team was Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan. Weissmuller, a swimming star, made 12 Tarzan films during the 16 years from 1932 to 1948. Like nearly all other Tarzans, he had a healthy contempt for the role. Once when asked for the secret of his success, he replied, "My grunt."

Miss O'Sullivan appeared in six Tarzan pictures, but the last two were under protest. Like the men, she felt that her identification with the series hurt her career. M-G-M, then producing the Tarzan movies under lease from Lesser, proved sympathetic and agreed to write Jane out of the next film by inserting a line in the script to the effect that she was dead.

Burroughs paled when he learned of the plan. He threatened to sue the studio, but a glance at his contract showed that while it forbade the producer to kill, mutilate, or undermine the character of Tarzan, it didn't mention Jane at all. M-G-M was free to rub her out and Burroughs was powerless to stop them. A routine news release, reporting Jane's forthcoming demise, was issued. Howls of protest from the fans proved so intense, however, that the studio had to resurrect her.

As a sop to Miss O'Sullivan's feelings, the studio then switched the scene of the next Tarzan picture to New York, so that at least she could wear something besides animal skins. But the sight of Tarzan properly turned out in fashionably cut suits was too much for the fans. Tarzan's New york Adventure, released in 1942, was a dismal failure and the last Tarzan movie M-G-M produced. Burroughs saw to that.

Until his death in 1950, Burroughs retained a strong grip on Tarzan. His contract with the producer allowed him to approve the script and he never permitted any liberties to be taken with the Ape Man's character. Once, during the filming of Tarzan's Secret Treasure in 1941, the studio shot a scene in which Tarzan threw back his head and laughed long and loud at the reaction of the treasure hunters to their first glimpse of the baubles. Burroughs, who according to friends was not inclined to laugh at money, demanded the scene be deleted. He said Tarzan was contemplative and reserved, that boisterous laughter was strictly out of character, and he had his way. The scene was taken out.

Oddly enough, Burroughs never attempted to reconcile the screen Tarzan with his literary counterpart. In the books, Tarzan is a suave, well-built man about town as well as about jungle. He is self-educated, to be sure, but he speaks flawless English and fluent French. He is equally at home in the best British clubs and the worst African treetops. And he dresses properly for both. He frequently takes his seat in the House of lords, and he is not above having a passionate affair with a tempting woman.

In the movies, Tarzan also has a million-dollar body, but only a ten-cent vocabulary. He hates to leave the jungle because he regards civilization with unwavering suspicion. He doesn't drink or smoke or play around. Even his relationship with Jane is merely a perfunctory one.

Some years ago, however, a minister in the Midwest became disturbed about Tarzan's private life. Seeing no evidence of a wedding ring or marriage certificate, he concluded that Tarzan and Jane were living in sin, and he told Lesser so in a letter. He demanded that Tarzan marry Jane immediately. Otherwise, the minister said, he would denounce them from his pulpit.

The Record of Their Wedding

Lesser quickly went back over every existing script. Unable to find any sequence showing their actual marriage, he hotfooted it to Tarzana to see Burroughs' advice. The author laughed and chided Lesser for not having read the books to which he owned the screen rights. In The Adventures of Tarzan published in 1913, he pointed out, it states that one afternoon, 12 miles off the steaming jungle, the captain of a coastal steamer joined in holy wedlock the two passengers, Lord Greystoke (Tarzan's legal name), of London and Nairobi, and Jane Porter, of Baltimore.

Lesser promptly wrote the minister: "Possibly in your great compassion for the ship, which sand with all hands directly after the ceremony, you overlooked the fact that Tarzan and Jane, the only two survivors, had just  been married. But lest you still doubt that it actually happened, let me remind you that the ship's log, which recorded the event, was also washed ashore and that it was picked up b a passing ape, friendly to Tarzan."

Apparently on the assumption that if it had been printed in the book, it must also have occurred on the screen, the minister let the matter drop. At least Lesser never heard from him again.

Apart from Tarzan's superhuman feats, one reason for the popularity of the jungle films is the antics of the animals in them. But getting the animals to act is often a costly business.

During the filming of Tarzan Finds a Son, in 1939, the studio wanted a scene of a lion chasing a boy through the jungle. But despite pushing and prodding by a trainer out of camera range, the lion refused to co-operate. It would look at the boy running, then yawn or lie down, or walk off in the opposite direction.

When it finally got the idea and took off after the boy, the youngster was so surprised he forgot to run. It took four days to make the sequence and added nearly $20,000 to the budget. Tarzan naturally is not afraid of lions or other savage animals, but his leading ladies often are. Three girls turned down a role in Tarzan and the Golden Lion in 1927, because the script called for the heroine to be offered as a human sacrifice to a lion. Not even the promise of star billing, a bonus or a lion without teeth could induce them to change their minds. The actress who finally played the part insisted not only on all three promises, but that a marksman with a loaded elephant gun should stand by as well.

On Location in Africa Once

Although almost all Tarzan's adventures are laid in Africa, he has actually set foot on that continent only once. The picture resulting from this trip, Tarzan's Peril, released in 1951, was the first -- and last -- Tarzan movie to be made on location in Africa. While the trip produced many miles of good background film, it turned into a comedy of errors.

Through bad timing, the company arrived in Africa in July, the middle of winter below the equator. And, with most of the locations in Kenya more than a mile above sea level, the only thing steaming about the jungles was the coffee the company brought with it. Moreover, the jungles around the base of Mount Kenya were so covered with clouds most of the time that Tarzan lost his tan, and a hurry call was sent to Hollywood for more body make-up. Then no chimpanzee with sufficient personality and acting ability could be found in Kenya, so Cheetah had to be written out of the script.

Tarzan himself, in the person of Lex Barker, also had his troubles on location. The first time he appeared in the jungle in his loincloth, the natives burst out laughing. Then Lesser wanted Barker to wrestle a man-eating plant. Barker balked; he said he'd battle it out only with a plant that had sense enough to let him go on cue, and he won his point. The special-effects department built the tree he fought.

Poor weather finally sent the company hurrying home to Hollywood to finish the film, and Lesser vowed that he would never make another movie in Africa.

But even in Hollywood, Lesser has plenty of problems. The biggest is keeping the scripts up to date. "In the old days all Tarzan had to do was to fight animals, barehanded," he points out. "But times have changed. World War II brought mechanized warfare to the jungle. Now he has to watch out for machine guns, armored trucks, booby traps and bombs."

Yet whatever Tarzan tackles next -- flying saucers, jet airplanes or the hydrogen bomb -- Lesser reckons that the pictures will never lose their hold at the box office.

"Tarzan used to be considered just a big primitive man who beat his chest and yelled, and little boys imitated him everywhere," he explains. "But now he is looked up to as a symbol of clean living and wholesomeness."

But there's even more to it than that, and Lesser is the first to admit it.

"Out there in the jungle, Tarzan lives in peace without plumbing, automobiles or taxes," he says. "It's the ideal existence. He's got nothing to worry about except enemies."

Editor's note: Tarzan and Jane were legally married by Jane's father - an ordained minister - in the second Tarzan novel: The Return of Tarzan. The marriage scene described in the article above was probably in the film, The Revenge of Tarzan.
ERBzine Silver Screen Guide
The Return of Tarzan
The Revenge of Tarzan
e-Text Editions of the ERB Novels
ERB and the Press
A Life's Journey Through the Newspapers of the World: 1875-1950

Send all correspondence to

ERB Text, ERB Images and Tarzan® are ©Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. - All Rights Reserved.
and all associated characters and their distinctive likenesses are owned by ERB, Inc.
No part of this Web site may be reproduced without permission.