TARZAN: Hollywood's Greatest Jungle Hero

By Behlmer, Rudy | American Cinematographer, January 1987 | Go to article overview

TARZAN: Hollywood's Greatest Jungle Hero


Behlmer, Rudy, American Cinematographer


THERE HAVE BEEN many styles of fantasy jungles in books and on the screen. Certainly H. Rider Haggard's concept was not the same as Kipling's or Edgar Rice Burroughs', just as Sol Lesser's Tarzan films of the 19405 and 19505 differed considerably from the interpretation presented in Warner Bros.' 1984 production of Grey stoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. This in turn was a major departure from the mythical jungle milieu conjured up by MGM for its six films featuring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan during the 19308 and early 19405. Paradoxically, the MGM Tarzans drew little from Burroughs' original concept, but, rather, the impetus stemmed from the studio's 1931 jungle adventure tale, Trader Horn.

Although Trader Horn's cost eventually reached $1,32.2,000 (an enormous sum for the early Depression), it did exceptionally good business internationally. And internationally is a key word. The exotic melodrama involving basic, elementary character interworkings and an abundance of action and adventure did not suffer the fate of other genres that may or may not be popular, or indeed, be able to be understood in other countries and cultures.

What production chief Irving Thalberg and supervisor Bernard Hyman needed was a follow-up. Perhaps further adventures of Trader Horn? Well ... But someone at the studio thought of taking the creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, "Tarzan of the Apes," and devising an original story that might involve Trader Horn with the ape man. Tarzan, in Burroughs' original 1912 story, is brought up by the apes in the jungle and later sees Jane, who is part of a scientific research party, and abducts her. The primitive and the civilized meet in the Garden of Eden. Basic culture clash. In a sense, this was an inversion of the film version of Trader Horn wherein Horn and his friend discover a "white goddess" brought up by a tribe in Africa. They rescue her, and she and Horn's friend fall in love. Now the above constitutes only a small portion of Trader Horn, the 1927 book, which is essentially a string of reminiscences - at least some of which fall under the category of, shall we say, tall tales. Horn's white goddess had been around for decades in fiction, feature pictures, serials, etc ... And, of course, Tarzan was in some way a derivation from the legend of Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, who were supposed to have been suckled and raised by a she-wolf. And there was Kipling's Mowgli in The jungle Book - one more variation on the "wolf boy" myths that had fascinated Europe since the Middle Ages.

Negotiations between Burroughs and MGM began in March of 1931, only a few weeks after Trader Horn was released. In a memo from MGM story editor Sam Marx to MGM executive Eddie Mannix (April 2, 1931), Marx says "Mr. Thalberg is interested in the title and story Tarzan of the Apes." The actual contract, dated April 15, 1931, specified that "Burroughs grants rights to Metro to write an "original story," using character of 'Tarzan,' and any other character used in stories heretofore written by author . . . Author to point out any material which conflicts or infringes upon any story heretofore written by author . . . Consideration: $2.0,000 . . . [and] $1,000 per week for each of five weeks of author's services ..." What this last portion meant was that Burroughs would read the scripts to be sure they were not based (in whole or in part) on his own works.

Bernie Hyman was to be the line producer (or supervisor) under Irving Thalberg, and contract writer Cyril Hume was assigned the script. Hume was an obvious choice. After director W.S. Van Dyke and company returned in December, 1919, from filming Trader Horn in Africa, several writers were given the task of trying to provide smoother connective tissue by way of additional dialogue and scenes to be photographed in the jungles and sound stages of Southern California and primarily on the backlot.

Some of the problems encountered in Africa had been brought on by the sound revolution. …

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