Tarzans through Time

Updated August 5, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

A Brief History of Former Ape Men

by Beth Rowen
Source: www.filmsite.org

Johnny Weissmuller, perhaps the silver screen's most famous Tarzan, sweeps Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) off her feet.

While nearly 20 beefcake actors have shed their clothes and donned loincloths to play Tarzan, none have displayed the swinging finesse, physical perfection, or animalistic qualities of the most recent ape man, Disney's animated King of Swing.

Weissmuller: Archetypal Ape Man

While 1999's Tarzan, voiced by Tony Goldwyn, may be the most buff and fully realized character, he is not the most memorable. Five-time Olympic gold-medalist swimmer Johnny Weissmuller remains the archetypal Tarzan.

Weissmuller portrayed the Lord of the Jungle in 12 films, beginning with Tarzan, the Ape Man in 1932. MGM's most memorable Tarzan movies featured those pairing Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. They appeared in six films together in the 1930s and early '40s. The most famous of these outings is probably 1934's Tarzan and His Mate, in which Tarzan and Jane do a nude underwater dance.

This controversial film marked the last Tarzan film geared for an adult audience. The subsequent installments in the Tarzan series became family fare, subject to the motion-picture industry's newly established censorship code. The films of this era were the most faithful to Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories and boasted consistently high production values.

Couch Potato Tarzan?

Weissmuller was not the first actor to play Tarzan. In fact, the series began in 1918, with poorly cast, overweight Elmo Lincoln playing the lead in the silent Tarzan of the Apes. Enid Markey played Jane. Lincoln killed an actual lion in the film (remember, this was 1918, before the animal rights movement was born). He later appeared in two other Tarzan films, The Romance of Tarzan (1918) and The Adventures of Tarzan (1921).

Olympic Arenas to TV Jungles

The role of Tarzan called for strength and physical stamina, which is why several Olympic and professional athletes were hired to play the part. Gold-medalist swimmer Buster Crabbe, best known for his portrayal of Flash Gordon, took over for Weissmuller and appeared in the little-seen Tarzan the Fearless (1933). He was followed by Olympian Herman Brix, who starred in The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935) and Tarzan and the Green Goddess (1938).

Two Olympic athletes headed the cast in the low-budget Tarzan's Revenge, decathlete Glenn Morris and backstroker/party girl Eleanor Holm. While neither had much acting talent, they looked fabulous in their loincloths. UCLA basketball star Denny Miller played the title character in 1959's Tarzan, the Ape Man. Los Angeles Rams linebacker Mike Henry put his physique and movie-star looks to good use in three Tarzan films, including Tarzan and the Valley of Gold (1966) and Tarzan and the Great River (1967).

Modern Ape Men

Mike Henry passed the torch onto another former professional football player, Ron Ely. He only starred in two movies, 1970's Tarzan's Deadly Silence and Tarzan's Jungle Rebellion, but he did headline the NBC television series for two years, giving up the role after a series of injuries.

The Tarzan series screeched to a halt in 1970, having deteriorated into contrived, kiddie fare. The 1980s saw two Tarzan films, the utterly forgettable Tarzan, the Ape Man (1981), starring Miles O'Keefe and Bo Derek, and the inspired Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), starring Christopher Lambert and Andie MacDowell.

A Disney-fied Approach

In bringing Edgar Rice Burroughs' Lord of the Jungle to the big screen (there have been no fewer than 45 full-length Tarzan films), Disney had to come up with an attraction that would lure kids and their parents into theaters.

The directors of Tarzan, Chris Buck and Kevin Lima, spent countless hours watching videos of skateboarding guru Tony Hawk in an attempt to create a character that would appeal to kids. Their efforts paid off; Tarzan not only swings, he deftly surfs the lush vegetation of the African jungle as he seeks out his place in the world. The critically praised film succeeds on every level, from animation to music to style and storytelling.

It's fitting that the last Tarzan film of the century emerged as one of the most ambitious, enjoyable outings of all the jungle adventures.

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