Tarzan at the Movies

Tarzan…The King of the Jungle.  Since his debut in 1912, Tarzan has become one of the most popular and enduring characters in all of fiction.  Written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the famous ape man first appeared in a series of magazine short stories.  That led to twenty-four Tarzan novels, spanning 1914-1965.  The story follows John Clayton, the son of an English nobleman whose parents are marooned on the African coast.  After the death of his parents, young Clayton is “adopted” into a band of gorillas.  Renamed Tarzan, he grows up more beast than man with a special bond to his jungle kingdom.

But many fans remember Tarzan best from the movies, particularly the 1932-1968 film series.  He first appeared on the screen in the silent film Tarzan of the Apes in 1918, played by Elmo Lincoln.  This is considered one of the most faithful to the source material. A few other silents followed starring Lincoln and later Frank Merrill.

But the definitive movie Tarzan debuted in 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man starring Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller.  The swimming champion went on the play the character for a total of twelve films.  Although produced on a modest budget (and using plenty of stock jungle footage), these movies made use of the vast resources of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer backlot.  Actress Maureen O’Sullivan played Jane Porter, the daughter of a scientist who is rescued by Tarzan.  The two later married (although no wedding was shown, riling censors) and set out to live in an elaborate jungle tree house.

These films were standard jungle adventures with the King of the Jungle battling assorted big game hunters, evil scientists, power hungry warlords and the occasional Nazi.  Johnny Shefield joined the cast as Boy in Tarzan Finds a Son (1939).  Audiences quickly took to the athletic 8-year-old.  Comic relief was found in the family chimpanzee, Cheeta.  By the late 1940s, and a move from MGM to RKO Pictures, the Tarzan series was beginning to run out of steam.  O’Sullivan had left the series in 1942 (to be replaced by Brenda Joyce), a 16-year-old Shefield had outgrown his role and 48-year-old Weissmuller was ready to hang up his loin cloth after Tarzan  and the Mermaids (1948).

Producer Sol Lesser was unwilling to give up the still lucrative franchise.  Actor Lex Barker was cast due to his striking resemblance to Weissmuller and his athletic, 6’4″ frame in Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949).  Brenda Joyce returned as Jane.  The RKO budgets were smaller than at MGM, occasionally using footage shot for previous Tarzan films (including the famous “Tarzan Yell”). The Barker era lasted five films.

Bodybuilder/lifeguard Gordon Scott took over in Tarzan’s Hidden Jungle (1955).  Of his six movies, two were low-budget affairs and the third a compilation of episodes of a television series that never aired.  A new producer increased the budget and actually filmed on location.  The resulting Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan the Magnificent (1960) are considered to be among the best of the series.

MGM had resumed production at this point replacing Scott with veteran stuntman Jock Mahoney for two films, beginning with Tarzan Goes to India (1962).  By now the character of Jane was rarely seen and more fantastic, globe-trotting, spy-smashing plots were adopted (we had by now entered the Bond era).  Football player Mike Henry assumed the role for the final three entries.  With the release of Tarzan and the Jungle Boy (1968), the Tarzan series came to an end after 36 years and 28 movies.

The Tarzan character has been revived on occasion, both on television and the big screen.  the infamous Tarzan the Ape Man (1981) starring Miles O’Keefe as Tarzan and Bo Derek as Jane.  The Oscar-nominated Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan (1984) starring Christopher Lambert, closely follows the origin story with the character trying to assimilate into society.  The Disney-produced Tarzan (1999) was also very well received.

With such a long history, it is doubtful that we’ve heard the last from the Tarzan legend.


Most of the above films are available for check-out.  Do you have a favorite movie Tarzan?