TARZAN NEVER DIES: 100 Years of Books and Movies (Part I)
Illustration by J. Allen St. John
Very few dispute the brilliance of the Edgar Rice Burroughs series of twenty-four Tarzan novels and comics published in fifty-two languages in the last century with some two billion readers, and turning Tarzan and his main squeeze, Jane, into one of the most iconic couples in literature. The late Ray Bradbury, himself deeply influenced by ERB, commented, "I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly - Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world."
Tarzan was the very first superhero. The ape-man pre-dated Superman, Batman and Spiderman. He was the first “super-natural” hero in that his powers were altogether human and emanated from the natural world. He possessed neither extraterrestrial attributes nor cool technology, but he was – having been raised by a tribe of “anthropoid apes” – the strongest man on earth, could “fly” through the jungle canopy, and speak the languages of wild animals. His native intelligence and nobility of spirit were such that although abducted from his human parents at age one, then speaking nothing but the simplistic, gutteral Mangani language, he was able to teach himself to read and write by studying the “little bugs” (words) on the pages of book in his parents deserted beach hut. Indeed, by the end of the first in the series, Tarzan of the Apes, little Lord Greystoke could speak fluent French and English and was driving an automobile around the American midwest. By the end of the series he moved comfortably between the civilized world and the dark, dangerous jungle, inner earth (riding on the backs of dinosaurs) and had flown in WWII for the RAF. He ultimately mastered eight languages.
Hollywood couldn’t wait to get their hands on this wildly popular figure and the woman who – while never managing or wishing to tame him – stole his heart. The love affair of Tarzan and Jane allowed the movies a romantic core. Tarzan personified the ultimate heroic male lead – virile, savage, insanely strong…and next-to-naked. Jane Porter was the perfect female foil – squeaky clean, highly civilized and a virgin when they met. Their romance, far from prying eyes in the steaming jungle, spat in the face of convention and sizzled with primordial passions.
The 1918 silent film “Tarzan of the Apes” attempted to remain faithful to ERB’s story of the same title. We see the marooning of Lord and Lady Greystoke on the west coast of Africa, little Lord Johnny’s birth, his parents’ murder and the infant’s “rescue” by Kala, the female ape that ultimately raises him. In the first half of the movie an entirely naked child actor, Gordon Griffith cavorts among the creatures in monkey suits (in the steaming Louisia bayou where it was filmed).
In the second half, Tarzan becomes a man played by the large, barrel-chested Elmo Lincoln (suffering the worst bad hair day in cinema history) and is discovered by a treasure-hunting expedition. Among the explorers is and 18-year-old Jane Porter, played by the star of stage and screen, Enid Markey, accompanying her father and looked after by her wide-eyed negro maid. Amidst the mugging and overacting so typical of silent films, Tarzan falls for Jane (despite the ulgiest dress ever seen onscreen) and Jane, endlessly swooning and terrified, goes ape for the Lord of the Vine.
Enid Markey and Elmo Lincoln, “Tarzan of the Apes” 1918
But it is here that the books and movies begin to diverge. Several novels into the series ERB – clearly unhappy with the female character he has created – actually kills off Jane Porter (now Lady Greystoke). When Tarzan returns to their Kenyan home after a jungle adventure, he finds his murdered wife’s charred body in the ruins of their house. But this literary assassination touched off a firestorm in Burroughs’s personal and professional life. His wife was furious, his publisher alarmed. Readers liked Jane. They adored the romance. So Burroughs caved. He went on to include Jane in a few more novels, though after Tarzan the Terrible (1921) he’d had enough of her, and the ape man went on alone never, however, succumbing to carnal pleasures with any other woman, no matter how lucsious or seductive.
With the first of the Tarzan “talkies” starring the big, buff Olympic gold-medal-winning swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, and the gorgeous, sassy movie star Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane, the love story became cemented in the consciousness of every Tarzan movie-goer until the present day.
Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan (“Tarzan and His Mate” – 1934)
It didn’t matter that Tarzan was reduced to a linguistic simpleton who could master no more than nouns and verbs in English. O’Sullivan’s Jane was a 1930s sophisticate plopped down in the African jungle. Mesmerized by the wildman, her civilized values fell away (along with her clothes) so that by the end of the 1932 “Tarzan the Apeman,” the two were engaged in off-screen, out-of-wedlock sex.
The amazing second unit wildlife footage from Africa and a famous wrestling match with an alligator were less thrilling to audiences than Jane’s skimpy leather two-piece outfit under which she could not possibly be wearing underwear. In the 1934 “Tarzan and His Mate,” the infamous four-minute underwater swimming sequence shows Tarzan’s privates covered by a loincloth, but Jane (O’Sullivan’s body double) swims sinuously and sensuously and entirely nude!
Back in those days this couldn’t have been more shocking (or welcome) to audiences, though the scene galvanized an until-then-toothless board of Hollywood censors who took the opportunity to edit the offending sequence. And from then on, Jane’s costumes were high-necked little housedresses that revealed nothing more than bare arms and legs. The pair became more and more domesticated until they seemed downright suburban. The grass “nest” in the crotch of a tree was replaced by a large, tricked-out tree hut with rustic furniture and an elephant-driven elevator (no climbing required). Because filmmakers refused to marry Weissmuller and O’Sullivan, their son, “Boy,” was an orphan they found on a crashed plane. Wild sexual couplings were left entirely to movie-goers’ imaginations. The whole tame set-up reached its nadir when Jane, standing in front of her tree-house, hands on hips, says to her adopted son, “Boy, go down to the river and get me some cavier and I’ll put it in the refrigerator.”
While the Weissmuller/O’Sullivan movies became the blockbusters of the `30s, and had millions of men fantasizing themselves as Tarzan and women as Jane, not everyone was so impressed. World-famous primatologist, Dr. Jane Goodall, who not only credits her choice of profession to the reading of all twenty-four of ERB’s Tarzan novels, also, as a ten-year-old girl, fell in love with the ape man, and was horribly jealous of Jane, considering her “a wimp,” and believing she would have made a better mate for Tazan than her namesake. But her reaction to the movies was extreme. “My mother saved up to take me to the Johnnie Weissmuller film…I’d been in there about ten minutes when I burst into loud tears. She had to take me out. You see, that wasn’t Tarzan. In those days I read the books. I imagined Tarzan. When I saw Johnny Weissmuller, it wasn’t the Tarzan I imagined.”
ERB, Maureen, Johnny on set
Edgar Rice Burroughs himself was displeased with the movies adapted from his books as well. But as they made him the fortune he’d always dreamed of having, and the characters he’d created became an unstoppable cinematic juggernaut, he watched in astonishment as the twentieth century continued to churn out nearly one hundred films.
Publication Date: September 18, 2012 | Tor Books | 320p
Cambridge, England, 1905. Jane Porter is hardly a typical woman of her time. The only female student in Cambridge University’s medical program, she is far more comfortable in a lab coat dissecting corpses than she is in a corset and gown sipping afternoon tea. A budding paleoanthropologist, Jane dreams of traveling the globe in search of fossils that will prove the evolutionary theories of her scientific hero, Charles Darwin.
When dashing American explorer Ral Conrath invites Jane and her father to join an expedition deep into West Africa, she can hardly believe her luck. Africa is every bit as exotic and fascinating as she has always imagined, but Jane quickly learns that the lush jungle is full of secrets—and so is Ral Conrath. When danger strikes, Jane finds her hero, the key to humanity’s past, and an all-consuming love in one extraordinary man: Tarzan of the Apes.
Jane is the first version of the Tarzan story written by a woman and authorized by the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate. Its publication marks the centennial of the original Tarzan of the Apes.
About the Author
ROBIN MAXWELL is the national bestselling author of eight historical fiction novels featuring powerful women, including Signora da Vinci and the award-winning Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn, now in its twenty-fourth printing. She lives in the high desert of California with her husband, yogi Max Thomas.
Thanks to Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours, I have two copies of Jane by Robin Maxwell to give away to a lucky reader. This giveaway is open to US, Canada, and Europe. You must be at least 13 years old to enter. You don't get any extra entries for spreading the word about this giveaway, but I would love it if you did. Good luck!