Edgar Rice Burroughs was one of the most successful novelists in American literature history. His characters have become iconic and have been the source for over a hundred films. Some haven’t done so well. His John Carter of Mars stories are where he began, but no one has been able to quite put the character on film yet in a way that has brought in any kind of box office numbers. In the 1970’s his world at the center of the Earth brought in some nice cult favorite drive-in films, most notably starring Doug McClure. He’s even written a few westerns, but without much luck. But Burroughs became the most wealthy writer of his era because of one particular character. It was Tarzan that would be adapted as far back as the silent era and remain a solid moneymaker over one hundred years later. There hasn’t been a decade since his creation that the character has not been featured in a film, television series, or movie house serial. By the 1930’s Burroughs was collecting $75,000 a film for the rights to use the character. That’s $1.6 million in today’s market. For each film. Plus royalties that amounted to a cut of the profits. He was so wealthy that when he finally sold his estate, it would become Tarzana, California, named after his famous character. There have been so many Tarzan films that it would be impossible to put them all together, and I doubt they will never all be available on home video or streaming services. But The Film Detective has brought us quite a gem from some of the deepest and most vintage Tarzan films out there. They’ve been restored as much as they can be and were made during the time Tarzan’s creator was still alive to provide input. While it’s true he was never really happy with most portrayals of the character, he lived quite comfortably off the proceeds, which included not just films, but comic strips, magazines, and merchandise, making him the first character to be so heavily marketed. You might not believe it today, but Tarzan was the Star Wars of its day, and if you are any kind of film buff at all, you’re going to want to check out what this collection has to offer.
Here’s what you get.
Tarzan Of The Apes (1918)
This silent film was the first real feature production of the character. That makes Elmo Lincoln the first in a very long line of actors to play the character. Of course, a claim can also be made for Gordon Griffith, who at the tender young age of 10 years old played the character at the beginning of the film as a child.
The film begins in 1886 when Lord Greystoke (Boardman) is sent to Africa with his wife (Kirkham) in tow to find a way to stop the slave trade by Arabs in what was then British Africa. Along the way their ship suffers mutiny, and the couple are almost slain if not for the intervention of crewman Binns (French). The couple are stranded in remote Africa, while Binns is sold into Arab slavery. The Greystokes find a cabin where they make a meager existence. It is there that they have a child. At the same time a chimp also has a child who dies as an infant. In mourning the ape invades the cabin with her troupe, and they kill the couple and she takes the infant Greystoke and raises him as her own. Ten years later the child discovers the cabin and begins to learn from materials left behind. Meanwhile, after 10 years Binns escapes, and the two meet at the cabin. He intends to take the child back to England, but they are separated, and no one appears to have believed Binns story until present day (1918).
Professor (Jefferson) and his daughter Jane Porter (Markey) arrive in Africa to find out if the stories are true. Of course, the expedition encounters danger from animals, natives, and the slave-trading Arabs. They cross paths with Tarzan, who ends up helping to save Jane’s life a couple of times. He’s attracted to her, and she has to teach him that civilized men don’t just grab at young ladies. But they do end up coming to an understanding, and she remains with Tarzan, and they all lived happily ever after or some such thing.
The Tarzan character is pretty much all physique here. Dialog is limited, at least what we are made privy to with the title cards. Many of the trappings that would follow the character for the next century are here. You have the swinging from the vines and the famous beating of the chest and jungle call, which obviously we can’t hear, it being a silent film and all. Most of the apes are played by actors in rather bad ape costumes. You really have to understand the times and the fact that films were still so new that audiences, less jaded, were far more willing to suspend their belief because the idea of the film itself was still so novel and exciting. Remember also that until then they were used to stage productions ,which were far more primitive. The film was shot in the swamps of Louisiana, so there was some help in selling it all with natural locations. There were real animals and a real chimp, particularly while Tarzan was younger, and some real lions. A rumor was spread that a lion the character killed on the film really was killed, and that’s somewhat true. It was a geriatric lion that was in no way dangerous to the actor. This is before the days of The Return Of Jesse James when a horse going off a cliff in real life caused the uproar that led to those “No animals were harmed during this production” disclaimers that the Humane Society now monitors. Even less likely today, the footage remains in the film.
Tarzan Of The Apes made good box office for the time and led to two more films with Elmo Lincoln in the role. The Romance Of Tarzan a year later also starred Enid Markey as Jane and is not included in this collection. Lincoln’s final film as Tarzan was The Adventures Of Tarzan in 1921, which is included here but with a new actress as Jane.
The Adventures Of Tarzan (1921)
This film actually started out as a 15-episode serial which was released several times in varying lengths as a feature film. The version here is about an hour and six minutes long. That means a ton was cut out of the original material, and that makes this “film” very hard to follow and much of the plot is lost in cutting it down from over four hours.
Tarzan (Lincoln) has returned from civilization to his beloved jungle. Jane Porter, now played by Louise Lorraine, has been captured by the evil Rokoff (Whitson) He’s a Russian SS agent ,and once more Tarzan must rescue his lady love. Rokoff has spirited Jane away to the city of Opar, where he intends to steal the fabled treasure from Queen La. The queen accepts help from Tarzan and allows him to command some of her troops. But the queen has also fallen for the jungle lord and attempts, at times, to seduce him, but he only has eyes for Jane. Tarzan sends his faithful ape to rescue Jane again when she meets up with Rokoff’s henchman Gernot (Monberg). If all of this sounds confusing, it’s because it is. We get really bad time jumps. In one scene Tarzan has just escaped one prison, and the very next scene he’s upside down in a rope trap being mauled by lions. We have no idea how he got there. This is what happens when you try to make a one-hour film out of over four hours of story.
The film was really based on two Tarzan books,Tarzan And The Jewels Of Opar and Return Of Tarzan. I assume that the complete serial is either lost or was not available because of rights holders for this collection. It was re-released in 1929 in a serial cut down to 10 chapters. That version had different title cards, and it’s through that footage that we can be sure this film was cut from the original serial. It would be Elmo Lincoln’s final Tarzan film.
The New Adventures Of Tarzan (1935)
Burroughs was actually involved with this production. He had been convinced to form a company with producer Ashton Dearholt. The two men would have a relationship that would never be believed if it was the subject of a film, and it really should be. Dearholt and his wife Florence Gilbert became social friends of Burroughs and his wife Emma. The two couples spent a great amount of time together as Dearholt would try to sell Burroughs on his vision for Tarzan. Dearholt claimed to understand why Burroughs was jaded by Hollywood interpretations of Tarzan. Eventually Dearholt went to Guatemala to film a different jungle film. While there he met and fell in love with Ula Holt, a young aspiring actress he used in his film. When Dearholt returned, he brought home his new lover, and his wife actually accepted an arrangement with Dearholt that included both women. Eventually that soured, and where did Gilbert go? She fell in love with Burroughs, who dropped his wife for Dearholt’s wife. What’s even crazier is that the two new couples stayed huge social friends, and Dearholt convinced Burroughs to start a new company and create a new Tarzan serial together. Now that’s a film I would like to see. The result was a 5-month excursion to Guatemala where they took advantage of the natural locations and cheap labor to try and make the serial on the $50,000 Burroughs helped to secure on a loan. It was a third what serials of that length were costing, and overruns and finances often nearly swamped the film. The cast and crew had to rough it, which led to venomous snake bites, fevers, serious injuries, and other things they would not have encountered in Hollywood. They did make the smart choice of not trying to sell it as Africa. Instead they created a story where Tarzan goes to Guatemala.
The film begins in Africa where the young Ula Vale, played by Dearholt’s new lover Ula Holt, wants to go to Guatemala where her fiancée was killed while trying to find a potential super weapon hidden inside a green idol goddess. Professor Martling (Baker) has researched the goddess and has created a code to open the idol safely. So he’s going on the trip. Then there’s George, played by Lewis Sargent. He thinks they should take Tarzan because of the dangers involved. And George wants to go because he’s a huge fan of Tarzan and wants to be able to hang out with him. You guessed it. George is the bumbling lackey who provides the comic relief. It turns out that they’re chasing the evil Ragland, who is played by a fictional actor named Don Castello. It’s really Dearholt himself playing the villain under a fake name.
When they get to the jungles, most of the many chapters deal with them usually landing one step behind Raglan and the idol. The book where Martling keeps the code keeps changing hands from the good guys to Raglan and his crew. The middle chapters are mostly filler with often nothing moving the story forward. Tarzan and the good guys end up caught by the natives, who are kind of upset that the idol was taken, and they don’t necessarily see a difference between the two groups. The serial ends with a bit of a letdown. Instead of that big climax, Raglan is taken out rather quickly and not by any of the leads. The 12th and final chapter is merely a clip show where the story is recounted at a gypsy camp. Like the previous film, a feature film was made of this material to run about an hour. A second was also made, but none of this really worked. The company ends up folding, and Burroughs barely gets his money back by selling off all of the footage and property of the company. Even though Burroughs was indeed happy that this version showed Tarzan to be an educated, suave kind of guy who looked just as good in civilized clothes as he did swinging from vines in his loincloth, he ended up complaining about the results here even though he had input into the serial’s creation. The truth is as Burroughs himself came to believe that the character had become something different on the screen, and he eventually just cashed the checks.
Much of this would not have made it today. There is some brutality here and a scene where George is mowing down indigenous people with a machine gun while Tarzan is beating them pretty graphically. I think I was most surprised to hear Ula Vale drop an F-bomb. It just seems so out of place for 1935.
The first episode runs an hour while the other 11 run just under 20 minutes each. So we have the opposite problem here. There’s too much time to kill, so there’s a lot of repetition and silliness that does nothing to move the story along. But the locations do make it something of a standout. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to connect with audiences, and the serial pretty much flopped.
This time Tarzan was played by Herman Brix. Brix was an Olympic Athlete who competed at MGM for the role on the bigger-budget Tarzan films and won the part. As luck would have it, he badly injured his shoulder and lost the part to Johnny Weissmuller ,who would become a star from his multiple Tarzan films and is still considered today one of the best to have played the character. But Brix was originally Burroughs own choice, and he got his chance in the serial. Brix is actually quite good in the film, but the typecasting nearly ruined his career. He changed his name to Bruce Bennett and went on to have a stellar career playing leads in films like the 1945 Mildred Pierce with Joan Crawford, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre with Humphry Bogart, and The Last Outpost with future President Ronald Reagan. So the next time someone asks you what’s in a name, tell them to ask Herman Brix … eh, Bruce Bennett. Of course, you can’t, because he’s no longer with us ,but Brix/Bennett lived to be 101 years old and died in 2007, but not before giving an extended interview which is included in the collections extras.
So here’s what else you get:
There is an Audio Commentary on The New Adventures Of Tarzan and The Adventures Of Tarzan by film historian Ed Hulse. He’s quite informed about this material and obviously a fan. While it’s often tedious in places, there is no question you will learn a lot about the back story of what you’re seeing on screen.
Law Of The Jungle – The Cinematic Adventures Of Herman Brix: (27:52) This is the interview I mentioned that he gave in the early 2000’s just before he passed. It’s honestly hard to understand his words. He was, after all, nearing 100 years old, so I used the subtitles to make sure I was getting it. It was worth the effort.
Drawn To The Jungle – The Early History Of Tarzan In The Comics: (10:52) Donald Glut has drawn many of the comics featuring Tarzan, and he offers a little history of Tarzan in that medium here.
Swinging Into Action – The Early Adventures Of Tarzan On Film: (19:46) You get a good look of many early films, not just those collected here.
You get a nice color booklet with several essays on the character and films.
All in all there’s a ton of stuff here that will be of value to film buffs, Tarzan fans, and entertainment historians. I know there’s so much still out there, and if this collection does well I expect there is more to be mined. And we all come out as winners there. Unfortunately, “Time is not on our side, I think.”