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June 2, 1999
P. DEMPSEY TABLER OF THE JUNGLE: THE MANY FACES OF TARZAN
By ROGER ANDERSON Scripps Howard News Service
Now that the Disney folks have prepared a feature-length animated “Tarzan” for release June 18, your children probably will assume that the "ape man" - who was, as you know, created around the time of World War I by a failed businessman named Edgar Rice Burroughs - was dreamed up last year sometime by the same team responsible for "Mulan," "Pocahontas" and, of course, "The Lion King."
Fortunately, the little moppets have extremely old moms and dads to set them straight.
One Tarzan or another has been swinging through the trees, beating his chest, conspiring with chimps, pitching woo with Jane and talking to the animals since the days when movies were silent and such interspecies communication took the form of subtitles.
But don't discredit yourself by telling your kids that Elmo Lincoln was the first movie Tarzan just because you happen to know he essayed the role in a 1918 silent picture. Strictly speaking, the very first Tarzan was played by a lad named Gordon Griffith, who portrayed Tarzan as a foundling boy in that movie, titled "Tarzan of the Apes."
And when your kids start laughing out loud about Elmo Lincoln, deeming him a cross between the man who freed the slaves and their favorite Muppet, you can point out that the man's moniker could have been even sillier, for the thespian's original name was Otto Elmo Linkenhelt.
Presumably since our nation was in a death struggle with the Hun at the time the movie was made, a change to "Elmo Lincoln" must have seemed advisable.
Nor was "Tarzan of the Apes" or its three immediate successors the extent of Linkenhelt's brush with film immortality. No, indeed, for he had already portrayed "a blacksmith" in no less seminal a movie masterpiece than "Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith's epic work glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. (You can explain to your kids, if they're still even pretending to listen, that Americans were a bit confused back in those days.)
Around 1920-21 there was a regular Tarzan gridlock in movieland, with the release of Elmo's "Tarzan's Adventure" as well as "Revenge of Tarzan," with some guy named Gene Pollar wearing the lead loinskin, and "Son of Tarzan," featuring the impressively named P. Dempsey Tabler as Tarzan and that little opportunist, Gordon Griffith, as his offspring.
Then there was a bit of a Tarzan film hiatus lasting into the latter part of the Roaring '20s, when the tide finally rose again with the release of "Tarzan and the Golden Lion," starring James Pierce, and "Tarzan the Mighty" and "Tarzan the Tiger," with Frank Merrill in the ape man role.
The interesting thing about Merrill is that he had already appeared in one of the Elmo Lincoln Tarzan pics as "an Arab," perhaps staying one step ahead of the Klan. This will prove to your kids that hard work and perseverance do lead to advancement.
The central drama of Tarzanian cinema arose in the early '30s, when the world saw two Olympic swimming champions - Johnny Weissmuller and Larry "Buster" Crabbe - each taking a turn at portraying the famous tree-hugger.
Probably it was preordained that Weissmuller would go on to lens innumerable Tarzan movies over the next 15 years or so, making him the most familiar TV Tarzan to the post-World War II generation, while Crabbe's destiny was not to swing through terrestrial trees but to make a big splash in the sci-fi serial field as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.
One thing the whole world agrees on is that Maureen O'Sullivan, paired with Weissmuller, was by far the most fetching Jane in the Tarzan filmography. The fact that the producers of the first Weissmuller movies, coming in right under the advent of the notorious Hays Code, were able to "clothe" her in jungle apparel that was quite revealing certainly doesn't hurt.
(If you really want to drive your kids crazy, go on to explain that Maureen O'Sullivan later became the mother of Mia Farrow, who in turn was involved In a highly publicized love-hate relationship with Woody Allen - a bit of lore that itself could serve as the basis for a Woody Allen film.)
The next few decades were marked by Tarzan film outings featuring such immortal practitioners of the actor's art as Herman Brix, Lex Barker, Gordon Scott, Denny Miller, Jock Mahoney and Mike Henry.
If anyone thought of putting the glowering young Marion Brando in a loincloth and fixing him up with a suitable postwar Jane, though, it never came to anything. It wasn't until 1984 that the Method made famous by Brando finally gained entrance to the jungle through the agency of "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan," starring Christopher Lambert as our man.
Lambert was one of the third or fourth generation of Brando wannabes, actors who loved to slouch and grunt moodily on camera. He did an outstanding job of bringing that "What's my motivation?" spirit to the role of Tarzan, but, unfortunately, the movie as a whole was a bit of a stinker, so no further Lambert portrayals were forthcoming.
Shortly before "Greystoke," in 1981, photographer/director John Derek had the honor of putting a whole new spin on Burroughs' vision. He took his beautiful young wife, Bo Derek, who had set the (male) world on fire with her turn as a beach nymph in the movie "10," cast her as Jane and built an entire Tarzan movie around the heroine, who was seen in a multiplicity of poses that made Maureen O'Sullivan look like the Singing Nun. Miles O'Keefe was Tarzan - not that anyone cared, especially since the film was universally judged by fans to represent the absolute nadir of the genre.
As recently as 1998 someone named Casper Van Olen took Tarzan's role in a theatrical movie, but your kids don't care about that. They just want you to shut up so they can hear Phil Collins warble the "Tarzan of the Apes" theme song as the credits roll. And don't try to lecture them about Phil's old band, Genesis - that's ancient history.
Roger Anderson is arts and entertainment editor at Scripps Howard News
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