This Industry Ain't Big Enough For Two Tarzans!
Surely as the mighty Metro lion cleared paths through boxoffice jungles to sell its Tarzan series, so too did scavengers close behind, their penurious State’s Rights merchandise confusing audiences and causing no end to frustration for MGM’s sales force. The studio’s license in the Tarzan character was non-exclusive. Edgar Rice Burroughs had entered into prior commitments for the property, and would continue doing so. The result was interloping serials and features adapted therefrom, several of which followed in the wake of Metro releases and diminished a public’s confidence in the name brand. Tarzan, The Ape Man introduced an all-talking ape-man in 1932. Burroughs turned Sol Lesser loose on his character the following year. Tarzan The Fearless emerged a catchpenny independent and gathered coin based largely on patron excitement generated by Weissmuller’s portrayal. MGM separated themselves from said low-grade venture by identifying Johnny Weissmuller as the Original Tarzan (as shown below in a trailer frame), thus putting Hollywood’s most powerful distributor on the defensive and keeping them there. Metro spent a near decade trying for end-runs against competing junk peddlers. Do Not Confuse It With Any Other Tarzan Production You Have Ever Seen!, said the preview for MGM’s third in their series. By then, Burroughs had himself co-produced a rival product available in a dizzying variety of formats. The New Adventures Of Tarzan would play as a serial --- a part feature/rest serial --- then two features scrounged from the initial two. Plenty there to skim off gravy and goodwill engendered by Metro’s efforts. This was Spring and Summer of 1935. Tarzan and His Mate was finishing its run, and public enthusiasm was at a new pitch. Handy coattails to ride for a haphazard producing partnership barely able to get their serial finished. Five months were spent in a Guatemalan hell-hole dodging payrolls, exploiting natives (at a nickel a day!), and embracing every tropical disease known to that benighted region. Herman Brix lived (one hundred years) to tell about it. They paid him seventy-five dollars a week to cut bare feet to shreds and watch fever blighted legs swell to the size of pumpkins. Jiggs the chimp got two thousand for pitching in on the expedition. Add up the paid hours and he/she/it could no doubt have bought drinks for hapless Brix. The New Adventures Of Tarzan plays like something Carl Denham shot and brought back aboard the Venture. It was sure enough a crazy voyage for that crew of twenty-nine (and I’m betting several are still down there!), with snakes and ticks aplenty. Brix said they ate turtles after food ran out. One of those snappers latches on to the arse of a particularly risible comic reliever and leads us a merry chase just ahead of the microphone’s capacity to properly record sound. Considering that menu as described by our star, this may be the only known instance of a bit player being eaten by cast and crew at the conclusion of a work day (and who’s to say turtles aren’t palatable enough when you’re starving in the jungle?).
There’s lots to like in The New Adventures Of Tarzan. Brix’s vine swinging is exemplary. He could as easily leap off the Chrysler Building for feats performed here, handily trumping trapeze artist doubles MGM used. He also outswims that alligator that was supposed to have his mouth wired shut but didn’t. Gentle Jackie (the lion) wrestles with Brix just as he had (and would) on numerous other occasions between the silent era and 1953. Anytime you see a big tame cat pushed around by Harold Lloyd, Betty Hutton, or some other star name, it’s probably Jackie (he’d again be bested at pension age by Victor Mature in Samson and Delilah). Jiggs the Chimp is allegedly still with us, presumably the last surviving cast member of any number of thirties films he enhanced during early performing years. He liked to drop on Brix from twenty feet above and dig his nails into the actor’s scalp. There’s a scene wherein his grunting elicits a startled reaction from Tarzan --- What’s that? Prisoners in the lost city? --- and sure enough, that’s what they find. Everyone’s chasing after a cumbersome box said to contain The Green Goddess, lately filched from inhabitants of said lost city. The latter pile on Brix from time to time with every apparent intention of taking his head off. Native extras got a fifteen-cent bonus when they fought Tarzan. I’m not sure these guys understood they were only play-acting, as Herman looks pretty desperate amidst these set-to's. He never engages one when a dozen will do. No Ape-Man before Gordon Scott would command such respect for dare deviling amidst real location hardships as opposed to backlot trappings five minutes from Metro’s commissary. The New Adventures Of Tarzan achieves moments of real spectacle and grandeur, effects we admire all the more for having come of genuine hazard and privation. Producer Ashton Dearholt assumed the onscreen villain role. He carries that Green Goddess around like Pilgrim’s Progress. Seems the idol’s no good without a codebook that goes with it, and the codebook’s useless without the idol. Why bother with either? Tarzan explains it holds a formula for the world’s most powerful explosive, thereby justifying endless push pulling we invariably get with serials long on padding and short on conviction. Pursuers include the earlier mentioned comic relief, a flunky who joins the expedition to be near his idol, Tarzan (as described in introductory titles). Modern sensibilities would encourage this character’s polite removal to a Group Home environment, as he seems genuinely brain-damaged (could that turtle meat diet have been to blame?). Villains at the top are referred to as unscrupulous munition manufacturers, which left me to ponder if indeed there were ever munition manufacturers who weren’t unscrupulous, leastwise in movies. The New Adventures Of Tarzan was mostly seen during later years in truncated feature form. Sometimes they overlapped and highlights from one appeared also in the other. Here’s a drive-in ad pushing both. Patrons must have scratched heads over prospects of watching much the same movie twice under differing titles. The features were included in a television package making syndicated rounds from the sixties on. Thunderbird Films of Los Angeles discovered a 35mm print of the now public domain serial version and sold it to collectors in the seventies. Virtually every video and DVD derives from this. Be prepared to squint and call upon your ear trumpet should you engage these twelve chapters, but also be assured of seeing action extraordinary and quite unlike anything else (Tarzan or otherwise) you’ve encountered previous. JUST IN! What follows are the reminiscences of longtime collector and historian Kingsley Candler, who was actually employed by Tom Dunnahoo and Thunderbird Films shortly after they acquired that rare 35mm print of The New Adventures Of Tarzan back in the seventies. I’ll leave it to Kingsley to tell the following story in his own inimitable words.
Regarding the Tarzan serial, it was already in the catalog when I arrived for duty on the good (pirate) ship Thunderbird. I well recall a list of 35mm holdings left over from an independent film exchange in Tennessee from which I requisitioned many other titles, including Poppin’ The Cork and other Educational shorts, two other serials The Clutching Hand and The Black Coin, a Cinecolor print of Caribou Trail which suffered from dye bleed-thru and was not copied, and the 1930 Sennett 2-color The Bluffer which was in great shape. I'm absolutely positive that The New Adventures Of Tarzan was on that list and that this was the 35mm source material (oh, how I wish I had made copies of that list and so many other things, they would have made a great read). I think he had Tarzan and The Green Goddess as well. I don't remember the name of the exchange but I do remember the contact name as I thought it a coincidence: Chuck Jones. The deal was the loan of the 35mm for a 16mm print of the same title, or comparable length if he had no interest in the loaner. He was wonderful to deal with and had hundreds of titles, most of which were unseen and unknown at that time. If something like iMDB.com had been available things may have been very different. I had no idea The Bluffer was color until it arrived, and believe it proved to be the only surviving print. I imagine many of the titles he had are now lost as well - there was only so much $ to create new negatives, and some enticing sounding titles just didn't sell. Tom was really good at recalling all the old B westerns he saw as a kid. When I arrived, another employee was an Encyclopedia-On-Legs and did all the catalog paste-ups as well as supplying a lot of 16mm for copying. There was also a co-worker doing most of the descriptive write-ups. I remember he adamantly refused to watch a short called Fonteyn Dances and for the catalog wrote simply the world-famous ballerina struts her stuff! I was 24 when I started working for Tom and left a very comfortable life in San Diego managing a used record store downtown during the day and doing projection at a 16mm revival house called the Cinema Leo in Pacific Beach at night. Surfing all off-hours, had a 1 bedroom apt a half block from Ocean Beach. Gave it all up (along with a MASSIVE hit to my income) to pursue a career in "Film Preservation" - way before it was cool OR honorable.
MGM seethed over independent poaching of jealously guarded franchises, but in this instance, what could they do? Plenty, if we choose to believe anecdotal evidence passed down by exhibitors spanked for negotiating with second string Tarzans. Suppose you’re booking an entire season of Metro product for your house, but elect to play The New Adventures Of Tarzan over twelve Saturdays. The MGM salesman notes your marquee and reports back to his field supervisor. That next visit from The Friendly Company (as Metro liked to characterize itself to exhibs) is less friendly. Maybe you’ll get the forthcoming Tarzan Escapes and maybe you won’t. Perhaps a competing house can use the latest Clark Gable or MacDonald/Eddy special. Anyway, you’d soon be sorry for having bought The New Adventures Of Tarzan. MGM was like any other powerful corporation, with ways all their own of squeezing out competition. I have no doubt this serial would have performed better in a more congenial distributing environment, as word indicates it did have considerable success in foreign territories. Metro’s own Tarzan Escapes, finally released November 1936, was a quilt whose sections included one feature made, then virtually remade, by directors seated on musical chairs (that’s credited Richard Thorpe sharing a break with Maureen O’Sullivan on the set). William Wellman was among those taking a shot at wrapping this troubled project. Studio arrogance or plain cynicism bred a finished movie with stock footage content approaching that of a post-war Republic serial. Watching Tarzan Escapes on a typical Sunday afternoon TV broadcast alerted viewers to shameless economies routinely practiced by MGM producers. Wasn’t it just last week we saw Johnny’s aqua-struggle with that same alligator (in Tarzan and His Mate)? Tune in next week, for he’ll repeat it in Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (and yet again in the 1959 remake of Tarzan, The Ape Man). Tarzan Escapes is a handsome production, and stark contrast to those prehistoric New Adventures Of Tarzan, but stampeding elephants during the climax look mighty familiar, having plowed that backlot foliage previously in Tarzan, The Ape Man. Numerous placement of library set pieces adorn Tarzan Escapes. Very little of the action was original to this show. The biggest thrill, and a sequence everyone considered the best in the movie, had to be removed. Sufficient traces remain to frustrate us all the more over a loss of what might have been the most exciting and bloodthirsty highlight in the whole of MGM Tarzans….
Giant vampire bats have been woefully underemployed by movies. The ones designed for Tarzan Escapes sound inspired. Metro engineers gave them moving heads, working jaws, and lighted eyes (for more, see Rudy Behlmer’s excellent Tarzan articles for American Cinematographer). The results supposedly reduced children to screaming fits. Preview reaction demanded it be scuttled, but what spectacle this must have been! The swamp cavern itself was a triumph of creepy and unsettling design. We still at least have that and oversized lizards on view in our truncated Tarzan Escapes, but imagine those bats swooping down and carrying off victims in their bloody jaws. This alone would have elevated Tarzan Escapes to pride of place among the series’ best. The fact this sequence was excised and then discarded may be counted a tragic loss alongside similarly junked footage, considered in its day too horrific or intense, from the 1925 Phantom Of The Opera, The Most Dangerous Game, and others. More frustrating still was Metro marketer's failure to adjust their campaign to reflect pre-release cuts. Ads (one shown here) were now misleading in the extreme --- Giant vulture bats swooping from the sky make their ferocious attack … Note also the pressbook suggestion for a lobby display --- again those vampire bats are called upon to entice patrons. There’s no indication this footage was ever exhibited to the public, outside of those disastrous previews, so how did showmen answer when disgruntled customers inquired post-show as to the dearth of killer bats on screen? Nearly twenty years later, studio blinders were still on. Metro had a successful reissue of Tarzan Escapes in 1954 (with eventual profits of $172,000). Poster art displayed (prominently) the same scene. Those bats may not have survived the final cut of Tarzan Escapes, but they surely hung on for decades in printed publicity. The feature itself couldn’t scale the heights of Tarzan and His Mate (what could?), but there’s plenty yet to enjoy. That tree house is a marvel of art department ingenuity, and pacing seldom flags. There’s never been a romance of the jungle so captivating as that of Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, a benefit that runs throughout the MGM series (to be sorely missed afterward). Tarzan Escapes was budgeted at a modest $335,000, but additional expense generated by reshooting ballooned negative costs to a million. Domestic rentals were $776,000, with foreign its usual high number for a Tarzan --- 1.1 million. Final profits were $209,000, an improvement upon Tarzan and His Mate ($161,000), but well below socko gains made by Tarzan Finds A Son three years later. Those profits of $528,000 would increase still further with Metro’s final two, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure ($866,000) and Tarzan’s New York Adventure ($985,000). New York Adventure was, in fact, the most lucrative of Metro’s six. Indeed, this is a series that might well have continued at MGM, despite the loss of wartime foreign markets and resulting lack of studio interest. Sol Lesser and RKO would now pick up the baton and run with it. Their initial numbers for 1943’s Tarzan Triumphs suggest MGM should have stayed in the game a little longer, as Triumphs handily equaled New York Adventure's worldwide rentals of 2.4 million.