Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Monday, July 23, 2007

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 from him, 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 all-talking to Burroughs' jungle in 1932. The author turned Sol Lesser loose on his character the following year. Tarzan The Fearless was a catchpenny independent trading on patron interest generated by Weissmuller’s portrayal. MGM separated themselves from this low-grade venture by identifying Johnny Weissmuller as the Original Tarzan (as shown below in a trailer frame), Hollywood’s most powerful distributor on the defensive and fated to stay there for so long as imitator Tarzans muddied the pond. Metro spent a near-decade trying end-runs against junk dealers loosed by Burroughs. 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 goodwill generated 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 (for one hundred years) to tell about it. They paid him seventy-five dollars a week in exchange for bare feet cut to shreds and fever blighted legs swollen to the size of pumpkins. Jiggs the chimp got two thousand dollars 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 buried down there), with snakes and ticks aplenty. Brix said they ate turtles after food ran out. One of the snappers latches on to the rear of Tarzan's comic relief and leads a merry chase just ahead of the microphone’s capacity to record. Considering the menu as described by Brix, this may be the only 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 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 is chasing after a cumbersome box said to contain The Green Goddess, lately filched from inhabitants of said lost city. Native extras got a fifteen-cent bonus when they fought Tarzan. I’m not sure they understood that this was only play-acting, as Brix 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 location hardship as opposed to a backlot five minutes from the Metro 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 the Green Goddess around like Pilgrim’s Progress. Seems the idol’s no good without a code book that goes with it, and the code book is useless without the idol. Why bother with either? Tarzan explains that it holds a formula for the world’s most powerful explosive, endless push/ pulling the result through all of chapters. Pursuers include a flunky who joins the expedition to be near his idol, Tarzan (as described in introductory titles). Modern sensibility might encourage this character’s polite removal to a Group Home environment, as he seems genuinely brain-damaged. 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 be assured too of action extraordinary and sights not to be seen elsewhere. JUST IN! What follows are the reminiscences of longtime collector and historian Kingsley Candler, who was 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 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 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 it did have 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). 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 economies practiced by MGM. Hadn't Weismuller aqua-struggled with the 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  prehistoric New Adventures Of Tarzan, but stampeding elephants during the climax look mighty familiar, having plowed backlot foliage in Tarzan, The Ape Man. Plenty of library set pieces adorn Tarzan Escapes, precious little of action  original to this show. A biggest thrill had to be removed. Sufficient traces remain to frustrate us all the more over the loss of what may have been the most exciting and bloodthirsty highlight in all of MGM Tarzans….

The giant vampire bats 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). Results reduced children at previews to screaming fits. Reaction demanded the sequence be removed, but what spectacle this must have been. The swamp cavern itself was a triumph of unsettling design. This at least, plus oversized lizards, remain on view in Tarzan Escapes, but imagine bats carrying off victims in their bloody jaws. This alone would have elevated Tarzan Escapes to pride of place among the series’ best. The  sequence being excised and then discarded may be counted a sad loss alongside 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, the bats again called upon to entice patrons. There is no indication that this footage was ever exhibited to the public, outside of previews, so how did showmen answer when customers inquired post-show as to absence 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 again displayed the bats. They may not have survived the final cut of Tarzan Escapes, but 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 is plenty yet to enjoy. Tarzan's tree house is a marvel of art department ingenuity, and pacing seldom flags. Tarzan Escapes was budgeted at a modest $335,000, but additional expense generated by re-shooting sent 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 gains made by Tarzan Finds A Son three years later. Those profits of $528,000 would increase 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. This is a series that might have continued at MGM, despite the loss of foreign markets during wartime and resulting lack of studio interest. Sol Lesser and RKO would acquire the series and continue it over years of successful play.


Blogger Anna said...

What an excellent back story - I don't know where you get your information on all this but fascinating as usual.

12:54 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Anna, I'm overdue adding you to my links page, but "The Crowd Roars" is there now. Your recent post on World War I and the film industry is wonderful, and I'd recommend it as next stop for all Greenbriar readers ---

12:02 PM  
Blogger Tim Lucas said...

Those pressbook samples are incredible, John. I would count the original version of TARZAN ESCAPES as probably #1 on my lost film want list, but in all my years of yearning, I never realized that MGM had flaunted their absence from the picture to such an extent. I'm surprised it didn't reduce more children to "screaming fits" of "Gyp!"

1:23 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Here's another thing I wonder about, Tim. Those mechanized bats, which must have amounted to quite an expense for the prop department. They must have been stored and kept. Do you suppose they might have turned up in the 1971 MGM auction? --- perhaps sold in bulk with other items even? I don't have one of the catalogues from that event, but I'd like to think such elaborate items survived at least that long, and that perhaps some lucky collector owns them today (although, like the Kong models, there may only be metal armatures in existance now, assuming they were built that way). Or, maybe they were just junked altogether after the 1936 film was released.

5:36 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024
  • May 2024