List: Tarzan Goes to the Movies

Posted on June 30, 2016 at 3:57 pm

This week’s new “Tarzan” movie should inspire families to check out the many, many earlier versions of this classic story.

In 2012, Neely Tucker of The Washington Post wrote a wonderful tribute to Tarzan in honor of the 100th anniversary of the first Tarzan story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, with a fascinating gallery of portrayals of this now-iconic character.  Burroughs had no special calling to be a writer.  According to Tucker’s story, after a series of unsuccessful jobs,

Burroughs was suddenly in his mid-30s and pawning his wife’s jewelry for cash.

And then — there’s always a “and then” in these kinds of stories — he was reading a pulp magazine, checking to see whether his company’s ads were correctly placed. He thought the magazine’s stories were so poor that even he could write better.

So he sat down and wrote a science-fiction piece, “Under the Moons of Mars,” and sold it to All-Story. (Today, you know this tale as “John Carter,” which inspired the unsuccessul Disney film.)

He sold it for $400, roughly the modern equivalent of $9,300. This got his attention.

“I was not writing because of any urge to write nor for any particular love of writing. I was writing because I had a wife and two babies,” he later told an interviewer. “I loathed poverty and I would have liked to put my hands on the party who said that poverty is an honorable estate.”

The character of Tarzan was an instant sensation, and Burroughs was a good enough businessman that he not only copyrighted his stories, but he trademarked the character.

Copyrights expire, but trademarks do not.  Burroughs wrote two dozen Tarzan books but the character is best known for its many popular movie and television versions, from Elmo Lincoln’s portrayal in the silent era to an animated Disney feature film with music by Phil Collins.

Olympic gold medalist Buster Crabbe played “Tarzan the Fearless” (and also Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers).

There was a 1960’s television series starring Ron Ely.

And one with Wolf Larson in the 1990’s.

Joe Lara starred in “Tarzan in Manhattan.”

My favorite is still the classic with swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan.

Burroughs’ version of Tarzan was highly educated. He had the books left behind by his late parents and was able to speak many languages.  But what makes the character so enduringly appealing over a century is the idea of him as completely isolated from civilization, raised in the jungle. That gives us a chance to consider the deepest questions about what makes us human at the same time as we have the pleasure of imagining ourselves, like Tarzan, Jane, Boy, and Cheetah, swinging through the trees.

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