The MGM Films

In 1929, W.S. Van Dyke and company were in the wilds of Africa filming Trader Horn. By the time the safari returned to Hollywood, and Thalberg had seen what had been filmed, the thought occurred to him that Trader Horn might never see the theatre screen. Fortunately, Cyril Hume, a heretofore contract writer whose option was not being picked up by MGM, was given an opportunity to salvage the story, which he did. In 1931, Trader Horn opened and was a highly successful film, especially because of the footage used from the African expedition.

† The cost of Trader Horn, trips to Africa and so forth, was officially listed at $1,322,000. Naturally, Thalberg wanted to capitalize on the thousands of feet of raw footage that remained from the film, and so considered the possibility of doing a Tarzan film.

† In March 1931, a few weeks after the release of Trader Horn, he sent Samuel Marx out to Tarzana where the Burroughs' tribe lived and offered ERB $15 000 for the rights to do a Tarzan film. Burroughs wanted $100 000. In the end, Burroughs' received $20 000, and $1 000 per week for five weeks as a consultant. The contract, dated April 15, 1931, called for an original story using the Tarzan character. As consultant, ERB was to point out any conflicts or infringements on his own Tarzan stories.

In return, Burroughs promised that no other Tarzan film could be made for one year after the contract date. When the deal was finally closed, Burroughs told Marx that had he held out, he could have done it for nothing. Apparently, Burroughs liked the idea of a major studio doing one of his Tarzan films. Marx replied that had Burroughs held out, he would have got his $100 000. Thalberg really wanted the property.

† One of the hurdles that faced Burroughs was an outstanding contract which he had entered into with Walter Shunway and Jack Nelson on January 14, 1929. The terms of the contract were that the film had to be made within seven years, that a payment of $10 000 had to be made prior to production, and that the role of Tarzan had to be played by his son-in-law, James Pierce, who was also doing the radio programme.

† This contract had been obtained by Sol Lesser, who then sent his lawyer Lew Gladstone out to Tarzana to pay the $10 000 to Burroughs. The latter refused to accept it. So, a suit was filed in declaratory relief by Lesser for the courts to decide if the contract was valid. Meanwhile, Metro's production was in full swing.

† As the filming progressed, MGM began to consider the full potential of a series of Tarzan films, and invited Burroughs to a conference with Sam Marx and Irving Thalberg. Burroughs sent his secretary, Ralph Rothmund, to negotiate for him. Thalberg suggested a picture a year for three years with payments starting at $35 000 and rising to $45 000. Rothmund said that was not enough. MGM was willing to go higher, but insisted first that the outstanding rights problem be cleared up first.

† Lesser agreed to postpone the production of his own film until Tarzan, the Ape Man had been released, and in return Burroughs signed a contract on March 26, 1932 with Lesser authorizing him to make his picture once MGM's was out of the way.

† To play the role of Jane, Thalberg chose 20 year old Maureen O'Sullivan, at $300 per week. She had been brought to America two years earlier, but was let go by 20th Century Fox two weeks prior to her test at Metro. She had been being groomed to replace Janet Gaynor, who was causing her studio no end of problems. But the public would not accept the substitution.

† Miss O'Sullivan credits Felix Feist, who directed her test at MGM, for helping her to obtain the role of Jane.

† With Weissmuller in the picture, there was no question who would do the swimming feats, but for the aerial shots, professionals were needed, and Metro selected the Flying Codonas, especially Alfredo (1893 -1937). Codona was considered the greatest trapeze artist in circus history and he was the first to achieve a consistent triple back somersault off the flying trapeze. He had joined the Ringling Bros. Circus in 1917, and was famed not only for his feats of derring-do, but for the incredible grace he displayed while in the air. Unfortunately, his life on the ground was none too smooth. His wife Lillian Leitzel died in an aerial mishap, and later he shot to death his second wife, Vera Bruce, before turning the gun on himself.

† Other circus performers included the Picchiani troupe in ape costumes.

† As animals were to play a large role in the production of the Tarzan films, they had to be rented, and specialists had to be hired to deal with them. Two names that became prominent in this regard are Bert Nelson and George Emerson. The former came from the A.G. Barnes Circus, and was to double Weissmuller wrestling a lion, which was also supplied by Nelson. The latter was hired by MGM as a full-time trainer, a unique position in a Hollywood studio, and he was assisted by Frank Leggitt, who had had some experience as an elephant handler. Other lions were leased from the Goebel Lion Farm in Thousand Oaks. A rhino named Mary was imported from Germany. She had the distinction of being "rideable." The obligatory elephant stampede, inspired from an earlier film, Chang (27), was filmed using Indian elephants with fake ears and elongated tusks. The chimpanzees who played Cheta came from a variety of sources. The first was named Emma (among others were Jiggs and descendants, Yama, Skippy, Jackie and Joe.) Most of the animals were leased from Emerson.

† Showing that the company had a sense of humour, the native tribes were invented from names of prominent MGM personnel. The Joconis (Joe Cohn), the Gabonis (Cedric Gibbons), the Hymandis (Bernie Hyman), and the Zambeles (Sam Zimbalist) come to mind.

† The native language was at first borrowed from the local tribes that Van Dyke had worked with during the African expedition for Trader Horn. Some words like “igmoo” (house), “pasi, pasi” (hurry up) and “mahowani” (elephants) found their way into the early Tarzan features. Even the (in)famous “umgawa” (get down) was borrowed, and became an all-purpose expression which could mean anything the context required. Later expressions like “wakashinda nippa doo” and “oona toona beebee” were sheer inventions, and both Sheffield and Weissmuller carried them with them to the RKO Tarzan films, and they became part of Bomba, the Jungle Boy's vocabulary as well.

† One of Weissmuller's drawbacks was his high-pitched voice, caused by an accident involving a picket fence. Imitating his boyhood hero, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the lad often leaped over picket fences. During one of these flights of fancy, he miscalculated and the point from one of the slats cut into his throat and damaged his vocal chords. He would bear the scar from that accident for the rest of his life.

† The question of the source for the cry used in Johnny's Tarzan films has been argued at length over the past several decades. Up until the mid-60s, Johnny claimed that it was his own, derived from a yodelling contest he had won as a boy. The cry had been recorded to save his voice. A reference by the American Film Institute states that a certain J. D. Jewkes was engaged to voice double the Tarzan cry for Weissmuller. Johnny Sheffield, who did not join the Tarzan family until 1939, does not recall Weissmuller's ever mentioning yodelling to him from his boyhood. What he does remember is being on a sound stage at Metro with Fritz Steinkamp from the sound department and a piano. A note was hit on the piano and Sheffield gave it. From the voice sampling, an enhanced yell was created. He believes that both Weissmuller and O'Sullivan went through the same process, but is not certain. Yet another source claims that the cry was a combination of the voices of studio technicians.

Tom Held, an MGM film editor, claimed that the cry was a combination of things: Johnny's voice, the bleat of a camel, the growl of a dog, the howl of a hyśna, and a pick of a violin G-string. They supposedly laid four or five different sound tracks the one over the other, using these different sounds and timing it so that each of them played a fraction of a second after the preceding one. The soundmen, from these reports, did not perfect the cry until 1934. Yet, there is no appreciable difference between the cry heard in Tarzan, the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate. Buster Crabbe, who married Held's daughter, always supported his father-in-law's story. Others, like Maureen O'Sullivan, sided with Johnny. Lately, Brendan Fraser, star of George of the Jungle, claims to have done his own “research.”

According to him, two singers voices were heard and interspersed with sundry other sounds.

Samuel Marx, in his book on Mayer and Thalberg, came closest to the truth when he wrote that the cry was contrived by Douglas Shearer, who recorded a shout that was electronically enhanced and run backwards. A little experimenting on the computer proves that the yell is palindromic, sounding identical whether played forwards or backwards, which means that the second half of the cry is the first half in reverse, thus supporting Marx's explanation.

One should also bear in mind that Johnny recorded a completely different version when he moved over to RKO, and Sheffield is certain that this yell was Weissmuller's.

While Thalberg was in charge, the productions were lavish, and carefully contrived. With his death in September 1936, things changed. The production values were cut, footage from previous entries was generously used, and with the advent of war in Europe, MGM began to lose interest in the series.

It must be remembered that MGM's greatest dividends came from the international market, as much as 75%, and when that dried up, the financial returns dwindled. In 1942, with the release of Tarzan's New York adventure, MGM let the series go, and with it the contracts of Messieurs Weissmuller and Sheffield. Maureen O'Sullivan decided to forgo Lesser's offer to continue in the series. She was happy that this segment of her acting life was finished, and besides she was more interested in raising her family, as John Farrow's wife.

[For a fuller treatment of the MGM Tarzan films, the reader is directed to two detailed articles written by Rudy Behlmer for the American Cinematographer in January and February, 1987.]

[Click on the link to read Matt Winan's interview with Johnny Sheffield, who reminisces about his days as Tarzan's son, as well as Bomba, the Jungle Boy]