Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Tarzan - Part 1 (1918-1929)

Character's first film appearance: Tarzan of the Apes (released January 27th, 1918)
Character description: Tarzan - aka John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke - is a fictional character created by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his novel Tarzan of the Apes in 1912. He was a feral child raised in the African jungles by the Mangani great apes after being separated from his parents when their ship was marooned off the African coast by mutineers. As an adult he experiences modern civilisation for the first time, largely rejecting it and choosing to remain in the wild as a heroic adventurer.

This is the first in a multi-part entry charting what happened to the various actors who have played Tarzan over the years, beginning with the character's very first film appearance just six years after his invention by Burroughs, during the silent era...

Elmo Lincoln (born Otto Elmo Linkenhelt)
Played Tarzan: 1918-1921
Birthdate: Wednesday, February 6th, 1889
Location: Rochester, Indiana, USA

Died: Friday, June 27th, 1952
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Cause of death: Heart attack

Elmo was the first actor ever to play the Lord of the Jungle (as an adult, at least - Gordon Griffith (1907-1958) played him as a boy, appearing on screen before Elmo, as did at least two uncredited babies). Elmo's earliest known film appearance was as an uncredited member of the audience in DW Griffith's short The Reformers (aka The Lost Art of Minding One's Business) in 1913, after which he had a great number of small roles in various productions, including Griffith's epics Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).

Elmo in his third and final outing
as Tarzan in 1921, aged 32
He played the Genie of the Lamp in the Franklin Brothers' Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp in 1917, after which he secured the title role in Tarzan of the Apes, directed by Scott Sidney and released in January 1918. This film (the first to ever make $1m at the box office) was a faithful adaptation of the first half of Burroughs' novel, while the sequel - The Romance of Tarzan - adapted the second half. It used the swamps of Louisiana to stand in for the African jungle. Elmo was 29 in this film, but noticeably stockier than the now more familiar muscular image of Tarzan. The film actually began shooting with a completely different actor as Tarzan, Stellan Windrow, but after five weeks, World War One broke out and Naval Reserve officer Windrow had to quit when he was called up. Footage of him swinging from vines survives in the finished film.

Elmo played Tarzan three times in total, including the now lost The Romance of Tarzan (1918) and the 15-part serial The Adventures of Tarzan (1921), and continued to appear in various films throughout the 1920s until the sound era arrived. His last regular role of this time was the now lost 1927 serial King of the Jungle. It starred Elmo's friend Gordon Standing, who died after being horrifically mauled by a lion on set in May 1927. Elmo believed the death could have been prevented, and this sparked his retirement from acting for the next 12 years.

In these "lost" years, Elmo tried his hand at the salvage business in Salt Lake City, but was lured back to Hollywood in 1939, although he never achieved star status, often appearing in minor roles or uncredited. However, he did have two more brushes with Tarzan, albeit not as the Lord of the Jungle himself. He played an uncredited circus roustabout in 1942's Tarzan's New York Adventure, and an uncredited fisherman in 1949's Tarzan's Magic Fountain. He also appeared in the Seal Brothers' Circus as The Original Tarzan in Person in 1949, with a rather larger 63-inch chest (his chest was 52-inches when he was playing Tarzan in the silent era).

Elmo as a young man (left) and toward
the end of his life
Elmo's acting career ended on a very damp squib with an unspecified minor role in the 1952 film Carrie, starring Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones (although Elmo was reportedly very proud to be in the film as he was an admirer of Olivier's). He did have a cameo as himself in 1951's Hollywood Story (earning $15 a day), but being the first Tarzan would prove to be Elmo's lasting legacy.

Elmo died of a heart attack, apparently in the middle of a coughing fit, on June 27th, 1952, aged 63, at home in his apartment at 734 North Van Ness Avenue, very close to Paramount Studios, where he achieved his Tarzan fame. He was interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7042 Hollywood Boulevard. Elmo's daughter Marci'a Lincoln Rudolph wrote an autobiography of her father in 2001 entitled My Father, Elmo Lincoln: The Original Tarzan.


Gene Pollar (born Joseph Charles Pohler)
Played Tarzan: 1920
Birthdate: Friday, September 16th, 1892
Location: New York, USA

Died: Wednesday, October 20th, 1971
Location: Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA
Cause of death: Unknown

After the success of Tarzan of the Apes, the sequel - The Romance of Tarzan - didn't do as well (perhaps due to the principally Wild West setting), so when the studio invited Elmo Lincoln back for the third film, he declined, and a new Viscount Greystoke had to be found.

Gene Pollar in publicity pictures from
the now lost The Revenge of Tarzan
The second Tarzan was played by 28-year-old New York City firefighter Gene Polar, who was 6ft 2in high and 215lbs (15.4st), in The Revenge of Tarzan, released in May 1920. Gene was paid $100 a week, and lived at the studio during filming, feeding the apes each day to build up a working relationship with them. The film was a success, but studio Numa refused to release Gene from his contract with them when Universal Pictures offered him a new two-year deal at £250 a week. He promptly quit acting and went back to fighting fires in New York. The Revenge of Tarzan was his only acting role, and is now lost.

After retiring from the fire service, Gene became a buyer for a retail store chain in 1944, aged 52, which he did until his full retirement, when he moved to West Hollywood in Florida. However, Gene did hit the headlines one more time when, in 1966, NBC got together several former Apeman actors to help publicise their new Tarzan TV series. In this publicity, James Pierce (who played Tarzan in 1927) claimed he was the oldest living Tarzan. Gene was keen to refute this, so he contacted the media to point out that he was actually eight years older than Pierce. "He's just a kid compared to me", he joked. The mix-up was down to an erroneous report of Gene's death in a New York newspaper several years earlier. Sadly, Gene did not make the reunion, and by the time of the next Tarzan reunion in 1975, he'd passed away.

Gene died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on October 20th, 1971, aged 79.


P Dempsey Tabler (born Percy Dempsey Tabler)
Played Tarzan: 1920
Birthdate: Thursday, November 23rd, 1876
Location: Tennessee, USA

Died: Thursday, June 7th, 1956
Location: San Francisco, USA
Cause of death: Unknown

At the age of 44, Percy was older than your average Tarzan, but there was good reason - the 15-part serial The Son of Tarzan, released in May 1920, was based upon Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel of the same name, which told the story of Tarzan and Jane's son Jack and his coming of age. Tarzan and Jane are, at this point, living as a married couple in London, and their pre-teen son dreams of adventures in the jungle like his father. Jack is abducted and whisked away to Africa by Tarzan's old enemy Ivan Paulovich, and his parents set about rescuing him.

Percy as Tarzan, aged 44
Percy was actually a light opera singer and sometime athlete, and also liked to dabble in acting, but it wasn't his strong point. He'd appeared in a handful of shorts since 1915 as P D Tabler, and after The Son of Tarzan he only made four more films - The Cheater, Smiling All the Way and The Gamesters in 1920, and the short Spawn of the Desert in 1923.

Percy was balding and so wore a very unconvincing wig to play Tarzan, and he also broke several ribs during the filming of a fight scene with Eugene Burr, who was playing the villain. There were rumours for years that actor Kamuela C Searle (who played Jack Clayton) was actually killed following an incident with a live elephant on set, and filming was completed with a stand-in. But although Searle was injured and the stand-in employed, the actor's brother said he survived the injuries, only to die from cancer in 1924, aged 33.

Percy was also an astute businessman and was a founding member of Paramount Studios, while he also enjoyed great success in the advertising industry in San Francisco, where he died in retirement, aged 79.


James Pierce (born James Hubert Pierce)
Played Tarzan: 1927
Birthdate: Wednesday, August 8th, 1900
Location: Freedom, Indiana, USA

Died: Sunday, December 11th, 1983
Location: Apple Valley, California, USA
Cause of death: Unknown

It's amazing what professions the various silent era Tarzans actually had other than acting - Elmo Lincoln went into salvage, Gene Pollar was a firefighter, and Percy Tabler was an opera singer. Tarzan number 4 was Big Jim Pierce, who made a name for himself as All-American center of the Indiana Hoosiers football team, and was a sports coach in California (one of his students was John Wayne). He'd also dabbled in acting, debuting in the 1924 adventure serial Leatherstocking.

Jim and Joan in a publicity picture for
the RKO radio serials of the 1930s
The 27-year-old Jim was specifically invited by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs to play the Apeman in the 1927 feature film Tarzan and the Golden Lion. The following year, Jim married Burroughs' daughter Joan, which had the unexpected effect of making Tarzan's creator his father-in-law! Between 1932 and 1936, Jim and Joan played Tarzan and Jane in three RKO radio adaptations of the Tarzan tales, numbering 155 episodes in total.

Although he only played Tarzan once on film, Jim's acting career continued, turning in (often uncredited) minor performances in the biopic Jesse James (1927), sci-fi serial Flash Gordon (1936, as King Thun), Laurel and Hardy's Our Relations (1936) and Hitchcock's Mr and Mrs Smith (1941). His career came to an end in 1951 playing Bad Bill Smith in the romantic B-Western Cattle Queen.

Tarzan reunion, 1966: Jock Mahoney,
then 47, Johnny Weissmuller, 62, Ron Ely,
28, and Jim Pierce, 66
After that he went into real estate in the San Fernando Valley. For many years it was Jim's sole ambition to recover a lost print of Tarzan and the Golden Lion, but he never managed this in his lifetime. Ironically, a print was finally found in France in the 1990s, after Jim's death.

In 1966, NBC united several former Apeman actors to help publicise their new Tarzan TV series. Jim was one of them, and in interviews he claimed to be the oldest living Tarzan. His predecessor Gene Pollar - who was still alive and well and eight years older than Jim - was keen to refute this, and contacted the media to set the record straight. "Jim's just a kid compared to me", Gene joked.

Joan and Jim in 1971, the
year before Joan died
Joan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1970 and had a mastectomy, and while she was recovering, Jim suffered a major heart attack. By this point he was 70 years old and 258lbs (18.4st), but vowed to lose weight, and got down to 218lbs (15.6st) through exercise and dieting. Their health seemingly on the mend, the couple planned a round-the-world trip together, but tragedy struck on December 30th, 1972 when Joan suffered a heart attack of her own. She died the following day, New Year's Eve. Her last words to Jim were: "I'll see you in the morning, sweetheart."

Jim was so distraught that his doctor advised him not to attend the funeral, but with the aid of sleeping pills and tranquillizers, he was able to go. For the rest of his years Jim mourned the loss of Joan, but still turned out for public events, including a reunion of four Tarzans at the North American Science Fiction Convention in Los Angeles in August 1975 to mark Edgar Rice Burroughs' 100th birthday.

When he died in 1983, aged 83, he was cremated and his ashes buried next to Joan in Forest Hill Cemetery, Shelbyville, Indiana, their tombstones reading 'Tarzan' and 'Jane'.

Tarzan reunion, 1975: Jock Mahoney, then 56,
Johnny Weissmuller, 71, Buster Crabbe, 67, and Jim Pierce, 75


Frank Merrill (born Otto Pohl)
Played Tarzan: 1928-29
Birthdate: Tuesday, March 21st, 1893
Location: Newark, New Jersey, USA

Died: Saturday, February 12th, 1966
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Cause of death: Unknown

The final Tarzan of the silent era was also the first Tarzan of the sound era. As is traditional with Apeman actors of this period, Frank was busy doing something completely different to acting when he was chosen to play the Lord of the Jungle. As well as being the US National Gymnastics Champion 1916-18, with more than 100 trophies to his name in everything from Roman rings and rope-climbing, from swimming to shot putting, he was also a mounted policeman and stuntman. Indeed, his earliest brush with Tarzan was standing in for Elmo Lincoln on Tarzan of the Apes (1918) and The Adventures of Tarzan (1921), as well as being credited as an Arab guard in the latter.

Frank had an impressive
physique, which put him third
in a World's Most Perfectly
Developed Man contest!
But it's ironic to note that Frank was actually named by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs as the man to play Tarzan around 1921, when he was acting as boxing trainer to Charles Ray and wrestling with Buck Jones.

Between 1921-28 Frank had roles in a number of films, from 1924's A Fighting Heart to 1925's Savages of the Sea, from 1926's Hollywood Reporter to 1928's The Little Wild Girl.

Frank was cast as Tarzan for the now-lost 15-part 1928 serial Tarzan the Mighty, but only after actor Joe Bonomo injured his leg and pelvis while filming Perils of the Wild, meaning he had to pull out. Director Jack Nelson remembered Frank from a previous film they'd worked on together, and the 35-year-old got offered the loincloth and started filming the very next day. It was actually Frank who came up with the now traditional vine-swinging technique seen in so many subsequent Tarzan adaptations.

Around 1928, one of Frank's friends sent a photograph of Frank in to a male physique contest. Frank came third in the World's Most Perfectly Developed Man category and the publicity from this helped boost audiences for Tarzan the Mighty (even though Tarzan is quite thoroughly covered up in this serial!).

Tarzan the Mighty was such a success that Frank was asked to reprise the role for 1929's 15-part serial Tarzan the Tiger, which although shot as a silent production, became the first sound Tarzan when a version with music and sound effects was released alongside the silent version. This sound version includes the first Tarzan yell, which is known as the "Nee-yah!" yell as it is distinct from the later, more familiar Johnny Weissmuller version.

Frank in 1964, at
the age of 70
The advent and success of sound scuppered many a silent actor's career, and among those was Frank, whose speaking voice was deemed unsuitable for the character. There is also a story that Frank asked for two months off before filming a third serial, Tarzan the Terrible, but Universal only wanted him to have two weeks, so never the twain did meet again. However, Frank dutifully promoted Tarzan the Tiger, donning his Tarzan costume, and it was during this time that he realised just how much of an influence he had on children. After his two-shot jaunt as the Apeman, Frank dedicated his life to child welfare, becoming a recreational director for the Parks Commission of the Los Angeles City Administration.

Upon retirement in 1963, aged 70, following a serious operation, Frank donated his services to the YMCA as a gym instructor. He died in February 1966, aged 71, and was buried at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery mausoleum.


The next chapter in the Tarzan story, going into the 1930s, can be read here, and the 1949-60 era here.

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