Saturday, June 2, 2012

Johnny Weismuller

When I was growing up KPLR-TV channel 11 would have their Saturday and Sunday movie matinees. This is when I first saw most of the Abbott & Costello comedies, the Charlie Chan mysteries, and, of course, TARZAN. Since I was a kid, "my" Tarzan has always been Johnny Weismuller.

John Weismuller was born on June 2, 1904. He was an Olympic Gold Medalist, swimming at the 1924 and 1928 Summer Olympics, before he went to Hollywood. In 1932 he was cast as Tarzan in MGM's big budget version of TARZAN THE APE MAN. He was cast besides Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane, Neil Hamilton as her friend (later "Commissioner Gordon" on TV's BATMAN), and of course, Cheeta The Chimp.

From 1932 until 1948 Johnny Weismuller made 12 TARZAN pictures. Sure, most of the later ones are derivative and silly, but the first! TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934) actually got in trouble with the censors because of all the naked flesh on display. The sexy underwater ballet that Weismuller and O'Sullivan pull off is oddly erotic, especially given the time. Speaking of Maureen O'Sullivan, she is by far the best Jane the series ever had. She was under contract with MGM but ended up not liking having to do the films; according to the book, Tarzan of the Movies, it was partly under her insistance that the producers did TARZAN's NEW YORK ADVENTURE (1942) where she could dress up in something besides just a leather sheet!

Before "Boy" (Johnny Sheffield)  was introduced as a character, most of the early films dealt with Jane's relatives or friends trying to convince her to return to civilization, which always ended with her staying in the jungle with Tarzan. Didn't these guys ever learn? After Boy was introduced the adventures got a bit wilder, and when the series moved from MGM to RKO, Maureen O'Sullivan left. The two Johns continued on for another six years.

By 1948 Johnny Weismuller was older (44) and larger. RKO unceremoniously dumped him and replaced him with classically handsome Lex Barker. Then Gordon Scott, Denny Miller, Jock Mahoney, Mike Henry, Ron Ely, and several others.

But whatever magic MGM bottled for those first half-dozen TARZAN films can't (or hasn't) been re-captured. And there is only one real "Tarzan."

And to end this, here he is with something else he brought to Tarzan...."The Yell!" There have been discussions that this isn't really him, but....we won't go into that here. I've heard Carol Burnett do it, so I'm thinking it is possible it's him. Let's just say it is. :-)

  Happy 108th Birthday, Johnny Weismuller!

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