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Although Johnny Weissmuller, who first found fame as a swimming champ,
did not make a lot of films (circa 30), and most of them were
series-films, he was extremely popular pretty much all over the world,
especially with the younger audience, and has remained so to this very
He was all at once a rather wooden actor and the best silver
he played in escapist jungle adventures that are nothing short of impressive even nowadays
as well as cheap and cheesy jungle flicks that must have been
unintentionally hilarious even at the time of their release, he was
introduced into the Body Building Guild Hall of Fame in 1976 despite never
having been a bodybuilder as such, and he was a man who definitely had
star-appeal despite his rather limited acting talents.
let's start at the beginning:
Johnny Weissmuller was born János Weissmüller
in 1904 in Timisoara, Romania, which was then a part of
Austria-Hungary, to German-speaking Jewish parents. However, when Johnny
was only 7 months old, his family emmigrated to the USA and ultimately
settled in the coal mining town Windber, Pennsylvania, where his father
worked as a miner, and later to Chicago, Illinois, where he opened a bar.
Eventually though, Johnny's dad's business went bust and so did his
marriage to Johnny's mum in 1925 ... but by then, Johnny was already at
the first height of his career.
Johnny took up swimming at an
early age, and it soon became clear that he was not only a natural, he
also had the ambition to participate in tournaments ... and win.
Johnny broke his first record in 100-meters freestyle, being the first man
make the distance in under a minute.
In the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris,
he won 3 gold medals, for 100 m Freestyle, 400 m Freestyle
and 4x200 m Freestyle Relay, plus a bronze medal as a member of the
American Water Polo Team.
In the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam,
he would add another 2 gold medals to his collection, 100 m Freestyle
and 4x200 m Freestyle Relay. Eventually, Johnny gave up
(competitive) swimming in 1929, having won every race between 1921
and his retirement, making him one of the most successful swimmers ever.
the year he ended his swimming career, Johnny Weissmuller also appeared in
his first film, the Paramount-produced
musical revue Glorifying the American Girl (1929, John
W.Harkrinder, Millard Webb), a film that was personally supervised by
legendary Broadway producer Flo Ziegfeld and also featured appearances by
Ziegfeld, Eddie Cantor and Irving Berlin. Johnny was obviously chosen not
so much for his acting as for his perfect physique, as he wore next to
nothing playing Adonis in one of the film's musical segments.
this film did not spark a movie career, and with
his swimming career over at age 25, Johnny had to look for a job, and thanks to his impressive
physique and his popularity, he soon took an engagement modeling underwear and
swimwear for BVD Swimsuits.
In 1932, Weissmuller would
finally have his breakthrough as an actor when he played the lead in Tarzan
the Ape Man (W.S.Van Dyke), the first of in all 12 Tarzan
films he starred in, first at MGM,
later for producer Sol Lesser at RKO.
And though Weissmuller was neither the first nor the last actor to play Tarzan,
for many his performances in Tarzan
the Ape Man and its first sequel Tarzan
and his Mate (1934, Cedric Gibbons, Jack Conway) were the ultimate
portrayals of the king of the jungle as a tall man with an athletic body,
animal-like instincts and a savage streak who discovers his more gentle
side when he discovers woman - Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane that is.
are many legends about how Weissmuller was discovered for the Tarzan-role,
but most sound like the typical mumbo-jumbo slightly creative publicists
feed unreflecting celebrity magazines rather than the truth, including one
story that had MGM
attempting to get Weissmuller for the role of Tarzan
as early as 1926 - 6 years before they even produced the first Tarzan-film
-, but he turned them down, making them only more adamant to finally get
him, finally even begging him to reconsider. Another has Weissmuller
discovered while taking a swim in a hotel pool - and whoever-it-was hired
the no-name who was a fairly good swimmer on the spot - which wouldn't even ring
kind of true if Johnny wasn't by that time a five-time
Olympic gold medalist and by no means a no-name.
Chances are that his discovery
was about as boring as the powers-that-be at MGM
just remembered him from his swimming career and saw his BVD
swimwear ads, which proved to them that Weissmuller had the body and the
agility to fill the role and had no reservations about appearing in front
of a camera wearing very little ...
(Other rumours about Weissmuller's
earl acting career state that MGM
forced him to divorce his then wife Bobbe Arnst because they wanted
their leading man to be single. Interestingly though, when checking the
dates, Weissmuller was actually divorced from Arnst in 1933 [a year after
his first Tarzan
was out], only days before he married Lupe Velez, a temperamental Mexican
actress, with whom he often clashed [quite physically speaking]. Soon
enough, their stormy relationship became prime fodder for the yellow
press. So much for these rumours, then ... [By the way, Weissmuller and
divorced in 1939, and Velez committed suicide in 1944.])
Be that as it may, his
portrayal of the lead character in Tarzan
the Ape Man (1932, W.S.Van Dyke) was dead on despite the fact
that he was no actor. He portrayed the king of the jungle as a savage
beast in human form that could only be tamed by lovely Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan),
who soon falls in love with the man she at first considered a brainless
brute - but this story is only a subplot, perfectly interwoven with the
main plot about Jane's father (C.Aubrey Smith) and company looking for the
legendary elephants' graveyard and having all the usual jungle adventures
that - despite being clichés even back in the day - look surprisingly
fresh in the film.
In all, Tarzan
the Ape Man might not be high art, but it's an amazingly
entertaining adventure flick that effortlessly stands the test of time.
And when the film was first released, it was a box office sensation ...
the Ape Man having been box office gold, it was only a matter of
time before a sequel was produced, Tarzan
and his Mate (1934, Cedric Gibbons, Jack Conway), which saw the
light of the day, er, screen two years later. On the surface, Tarzan
and his Mate is just more of the same, it's about another party
trying to find the elephants' cemetery, and somehow Tarzan and Jane (who
has since moved in with Tarzan) getting caught up with them. And within
the group, there is of course the criminal hothead who gets them all into
danger and who tries to kill Tarzan (without success, naturally).
the many similarities to its predecessor though, Tarzan
and his Mate is the better film, exploring the relationship of
Tarzan and Jane in greater detail - who live their lives as hippie-like
drop-outs rather than adventure hungry aristocrats, as Tarzan-creator
Edgar Rice Burroughs preferred to see them - including some very erotic
scenes, like Maureen O'Sullivan's lengthy swim scene in the nude. Plus the
film was also pushing the envelope concerning violence - always
considering it was made in 1934 - showing cannibals and lions attack in
quite some detail. But sex and violence aside, what really made the film
work was a genuine feel for the adventure genre, a fast paced direction,
plenty of action ... and Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as an
impressive leading couple.
With the third film, Tarzan
Escapes (1936, Richard Thorpe), the series started showing signs
of wear, though. The whole concept was (understandably) no longer as fresh
as with the first two films, the violence and the sex (beginning with
Janes much less revealing outfit) are more subdued than in Tarzan
and his Mate (remember, since that film, the Production Code
was installed), and one couldn't shake the feeling of just seeing a
run-of-the-mill jungle adventure - though a well-made one. Also, Tarzan
has become much more domesticated in this film, and obviously, he has
spent most of his time lately with furnishing his and Jane's treehouse
with all the accommodations of a modern home, but made from wood -
something that seems more than a little silly and makes them from the
hippie drop-outs of Tarzan
and his Mate into just a boring regular couple that just happens
to have an interesting home address ... actually, some of the stuff they
are having looks about as funny as The Flintstones'
household appliances from some 25 years later.
Film number four, Tarzan
Finds a Son (1939, Richard Thorpe), saw the ultimate domestication
of Weissmuller's Tarzan-character,
when Tarzan and Jane find a son (thanks to the Production Code they
couldn't actually have one because they were not married), Boy (Johnny
Sheffield, who was 8 years old when this was filmed but looked much
younger [Johnny Sheffield
bio - click here]), and after initial difficulties, Tarzan assumes the role of a
responsible father and educator. There is also an adventure story about
greedy heirs thrown into the film, but basically everything is way too much
covered by family kitsch to really work.
Secret Treasure (1941, Richard Thorpe), the fifth film of the
series, is pretty much more of the same: Here Boy gets into trouble, and
before he knows it, Tarzan has his hands full saving Boy and Jane from
savage natives as well as unscrupulous white treasure hunters. And even
though this film has its moments - like Tarzan driving his horde of
elephants into a crocodile infested river - by now the formula has grown
It seems that even the powers-that-be at
realized that their Tarzan-series
had lost its initial attraction, because for their sixth entry, Tarzan's
New York Adventure (1942, Richard Thorpe), they changed the
formula around a bit, sending the jungle man from his African home to the
urban jungle New York, where he and Jane have to fight over custody for
Boy in court ... but the scriptwriters still find plenty of opportunity to
have Tarzan and co have some entertaining adventures, including yet
another elephant stampede, a device that ended most of Johnny's previous Tarzan-films
... but in this one, all of a sudden the old concept seems fresh again.
the refreshing Tarzan's
New York Adventure however, MGM
decided to drop their Tarzan-series,
mainly because their way of producing jungle films had become way too
expensive for what had essentially become a B-movie series over the course
This however didn't mean Johnny Weissmuller was all of a sudden
out of a job, it didn't even mean he had to quit the Tarzan-role,
as help came from an unexpected source ...
Enter Sol Lesser !
Lesser started producing films in the 1910's, but in the silent era he was
more prominent as the owner of a theatre chain. It wasn't until the 1930's
that he got into film production full-time, producing primarily Westerns,
as was customary in the 1930's, but also films from a whole string of
other genres ... and for some reason, Lesser had a fascination with Tarzan,
and he tried to establish a Tarzan-series
to compete MGM's
films twice in the 1930's, when he was still an independent producer for
his company Principal,
but neither his serial Tarzan
the Fearless (1933, Robert F.Hill) - starring Weissmuller's fellow
Buster Crabbe [Buster Crabbe-bio
- click here] - nor Tarzan's
Revenge (1938, D.Ross Lederman) - starring decathlon champ Glenn
Morris - proved to be a significant success.
1941 though, Lesser gave
up independent production and instead hooked up with RKO
as an executive in charge of feature production, and with the big
studio's money behind him, Weissmuller available to do more Tarzans
and MGM having
backed away from the series, there seemed to be but one thing to do ...
1943, only a year after the last MGM-Tarzan,
Weissmuller - with Johnny Sheffield once again as Boy [Johnny
Sheffield bio - click here] - was back in the
jungle for Tarzan
Triumphs, with Tarzan's
Desert Mystery (1943, both William Thiele) following only months
later. The first is an American
World War II propaganda effort that includes a lost city and
Nazis while the second is basically an Arabian Nights adventure,
with sci-fi-giant monsters tagged on at the ending.
absent in both of this films - with the female lead played by Frances
Gifford in Tarzan
Triumphs and by Nancy Kelly in Tarzan's
Desert Mystery -, supposedly to help in the Allied's war effort,
but she was back in Tarzan
and the Amazons (1945, Kurt Neumann), and was now played by Brenda
Joyce ... most probably because Maureen O'Sullivan was under contract with MGM.
Joyce stayed on for the remainder of Weissmuller's run on the series and
even for the first of Lex Barker's Tarzans,
Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949, Lee Sholem) [Lex
Barker bio - click here]. Compared to O'Sullivan's fresh and
spunky performance however, Joyce's Jane was more a traditional housewife
and passive female character ...
Johnny Sheffield's Boy on the other
written out of the series after Weissmuller's second-to-last Tarzan,
Tarzan and the
Huntress (1947, Kurt Neumann), mainly because by that time he, now
aged 16, was too old to play the part, plus he was by now taller than
Brenda Joyce and his voice had already broken.
Soon though, Sheffield
would again pop up as the title character of Monogram's
Bomba the Jungle Boy series - not too far of a stretch from
his Boy-role ...
Speaking budget-wise, the RKO-Tarzans
were a step down from those done at MGM
- with the exception of the last one, Tarzan
and the Mermaids (1948, Robert Florey), which had other problems
though -, but often they featured more entertaining and funny stories than
the later MGM-formula
movies ... though entertaining from a camp perspective: The Africa of the RKO-Tarzans
was a continent almost devoid of black natives but filled with hidden
cities, lost white native tribes and bizarre evil cults (especially Tarzan
and the Leopard Woman [1946, Kurt Neumann] and Tarzan
and the Mermaids).
Of course, if you wanted an accurate
portrayal of Africa, you would not find it in these films, but then again,
if you want an accurate portrayal of Africa, don't watch a Tarzan-movie
in the first place ...
What ultimately has gone wrong with the RKO-Tarzans
starring Weissmuller is perhaps best demonstrated with the last of the
series, Tarzan and
the Mermaids. Considering pure production values, this film, using
impressive Mexican outdoor locations instead of some studio backlot to
fill in for the jungle, easily outdoes all previous films by RKO
and even some of MGM's
later efforts. That said, the film is nothing short of pure camp, a silly
story about pearl divers with a supporting cast made up of Mexicans pretending to be African
natives, an apparently Middle-American Pyramid standing in for an African
temple, a character (John Laurenz) who permanently sings bad songs in a
Latino-accent, and let's not forget George Zucco [George
Zucco bio - click here] hamming it up as high
priest, a role very similar to that which he played in Universal's
And then there was Johnny Weissmuller, who at
44 now looked a tad too old for the role, plus he looked a bit too
well-groomed and well-fed for the role. His hairdo looks more like the
work of an overpaid Hollywood hairdresser than that of a jungle dweller,
and - despite being still in good shape considering his age - he has put on a
few extra pounds ... which wouldn't even matter so much wouldn't he have
his role dressed only in loincloth.
That all said though, I have to
admit I loved Tarzan
and the Mermaids for what it was, a silly piece of high camp -
it's just very doubtful that this is what the producers wanted, and
consequently Weissmuller was replaced by Lex Barker [Lex
Barker-bio - click here] from the next film, Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949, Lee Sholem),
his career up to that point, Weissmuller was almost totally typecast as Tarzan,
he only made 2 films outside of the series, the all-star World
War II propaganda effort Stage
Door Canteen (1942, Frank Borzage) - which Sol Lesser produced for
Artists and which showed Weissmuller in a very small role washing
dishes and taking off his shirt - and Swamp
Fire (1946, William H.Pine) - a Paramount-produced
Bayou-drama in which Weissmuller played the lead (and got to wrestle an
alligator), but was easily upstaged by the film's baddie, fellow swimming
champ and Tarzan-actor Buster Crabbe [Buster Crabbe-bio
- click here].
So it seems, with his Tarzan-role
gone, Weissmuller was out of business ... but in stepped another
B-producer, Sam Katzman, formerly producer for Puritan,
but presently in charge of B-movies and serials at Columbia. And when
Katzman learned that Weissmuller was on the market, it didn't take him
long to find the perfect role for him that a) allowed him to leave his
shirt on, but b) wasn't too far removed from Tarzan:
a comic character created by Alex Raymond that previously made it into a
serial in 1937 (Jungle Jim, directed by Ford.L.Beebe, Clifford
Smith, produced by Universal,
with Grant withers playing the title character).
continuity from the RKO-Tarzans,
Katzman also hired Carroll Young, who wrote the stories and/or scripts of
four of the six films, to script the first entry of the Jungle
Jim-series, entitled (wouldn't you know it) Jungle
Jim (1948, William Berke) ... and ultimately Young would stay on
board to write almost half of the films of the series (7 out of 16 films).
of production values, the Jungle
Jim-series was a step down even from the RKO-Tarzans,
with all of the outdoor scenes shot in Ray Crash Corrigan's Corriganville
- an area that started out as a small location for shooting Westerns but
gradually expanded to house outdoor sets for many different genres [Ray
Crash Corrigan-bio - click here] -, even if the locations were
not always up to the requirements (best demonstrated in the second film of
the series, The Lost Tribe
[1949, William Berke], in which a set for obviously a [circa] 16th century
European village unconvincingly stands in for a hidden city somewhere in
the deepest jungles of Central Africa. Otherwise, the portrayal of Africa
in this series closely resembled that of the RKO-Tarzans:
Africa here once more is almost devoid of black natives but filled with
hidden cities, lost (white) tribes, weird evil cults and even the
occasional giant lizards and spiders (Jungle
Manhunt [1951, Lew Landers], featuring scenes resembling those in Tarzan's
In a diversion from the Tarzan-formula,
Jungle Jim/Johnny Weissmuller has a (rather ugly) doggie and a crow as
animal sidekicks in the first four films of the series, but already in the
fourth film (Captive Girl [1950,
William Berke]), they are joined by a more customary chimp, who from the
next film onwards (Pygmy
Island [1950, William Berke]) would take over as Jungle Jim's only
Other than the Tarzan-series,
Jim-series was just a typical B-movie series that never saw
any noticeable drop (much less increase) in quality, the scripts were
always more or less tailored to fit the rather low budgets and the
requirements of the locations (more or less), they were pretty much all
cheap and cheesy jungle adventures that were not in the least bit
intelligent but rather hilarious if you don't take them seriously at
Still let me pick out a few films that for some reason or
other stood out of the rest (in no particular order):
of the Congo (1951, William Berke), in which Jim helps a (white)
native tribe that worships the Okongo, a made-up-on-the-spot jungle animal
that looks like (and probably was) a pony half painted to look like a
zebra and that's supposed to have glandular fluids that work as a
Manhunt, a rather obvious choice for someone who loves dinosaur
films - even if they don't feature all that much in this one.
Mutiny (1953, Spencer Gordon Bennet), a film that shows Jim
helping to remove a tribe of natives from an island so the US can test one
of their atom bombs. This one is not so much a good (or rather good bad)
film but is nevertheless interesting because of incorporating antiquated Cold War
- Pygmy Island,
a film that features a tribe of (inexplicably) white pygmies, a fire
resistant fiber, and a bunch of Commies who want to get their hands on the
Jungle Moon Men
(1955, Charles S.Gould), a film about a weird cult with a blonde High
Priestess and much mumbo jumbo about Egyptian mythology.
Tiger (1952, Spencer Gordon Bennet), an utterly misleading
portrayal of African religions - to hilarious results.
Girl (1950, William Berke), which sees Buster Crabbe in another bad guy
despite all the enjoyment the Jungle
Jim-series might give the lover of cheap and cheesy jungle
flicks, there's one thing that can no longer be overlooked in these films:
Johnny Weissmuller isn't much of an actor. He did alright in the Tarzan-films,
especially the first ones, where he only had to mutter a few words and
otherwise play the savage, but already in the later films, when his role
was more and more that of a responsible father to Boy and a man around the
house, his limitations began to show. In the Jungle
Jim-series, he had to speak in full sentences (even if his
dialogue was neither too extensive nor too complicated) ... and his
limited acting range and shortcomings in delivering dialogue became quite
obvious (as they already were in Swamp
Fire, for that matter).
As mentioned above, Weissmuller
made 16 Jungle
Jim-films, though that's not quite correct: After 13 films,
the character Weissmuller played was no longer called Jungle Jim,
in the last three films - Cannibal
Attack (1954, Lee Sholem), Jungle
Moon Men (1955, Charles S.Gould), and Devil
Goddess (1955, Spencer Gordon Bennet) - of the series he was just
called by his real name, Johnny Weissmuller - otherwise there were no
changes in the series, up to the point where in Devil
Goddess, a scene out of Savage
Mutiny was bluntly re-used.
did they do this ?
My best guess is that producer Sam Katzman just
wanted to save on licensing fees and banked on the fact that Weissmuller
was a big enough star to carry the film without the Jungle
Jim monicker - and to a point, he might even have been right,
but still in 1955, the series has come to an end, primarily because with
the strong competition of television, B-movie series have become an
unprofitable venture (actually, Jungle
Jim was one of the last B-series still around) ...
made the logical jump to TV and starred as Jungle
Jim in a series of 26 half-hour episodes for Screen
Gems (the television subsidiary of Columbia)
for the 1955/56 season, but eventually this came to an end as well, and
when it did, Weissmuller, 52, had to realize his career was essentially
In the following years, Weissmuller tried himself in several
business ventures and gave his star name to several others (most notably a
swimming pool company that sold defective pools), but none of these were
In 1965, he retired from business and moved
to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to be the chairman of the International
Swimming Hall of Fame.
In 1970, Weissmuller had a cameo in the weird
(and deservedly obscure) rock-espionage-comedy The Phynx (Lee
H.Katzin) alongside his former Jane Maureen O'Sullivan.
In 1973, he
moved to Las Vegas and - now almost 70 - worked as a greeter at the MGM
In 1974, he broke a hip and a leg, and while in
hospital it was realized that he - despite his strength, fitness and
despite daily exercise - had
a serious heart condition.
1976 saw Weissmuller returning to the big
screen for a cameo in the Hollywood comedy Won Ton Ton, the Dog who
Saved Hollywood (Michael Winner). That same year he was also inducted
into the Body Building Guild Hall of Fame.
years of Weissmuller however were anything but pleasant: He was married to
a possessive wife who was actually more interested in exploiting his name
than caring for her husband. At the same time his heart condition worsened
and he suffered from a series of strokes in 1977.
In 1984 he died of a
pulmonary edema in a retirement home in Acapulco, Mexico, and he died a lonely
man. Allegedly all his wife afforded him was a poor man's funeral. Only at
the behest of his children (from a previuos marriage) did he eventually get the funeral he actually
In closing I have to stress once more, Johnny
Weissmuller was never a great actor - and he was the first to admit it -
but our view of the (cinematic) jungle would be a whole lot poorer without
Johnny Weissmuller, and whether you like decent, competently crafted
jungle adventures or underbudgeted over-the-top jungle flicks you will
probably want to check out several of his films (if you haven't already).