Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The New Adventures of Tarzan (1935)

Tarzan is one of the most-filmed characters in cinema history, in the same echelons as Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. Not all of those renditions are entirely faithful to the source material, however. Though a few silent versions predated him, the film archetype of Tarzan was set by Johnny Weissmuller in 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man. Most versions since have done variations on that version. In 1984, Christopher Lambert played a revisionist version in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and in 1999, Disney made an animated musical that graduated to Broadway.

The 1935 serial The New Adventures of Tarzan has perhaps the most accurate Tarzan. In fact, it would have been hard-pressed to be more accurate, as it was the only version of Tarzan plotted out by Edgar Rice Burroughs himself! Discouraged by thje silent film versions and MGM's monosyllabic brute, Burroughs jumped at the opportunity afforded him by his friend Ashton Dearholt to make a new Tarzan adventure. MGM's licence ran out after Tarzan and His Mate, and Burroughs had no intention of renewing it. Dearholt formed Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises, Inc. with the goal of properly enshrining the authors characters. Burroughs himself outlined the story, the screenplay for which was adapted by Charles Royal and Edwin Blum.

The New Adventures of Tarzan is not an adaptation of any previously published novel. On the contrary, the involvement of Burroughs could induct it as a seamless new entry into the same canon of the novels. Herman Brix plays a leaner, literate Lord Greystoke lifted straight from the pages of Burroughs' writing. The 40-minute introductory chapter relates how Tarzan's friend D'Arnot - the man who found him in the jungle, taught him English and proved his status as a lord - has gone missing over Gutamala. He was part of an expedition to search for the Green Goddess, an ancient Mayan artifact being sought by Major Martling. Along with the expedition are Martling's daughter Alice, her fiance George Hamilton, and comic relief George. The Green Goddess is a rich prize, however, and Martling's notebook is stolen by rival archaeologist P.B. Raglan, played by Dearholt himself. Trailing Raglan with a mnind to revenge is Ule Vale, fiance of D'Arnot's deceased partner.

Perhaps more interesting than this 1935 serial full of the regular cliffhanging, two-fisted action is the story behind it. Dearholt moved the story to Guatemala because he knew the locale well-enough and had greased enough palms that he thought he could mount a cheaper production there than by renting studios in Hollywood. However, he ran out of money before he even started and Burroughs had to step in as a cosigner on a bank loan to send the production down. As one can well imagine, Guatemala in the 1930's was not the most ideal location to launch a full movie production. There was no port to speak of when they arrived, and no roads to speak of where they were going. Indoor plumbing was unheard of and tropical diseases ravaged the crew. Because Guatemala had no film industry, absolutely everything had to be brought from the United States and was unrecoverable when lashed by storms and rainforest humidity. It turned out that Dearholt overestimated the support he could muster from the government and the last few weeks of the four month production were spent dodging creditors in the jungles before escaping the country to finish in California.

Production was also made doubly-awkward by the relationship dramas unfolding behind the scenes. In 1933, Dearholt met Ula Holt, who would go on to play Ule Vale in The New Adventures of Tarzan. Falling in love, he carried on an affair that ended in divorce with his wife Florence Gilbert just before the crew departed for Guatemala. That worked out well for Burroughs, who had been harbouring an unrequieted love for Gilbert since the day he met her and Dearholt in 1929. While the film crew was off in South America, Burroughs and Gilbert were wed. To fund the wedding and subsequent honeymoon in Hawaii, Burroughs realized that he would need more money than Dearholt's serial could afford him. Thus he renewed the Tarzan license with MGM, who only paid him marginally better than they had for the dissatisfying Tarzan the Ape Man and Tarzan and His Mate.

The result of this love-quadrangle was that the Thirties were filled with competing Tarzans. Johnny Weissmuller would again star with Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan Escapes in 1936, preceded by the Tarzan the Fearless serial starring Buster Crabbe as the Ape Man in 1933, and The New Adventures of Tarzan in 1935. MGM did their best to buy off reviewers to trash the 1935 serial and manipulated theatre owners into refusing to play it on pain of not receiving prints of Tarzan Escapes.

To compete, Dearholt released his version in several formats. One was the 12-part serial, another was a 75 minute feature film and the third was a shorter feature followed by seven serial chapters. The last 10 episodes were also remade into the feature Tarzan and the Green Goddess. Altogether it was moderately successful, moreso overseas where MGM held less influence, and The New Adventures of Tarzan went down in history as the last Tarzan movie serial ever made.

The feature film version of The New Adventures of Tarzan.

1 comment:

grouchomarxist said...

Funny thing is, Brix was also slated to play Tarzan in the first MGM movie, until he broke his shoulder while filming a football flick in 1931.

I've only seen the edited-down feature version of "The New Adventures" once, quite some time ago, but I remember being pleasantly surprised by Brix's portrayal. You could really believe his Tarzan was also a Lord Greystoke. Despite the sub-MGM production standards, I imagine ERB still got a bit of a thrill seeing his most famous character portrayed in a manner much closer to his original concept.

It's also impressive that Brix did his own stunts. And kind of interesting to see him as a lead, instead of a supporting role. It doesn't matter whether he was billed as Herman Brix or Bruce Bennett, he was a terribly under-rated actor, imo.

Thanks for filling us in on some of the back story concerning the making of "The New Adventures". Yeesh: Sounds like equal parts "Ed Wood" and "Heart of Darkness".