Tarzan Swings Again

Umgawa! Every generation has its own image of Tarzan, from beefy Elmo Lincoln in 1918 to Disney’s muscular animated incarnation of 1999, but for die-hard movie buffs, former Olympian Johnny Weissmuller remains the definitive Ape Man. What’s more, the films that cemented his image as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ lord of the jungle have retained a special fascination for anyone who grew up with them, when they were new in the 1930s or years later on television.

Over the last two weeks two movie lovers, Oscar-winning visual effects artist Craig Barron and Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, have presided over special screenings of Tarzan and His Mate and Tarzan Finds a Son! at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, placing a special emphasis on how the films used cutting-edge movie magic to tell their stories.

I was sorry to miss out on the first show, but I had a great time revisiting Tarzan Finds a Son! on the big screen, all the more so after Craig and Ben did their entertaining and informative show-and-tell program.

Craig used a computer simulation to illustrate how rear-projection was accomplished in the 1930s at MGM—and then pointed out,—

—to his left, one of the studio’s original rear-projection units, a formidable machine with lamp-housing by Mole-Richardson and camera operation by Mitchell, two of the most venerated names in the movie industry. The object was to throw as much light as possible on the rear screen so that when actors were photographed in front of it the audience would “buy” the illusion.

This massive rear-projection machine operated at MGM for decades and helped create action scenes in the Tarzan movies.

What’s more, great care was taken to see that this projector and the Mitchell camera in front of the actors worked in perfect synchronization, frame by frame, to avoid any jittering.

The Academy also managed to borrow from the Harry H. Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin two original matte paintings from Tarzan films, which were on display in the lobby outside the Linwood Dunn Theater. Once again Barron provided a context for the use of these paintings, showing how MGM’s visual effects wizard Warren Newcombe headed a whole department of uncredited artists who knew how to make their work blend into a seamless whole. Scenes of Tarzan’s isolated escarpment, and the craggy cliff leading up to it, as well as a setting by a waterfall for Tarzan Finds a Son! didn’t destroy the illusion when we subsequently watched the feature: speaking for myself, I found it even more dazzling to see how artfully the MGM experts built up a scene, one layer at a time, using lighting, props, greens, painted scenery, and a beautifully executed matte to create vivid atmosphere—and a majestic setting.

Ben Burtt then made a point I’d never thought about before: the early Tarzan films, including the one we were about to see from 1939, had no music scores (except for the main and end title themes). They used sounds to set the scene, and many of those sounds were indicated in the original screenplay. Some of the natural sounds of Africa were captured by the engineers who went on the legendary trek to that continent for MGM’s Trader Horn in 1931. Others were created and accumulated over the years.

Craig Barron’s computer simulation of rear projection at work on Tarzan Finds a Son!

But Ben had particular fondness for two recurring sounds in the Tarzan series: Cheetah’s high-pitched laugh, which turns out to be “borrowed” from Our Gang’s freckle-faced Mickey Daniels. Ben screened a clip of Mickey bursting into his distinctive laugh in a scene from The Great Ziegfeld, but any fan of Hal Roach comedy shorts can remember him doing it in The Boy Friends series and the Our Gang comedies where the original kids like Mickey were reunited with their successors in the 1930s.

Burtt also revealed that watching and listening to Cheetah over the years—and seeing how the filmmakers enabled him to communicate verbally without speaking a word—was an inspiration to him when he had to create voices for such characters as R2D2 and WALL*E.

The Holy Grail for Burtt, however, was figuring out the origin of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan yell. In later years, the athlete-turned-actor claimed that he did it himself, and readily performed it during interviews (as we saw in a clip from Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life from 1958). But as Ben explained, that was the later version of the yell, as heard in Weissmuller’s RKO films of the 1940s. The MGM yell was longer, and had a high-pitched yodel in the middle. What’s more, in a Los Angeles newspaper interview from 1932, the star admitted that he performed some of the yell—while the soundman did the rest.

Audio and video samples gave us a glimpse of Ben’s research into the matter, using a soprano, a yodeler, a violinist, a clarinetist, and various animal sounds which had been rumored to be sources over the years.

Finally, he showed us how he replicated the exact yell, which he discovered was an audio palindrome, made up of two pieces—played forward then backward. Doing the same, and starting off with a human voice, he then integrated a brief bit of yodel and a touch of clarinet to get the desired effect. Et voila!

A beautiful couple: Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan pose on location for Tarzan and his Mate in 1934.

The evening had a bittersweet note because the guest of honor was to have been John Sheffield, who played Boy, and who died quite suddenly just over a week ago. Some of his family members were present, and his oldest son—who choked back tears—told Ben Burtt that he had gotten the yell just right.

As for the feature presentation, Tarzan Finds a Son! provided ideal entertainment for 81 minutes. John Sheffield was a natural—as actor and pint-sized athlete, swimming alongside Johnny Weissmuller, even underwater (at Silver Springs, Florida), and riding bareback on a baby elephant.

What impressed me the most was coming to realize just how much work went into a Tarzan film. It wasn’t so much filmed as cobbled together, one shot at a time: a rear-projection sequence here, a cutaway of Cheetah there, reality mixed with make-believe. Even a young boy sitting in front of me was impressed enough to ask afterwards if Boy really swung on a vine, as he seemed to onscreen. Growing up on CGI may have caused this young viewer to question his own eyes—but he was caught up in the storytelling, and that’s what really matters. It’s the reason why Tarzan will live forever.

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May 2024