Members of the New Orleans Athletic Club probably can't qualify their dues for state film tax credits, but a group of members once answered the call from a studio to work as extras. In 1917, roughly 30 members went to Morgan City, La. to play apes and other extras in one of the first $1 million-earning silent film thrillers: Tarzan of the Apes.
Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the story in 1912 and it was published as a novel in 1914. By 1917, it was in its 14th printing. Burroughs himself invested in a film version (though he later withdrew), and half of it was shot in the swamps and parks around Morgan City.
Rumors that various species of monkeys had been brought to the area and left to live in the wild first interested filmmaker Al Bohl in 2008.
"The thing that triggered (my interest) was that it was a Louisiana story," Bohl says.
As he started posting questions on a Burroughs fan website, a wealth of leads and information flowed back. Bohl began work on a documentary and re-edited a version of the Tarzan film. He released both in April, and they will be screened as a double feature at Chalmette Movies. Bohl will attend a Saturday screening and answer questions about the films.
Half of Tarzan of the Apes was filmed in Louisiana and half in California, and there is file footage from Africa, mostly of animals. The jungle scenes were shot at five locations around Morgan City in the balmy heat of July and August 1917. In the book, married British nobles are left stranded in the jungle when mutineers take over their ship. Though they don't survive long, they have a son, who is later adopted by the female ape Kala. He takes the name Tarzan and the book focuses on his rise to dominate the animals of the jungle. It's a classic tale of the noble savage, a man of brute strength and innate integrity who prefers living in the wild to modern society. As a superhuman outsider, he's a precursor to many comic book heroes.
The screenwriters switched some of the story to focus on human relations. In the book, Jane, Tarzan's soon-to-be mate, is carried off by an ape, but the film changed the abduction to a tribal chief. (Part of the reason for the change was that the film's apes were played by acrobats and gymnasts, and though the costuming was clever, they still looked human.) The studio hired hundreds of African Americans to play the tribe, and the documentary includes interviews with people whose relatives were in the film. It was a significant choice in an entertainment industry that often used white actors in blackface to play black characters.
The premiere created as much buzz as a highly anticipated blockbuster does today. Opening week tickets in New York cost as much as $1.50, Bohl says. Theaters draped vines in their lobbies and dressed ticket-takers in gorilla suits. Tarzan ran in theaters for a decade.
The film was very successful, but it was only one part of the booming Tarzan franchise, which included two dozen more books; Sunday comics, which were then bound into early comic books; and many more films. Burroughs also got into merchandising.
"There was Tarzan glue, Tarzan cigarettes," Bohl says. "Warehouses all over Los Angeles were full of that stuff."
The original film ran more than two hours, but no known copies exist. Instead, an hourlong digest version survived. Bohl thought that version was confusing, so he re-edited it, added credits not included in the original and recorded a new score. Chalmette Movies screens this version.
The 74-minute documentary covers a lot of ground and the flow is not confusing even if it seems unorganized — but there are many fascinating avenues of inquiry. Burroughs was a restless and often frustrated man who wanted to get rich quickly and ultimately succeeded. He failed to earn admission into the military academy at West Point, so he tried a number of trades, including railroad security and panning for gold in the Northwest. After the success of his Tarzan novels, Burroughs became a war correspondent after witnessing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The documentary addresses the original film, its sequel The Romance of Tarzan and the Johnny Weissmuller versions, but there were dozens of others, including a recent version by Disney. The footage in Morgan City includes what sounds like hearsay from a swamp tour operator and speculation from an Audubon Institute scientist about what type of monkeys might have been brought to the set. The film also tries to address the tumultuous period when the book and film were created, so there's newsreel footage of everything from Lenin's Bolshevik Revolution to the American suffrage movement. The original film alludes to Darwinian ideas, and the documentary detours into sinister uses of eugenics (leading to file footage of Hitler). The documentary also stretches to address current filming in Louisiana and the state's tax credits, which seem removed from the Tarzan phenomenon. There are a lot of interesting aspects to Burroughs' career and his iconic hero. Even with changes straying from the creator's vision, the film is still a good summer thriller.