The Unlikely Superhero of the Jungle

Actor Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan
Elmo Lincoln, the 1918 Tarzan (Wikimedia Commons)

A century ago, the country’s hottest — and unlikeliest — action star was Elmo Lincoln in the role of Tarzan. Tarzan of the Apes premiered at New York’s Broadway Theatre 100 years ago on January 27, 1918.

Gordon Griffith as Tarzan
Gordon Griffith as the young Tarzan in the 1918 film.

To mimic the indeterminate African jungle of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ story, the film was shot in the swamps of Louisiana. Certain scenes were filmed in Brazil, such as the movie’s opening shots of lions, wild boars, snakes, and alligators. When it came to the apes responsible for raising the orphaned Tarzan, some extras were hired from the New Orleans Athletic Club to don monkey costumes and swing from the trees.

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan
In 1932, Tarzan was played by Olympic athlete Johnny Weissmuller (Wikimedia Commons)

Turner Classic Movies’ Leonard Maltin called the film a “surprisingly watchable and straightforward telling of the Greystoke tale, though Lincoln looks like he’s about fifty years old, with a beer belly to boot.” Elmo Lincoln had a heftier physique than the 1930s and ’40s Tarzan played by Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, but he reprised his role in two more movies (The Romance of Tarzan and The Adventures of Tarzan). Lincoln was never again able to achieve film stardom, however, as he was thereafter relegated to small parts.

Edgar Rice Burroughs holding copies of Tarzan books
Edgar Rice Burroughs (Paul Dorsey)

Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the wildly successful books, was an unlikely sensation himself. As our own Jeff Nilsson points out in “How Tarzan’s Author Did It All Wrong, and Got It Right,” Burroughs’ stories about the lord of the jungle broke countless literary and marketing rules, and they were filled with plot holes and leaps in logic. If Tarzan’s self-taught literacy is plausible, perhaps it follows that he could travel through time to fight medieval knights or Roman gladiators.

The 1939 profile of Burroughs in this magazine, “How to Become a Great Writer,” detailed Burroughs’ business failures that ultimately led him to sleepless evenings scrawling adventure stories in his apartment. The author’s imaginative writing seemed to benefit from its lack of accurate detail: “He had located his first novel on Mars because nobody knew the local color of that planet or the psychology of the Martians, and nobody could check up on him.” The same was true for Burroughs’ unspecified apes of the Tarzan series, although most have interpreted the anthropoids to be gorillas.

Burroughs seemed so ill-suited to his literary fortune that reporter Alva Johnston gave a revised list of tips for writers hoping to mimic the Tarzan-creator:

  1. Be a disappointed man.
  2. Achieve no success at anything you touch.
  3. Lead an unbearably drab and uninteresting life.
  4. Hate civilization.
  5. Learn no grammar.
  6. Read little.
  7. Write nothing.
  8. Have an ordinary mind and commonplace tastes, approximating those of the great reading public.
  9. Avoid subjects that you know about.

Even though he was no Oscar Wilde or Noel Coward, Burroughs created one of the most recognizable characters of the 20th century. Tarzan has appeared in movie theaters about 100 times, most recently in the form of Alexander Skarsgård in 2016. Given another century, the ape-raised warrior could grace the silver screen again and again, a far cry from his pulp fiction beginnings.

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Read “How to Become a Great Writer” by Alva Johnston from the July 29, 1939, issue of the Post.