In 1914, the roaring success of Tarzan of the Apes put a first-time author named Edgar Rice Burroughs on the map in the literary world. Then, five years later, the author returned the gesture with a land deal that (literally) put the jungle hero on the map of Southern California.
This month marks the 103rd anniversary of the March 1919 land deal that created Tarzana Ranch, the sprawling 550-acre spread in the San Fernando Valley that later became the nucleus of the modern-day Los Angles community called Tarzana.
Burroughs, a native of Chicago, had been scraping by in 1911 as a Midwest wholesaler of pencil sharpeners when he first tried his hand at fiction writing. Less than a decade later, he was paying out $125,000 for the former country estate of Harrison Gray Otis, a local titan whose death in July 1917 ended his legendary 35-year reign as publisher of the Los Angeles Times.
Burroughs, an avid equestrian and nature lover, found paradise in the trails of Tarzana Ranch and the location was a mere 20-minute drive from Hollywood, where Tarzan was a major brand in demand.
The jungle hero was an inescapable presence at the ranch, too. It was the site where Burroughs would write the lion's share of the 26 Tarzan books he churned out in his lifetime. Many of those books were written with his beloved dog at his feet. His dog's name? Tarzan. In 1927, Burroughs added another Tarzan to the family when John Pierce, the star of Tarzan and the Golden Lion, married the author's daughter, Joan Burroughs, at a summer wedding at Tarzana Ranch. The couple then worked together as voice actors on the Tarzan radio show. The roles they portrayed? Him Tarzan, her Jane.
In its heyday, Tarzana Ranch was a sight to see, with its $75,000 in rare and exotic landscaping, equestrian trails, and a semi-permanent movie set. The amenities also included a movie theater, a ballroom, multiple garages, a library, a schoolroom, a rustic log cabin, stables for 20 horses, a tack room, a grand tiled veranda, and five swimming pools with linking waterfalls.
Burroughs was living large, but the Depression upended his finances and he reluctantly sold Tarzana Ranch in 1938. The legacy of Tarzana Ranch had already been secured, however. A decade earlier, the property owners clustered near the Burroughs property voted on an official name for their growing community. The landslide winner: Tarzana.
The Burroughs property was eventually split up and sold off but its footprint became the nucleus of modern-day Tarzana. The Los Angeles neighborhood today covers 8.7 square miles, an area hemmed-in by Topanga State Park to the south and by Victory Boulevard to the north. Tarzana sits nestled between the L.A. neighborhoods of Reseda, Woodland Hills, and Encino.
Tarzana is now home to about 40,000 residents and its the birthplace of Hailee Steinfeld, Blake Lively, Jon Lovitz, Paul Rodriguez, and sports-talk star Jim Rome, who uses Welcome to the Jungle as a theme song. Tarzan would certainly approve.
Tarzana is still home to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., the family-run company formed by the author in 1923 for greater control over his creations. There were skeptics when Burroughs secured characters and story specifics with trademark protections (which do not expire) as well as the more conventional copyright protections (which do expire).
It was an unexpected move for any creator of that era, but it proved to be a savvy business tactic. Burroughs also heard naysayers warn of marketplace confusion and saturation when the author said he wanted Tarzan adventures in every medium. Burroughs sensed what Marvel Entertainment knows today: fans will figure it out if they care enough.
Burroughs achieved his goal with Tarzan’s presence in film, comic strips, pulps, comic books, radio, novels, and story books. No rival property in popular culture during Tarzan’s early decades could match the variety and volume of Tarzan merch, either. Decades before George Lucas and his action figures, Edgar Rice Burroughs was cashing in on toys, lunch boxes, games, compasses, wigs, costumes, coin banks, yo-yos, and trinkets of every sort, all of it connecting fans to the character and keeping their imaginations engaged with the mythology.
Tarzan’s long and robust screen history began with the 1918 silent-film adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes, which was filmed in the swamplands of Louisiana. The film starred the barrel-chested Elmo Lincoln, a former Arkansas lawman who portrayed the jungle hero as a sullen bruiser with a dense tangle of wavy black hair, a headband, and, inexplicably, a lush wolfskin outfit that was apparently imported from distant Viking latitudes. Still, Tarzan of the Apes packed in the crowds who wanted to see the bare-chested wild man and "the first white woman he's ever seen," as the film's posters were careful to note.
The sexual tension most have worked wonders. The film broke the $1 million mark at the box office, an unprecedented feat at the time.
Burroughs, however, was not a fan. The movie irked him, in fact, as did the two sequels that starred Lincoln. What was the problem? Tarzan’s intelligence – or his lack of intelligence, to be more precise. In the books, the feral orphan of the jungle matured into a civilized, articulate, and erudite traveler of the world. The bookshelf Tarzan was shrewd and philosophical, but the celluloid Tarzan was dim and slow.
It was a bitter pill for Burroughs, who cashed the Hollywood checks but winced every time his proud hero lost another fight with personal pronouns. Moviegoers, however, loved the big lug, so the films kept coming.
When Burroughs died in 1950 at age 74 he was hailed as the bestselling American author of the first half of the 20th Century. During the earliest decades of the film industry, Burroughs hauled in more money from Hollywood adaptations than any other living author of the time.
At his death, the Hollywood earnings for Burroughs was about $2 million. Long before bookshelf titans like J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, John Grisham, or Stephen King were born, Burroughs was the literary lion with the most Tinseltown options.
Tarzan reached the zenith of big-screen popularity when decorated Olympic swimmer (and BVD underwear model) Johnny Weissmüller was cast as the title hero in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s take on Tarzan of the Apes (1932). The five-time gold medalist returned to the role in 11 more films, the last of which was Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948). Weissmüller is still widely hailed as the definitive Tarzan. That’s not great news for the brand’s vitality. Weissmüller’s last swing in the Tarzan role was in 1948.
The sure-footed jungle hero still has major traction in the public imagination, however, and that’s thanks in large part to Disney’s Tarzan (1999), which piled up $449 million in worldwide box office and spawned a hit soundtrack with an Oscar-winning song. The legacy of the film goes far beyond that, too, with a tie-in television series, two direct-to-video sequels, a long-running Broadway musical, a Disneyland attraction, and a mountain of toys, t-shirts, and other merch.
Disney achieved a lot with their interpretation of Tarzan but to do that they took a novel approach by bringing a reimagined Africa to the movie screen – one without any Africans in it. The only human resident of the continent depicted in the film is Tarzan himself. I’m not sure any studio in Hollywood’s current era of representation scrutiny would (or could) get away with that tactic in a live-action production.
The most recent big Hollywood interpretation of Tarzan arrived in 2016 when the David Yates-directed the feature film The Legend of Tarzan was released by Warner Bros. True Blood costar Alexander Skarsgård portrayed the title hero and the film grossed $357 million in worldwide box office but fell short of earning a sequel. Numerous critics and pundits have wondered if the venerable character even deserved another revival. The Burroughs bookshelf and older Tarzan screen adaptations haven’t aged gracefully especially when judged by contemporary expectations and attitudes regarding race issues and cultural portrayals.
New iterations could certainly revamp Tarzan and his familiar mythology but there are obvious risks with reengineering any legacy character too much. Could Tarzan be at the end of his vine in Hollywood? It’s possible that many of the pre-World War II action/adventure characters simply have too much baggage and too little relevance to successfully revive them in an unironic fashion for contemporary audiences. Consider these all-stars of the past (listed with their debut year within their native medium) and their collective screen history in recent decades: Tarzan and John Carter from 1912, Zorro from 1919, Buck Rogers from 1928, The Shadow from 1930, Lone Ranger and Tonto from 1933, Doc Savage from 1933, Flash Gordon from 1934, the Green Hornet and Kato from 1936.
In the specific case of Tarzan, rejuvenating the hero with younger audiences is complicated further by a fresh-face crowd of rivals who have inherited the pop-culture jungle. Is there anything in the success stories of The Lion King, The Jungle Book, Jumanji, or Jungle Cruise that make a revamped Tarzan sound like a logical leap forward? None that I can see. Then there’s the mega-success of Black Panther and the stirring emotions that surround its late star and its looming sequel. After visiting Wakanda, who in Hollywood could think Tarzan has a viable chance to reclaim the King of the Jungle title? Nobody is going to go out on a limb with Tarzan anytime soon.
While judging Tarzan it’s hard not to judge his creator in the process. The writer’s cultural portrayals aren’t the only issue and not all of the criticism is the contemporary kind. Burroughs was often judged harshly by the standards of his own era. The author loved ideas and possessed a profound sense of wonder, but his “style” was the literary equivalent of an unmade bed.
Try reading aloud from this Burroughs passage, it’s from his 15th novel in the series, Tarzan Triumphant: "That a tragedy so remote should seriously affect the lives and destinies of an English aviatrix and an American professor of geology, neither of whom was conscious of the existence of the other at the time this narrative begins -- when it does begin, which is not yet, since Paul of Tarsus is merely by way of prologue -- may seem remarkable to us, but not to Fate, who has patiently been waiting these nearly two thousand years for these very events I am about to chronicle."
Even his defenders, like the late Ray Bradbury, found that their efforts to praise Burroughs often sounded apologetic, defensive, or both.
"Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations,” Bradbury once noted. “But as it turns out – and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly – Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world."
I presume that reference to “history of the world” was alluding to Barsoom? (Bradbury was well-acquainted with the chronicles of Mars, after all).
Burroughs may be the quirkiest character of his own creation. With the still-receding Hollywood interest in any big-budget, live-action adaptations of Tarzan and John Carter, I wonder if a Burroughs biopic might reach the screen before either of his creations get another tentpole try.
Burroughs came to writing later then most celebrated authors and his path was the opposite of fancy. His first published works were in 1912 when he introduced his two most celebrated characters – Tarzan and John Carter of Mars – in submissions to All-Story Magazine, a popular pulp of the era. He was paid a hefty $400 for the first of his two accepted manuscripts, which was a fantasy tale of a Confederate soldier of the Civil War era who is mysteriously transported to Mars, which the locals refer to as Barsoom.
The success of Under the Moons of Mars was a transformative moment for Burroughs, who had cycled through dozens of occupations. A 1960s bio of the “First Citizen of Tarzana” written for the Tarzana Chamber of Commerce had a fairly harsh summation of the pre-publishing life of Burroughs: “From the day he was born, in Chicago, on September 1, 1875, until he submitted half a novel to All-Story Magazine in 1911, ERB failed in everything he tried.”
That list of pursuits started in 1895 with a two-year stint in army serving with the Seventh U.S. Calvary, General Custer’s old regiment. When Burroughs arrived in the Arizona Territory his plan was to chase down renegade Apache and a capture a promotion in the process, but he spent more time digging ditches. A routine medical exam revealed a heart murmur that ended any chance of promotion, so Burroughs started the 20th Century looking for a job.
Over the next decade, Burroughs worked as an Idaho cowpuncher, a railroad lawman in Salt Lake City, a California gold-dredge prospector, and working at his father’s battery company in his native Chicago. He made attempts at accounting and office management, and multiply tries in sales, including a gig hawking a sketchy alcoholism cure.
By 1911, he was working as a wholesaler of pencil sharpeners, an almost comical reminder that his career search had become a pointless grind. One of his tasks was verifying his company’s advertisements in magazines and, while thumbing through pulp periodicals, he was stunned by the shabby quality of the fiction. That’s when he decided he could do better. He was right.