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This picture was M-G-M's first Tarzan film. It was also the first full-length sound Tarzan feature, and the first to star Johnny Weissmuller, a two-time Olympic swimming champion, as Tarzan. According to modern sources, Weissmuller was chosen to play Tarzan despite the objections of Burroughs. Weissmuller is the longest lasting Tarzan to date, having portrayed the apeman in twelve feature films from 1932-1948. According to M-G-M studio records, the film cost $652,675 to make. The Variety review of the film, which erroneously listed a running time of seventy minutes, noted M-G-M's success in finding fifty dwarfs to play pygmies in the picture. Contemporary sources indicate that some film footage from director Van Dyke's earlier African adventure film, Trader Horn (see below), was included in the film. New York Times news items note that the exterior sequences were filmed in western Mexico and at Sherwood Forest, CA. According to Hollywood Reporter, filming also took place at Sherwood Lake, which May have been located at Sherwood Forest. A November 1939 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that Nick Grinde was in charge of the second unit filming of "limb-to-limb jumpers and pygmies." According to a New York Times article about production difficulties encountered by the film crew, a near-tragedy occurred when a hippopotamus charged at a makeshift reflecting wall supported by crewmen. Hollywood Reporter indicates that second cameraman Steve Bauder narrowly escaped serious injury when a lion attacked him and broke his camera.
Modern sources note that the Mutia Escarpment, Tarzan's fictional jungle domain, was named after Mutia Omoolu, the African actor who played Aloysius Horn's gun bearer in Trader Horn. Modern sources provide the following additional credits: Irving Thalberg, executive producer; Bernard H. Hyman, line producer; J. J. Cohn, production manager; George Emerson, Louis Roth and Louis Goebel, animal supervision; Warren Newcombe, photographic effects; William Snyder, additional cinematography; George Richelavie, Fritz Stahlberg and Paul Marquardt, music; Dunning Process Company and Williams Composite Laboratories, composite effects; aerialist Alfredo Codona, Weissmuller's double for swinging shots; and Emma, the chimp as "Cheetah." According to a biography of Edgar Rice Burroughs, M-G-M originally opted for Stanford University star weight-lifter Herman Brix (who later played the role in the Burroughs-Tarzan series) to play Tarzan, but he was replaced following an injury he sustained while filming Touchdown (see below), his first film. The Burroughs biography also notes that the film's scheduled March 1932 opening was postponed due to the national attention devoted to the Lindbergh kidnapping. M-G-M reportedly paid Burroughs $20,000 plus a $1,000 weekly salary in exchange for the rights to all the characters used in previously written Tarzan stories. According to a 1961 Variety article, a Superior Court judge "sustained a demurrer made by M-G-M in a suit brought against [the] studio by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. over the remake of its original Tarzan of the Apes, and found in favor of the studio that it had not breached a 1931 contract." The contract stipulated that the studio could film a remake of this story only if no substantial changes were made. Burroughs' suit followed M-G-M's 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man, which he claimed to be an altered version of the original story. Judge Frank S. Balthis ruled against Burroughs, stating that the remake was "substantially the same as the original" and that the studio was not in breach of contract. According to Burroughs' biography, producer, exhibitor and showman Sol Lesser claimed that before Tarzan, the Ape Man was released, he had purchased the rights to film a Tarzan picture from James Pierce, who had been given the rights by Burroughs as a marriage gift when he married Burroughs' daughter. Unaware that Burroughs had already sold the rights to M-G-M, Lesser's lawyer, Jules Goldstone, handed the author $10,000 in cash for the rights, at which point Burroughs informed him that Pierce's contract had lapsed. Burroughs reportedly "threw the money back." The biography also notes that "it was a windy day and Mr. Goldstone had quite a time chasing after the bills." Following this, Lesser filed a suit and left it to the courts to decide if his contract was valid. In the meantime, Lesser agreed to postpone production on his Tarzan picture until M-G-M released Tarzan, the Ape Man. Lesser, Burroughs and M-G-M eventually settled the matter, and M-G-M went ahead with preparations for its next Tarzan picture while Lesser planned to film five Tarzan pictures.
Two M-G-M remakes of Tarzan, the Ape Man followed its release: a 1959 film directed by Joseph M. Newman and starring Dennis Miller and Joanna Barnes (which contained tinted stock footage from the 1932 version); and a 1981 film directed by John Derek and starring Bo Derek and Richard Harris. According to an 1981 article in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Maureen O'Sullivan refused to view the 1981 remake because the reviews she had read of the film suggested that it exploited sex and nudity. O'Sullivan stated that the 1932 version of the film contained "poetic sex," and that the remake might "detract from the innocence of the story." Derek's 1981 remake also encountered legal entanglements concerning the rights to the Tarzan story when the Burroughs estate sued M-G-M over the picture. The issue was finally resolved in 1982, when, according to Hollywood Reporter, the Court of Appeals ruled that "differences between the works overwhelm this general similarity [to the film]," and therefore did not constitute an act of copyright infringement. Furthermore, the judge ruled that the 1981 version did not materially depart from the 1932 movie even though the 1981 film contained two nude scenes.
Other films or television programs based on the characters created by Burroughs include: the 1918 First National film Tarzan of the Apes, directed by Scott Sidney and starring Elmo Lincoln and Enid Markey (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.4370); the 1923 Nation Film Corp. picture Jungle Trail of the Son of Tarzan, directed by Harry Revier and Arthur Flaven (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30; F2.2827); the 1942 M-G-M film Tarzan's New York Adventure, directed by Richard Thorpe and starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan; the 1958 M-G-M film Tarzan's Fight for Life, directed by H. Bruce Humberstone and starring Gordon Scott and Eve Brent; the 1966 Banner Productions-Allfin U.S./Switzerland co-production Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, directed by Robert Day and starring former L. A. Ram lineman Mike Henry and Nancy Novak (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70; F6.4884); the 1966-1968 NBC television series Tarzan, made by Banner Productions and starring Ron Ely; the animated half-hour CBS television network series Tarzan-Lord of the Jungle, which had its premiere on September 11, 1976; the 1989 American First Run Studios telefilm Tarzan in Manhattan, directed by Michael Shultz and starring Joe Lara and Kim Crosby, which aired on the CBS television network on April 15, 1989; and the 1999 animated Disney release, directed by Chris Buck and Kevin Lima and featuring the voices of Tony Goldwyn and Minnie Driver. For titles of Tarzan films made in the 1930s, consult the Series Index.