By Ken Lashway
He came swinging into theaters and
into the hearts of millions of
Americans for the first time in 1932, at the end of a jungle vine. By the time
Johnny Weissmuller’s movie career was essentially over in 1955, he had become a
cultural icon and one of the most admired celebrities in the world.
Weissmuller was born on June 2,
1904 in what was then Hungary, but before World War I changed the boundaries of
his homeland, Johnny and his family had moved to the United States and settled
in Chicago. As a young boy, he became intensely interested in swimming and
enjoyed early success with a local YMCA swimming team before impressing William
Bachrach, coach of the great swimming teams of the Illinois Athletic Club. Under
Bachrach’s tutelage, Johnny refined his swimming style, incorporating techniques
of several of the great swimmers of the day to produce his own unique style, and
then he exploded onto the sports world at the 1924 Olympics in France.
There, Johnny won three gold
medals and set an Olympic record in the 400-meter freestyle - but that was only
the beginning of his competitive swimming career. He spent the years between
1924 and 1928 winning every swimming event he entered internationally,
and by the time the Olympics rolled around again in 1928 at Amsterdam,
Weissmuller was one of the great athletes of the world, and was the American
standard-bearer during the opening procession. He again won gold medals in all
his events, capping off an incredible unbeaten streak which had lasted seven
full years, and having nothing more to accomplish in sports, retired from
competition the following year.
Weissmuller had difficulty
converting his athletic renown into a post-competitive career however, and for
several years could do no better than accept promotional jobs for companies like
BVD, trading on his sports recognition. Then in 1932, he happened to be swimming
a few workout laps at the Hollywood Athletic Club in Los Angeles when he was
spotted by Cyril Hume, a screenwriter at MGM. By an extraordinary coincidence,
Hume was involved at that time with a project to bring ‘Tarzan, the Ape Man’ to
the big screen, and when he saw Weissmuller’s powerful athletic build and
still-blazing speed through the water, he was immediately convinced that the
part of Tarzan was cast. And so it was.
signed a contract with MGM for the paltry sum of $250 per week, and went to work
as the animal-loving, jungle-dwelling hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous
novel. When ’Tarzan, the Ape Man’ was released in 1932, Johnny Weissmuller
became an overnight sensation. He went on to play Tarzan on screen in a dozen
films, many of which were quite successful at the box-office, and along the way
he introduced several little pieces of Americana which are recognized to this
day. For instance, the Tarzan yell has been reproduced countless times since its
introduction, and while it is true that it is not entirely Johnny’s voice doing
the yelling (an operatic tenor was used to record part of the sequence), it is
still one of the most familiar outbursts in all of filmdom. During World War II,
homesick G.I.’s requested that Weissmuller’s Tarzan yell be broadcast to them at
the battlefront, both as a connection to home, and for the inspiration it gave.
Another of the immortal offerings
produced by Weissmuller was the famous line from ’Tarzan, the Ape Man’ which he
uttered to his jungle mate, Jane. “Me Tarzan, you Jane” was not originally in
the script, nor was it part of Mr. Burroughs’ novel dialogue - it was actually
conceived by Weissmuller himself. When he first met Maureen O’Sullivan in the
parking lot of the MGM studios, she was struggling with an overstuffed suitcase,
and recognizing his co-star from photos, he assisted her, and laughingly made
his introductions with that famous line. It was overheard by other members of
the crew, who later suggested that it be inserted in the film, being the perfect
interplay for the two screen mates’ meeting.
By 1948, Johnny Weissmuller had
done all he could do for the ‘Tarzan’ franchise, and never played the role
again. However, he was recruited to play another jungle hero called Jungle Jim
by Sam Katzman of Columbia Pictures, and in this movie series he got a chance to
speak more dialogue, wear more clothes, and even make more money. The Jungle Jim
series became very lucrative, and for a time at least, Weissmuller enjoyed some
financial stability. During a seven year span through 1955, he
filmed 15 movies, and although not all were connected with the Jungle Jim
character, they did keep money in his bank account. With the end of the Jungle
Jim movies, Johnny’s movie career foundered, and he appeared only briefly in two
more forgettable movies before he retired altogether from films.
But it was the ‘Tarzan’ series of
movies that made Johnny Weissmuller one of America’s most beloved actors - it
has been said that he was born to play the part, and had more than a little bit
of Tarzan in him. In 1927, when he was preparing to enter a 3-mile swimming
marathon event in Chicago, he happened to be on hand when a freak squall struck
an excursion boat and caused it to capsize. Again and again, Weissmuller
splashed into the frightening waters, dragging back exhausted survivors.
Although twenty-seven people were drowned in the tragedy, the total could have
been much worse if not for the tireless efforts of the heroic swimmer.
It has also been said of him that
he never really grew up, and thus his never-ending marital problems, as well as
some other infamous public behavior. But at his best, Johnny Weissmuller
captivated generations of sports enthusiasts and legions of movie-going
Ken Lashway is a freelance writer from New York. Ken's Comedy Corner returns to
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter next issue with a
Harold Lloyd profile.
Other Johnny Weissmuller Pages:
Johnny Weissmuller by Penny Deutsch -- A
second Johnny Weissmuller profile right here on things-and-other-stuff.com!