Friday, March 5, 2004

“From the heart of the jungle comes a savage cry of victory!”

And of course, that cry (“Aaaaaahhh-o-ahhhh-o-ahhhh-o!”) belongs to none other than Tarzan—Lord of the Jungle—the famed literary creation of author Edgar Rice Burroughs. Introduced in the October 1912 issue of All-Story magazine in the first of nearly two dozen novels, Tarzan has become a pop culture phenomenon, enjoying a lengthy career in movies, comics, television—and of course, radio.

Tarzan made his radio debut in 1932 in a transcribed syndicated serial, broadcast thrice weekly (it began on New York’s WOR September 12) and regarded by many as the first major syndicated radio serial. Loosely based on the 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes, it attempted to stay faithful to the source material—though there were a few embellishments. It’s a familiar story: Lord and Lady Greystoke, marooned on an African coast, are killed by a band of savage apes who decided to adopt their infant son. He grows to manhood as the “Lord of the Jungle,” and later encounters the Porter expedition where Jane Porter teaches him English and becomes his main squeeze. The role of Jane on this serial was played by Joan Burroughs (daughter of the author), and her husband James Pierce portrayed Tarzan. (Rampant nepotism!) Among those in the serial’s supporting cast: Gale Gordon, Frank Nelson, Jeanette Nolan, and Hanley Stafford. OTR historian John Dunning has high praise for Tarzan of the Apes, noting that it was “distinguished by robust story lines and commensurate sound effects.”

The serial ran a total of 286 episodes, but was discontinued in March 1934 because Burroughs felt that it had drifted too far from his novel. He assumed more control of the plot and the production in two follow-ups: Tarzan and the Diamond of Asher (1934) and Tarzan and the Fires of Tohr (1936), also transcribed and syndicated in serial form (thirty-nine chapters in each). In these serials, the part of Jane was written out—daughter Joan was sidelined by pregnancy during production—and Burroughs’ son-in-law Pierce also took a pass, so the role of Tarzan went to actor Carlton KaDell.

The ape man kept a low profile on radio for close to fifteen years after Tohr, but he resurfaced in yet another transcribed series in 1950 from Commodore Productions, who at that time was celebrating much success from its series, Hopalong Cassidy. The new Tarzan also began life as a syndicated show, but was quickly snapped up by the West Coast Mutual-Don Lee network beginning January 4, 1951, and then later enjoyed a run over CBS from March 22, 1952-June 27, 1953 on Saturday nights for General Foods/Post Toasties. Former child star/Let’s Pretend veteran Lamont Johnson essayed the role of the jungle lord; Johnson would later become famous for his work behind a movie camera, with films like The McKenzie Break (1970), The Last American Hero (1973), and Cattle Annie and Little Britches (1981) to his credit.

It is this particular incarnation of Tarzan that I listened to last night, and I have to admit, it’s better than its Commodore pedigree would indicate. In “Tarzan and the Lipigor” (3/7/53), the Lord of the Jungle wages a mighty battle with his cholesterol levels and…no…just a sec…that’s not right. That’s Lipitor. A lipigor is a stranger lion-panther-gorilla hybrid (probably should be spelled “lipagor”), created by a most assuredly insane scientist, Dr. Sabina Meadows. Oh, she starts out sane early on in the program, even assisting Tarzan in ridding a native village of its termite problem—but by the program’s final third, she’s dabbling in those things “man was not meant to know.” (I guess the fact that she’s named “Sabina” should have tipped me off.)

Program two is “Tarzan and the Hot Rod Kid” (3/14/53), which involves Jerry Cromwell, a juvenile delinquent who gets into trouble only because his successful bidnessman of a Dad has no time for him (think James Dean and Jim Backus in Rebel Without a Cause). He meets up with His Jungle Lordship and helps him fend off Bedouin bandits attacking a defenseless village. Okay, perhaps my description of both episodes are a tad on the snarky side, but they’re actually fairly well-written (from the pen of Bud Lesser), and Johnson acquits himself nicely in the Tarzan role. I found it interesting that the legendary ape man is portrayed as an educated, English-speaking man rather than the monosyllabic muscleman played in the movies by Johnny Weissmuller.

I’m not putting the Weissmuller films down, you understand—they are fun to watch, in a guilty-pleasure-sort-of-way. But I was really impressed with the radio Tarzan—it’s aimed at the kids, but adults can enjoy it—and I think you will be, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment