W is for Weissmuller


W is for Weissmuller

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It must be because of his last name, or maybe because I only ever heard him speaking in (very) broken English, but I always assumed that Johnny Weissmuller was German. I was surprised to learn a few years ago that he was American – rightly surprised, as it’s a convenient lie he told for many years. He wanted people to think that he was born in the United States (probably to make him eligible for the US Olympic swimming team); he claimed to have been born in Pennsylvania, and David Shipman credits his birthplace as Chicago.

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In fact he was born in 1904 in what is today Romania. He took up swimming as a boy because he was a sickly child, and grew to be a strapping 6’3″, 190lbs champion swimmer.

In his first movie, as Adonis, he was clad only in a fig leaf.

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Other roles followed, usually where he was not required to wear much more than a loin-cloth. Of all the screen Tarzans, he remains the best (he played the Lord of the Apes twelve times). I know I saw other actors play the role, but Weissmuller is the only Tarzan I can recall from my childhood, when his films seemed to be on TV a lot. To this day I can still remember the command he gave the elephant he would often ride (“Umgawa!”) and of course his patented yell.

Tarzan the Ape Man (a.k.a Lord Greystoke) was the creation of hack writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. None of the books would qualify as great literature, and none of the films would show up on anyone’s list of best movies. At best they’re harmless Boys’ Own adventures; at worst they’re appallingly racist.

But the character endured and was immensely popular, and Weissmuller can take much of the credit. He was the first Tarzan in a talkie, even if the talking was of the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” variety.

He wasn’t the only actor to play Tarzan – and he wasn’t the first – but he seemed to epitomise the role of savage nobleman: swinging on vines; rescuing his mate Jane (usually Roscommon girl Maureen O’Sullivan) from the clutches of slavers; fighting crocodiles; playing with Cheetah.

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Once in a while they would go swimming together, naked:

It’s easy to mock the films: they seem to have been thrown together with little enthusiasm and scant attention to detail (they made extensive use of back projection and seemingly any old African jungle footage they could find). It’s somewhat surprising to think they were made by otherwise rather high-falutin’ MGM.

Weissmuller could never be confused for a decent actor, but he made the best of it, and the films made him rich (he usually earned $100,000 per movie for less than a month’s work).

Eventually he left MGM and moved to Columbia to do a Tarzan knock-off, Jungle Jim. His career outside of swinging vine stuff was virtually non-existent.

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10 thoughts on “W is for Weissmuller

  1. I always thought it was ‘Ungawa’, with an ‘N’ so stand corrected.
    The jungle-cry that put fear into his enemies was pretty good, but it sort-of ends there for me.
    I have to confess that I was hoping for Orson Welles for ‘W’. Maybe next time…
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved the black and white Tarzan as a kid. My kids preferred the cartoon versions.

    Stephen Tremp
    A to Z Co-host
    W is for Window and White Noise

    Liked by 1 person

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