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Know Louisiana: Tarzan of the Apes

The New Orleans Film Festival wraps this week after screening a wide variety of features, documentaries and shorts, including several films based in Louisiana. As part of a new collaboration with the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, NolaVie will spotlight entries from KnowLA.org - the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana, including unique events and people in our state’s history. This month we look at Tarzan of the Apes, the first feature film shot in Louisiana (Morgan City, to be exact) and arguably the pioneer for today’s Hollywood South.

By Al Bohl

 lobby card

Tarzan of the Apes lobby card. Courtesy of Al Bohl

Tarzan of the Apes, the screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s action novel published in 1912, was filmed in 1917 in Morgan City, making it the first feature-length motion picture shot on location in Louisiana. In fact, Tarzan was the first feature in the United States filmed outside of New York or California. Directed by Scott Sidney, the movie starred Elmo Lincoln as the loincloth-wearing, vine-swinging, orphan-turned-action-hero, with the Atchafalaya Basin swamps substituting for the African jungle. With ticket sales exceeding $1 million at the domestic box office in its initial release, Tarzan of the Apes ranks among the top ten most successful films of the silent era.

Hollywood Arrives in Morgan City

In spring 1917, location scouts settled on the area around Morgan City to film the jungle scenes of Tarzan, selecting southern Louisiana for a number of reasons. First, the forest and swamp of the Atchafalaya Basin resembled the “moss laden” jungle Burroughs described in his novel. Second, the story called for a large number of African natives, and the sugar cane plantations in the area could supply the necessary 800 African Americans at low wages. Also, in the early 1900s, the cost of cross-country travel was prohibitive, so an established railway system to transport five boxcars loaded with production equipment and costumes from California was vital. Finally, the Morgan City Chamber of Commerce agreed not to charge any fee for the right to film in the area.

That summer a company of filmmakers, crew members, actors, and circus acrobats converged on Morgan City and created a film unlike any other to date. Burroughs’s Tarzan character had excited producers since the story’s publication in a 1912 issue of The All-Story magazine. Burroughs loved movies and was actively looking for someone to translate his hero to celluloid; however, while many movie producers found the prospect enticing, the consensus was that the tale of Tarzan could not be told on the big screen. Although the film industry was barely twenty years old, Tarzan producer William “Smilin’ Bill” Parsons attempted and succeeded in making an excellent, technically advanced motion picture. This movie spliced together three locations: the action was shot in Louisiana and California, and stock footage of wildlife from African travelogues was integrated into the scenes. It is believed that no other feature film had previously been constructed in this way.

The character of Tarzan was also a composite, played by five actors. The infant boy was represented by a newborn and a one-year-old who were not listed in the film credits. Child actor Gordon Griffith played most of his scenes entirely nude, and he was the first actor to portray Tarzan swinging on a vine -- Burroughs’s ape–man jumped from branch to branch. The first adult to play Tarzan was Stellan Windrow, who performed stunts high in the trees. As World War I heated up, however, Windrow was drafted and left the production. He was paid a thousand dollars for his part in the movie but received no screen credit until the film’s reissue in 2012. Elmo Lincoln, who had the typical “strongman” look of the era, was called in to finish the film and portrayed Tarzan on lower limbs and on the ground. Previously, Lincoln’s career had consisted mostly of bit parts in D. W. Griffith’s epic films; Lincoln claimed he played sixteen different characters in Birth of a Nation.

The only other actor of note was Enid Markey, who played Tarzan’s love interest, Jane Porter. Markey was a well-known actress, having already appeared in dozens of films. Lincoln and Markey revived their roles in the sequel, The Romance of Tarzan, but she refused to play the Jane character with Lincoln in his next film, The Adventures of Tarzan, and turned to Broadway because she didn’t want to be typecast.

Another first for Tarzan of the Apes was its casting of black actors as principal characters in scenes with white actors. At this time, if African Americans appeared in movies, they were usually used as extras mixed in among white actors who wore “blackface” makeup. In Tarzan, three black actors integrated the white cast: Tarzan fought two black men, and the Jane character had a black maid named Esmeralda. The male actors were named in the credits. Rex Ingram, who played the native who killed Tarzan’s ape mother, went on to become a famous actor. The woman who played Esmeralda resumed her role in the sequel, but her name did not appear in the credits of either film.

Tarzan of the Apes played in nearly every theater in every city in the United States. In 1918, a movie ticket cost about five to seven cents, but people paid up to $2.50 to see Tarzan.

The film was such a phenomenon that Parsons began production immediately on the sequel. He had intended to return to Louisiana to shoot the jungle scenes but later determined that he had enough unused footage from the original film and it wasn’t necessary. Therefore, the first two Tarzan films were, in fact, filmed around Morgan City.

Morgan City continues to tout its connection to the famous action hero of screen and page. In 1975, the Swamp Gardens tourist attraction opened and featured a costumed mannequin of Tarzan; the visitors center offered regular screenings of the silent movie. The oldest living Tarzan actor, Buster Crabbe, was a guest of honor at the dedication, and Burroughs’s grandson delivered a rendition of the famous Tarzan yell. Local lore insists that monkeys escaped into the Atchafalaya swamp during filming and that their descendants continue to breed and inhabit the area, though there is no evidence that primates were ever brought to Morgan City.

Although Swamp Gardens eventually closed, the city celebrated its first Tarzan Festival in April 2012, coinciding with the release of a documentary film about the making of the original Tarzan movie, titled Tarzan: Lord of the Louisiana Jungle. The documentary was produced by the father/daughter filmmaking team of Al Bohl, of Shreveport, and Jenny Bohl, of Lafayette.

lehlogocolor knowlalogo

The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and NolaVie present this series that spotlight entries from Knowla.org – the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana, including unique events and people in our state’s history.