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Johnny Weissmuller - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

November 2006

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Although Johnny Weissmuller, who first found fame as a swimming champ, did not make a lot of films (circa 30), and most of them were series-films, he was extremely popular pretty much all over the world, especially with the younger audience, and has remained so to this very day. 

He was all at once a rather wooden actor and the best silver screen Tarzan, he played in escapist jungle adventures that are nothing short of impressive even nowadays as well as cheap and cheesy jungle flicks that must have been unintentionally hilarious even at the time of their release, he was introduced into the Body Building Guild Hall of Fame in 1976 despite never having been a bodybuilder as such, and he was a man who definitely had star-appeal despite his rather limited acting talents.

 

But let's start at the beginning:

Johnny Weissmuller was born János Weissmüller in 1904 in Timisoara, Romania, which was then a part of Austria-Hungary, to German-speaking Jewish parents. However, when Johnny was only 7 months old, his family emmigrated to the USA and ultimately settled in the coal mining town Windber, Pennsylvania, where his father worked as a miner, and later to Chicago, Illinois, where he opened a bar. Eventually though, Johnny's dad's business went bust and so did his marriage to Johnny's mum in 1925 ... but by then, Johnny was already at the first height of his career.

 

Johnny took up swimming at an early age, and it soon became clear that he was not only a natural, he also had the ambition to participate in tournaments ... and win. 

In 1922, Johnny broke his first record in 100-meters freestyle, being the first man ever to make the distance in under a minute. 

In the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, he won 3 gold medals, for 100 m Freestyle, 400 m Freestyle and 4x200 m Freestyle Relay, plus a bronze medal as a member of the American Water Polo Team.

In the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, he would add another 2 gold medals to his collection, 100 m Freestyle and 4x200 m Freestyle Relay. Eventually, Johnny gave up (competitive) swimming in 1929, having won every race between 1921 and his retirement, making him one of the most successful swimmers ever.

 


In the year he ended his swimming career, Johnny Weissmuller also appeared in his first film, the Paramount-produced musical revue Glorifying the American Girl (1929, John W.Harkrinder, Millard Webb), a film that was personally supervised by legendary Broadway producer Flo Ziegfeld and also featured appearances by Ziegfeld, Eddie Cantor and Irving Berlin. Johnny was obviously chosen not so much for his acting as for his perfect physique, as he wore next to nothing playing Adonis in one of the film's musical segments.

 

However, this film did not spark a movie career, and with his swimming career over at age 25, Johnny had to look for a job, and thanks to his impressive physique and his popularity, he soon took an engagement modeling underwear and swimwear for BVD Swimsuits.

 


In 1932, Weissmuller would finally have his breakthrough as an actor when he played the lead in Tarzan the Ape Man (W.S.Van Dyke), the first of in all 12 Tarzan films he starred in, first at MGM, later for producer Sol Lesser at RKO. And though Weissmuller was neither the first nor the last actor to play Tarzan, for many his performances in Tarzan the Ape Man and its first sequel Tarzan and his Mate (1934, Cedric Gibbons, Jack Conway) were the ultimate portrayals of the king of the jungle as a tall man with an athletic body, animal-like instincts and a savage streak who discovers his more gentle side when he discovers woman - Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane that is.

 

There are many legends about how Weissmuller was discovered for the Tarzan-role, but most sound like the typical mumbo-jumbo slightly creative publicists feed unreflecting celebrity magazines rather than the truth, including one story that had MGM attempting to get Weissmuller for the role of Tarzan as early as 1926 - 6 years before they even produced the first Tarzan-film -, but he turned them down, making them only more adamant to finally get him, finally even begging him to reconsider. Another has Weissmuller discovered while taking a swim in a hotel pool - and whoever-it-was hired the no-name who was a fairly good swimmer on the spot - which wouldn't even ring kind of true if Johnny wasn't by that time a five-time Olympic gold medalist and by no means a no-name.

Chances are that his discovery was about as boring as the powers-that-be at MGM just remembered him from his swimming career and saw his BVD swimwear ads, which proved to them that Weissmuller had the body and the agility to fill the role and had no reservations about appearing in front of a camera wearing very little ...

(Other rumours about Weissmuller's earl acting career state that MGM forced him to divorce his then wife Bobbe Arnst because they wanted their leading man to be single. Interestingly though, when checking the dates, Weissmuller was actually divorced from Arnst in 1933 [a year after his first Tarzan was out], only days before he married Lupe Velez, a temperamental Mexican actress, with whom he often clashed [quite physically speaking]. Soon enough, their stormy relationship became prime fodder for the yellow press. So much for these rumours, then ... [By the way, Weissmuller and Velez were divorced in 1939, and Velez committed suicide in 1944.])

 

Be that as it may, his portrayal of the lead character in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932, W.S.Van Dyke) was dead on despite the fact that he was no actor. He portrayed the king of the jungle as a savage beast in human form that could only be tamed by lovely Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), who soon falls in love with the man she at first considered a brainless brute - but this story is only a subplot, perfectly interwoven with the main plot about Jane's father (C.Aubrey Smith) and company looking for the legendary elephants' graveyard and having all the usual jungle adventures that - despite being clichés even back in the day - look surprisingly fresh in the film. 

In all, Tarzan the Ape Man might not be high art, but it's an amazingly entertaining adventure flick that effortlessly stands the test of time. And when the film was first released, it was a box office sensation ...

 

With Tarzan the Ape Man having been box office gold, it was only a matter of time before a sequel was produced, Tarzan and his Mate (1934, Cedric Gibbons, Jack Conway), which saw the light of the day, er, screen two years later. On the surface, Tarzan and his Mate is just more of the same, it's about another party trying to find the elephants' cemetery, and somehow Tarzan and Jane (who has since moved in with Tarzan) getting caught up with them. And within the group, there is of course the criminal hothead who gets them all into danger and who tries to kill Tarzan (without success, naturally).

Despite the many similarities to its predecessor though, Tarzan and his Mate is the better film, exploring the relationship of Tarzan and Jane in greater detail - who live their lives as hippie-like drop-outs rather than adventure hungry aristocrats, as Tarzan-creator Edgar Rice Burroughs preferred to see them - including some very erotic scenes, like Maureen O'Sullivan's lengthy swim scene in the nude. Plus the film was also pushing the envelope concerning violence - always considering it was made in 1934 - showing cannibals and lions attack in quite some detail. But sex and violence aside, what really made the film work was a genuine feel for the adventure genre, a fast paced direction, plenty of action ... and Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan as an impressive leading couple.

 


With the third film, Tarzan Escapes (1936, Richard Thorpe), the series started showing signs of wear, though. The whole concept was (understandably) no longer as fresh as with the first two films, the violence and the sex (beginning with Janes much less revealing outfit) are more subdued than in Tarzan and his Mate (remember, since that film, the Production Code was installed), and one couldn't shake the feeling of just seeing a run-of-the-mill jungle adventure - though a well-made one. Also, Tarzan has become much more domesticated in this film, and obviously, he has spent most of his time lately with furnishing his and Jane's treehouse with all the accommodations of a modern home, but made from wood - something that seems more than a little silly and makes them from the hippie drop-outs of Tarzan and his Mate into just a boring regular couple that just happens to have an interesting home address ... actually, some of the stuff they are having looks about as funny as The Flintstones' household appliances from some 25 years later.

 


Film number four, Tarzan Finds a Son (1939, Richard Thorpe), saw the ultimate domestication of Weissmuller's Tarzan-character, when Tarzan and Jane find a son (thanks to the Production Code they couldn't actually have one because they were not married), Boy (Johnny Sheffield, who was 8 years old when this was filmed but looked much younger [Johnny Sheffield bio - click here]), and after initial difficulties, Tarzan assumes the role of a responsible father and educator. There is also an adventure story about greedy heirs thrown into the film, but basically everything is way too much covered by family kitsch to really work.

 

Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941, Richard Thorpe), the fifth film of the series, is pretty much more of the same: Here Boy gets into trouble, and before he knows it, Tarzan has his hands full saving Boy and Jane from savage natives as well as unscrupulous white treasure hunters. And even though this film has its moments - like Tarzan driving his horde of elephants into a crocodile infested river - by now the formula has grown considerably stale.

 


It seems that even the powers-that-be at MGM realized that their Tarzan-series had lost its initial attraction, because for their sixth entry, Tarzan's New York Adventure (1942, Richard Thorpe), they changed the formula around a bit, sending the jungle man from his African home to the urban jungle New York, where he and Jane have to fight over custody for Boy in court ... but the scriptwriters still find plenty of opportunity to have Tarzan and co have some entertaining adventures, including yet another elephant stampede, a device that ended most of Johnny's previous Tarzan-films ... but in this one, all of a sudden the old concept seems fresh again.

 

After the refreshing Tarzan's New York Adventure however, MGM decided to drop their Tarzan-series, mainly because their way of producing jungle films had become way too expensive for what had essentially become a B-movie series over the course of time.

This however didn't mean Johnny Weissmuller was all of a sudden out of a job, it didn't even mean he had to quit the Tarzan-role, as help came from an unexpected source ...

 

Enter Sol Lesser !

Sol Lesser started producing films in the 1910's, but in the silent era he was more prominent as the owner of a theatre chain. It wasn't until the 1930's that he got into film production full-time, producing primarily Westerns, as was customary in the 1930's, but also films from a whole string of other genres ... and for some reason, Lesser had a fascination with Tarzan, and he tried to establish a Tarzan-series to compete MGM's films twice in the 1930's, when he was still an independent producer for his company Principal, but neither his serial Tarzan the Fearless (1933, Robert F.Hill) - starring Weissmuller's fellow swimming champ Buster Crabbe [Buster Crabbe-bio - click here] - nor Tarzan's Revenge (1938, D.Ross Lederman) - starring decathlon champ Glenn Morris - proved to be a significant success.

1941 though, Lesser gave up independent production and instead hooked up with RKO as an executive in charge of feature production, and with the big studio's money behind him, Weissmuller available to do more Tarzans and MGM having backed away from the series, there seemed to be but one thing to do ...

 


In 1943, only a year after the last MGM-Tarzan, Weissmuller - with Johnny Sheffield once again as Boy [Johnny Sheffield bio - click here] - was back in the jungle for Tarzan Triumphs, with Tarzan's Desert Mystery (1943, both William Thiele) following only months later. The first is an American World War II propaganda effort that includes a lost city and Nazis while the second is basically an Arabian Nights adventure, with sci-fi-giant monsters tagged on at the ending.

 

Jane was absent in both of this films - with the female lead played by Frances Gifford in Tarzan Triumphs and by Nancy Kelly in Tarzan's Desert Mystery -, supposedly to help in the Allied's war effort, but she was back in Tarzan and the Amazons (1945, Kurt Neumann), and was now played by Brenda Joyce ... most probably because Maureen O'Sullivan was under contract with MGM. Joyce stayed on for the remainder of Weissmuller's run on the series and even for the first of Lex Barker's Tarzans, Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949, Lee Sholem) [Lex Barker bio - click here]. Compared to O'Sullivan's fresh and spunky performance however, Joyce's Jane was more a traditional housewife and passive female character ...

Johnny Sheffield's Boy on the other hand was written out of the series after Weissmuller's second-to-last Tarzan, Tarzan and the Huntress (1947, Kurt Neumann), mainly because by that time he, now aged 16, was too old to play the part, plus he was by now taller than Brenda Joyce and his voice had already broken.

Soon though, Sheffield would again pop up as the title character of Monogram's Bomba the Jungle Boy series - not too far of a stretch from his Boy-role ...

 

Speaking budget-wise, the RKO-Tarzans were a step down from those done at MGM - with the exception of the last one, Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948, Robert Florey), which had other problems though -, but often they featured more entertaining and funny stories than the later MGM-formula movies ... though entertaining from a camp perspective: The Africa of the RKO-Tarzans was a continent almost devoid of black natives but filled with hidden cities, lost white native tribes and bizarre evil cults (especially Tarzan and the Leopard Woman [1946, Kurt Neumann] and Tarzan and the Mermaids).

Of course, if you wanted an accurate portrayal of Africa, you would not find it in these films, but then again, if you want an accurate portrayal of Africa, don't watch a Tarzan-movie in the first place ...

 

What ultimately has gone wrong with the RKO-Tarzans starring Weissmuller is perhaps best demonstrated with the last of the series, Tarzan and the Mermaids. Considering pure production values, this film, using impressive Mexican outdoor locations instead of some studio backlot to fill in for the jungle, easily outdoes all previous films by RKO and even some of MGM's later efforts. That said, the film is nothing short of pure camp, a silly story about pearl divers with a supporting cast made up of Mexicans pretending to be African natives, an apparently Middle-American Pyramid standing in for an African temple, a character (John Laurenz) who permanently sings bad songs in a Latino-accent, and let's not forget George Zucco [George Zucco bio - click here] hamming it up as high priest, a role very similar to that which he played in Universal's Kharis the Mummy-series.

And then there was Johnny Weissmuller, who at 44 now looked a tad too old for the role, plus he looked a bit too well-groomed and well-fed for the role. His hairdo looks more like the work of an overpaid Hollywood hairdresser than that of a jungle dweller, and - despite being still in good shape considering his age - he has put on a few extra pounds ... which wouldn't even matter so much wouldn't he have to play his role dressed only in loincloth.

That all said though, I have to admit I loved Tarzan and the Mermaids for what it was, a silly piece of high camp - it's just very doubtful that this is what the producers wanted, and consequently Weissmuller was replaced by Lex Barker [Lex Barker-bio - click here from the next film, Tarzan's Magic Fountain (1949, Lee Sholem), onwards. 

 



During his career up to that point, Weissmuller was almost totally typecast as Tarzan, he only made 2 films outside of the series, the all-star World War II propaganda effort Stage Door Canteen (1942, Frank Borzage) - which Sol Lesser produced for United Artists and which showed Weissmuller in a very small role washing dishes and taking off his shirt - and Swamp Fire (1946, William H.Pine) - a Paramount-produced Bayou-drama in which Weissmuller played the lead (and got to wrestle an alligator), but was easily upstaged by the film's baddie, fellow swimming champ and Tarzan-actor Buster Crabbe [Buster Crabbe-bio - click here].

 

So it seems, with his Tarzan-role gone, Weissmuller was out of business ... but in stepped another B-producer, Sam Katzman, formerly producer for Puritan, Victory and Monogram, but presently in charge of B-movies and serials at Columbia. And when Katzman learned that Weissmuller was on the market, it didn't take him long to find the perfect role for him that a) allowed him to leave his shirt on, but b) wasn't too far removed from Tarzan: Jungle Jim, a comic character created by Alex Raymond that previously made it into a serial in 1937 (Jungle Jim, directed by Ford.L.Beebe, Clifford Smith, produced by Universal, with Grant withers playing the title character).

 

To ensure continuity from the RKO-Tarzans, Katzman also hired Carroll Young, who wrote the stories and/or scripts of four of the six films, to script the first entry of the Jungle Jim-series, entitled (wouldn't you know it) Jungle Jim (1948, William Berke) ... and ultimately Young would stay on board to write almost half of the films of the series (7 out of 16 films).

In terms of production values, the Jungle Jim-series was a step down even from the RKO-Tarzans, with all of the outdoor scenes shot in Ray Crash Corrigan's Corriganville - an area that started out as a small location for shooting Westerns but gradually expanded to house outdoor sets for many different genres [Ray Crash Corrigan-bio - click here] -, even if the locations were not always up to the requirements (best demonstrated in the second film of the series, The Lost Tribe [1949, William Berke], in which a set for obviously a [circa] 16th century European village unconvincingly stands in for a hidden city somewhere in the deepest jungles of Central Africa. Otherwise, the portrayal of Africa in this series closely resembled that of the RKO-Tarzans: Africa here once more is almost devoid of black natives but filled with hidden cities, lost (white) tribes, weird evil cults and even the occasional giant lizards and spiders (Jungle Manhunt [1951, Lew Landers], featuring scenes resembling those in Tarzan's Desert Mystery).

In a diversion from the Tarzan-formula, Jungle Jim/Johnny Weissmuller has a (rather ugly) doggie and a crow as animal sidekicks in the first four films of the series, but already in the fourth film (Captive Girl [1950, William Berke]), they are joined by a more customary chimp, who from the next film onwards (Pygmy Island [1950, William Berke]) would take over as Jungle Jim's only sidekick.

 

Other than the Tarzan-series, the Jungle Jim-series was just a typical B-movie series that never saw any noticeable drop (much less increase) in quality, the scripts were always more or less tailored to fit the rather low budgets and the requirements of the locations (more or less), they were pretty much all cheap and cheesy jungle adventures that were not in the least bit intelligent but rather hilarious if you don't take them seriously at all. 

Still let me pick out a few films that for some reason or other stood out of the rest (in no particular order):

- Fury of the Congo (1951, William Berke), in which Jim helps a (white) native tribe that worships the Okongo, a made-up-on-the-spot jungle animal that looks like (and probably was) a pony half painted to look like a zebra and that's supposed to have glandular fluids that work as a narcotic.

- Jungle Manhunt, a rather obvious choice for someone who loves dinosaur films - even if they don't feature all that much in this one.

- Savage Mutiny (1953, Spencer Gordon Bennet), a film that shows Jim helping to remove a tribe of natives from an island so the US can test one of their atom bombs. This one is not so much a good (or rather good bad) film but is nevertheless interesting because of incorporating antiquated Cold War politics.

- Pygmy Island, a film that features a tribe of (inexplicably) white pygmies, a fire resistant fiber, and a bunch of Commies who want to get their hands on the fiber.

- Jungle Moon Men (1955, Charles S.Gould), a film about a weird cult with a blonde High Priestess and much mumbo jumbo about Egyptian mythology.

- Voodoo Tiger (1952, Spencer Gordon Bennet), an utterly misleading portrayal of African religions - to hilarious results.

- Captive Girl (1950, William Berke), which sees Buster Crabbe in another bad guy role opposite Weissmuller.

 

Of course, despite all the enjoyment the Jungle Jim-series might give the lover of cheap and cheesy jungle flicks, there's one thing that can no longer be overlooked in these films: Johnny Weissmuller isn't much of an actor. He did alright in the Tarzan-films, especially the first ones, where he only had to mutter a few words and otherwise play the savage, but already in the later films, when his role was more and more that of a responsible father to Boy and a man around the house, his limitations began to show. In the Jungle Jim-series, he had to speak in full sentences (even if his dialogue was neither too extensive nor too complicated) ... and his limited acting range and shortcomings in delivering dialogue became quite obvious (as they already were in Swamp Fire, for that matter).

 

As mentioned above, Weissmuller made 16 Jungle Jim-films, though that's not quite correct: After 13 films, the character Weissmuller played was no longer called Jungle Jim, in the last three films - Cannibal Attack (1954, Lee Sholem), Jungle Moon Men (1955, Charles S.Gould), and Devil Goddess (1955, Spencer Gordon Bennet) - of the series he was just called by his real name, Johnny Weissmuller - otherwise there were no changes in the series, up to the point where in Devil Goddess, a scene out of Savage Mutiny was bluntly re-used.

Why did they do this ?

My best guess is that producer Sam Katzman just wanted to save on licensing fees and banked on the fact that Weissmuller was a big enough star to carry the film without the Jungle Jim monicker - and to a point, he might even have been right, but still in 1955, the series has come to an end, primarily because with the strong competition of television, B-movie series have become an unprofitable venture (actually, Jungle Jim was one of the last B-series still around) ...

 

Weissmuller made the logical jump to TV and starred as Jungle Jim in a series of 26 half-hour episodes for Screen Gems (the television subsidiary of Columbia) for the 1955/56 season, but eventually this came to an end as well, and when it did, Weissmuller, 52, had to realize his career was essentially over.

In the following years, Weissmuller tried himself in several business ventures and gave his star name to several others (most notably a swimming pool company that sold defective pools), but none of these were terribly successful.

 


In 1965, he retired from business and moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to be the chairman of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

In 1970, Weissmuller had a cameo in the weird (and deservedly obscure) rock-espionage-comedy The Phynx (Lee H.Katzin) alongside his former Jane Maureen O'Sullivan.

In 1973, he moved to Las Vegas and - now almost 70 - worked as a greeter at the MGM Hotel

In 1974, he broke a hip and a leg, and while in hospital it was realized that he - despite his strength, fitness and despite daily exercise - had a serious heart condition.

1976 saw Weissmuller returning to the big screen for a cameo in the Hollywood comedy Won Ton Ton, the Dog who Saved Hollywood (Michael Winner). That same year he was also inducted into the Body Building Guild Hall of Fame.

 

The last years of Weissmuller however were anything but pleasant: He was married to a possessive wife who was actually more interested in exploiting his name than caring for her husband. At the same time his heart condition worsened and he suffered from a series of strokes in 1977. 

In 1984 he died of a pulmonary edema in a retirement home in Acapulco, Mexico, and he died a lonely man. Allegedly all his wife afforded him was a poor man's funeral. Only at the behest of his children (from a previuos marriage) did he eventually get the funeral he actually deserved.

 

In closing I have to stress once more, Johnny Weissmuller was never a great actor - and he was the first to admit it - but our view of the (cinematic) jungle would be a whole lot poorer without Johnny Weissmuller, and whether you like decent, competently crafted jungle adventures or underbudgeted over-the-top jungle flicks you will probably want to check out several of his films (if you haven't already).

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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