Classic Hollywood #56 – Johnny Weissmuller a.k.a. Tarzan of the Apes

Johnny Weissmuller Takes A Dive – 1948

Three Things You Didn’t Know About The Cinema’s Most Famous Tarzan

Tarzan Takes Off

Johnny Weissmuller better known as Tarzan of the Apes flies through the air with the greatest of ease, as he rehearses at Marshall Street Baths today (Monday) for his forthcoming Aquashow with Belita as his mate. February 16, 1948 (photo: Paramount)

Olympic multi gold-medal winner Michael Phelps is arguably the most famous swimmer in the world today.

If you had asked anyone living during the 1920s or 30s to name a male swimmer, Johnny Weissmuller (1904-1984)would have been the answer 99 times out of 100. In 1950 the Associated Press named  Weissmuller the greatest swimmer of the first half of the 20th century.

Before Weismuller gained film stardom playing Tarzan of the Apes, he was setting swimming speed records during the 1920s. Weissmuller won five gold medals in the Olympics and 52 national championships. Weissmuller’s most amazing accomplishment as an amateur swimmer is that he never lost a race.

Weissmuller went on to play Tarzan a dozen times in films from 1932 – 1948.

Here are three things you might not have known about Johnny Weissmuller and Tarzan.

1 – How did Weissmuller get the role of Tarzan?

In 1932 screen writer Cyril Hume was working on a script called “Tarzan the Ape Man.” Hume had seen footage of Weissmuller that had been deleted from the film Glorifying The American Girl. Weissmuller had appeared in that film wearing nothing but a fig leaf and holding actress Mary Eaton on his shoulder.

Without realizing he was being asked to do a screen test Weissmuller was talked into into seeing director W.S. Van Dyke and producer Bernard Hyman by Cyril Hume. At the meeting Weissmuller was told to strip.

The stunned Weissmuller recalled “I didn’t realize what was going on and I didn’t know those guys at all. So I took a little persuading, but finally I did what Cy wanted and got out of my shirt and pants. They asked me could I climb a tree and I said yes, and they asked me could I pick up a girl and walk away with her and I said yes…and that’s all there was to the test. I got the part.”

2 – “Me Tarzan, you Jane,”one of the most quoted lines in movie history, was never uttered by Weissmuller. The actual dialogue was simply, “Tarzan. Jane.” After many years of fans coming up to Weissmuller uttering the misquoted line, he gave up trying to correct them.

3 – The distinct Tarzan yell was originally helped by MGM’s sound department. It was a combination of four separate sounds, a hyena, dog, camel and violin G-string laid over Weissmuller’s yodel. In later Tarzan films Weissmuller was able to perfect the sound himself without MGM’s additional sound effects.

Weissmuller eventually grew tired of his role as Tarzan, but was always proud of it. Weissmuller summed up his movie career saying, “I went into the jungle with a fistful of Olympic medals and I came out with both hands full of gold.”

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