On March 28, 1932, in movie houses across this civilized country, Johnny Weissmuller stood high atop a cliff, pounded on his chest, and let fly his first cinematic savage cry, loosely translated as ”Aaah-eeeh-aaah!” And so Tarzan, the Ape Man, based on the 1912 pulp novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, launched a long love affair between moviegoers and the jungle king, a white orphan who was raised by apes, got around on vines, and got along with wild animals better than did the nasty, spear-carrying natives. The film was one of 1932’s top five money-makers, but the yell took some doing. Weissmuller’s voice hadn’t quite grown up with the rest of his 27-year-old body. After much experimentation, sound men hit on an ingenious solution: The holler is actually a combination of recorded tracks of a hyena’s howl, an opera soprano hitting a high C, a scratchy violin, and Weissmuller. In the course of making 11 sequels, Weissmuller eventually managed to imitate the effect himself.
A former Olympic swimmer with no previous acting experience, Weissmuller wasn’t the first movie Tarzan, just the first audiences could hear. Elmo Lincoln played him initially, in the 1918 silent film Tarzan of the Apes. Other screen Tarzans included another Olympic swimmer, Buster Crabbe; the voice of Johnny Weissmuller Jr. in the animated spoof Shame of the Jungle; and Miles O’Keeffe in the 1981 bomb Tarzan, the Ape Man, starring a naked Bo Derek as Jane.
But of the 18 he-men who’ve worn the loincloth, Weissmuller was the most physically correct, with brawn, simian features, and an easy grace. Add to those a brooding gentleness that made him irresistible to his treetop mate, Jane (played by petite ingenue Maureen O’Sullivan in the first Weissmuller Tarzan and five sequels).
O’Sullivan, 79, who is Mia Farrow’s mom and is writing her memoirs, was surprised by the film’s success. ”I was so green that, to me, it was just a movie.” The monkeys were a less happy surprise. ”I hated them,” she says. ”They were mean little buggers. Cheetah bit me every chance he got.”
MGM let Weissmuller go after 1948’s Tarzan and the Mermaids because he was getting flabby. He went on to star as an African guide in the 1955 syndicated TV series Jungle Jim and lent his vocal cords to business ventures ranging from swimming pools to massage chairs. Until he died in 1984, he remained a good sport about his peculiar fame, always ready with an autograph or — on request — the signature yell.
TIME CAPSULE: March 28, 1932
Hit songs ranged from the Depression hymn ”Brother, Can You Spare A Dime,” sung by Bing Crosby, to Cole Porter’s dreamy ”Night and Day.” Burns and Allen provided the laughs on CBS Radio’s Guy Lombardo Show, and Pearl S. Buck’s China novel, The Good Earth, topped the best-seller list.