When famed author Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan in 1912, he envisioned the ape-nurtured King of the Jungle as a vine swinger, not a supine swinger, that loincloth notwithstanding.
To preserve that distinction, Burroughs' descendants, who still run the company bearing his name from--where else?--Tarzana, filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the makers of "Jungle Heat," a sex movie and interactive CD-ROM.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in New York, alleges that "Jungle Heat" is "the antithesis to the good, wholesome and attractive images of Tarzan."
The suit calls the film "lewd, vulgar and highly offensive," saying it depicts characters, including its Tarzan-like hero, in numerous scenes of sexual intercourse.
Ultimate Video of Chatsworth, Excalibur Entertainment of Fullerton and Prince Distributors of Happauge, N.Y., are named in the suit, which seeks to stop further distribution of the film and demands unspecified damages for trademark violations.
The lawsuit alleges that viewers will associate the film's hero, called "Ape-man," with Tarzan because "he wears a loincloth and carries a knife, he lives in the jungle and repeatedly emits the famous and unique Tarzan yell, he swings from vine to vine in the jungle, he rescues Jane from peril and he is accompanied by his animal friend Cheeta."
Also, he is actually called "Tarzan" at one point, the suit alleges.
Defendants in the lawsuit--who say on the CD sleeve that the movie was actually filmed in Africa--did not return phone calls.
But Mark Kearnes, a features editor for Adult Video News in Van Nuys, said he sees no legal problem. "I don't think it's against the law to do a movie about a guy who lives in the jungle and wears a loincloth, even if he lives in trees and swings from vines," Kearnes said.
"At some point it might become infringement, but you can't copyright a concept," he said.
A source close to the case disputed that contention.
"They're putting out a product and identifying it as a Tarzan film. The company [Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc.] is in business to license. And this is not a film the company would license," the source said.
Burlesquing plots and characters from well-known films and books is a standard X-rated film practice. But many of those films are either protected by the legal safeguards for satire, or use material in the public domain--fair game after the expiration of copyright protection, which is limited in time.
But Burroughs did an unusual thing for an author. He not only copyrighted the books, he covered the character of Tarzan with a trademark--which does not expire.
Tarzan first appeared in Burroughs' books in 1912. And in 1923, the author founded the family corporation, establishing the trademark to forever control products that used the name or likeness of Tarzan, from movies to comic books and T-shirts.
The family still operates the company from a building on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana, which Burroughs named after the character that earned him enough money to buy an estate there. And the ashes of the author are buried under a tree in the building's yard, making him forever a presence in the community he christened.
Hollywood's "me Tarzan, you Jane" films of the 1930s and 1940s treated Tarzan's relationship with tree-mate Jane in a discreetly respectable manner. And Wednesday's action was just one of several cases in which the Burroughs family has fought to protect the Tarzan reputation.
In the late 1970s, the Burroughs firm moved against the makers of a full-length sexually explicit film called "Tarzoon." After the court action, the makers changed the name of the main character.
In 1981, the company went to court to force the recall of High Society magazine for distributing an article titled "Monkeying Around With Tarzan and Jane," which depicted the two characters engaging in explicit sexual activities and conversation.
That same year, the Burroughs company forced MGM to cut some sequences from the R-rated "Tarzan the Ape Man"--which the firm eventually licensed--displaying actress Bo Derek in various stages of undress.