Hollywood Books: ‘Tarzan The Centennial Celebration’ is wild for him

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Even at 100, Tarzan, the Lord of the Jungle, is still the ultimate swinger. Since Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first tale, “Tarzan of the Apes,” appeared in the popular All-Story magazine a century ago, the world’s infatuation has never abated for the athletic, buff and educated man who lives in the jungles of Africa. Now Tarzan is the subject of a lavish coffee-table book, “Tarzan The Centennial Celebration,” by Scott Tracy Griffin. The well-researched look at Burroughs and his creation features a forward by Ron Ely, who played Tarzan in the 1966-68 NBC series. Griffin will be signing copies of his book at a screening Saturday afternoon at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica of “John Carter,” the sci-fi fantasy that is based on Burroughs’ novel “A Princess of Mars.” We talked with Griffin about the character’s enduring appeal.

Why has Tarzan captured our imaginations for the past century?

Tarzan represents sort of a freedom — a primal freedom where we can return to nature and not worry about the mortgage payment or the traffic cop or the stoplight. I think that is universal. Around the world, people want to fantasize about mastering their own environment.


Was that the reason why Burroughs created the character?

He was very canny about his inspirations and his influences. He said he was inspired by Romulus and Remus. He had a very firm grounding in the classics. I think that is one reason his works are like the tales of Hercules and the heroes of old. He studied Greek and Latin through his school years. He was a very well-read man. He did research in the Chicago Public Library.

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He would today be a cubicle jockey. When he wrote “Tarzan,” he was writing for a business magazine and giving business advice. I think, probably sitting there [at his desk], he was staring out the window wishing he was somewhere else.

Was the first story, “Tarzan of the Apes,” an immediate success?

Yes. Burroughs had written “A Princess of Mars” [titled “Under the Moon of Mars” when serialized in All-Story magazine in 1912] before under a pseudonym. So from the time “Princess of Mars” appeared, there was a clamor for more of his writing. When he sent the manuscript of “Tarzan of the Apes” to Thomas Newell Metcalf, who was the editor of All-Story magazine, the editor wrote back and said he read it in one sitting. He wasn’t going to serialize this one, but put it all in one issue. It immediately began to be serialized in the newspapers, which printed fiction back in those days.


Why did he first write under a pseudonym?

He was shy. He felt that writing was a silly profession for a big, vigorous outdoorsman, as he fancied himself to be, having been in the cavalry, a cowboy and a railroad cop. He was always a very modest man. He thought writing was sort of a lark — “let me see if I can do this.” He didn’t want to be known for that unless he was successful. He wanted to be known as Normal Bean for “A Princess of Mars.” But the copy editor messed up [his byline] and it said Norman Bean. Burroughs told the editor when Tarzan was coming out, “You messed up the pseudonym, so just run this one under my name.”

Tarzan movies began in 1918 with Elmo Lincoln and then became a huge franchise in the 1930s and ‘40s when Johnny Weissmuller played the role for MGM and then RKO. But his Tarzan is far removed from the erudite, educated hero of the Burroughs’ stories. What did he think of these movies?

I think creatively he was dissatisfied and unhappy about some things they did. But he realized that the films brought his character to a much larger audience. The movies boosted book sales, just as the comic strips and other marketing did. So I think he sort of recognized that the movies were a necessary evil.

Burroughs continued to write Tarzan stories until 1944. Did he ever grow tired of his creation?

He’d get tired of Tarzan at times, but he would always come back to them because he realized there was a demand and market.


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“Twitch Upon a Star,” by Herbie J Pilato.

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