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Commentary by Patrick H. Adkins

Number 55.

Published for the Fall, 1997 issue of ERB-APA.

Pat usually titled his ERBAPA works as NUMBERS ... I suspect this was to entice the reader to dive in to find out what his submission was about!

Number 55. is devoted to Tarzan on Old Time Radio

—The Editor

As I mentioned in ERB-APA #3, around 1976 I researched and prepared a lengthy proposal for Tarzan of the Air, which was to be a book-length history of the Tarzan radio series. A change in management at Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., forced me to put that project aside. Last year Danton asked me if I wanted to continue with it, and I explained that, regrettably, I wouldn't be able do so at this time. Bob Barrett has been working on an article about the Decca Tarzan records and now plans to turn that into a book covering all the Tarzan recordings, so I'm looking forward to learning what he unearths about the radio series from the vaults of Tarzana.

Danton [Burroughs] asked me some months ago to see if I could find a company interested in releasing the radio shows on tape. I was successful in this endeavor, and Adventures in Cassettes (1-800-328-0108, www.aic-radio.com) has just released their first Tarzan album -- Tarzan in Jungle Legacy ($25.98), an attractively packaged collection of six cassette tapes containing the first twelve episodes of the 1950s half-hour Tarzan radio series. Produced from master recordings in the archives of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., these tapes offer crisp, clear, near-perfect sound that's better than anyone could have heard over the radio in 1951 -- and these are but the first of a number of planned albums. By the time you read this, the serials Tarzan and the Diamonds of Asher and Tarzan and the Fires of Thor should be ready for shipment.

Commodore Productions, which had previously produced the Hopalong Cassady radio show, brought Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle to the air January 11, 1951. The show aired on the Don Lee Mutual Broadcasting System, a West Coast regional network, at 8 PM PST Thursdays, sponsored by Dr. Ross Dog and Cat Foods. Each episode featured original music by Albert Glasser and was produced by Walter White, Jr. The following year it moved to CBS at 8:30 PM Saturdays, sponsored by Post Cereals. A total of approximately 70 episodes were produced. This first AIC album presents these shows in the sequence of their original West Coast airing, which is significant since "coming next week" previews are included and there is some continuity from episode to episode, with recurring characters.

Each episode begins with the series' unique version of Tarzan's cry -- an interesting variant of the standard movie version, with less of a yodel -- followed by, "From the heart of the jungle comes a savage cry of victory -- this is Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle! From the black core of dark Africa, land of enchantment, mystery, and violence, comes one of the most colorful figures of all time. Transcribed from the immortal pen of Edgar Rice Burroughs -- Tarzan, the bronzed, white son of the jungle! And now, in the very words of Mr. Burroughs, the story of . . . ." Despite their claim, these shows are not adapted from ERB, though writer Bud Lesser demonstrates a good familiarity with the original books.

Lamont Johnson stars as Tarzan -- without credit; the producers claimed they wanted the public to think of Tarzan as Tarzan and not be distracted by a particular actor. He does a respectable job in bringing an articulate, multilingual ape-man to the air. Little of Tarzan's background is presented; it isn't until the tenth episode that we learn that after being raised by apes, he left the jungle and traveled widely before returning to his boyhood home. No mention is made of his British title or Jane. Tarzan's country is specifically cited as French equatorial Africa, and we are told that he divides his time between his seacoast cabin, the various native tribes with which he is friends, and the apes who raised him; however, in this opening dozen episodes we never meet the Mangani. Most often he is found with the Punya tribe (most of these spellings are guesswork). The Waziri are mentioned but do not appear. Natives speak in broken English littered with ape language, which is used as if it were Swahili or their own tongue.

Often the narration takes on a convincing air of authenticity, using African and Arabic words to evoke exotic locales and an aura of mystery. Sometimes it successfully mimics ERB's prose style, especially when describing battles with wild animals. Tarzan is a "great bronzed god of the jungle" and at one point the characters even find themselves in "Stygian darkness." Tarzan's acute senses, particular of smell and hearing, are regularly noted and made use of, and his travel through the trees is usually described in Burroughsian fashion rather than as Hollywood vine swinging. There are occasional -- puzzling! -- missteps, however, as when Tarzan gives the "victory cry of the aboriginal ape."

Usually the natives are portrayed as good but simple people. The Tarmangani are invariably evil intruders, always to be mistrusted; as Tarzan tells one white, "Inside you are as ugly and cruel as the civilization that spawned you."

Tarzan is far more powerfully portrayed here than in either of the recent TV attempts. When a villain who has tried to kill him asks why his life is being spared, Tarzan replies, "So that you may return to civilization and tell the Tarmangani: This is Tarzan's jungle -- Tarzan's and his brothers -- those with skins of ebony and those whose coats are of fur. This time I have been lenient. The next time I will not be!" On another occasion Tarzan tells a native who has betrayed his people to the Tarmangani, "If you are not gone by the time Goro the moon rises, the entire jungle will fall upon you and the others."

Probably the worst thing about Johnson's portrayal is his rich, hearty laugh, which he delivers with predictable regularity. It's difficult in an aural medium to portray a stoic, taciturn type like Tarzan as likeable, so the producers have made him talkative, affable, and even given to soliloquy, all of which is jarringly out of character. Johnson's Tarzan has something of a childlike streak in him, taking exaggerated delight in his pet parrots. When displeased by Torgo, a native boy who is almost his ward in several episodes, Tarzan considers adopting a white youth in his place. Several times he introduces himself with the uncharacteristically naive, "I am Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle." (At least this Tarzan is barefoot, unlike the TV travesties -- he specifically says so at one point.)

These stories display many small logical glitches that remind us how unusual ERB and the better pulps were in the respect they showed for the intelligence of their audience. Here villains search for uranium by listening to a Geiger counter while flying in their airplane and can throw together a quick "radiation bomb" out of spare parts around their camp. Tarzan strangles a gorilla that has "claws," stabs to death "a rogue elephant that had been stalking Tarzan's party," kills lions by stabbing them in the brain. (Even bullets have difficulty penetrating lion skulls!) Tigers have returned to Tarzan's jungle, nearly forty years after ERB realized they aren't indigenous to Africa. Despite his various admonishments about killing only for self defense or food, Tarzan allows a party of Tarmangani to hunt rhinos. In one episode we're expected to believe that a quantity of bullets small enough to be made into a necklace would contain enough gunpowder to create a magician-like flash in a village fire and, when put in a fissure in a volcano, cause the volcano to erupt, and that an erupting volcano would precipitate a thunderstorm needed to alleviate a drought. ERB may have indulged in incredible coincidences, but at least he maintained an underlying logic in most of his stories, a trait that has always been a rarity in mass market entertainment.

These shows are generally well produced and acted. The most puzzling aspect of them is, what was their intended audience? The inclusion of Torgo in some of the episodes and the moralistic tone sometimes adopted ("I kill only in self defense or for food" is repeated even more often than in the later novels) suggest that the series was for children. The time slots in which it aired and the amount of violence suggest otherwise. ("I kill only in self defense," he tells a native as he holds his knife to the man's throat, "but were you to cry out, my life would be in danger!") Tarzan kills numerous wild animals, uses his deadly rope from the trees to dispatch two natives, kills an entire roomful of Arab guards, and causes an eruption that wipes out a cannibal tribe. This is not your New Age ape-person.

I'm a fan of Old Time Radio and have heard hundreds of episodes, including most of the well remembered series. Against these, the 1950s Tarzan series holds up surprisingly well -- not a classic, perhaps, but certainly well worth the time of anyone interested in this form of entertainment or in adaptions of Edgar Rice Burroughs' character to other media. I'm eagerly looking forward to the next batch.

Lamont Johnson's contribution to the Tarzan legend has been grievously overlooked. I believe he is still living in the Los Angeles area. Serious consideration should be given to locating him and inviting him to the next Dum-Dum.

—October 11, 1997

Tarzan in "Jungle Legacy"