CAUSE TO CELEBRATE
AS THE VINE FLIES IN MORGAN CITY
The year was 1918. Movie houses were packed with audiences thrilled by the silent films flickering on-screen accompanied by the sound of swelling music played on-site in the theatre. Two years before, Edgar Rice Burroughs had sold his bestselling novel, Tarzan of the Apes, to the National Film Corp. The film’s producers thought the jungle-like quality of Louisiana’s more remote regions would be the perfect place to film the Ape Man’s story. The movie company journeyed to the Atchafalaya River Basin and nearby Morgan City to begin filming the story, braving swamp critters, the legendary Louisiana heat and malaria; by all accounts, the actual filming of the story was like a zoo unto itself.
Commemorating this celluloid event in the history of Morgan City, the first Tarzan Festival was held in April. A restored version of the 1918 film was shown, and a fascinating feature- length documentary, Tarzan: Lord of the Louisiana Jungle, premiered. The documentary is the creation of Al Bohl and his filmmaker daughter, Allison Bohl, and chronicles the somewhat bizarre story of the making of the movie Tarzan of the Apes here in the Bayou State.
“My interest was first piqued when I was told many years ago that after making the movie, the monkeys and apes refused to get back in the cages, so they left them,” Al said. “After research, I found out that the making of the films was as amazing as the movie itself.”
Al isn’t exaggerating. Louisiana gave birth to the screen Tarzan, and Morgan City was primarily chosen as headquarters because of civic cooperation, lush jungle vegetation, waterways, a plethora of black extras and a railway connected to a wharf. According to IMDb trivia, 800 extras were hired to people the African village scenes; an additional 300 local extras received $1.75 a day to play cannibals. The production company hired eight acrobats to play the apes, clad in goatskin costumes and masks. It has been said that these eight apes were actually young men from the New Orleans Athletic Club. Then, there are the conflicting versions of the lion’s death. In a thrilling scene, a lion crawls through the window of Tarzan’s pad to devour Jane, but our hero grabs him, thwarting his evil intent. Tarzan, played by Elmo Lincoln, often told people that the elderly and drugged lion turned on him, forcing him to stab the lion to death in a fit of derring-do; his fellow cast members stated the poor lion was already dead when the scene was filmed. Filming actually began with the actor Stellan Windrow playing Tarzan, but he deserted the project to enlist to fight in World War I. Windrow was more lithe and agile than the stocky Lincoln, who had problems swinging through the trees, so the original footage of Windrow swinging on vines was used in the final cut.
Tarzan of the Apes became a bona fide movie blockbuster, one of the first films to gross more than $1 million box office booty.
In April, the Louisiana State Museum in Patterson opened a year-long exhibition that shares a name with the Bohls’ documentary. Tarzan: Lord of the Louisiana Jungle features a large and varied collection of memorabilia connected to the Lord of the Apes that spans the past 100 years, including books and merchandise.
For more information, visit www.louisianatravel.com/louisiana-state-museum-patterson.