NEW ORLEANS — The echoing cry of Tarzan, King of the Apes, will ring out this weekend in the Louisiana oil town of Morgan City.
The Tarzan Festival started with a proclamation by Gov. Bobby Jindal. Author Edgar Rice Burroughs’ tale of the boy who grew up to be king of the jungle was first published 100 years ago, and the first movie version was shot in Morgan City in 1917. It was a silent film that earned $1 million — startling by standards of the day.
The festival will include a Tarzan yell contest, a Tarzan and Jane lookalike contest, and the premier of a documentary on the 1917 film.
The area’s lush swamp, with its dark bayous and vine draped trees, so mimicked Tarzan’s Africa that it drew fledgling filmmakers from Hollywood at a time when few movies were made on location. Over the years, though, the swamp has been thinned out by raging storms and housing developments.
Filmmaker Al Bohl and his daughter Allison Bohl spent four years making “Tarzan: Lord of the Louisiana Jungle,” which recounts the daring of the first Tarzan production.
“I got hooked on that first movie after a friend of mine told me they released all the monkeys they used in the movie before leaving and left them behind,” Bohl said. Carrie Stansbury, director of Cajun Coast Visitors and Tourism bureau, said there was no evidence any monkeys ever were left behind.
“Tarzan of the Apes” was first released in the October 1912 issue of All-Story magazine, earning Burroughs $700. It went on to become a book in 1914. The 1917 movie, starring Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan, was shot in the Atchafalaya swamp. Lincoln made two more silent Tarzan films, pioneering the movie-going public’s taste for jungle fare and leading to the iconic series of the 1930s starring Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane.
The producers of the 1917 film had first considered filming in Florida, but the jungle-like terrain in Morgan City seemed perfect.
“They wanted three things that Morgan City had,” Al Bohl said. “It resembled jungles in the book, and it had large populations of African-Americans to be extras and a really good railroad system.”
The railroads were necessary to easily move supplies in the days before the interstate system.
The Spanish moss, though not native to African jungles, also proved to be a draw, according to Bill Stark, director at the Patterson Museum, where a yearlong exhibit based on the Bohl documentary will run. The book mentioned the “‘moss covered jungles,’ so they loved it,” Stark said.
The love of the setting rapidly changed when the crew and actors showed up in August 1917, the steamiest month of the brutal Louisiana summer.
“The crew got malaria,” Bohl said. “They had about 40 circus acrobats that were supposed to play apes, but in the heat they could only wear the costumes for a minute before they had to get out of them.”
The film was innovative, however. For example, more than 800 locals — including African-Americans — were in the movie. And they were allowed to perform without black-face makeup, a departure from style of the time.
“It had a tremendous impact on the area,” Stark said.
The location also had an impact on future Tarzan films.
In the book, Tarzan jumped from limb to limb. But Lincoln used the thick swamp vines to swing from tree to tree, and it became an enduring image.
The movie was a huge hit, becoming one of only 10 from that era to earn $1 million. Movie tickets typically cost 7 cents at the time; tickets to Tarzan sold for $1.50, Stark said.
Although it was a silent film, Lincoln does portray Tarzan’s cry while pounding his chest in “Tarzan of the Apes.” The cry was later immortalized in the “talkies” starring Weissmuller. That yell will be the centerpiece of today’s contest.
“We had one man who called to tell us his wife had recorded him doing the Tarzan yell everywhere they go, and he was headed here to do it this weekend,” Stansbury said.