When I first came to Indonesia I was a volunteer at Jakarta’s Ragunan Zoo. Through study programs and just hanging around, I learned just enough about Indonesian wildlife to realize I knew nothing at all.
Recently I was mindlessly watching an old Tarzan movie (circa 1940) watching Johnny Weissmuller’s loincloth never flap up in the wind, when suddenly I noticed that there were cockatoos in the jungle scenes. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “Tarzan lived in Africa. There are no cockatoos there; cockatoos are Australasian birds, also found in Indonesia.”
So I started paying closer attention.
In another scene a herd of African elephants – identifiable by their large ears – were stampeding a villain, while back at the tree house Boy’s pet pachyderm was definitely Asian, its smaller ears and double-humped head identifying its heritage.
When I saw the Proboscis monkeys – a male with a long, bulbous nose and a female with a bobbed snoz – I knew Hollywood was up to its old editing tricks. Did they think I didn’t know those monkeys only live in Borneo, which is definitely not in Africa? Then I noticed the crocodiles in the muddy river that set out to devour Jane weren’t crocs at all, they were good old American alligators. “What’s up?” I thought. Cockatoos and elephants can be found in any animal park in the world, and it makes sense that Hollywood would use animals found in their own country in their films, but did they really come to Borneo 60 years ago to film Proboscis monkeys? There are very few of them in zoos, even today, so they must have photographed them in the wild. Intrigued, I decided to see if I could find out.
MGM became interested in producing Tarzan films, I learned, because it had an abundance of jungle stock footage shot on location (but my research didn’t reveal where) for Trader Horn. They blended the left-over footage with studio jungle scenes in 1932’s Tarzan, the Ape Man and in 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate. Then in 1959 MGM remade Tarzan, the Ape Man, this time using safari footage from King Solomon’s Mines. They also recycled scenes of a colorized Weissmuller swinging through the trees and dubbed his yell into the mouth of UCLA basketball star Dennis Miller, who was simply terrible as the Ape Man.
Other Tarzan flicks were actually shot in real forests. In 1938, Tarzan and the Green Goddess was filmed in Guatemala, of all places. And if the characters in Weissmuller’s last Tarzan film Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948) didn’t look particularly African it’s because it was shot in Mexico. In 1957 Tarzan went Technicolor with Gordon Scott as the monosyllabic hero in Tarzan and the Lost Safari, the first to be shot in genuine African locales, though some scenes were studio-shot in England. Gordon Scott also appeared in Tarzan’s Fight for Life in 1958, described as “cheesy, with the cast stomping around a studio jungle set.” Luckily, both Scott and the genre regained favor by returning to Africa in 1959 for Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.
British producers finally brought Tarzan to Asia: first to India in 1962 where Jock Mahoney, filmdom’s thirteenth Ape Man, became deathly ill shooting Tarzan Goes to India. He must have recovered, though, because in 1963 he was in Thailand for Tarzan’s Three Challenges.
Having exhausted nearly all available research, I stumbled on a travel book which revealed that several early Tarzan movies were filmed in Wakulla Springs, Florida, U.S.A. where there was an “untouched wilderness” containing one of the deepest springs in the world filled with alligators, snakes and waterfowl. Now the alligator mystery was solved, but did Hollywood really come to Borneo in the 1930s to film Proboscis monkeys? I guess so.
What still baffles me, though, is why I ever noticed the animal anomalies in the first place. I must have spent too much time at Ragunan Zoo!