Timeless: Tarzan, Part 2

Today's post: another installment in our Throwback Thursday Timeless series where we take a look at the lives of sexy Hollywood hunks from the 20th Century. Click here for previous entries.

And we invite you to throwback a few cocktails at Bacchus today. Every Thursday all tequila is $5.

Last week we told you of two Olympic gold medal swimmers competing for the lead role in the first Tarzan series. Johnny Weissmuller won the part, but the younger, more classically handsome runner up, Buster Crabbe would go on to a more lucrative and varied career. With such an angelic face, it's no wonder.

Buster Crabbe's family tree is rooted deep in the Hawaiian islands.

One forefather was a ship captain. In 1821 he made port in Honolulu and married a native woman—a union that made Buster Crabbe one thirty-second Polynesian. Their son, Horace, was born in Philadelphia but returned to the islands in 1847, and he eventually served as chamberlain to King Lunalilo of Hawaii from 1873-74. Buster's grandfather, Clarence, was for many years the Honolulu port superintendent and served from 1902-04 as president of the territorial senate. He has been called the father of the Republican Party in Hawaii (EEK!). But there was always a certain amount of moving to and from the mainland in the family. Buster's father, Edward, was born in Carson City, Nev., his mother, Agnes, was from Bakersfield, Calif., and Buster himself was born in Oakland, on Feb. 7, 1908. Before he was two, his father had taken a job as luna (overseer) on a pineapple plantation and moved his family back to Hawaii. The elder Crabbe later became a U.S. revenue agent during Prohibition, then ran unsuccessfully for sheriff of Honolulu and got into real estate, but he never was very successful at anything. He did teach his son to swim by the time Buster was four, however. The boy became a powerful swimmer and a superb surfer in the days when the boards were redwood slabs that often weighed more than the surfers who rode them. Buster also became a skillful horseback rider and boxed some, and when he attended Honolulu's famed Punahou School, he won three varsity letters in swimming and was eventually inducted into the school's hall of fame.

During Crabbe's boyhood, the No. 1 Hawaiian sports hero was the legendary swimmer, Duke Kahanamoku, who won his first Olympic gold medal in the 100 free at the 1912 Stockholm Games. He got two more golds, in the 100 free and the 4 X 200 relay at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, and added a silver in 1924 in Paris. Crabbe knew Kahanamoku well and adored him.

"Duke was the first really major Olympic swimmer in the world," Crabbe said in an interview several years ago. "People wouldn't believe the times he was swimming until he won in Stockholm. Duke was my god. He was a great sport. In Hawaii, he wouldn't embarrass local champions. He could beat all of them by the length of the pool, but he'd always make it look close."

In 1924, when Kahanamoku and other Hawaiian swimmers left Honolulu on a ship en route to the Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, Crabbe, age 16, waved good bye from the dock and swore that he'd be on the boat headed for the next Olympics. And he was. But the '28 Games in Amsterdam weren't entirely satisfying for him. The transatlantic voyage was extraordinarily rough and, along with most everyone else on the U.S. team, Crabbe was very sick. He lost 10 pounds and was weak and dispirited when he arrived in the Netherlands. The training conditions there were less than ideal "For some reason we couldn't practice in the Olympic pool and had to go to Utrecht," he would recall. "There were little fish in the pool there, and they got in our suits. I think the water was pumped right out of the canals." Though fish-free, the Olympic pool itself was no bargain. It was located next to a railroad track, so the swimmers constantly were subjected to the clank of passing rolling stock and the shriek of train whistles. And if the wind was blowing wrong, a fine mist of soot would descend on the pool, which also had a large crack in its bottom. Water had to be constantly added to the pool.

Nice package. :-)


Crabbe's bronze-medal and fourth-place finishes in Amsterdam weren't that bad, but he was disappointed, and he became grimly dedicated to winning at Los Angeles in 1932. In the meantime, he briefly attended Yale, then the University of Hawaii and USC, from which he graduated with a B.A. in political science in 1932.

His college years weren't happy. His scholarship was just tuition, and he had jobs. He washed dishes at a frat in exchange for meals. He trained every day. He had no real coach, so he made up his own regimen, swimming at least an hour a day. As the Games approached, early in the morning he'd sometimes climb the fence at the Olympic pool, which had been built near the campus that year, so he could get in an extra hour or so of training. Everything was aimed at the Olympics.

There was, of course, no guarantee that Crabbe would win a gold medal, but there was much in his favor. He was competing in his own backyard. He was the only American swimmer who had also participated in the '28 Games, and the U.S. had dominated world swimming since 1920 with the likes of Kahanamoku and the fabled Johnny Weissmuller.

"My life was entirely changed because of one-tenth of a second. Nothing was ever the same again."

Buster repeated these words or variations of them hundreds of times in the 51 years he lived after the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. That fateful split second occurred during those Games; to be more precise, it ticked away around 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 10 when Crabbe made a desperate lunge over the final half-meter of a 400-meter freestyle swimming race to touch the pool wall just before Jean Taris of France did. Thus, Crabbe won a gold medal, and instead of becoming a lawyer called Clarence with a job in a law firm in Hawaii, he became a movie star named Buster who played Tarzan and then bleached his hair and gave the world Flash Gordon in 40 episodes that played in thousands of theaters Saturday afternoons.

When Crabbe died, at 75, of a heart attack on April 23, 1983, obituary writers dug into their files and came up with a sampling of the B movies he'd been in: King of the Jungle, Man of the Forest, Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, Hold 'em Yale. They also listed some of the numerous roles he'd played: Kaspa the Lion Man, Tarzan, Thunda the Jungle Man, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Captain Gallant, Billy the Kid. They also reminded their readers that Crabbe had once been known as the King of the Serials.

If the '32 Games had been held in any other city—Rome, Paris, Chicago, Philadelphia, anywhere normal—Crabbe's life surely wouldn't have turned out as it did. But given the tinseled surrealism that prevailed in L.A. in the 1930s, Crabbe's life almost had to unfold the way it did.

The '32 Games featured the first Olympic Village, a flower-bedecked settlement of 550 pink and white portable bungalows in Baldwin Hills. The Village was for men only (the women athletes were put up in the Chapman Park Hotel), and Damon Runyon described it as follows:

"Naked young men are sprawled out here and there on the turf, all of them tanned the color of an old saddle. It is difficult to distinguish the Americans from the Argentines, Japanese or Filipinos. The California sun has painted them all alike."

At the 1932 Olympics, the 24-year-old Crabbe was a strapping 6'1", 188 pounds. He had the body-beautiful of the surfer and rough-water swimmer he'd been in Hawaii. Despite his dashing looks, Crabbe wasn't one of the starry-eyed who had come to L.A. to seek fame and fortune in the movies. He was a sober young man who was preparing himself for a career in law. His family had no money to speak of, and Crabbe had been working his way through USC by putting price tags on stock in the basement of Silverwood's, a men's store. His pay came to $8 a week.

Winning a gold medal changed his fate.

Even before the Olympics had begun, Paramount Pictures had sent scouts into the Village to seek handsome young men for a screen test that was intended to uncover a new jungle king to compete with MGM's Tarzan, Weissmuller. About 20 Americans, including Crabbe, put on what he called G-strings and had themselves filmed in action—running, grinning, throwing a javelin, pretending to heft and heave a huge papier-maché boulder that weighed about five pounds.

"I did it as a big lark," Crabbe later told a New York paper. "Acting had never entered my head. I always thought there was something a little odd about the kids in school who went out for plays."

A few days after the Olympics, Crabbe and half a dozen others were retested and Crabbe was picked. Was this because of latent acting talent? Because some mogul saw dollar signs on Crabbe's big brown eyes? Hardly. Crabbe became an instant star because 25 studio secretaries, who assuredly were well aware of his heroics and who easily recognized him because his face had been on the front page of all the major L.A. papers, were assembled one afternoon to watch a second series of screen tests. They picked Crabbe, 24 to one.

He started work immediately, at $100 a week, on a feature film, King of the Jungle. The first day on the lot, his assignment was to pose for still photos with a real lion. The photographer had Crabbe toss bits of meat to the animal. He accidentally dropped a tidbit, and the lion, evidently irritated, leaped and sank its teeth into Crabbe's thigh, causing a wound so deep and so bloody that when a doctor attempted to cauterize the wound, the photographer fainted. King of the Jungle was released in March 1933 and got a near rave review from The New York Times: "Endowed with a refreshing sense of humor lacking in other films of the type, 'King of the Jungle'...is an unusually good picture, one that will appeal to cinema patrons of all ages." TIME magazine was less impressed, calling the film "an obvious inversion of the Tarzan formula." The magazine was more enthusiastic about Crabbe, who played Kaspa, a young man who'd been raised by lions. "From the neck down," said TIME, "Crabbe easily equals Weissmuller as an attraction to female audiences; from the neck up he is a vast improvement."

Crabbe next made a brainless beefcake flick called Search for Beauty ("Venus-like Girls! Tarzan-like Men!"), which is labeled "a stinker." But the studio raised his pay to $200 a week, and he stayed on—and on. In the end, he made some 192 movies, including eight serials of at least 12 episodes each. He played Buck Rogers 12 times, Tarzan once, and possibly made more Zane Grey Westerns than anyone else. He may have become accustomed to being called the King of the Serials, but he didn't like it. He said later, "I never thought I belonged. The book about my movie career I have in mind would be called something like From the Outside Looking In. They pigeonholed me as a lifeguard or something. You know, the guy who strips pretty well. I never got any help from a good director. Just because I was a swimmer doesn't mean I was a dummy. I could have learned to be a good actor."

Crabbe remained a man of serious mien throughout his life. A man who knew Crabbe for years said: "He was a no-nonsense guy. He didn't have that happy-go-lucky attitude that other swimmers like Weissmuller or Stubby Kreuger had. Buster knew that Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon weren't Hamlet, but he took his acting very seriously. He was a man who valued his dignity."

Some will always remember him as the bleached blond Flash Gordon. So sexy. So timeless.

Crabbe never gave up swimming and he did as much as two miles a day right up until the end of his life. He stopped competing after 1932, but he was a member of the water polo team selected to represent the U.S. at the 1936 Olympics. He didn't go to the Berlin Games, however, because the U.S. Olympic Committee chased him off the team for having appeared in advertisements for the Bulova Watch Company.

He aged gracefully and died at the age of 72 in Scottsdale, Arizona. Heart attack. Sigh.

Gay rumors? In Full Service, the tell-all memoir of a Hollywood hustler, Buster Crabbe listed as one of Scotty Bowers' clients. Despite being married to the same woman for over 50 years and fathering 3 children, the book says he liked the company of men. Rumor or not, we imagine he was very comfortable being naked with other men.

Today we raise a glass of tequila to the beauty of a Hawaii-raised Olympic champion; a Hollywood beauty and former Tarzan, Buster Crabbe.