In this week's timeless series we veer off course a little and examine a character of fiction and two of the beautiful men who portrayed him.
Tarzan is a man of fiction, yet with the latest cinematic foray (The Legend of Tarzan starring Alexander Skarsgård) we harken back to a time when the jungle man came to life on the big screen through Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe.
In 1931, MGM was auditioning musclemen with exceptional swimming ability for a new movie about Tarzan, the Edgar Rice Burroughs pulp hero. It would be a big deal, the first Tarzan talkie, with real location shots.
Two Olympic gold medalists auditioned: 27-year old Johnny Weissmuller and 23-year old Buster Crabbe. Who would you choose?
Weissmuller (left) won, and starred in Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), one of the top box office draws of the year.
Undaunted, Buster was cast as the Tarzan clone Kaspa the Lion Man in King of the Jungle (1933). Then he starred in Tarzan the Fearless (1933), which sank like a stone and was quickly forgotten.
Let's learn a little bit about these two 20th Century hotties.
Johann Peter Weissmuller was born in 1904 in a town called Freidorf in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the town is now called Timișoara and is in present day Romania). His parents emigrated to the USA the following year. They passed through Ellis Island and, for some reason, listed their son's birthplace as Serbia. The family settled in western Pennsylvania.
Around the time that he was 9 or 10, Johnny contracted polio and at the suggestion of his doctor, he took up swimming to help battle the disease. After the family moved from western Pennsylvania to Chicago, he continued swimming and eventually earned a spot on the YMCA swim team.
As a teen, Johnny attended prep schools, but dropped out to support his family and worked various jobs including a stint as a lifeguard at a Lake Michigan beach. While working as an elevator operator and bellboy at the Illinois Athletic Club, Weissmuller caught the eye of a swim coach who trained Weissmuller and in August 1921, Weissmuller won the national championships in the 50-yard and 220-yard distances.
Although foreign-born, Weissmuller gave his birthplace as Tanneryville, Pennsylvania, and his birth date as that of his younger brother, Peter Weissmuller. This was to ensure his eligibility to compete as part of the United States Olympic team, and was a critical issue in being issued a United States passport.
On July 9, 1922, Weissmuller broke Duke Kahanamoku's world record in the 100-meter freestyle, swimming it in 58.6 seconds. He won the title for that distance at the 1924 Summer Olympics, beating Kahanamoku for the gold medal. He also won the 400-meter freestyle and was a member of the winning U.S. team in the 4×200-meter relay.
As a member of the U.S. water polo team, he won a bronze medal. Four years later, at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, he won another two gold medals. It was during this period that Weissmuller became an enthusiast for John Harvey Kellogg's holistic lifestyle views on nutrition, enemas and exercise. He visited Kellogg's Battle Creek, Michigan sanitorium to dedicate its new 120-foot swimming pool, and would go on to break one of his own previous swimming records after adopting the vegetarian diet prescribed by Kellogg.
In all, Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals and one bronze medal, fifty-two United States national championships, and set sixty-seven world records. He was the first man to swim the 100-meter freestyle under one minute and the 440-yard freestyle under five minutes. He never lost a race and retired with an unbeaten amateur record. Eat that, Michael Phelps. :-)
In 1929, Weissmuller signed a contract with BVD undergarments and swimwear to be a model and representative. He traveled throughout the country doing swim shows, handing out leaflets promoting the brand, signing autographs and going on radio. In that same year, he made his first motion picture appearance as an Adonis, wearing only a fig leaf, in a movie entitled Glorifying the American Girl.
After his first Tarzan movie, Johnny continued his juggernaut in Tarzan and his Mate (1934), Tarzan Escapes (1936), and Tarzan Finds a Son! (1939), 12 movies in all, becoming the iconic Tarzan for generations of moviegoers, finally retiring to become Jungle Jim in 1948.
A film Weissmuller made in 1954 called Cannibal Attack has some major gay subtext. Early in the film, Arnold (a character who needs "how-to-be-a-man lessons) saves Johnny from drowning. A few scenes later, Johnny saves Arnold from a leopard.
Here's a synopsis of Johnny and Arnold's relationship in the movie:
Arnold apparently enjoyed the rescue, so he splashes about in the river until a crocodile investigates, then calls out for help. Johnny comes running, but he trips and falls, knocking himself unconscious (he is fifty years old, after all). When Arnold realizes that he’s not going to be enveloped in the hunk’s arms, he pulls out a knife and dutifully saves himself. Throughout the movie, the two rescue each other many, many times.
They spend the most of the movie with one’s hand pressed firmly on the other’s shoulder, sometimes for two full minutes (try this at home; it’s impossible: within sixty seconds, your partner will either break contact or want to kiss).
The female lead sees the two men enter a cave together to do something that is none of her business, she pretends to be attacked by a crocodile, so Johnny will pry his hand from Arnold’s shoulder (or wherever it is at this point) long enough to rescue her. But after the faux rescue, Johnny rushes right back to Arnold again.
Seems like Johnny and Arnold are in love. :-)
Here's what we imagined their relationship to be like (follow the images below):
They met, they enjoyed time in the sun, they fell in love, they opened their relationship. :-)
Johnny Weissmuller continued to appear in films and made a few television appearances in the 1960s and 70s. He had several failed ventures in theme park ownership and health food offerings.
Despite being a lifelong athlete and having a strict healthy diet, Johnny suffered from a serious heart condition. He stayed for a while in a senior home for aging stars and then moved south of the border. He died of pulmonary edema in 1984 near Acapulco, Mexico. He is buried there.
Some will always remember him as the fit, tanned athlete and jungle man who swam and swung into our lives and awakened our libidos.
Alas, there are no accounts of him actually having gay relationships, in fact, he was married five times and fathered three children. Still, the man wearing a loin cloth, swim trunks or less was bound to be the object of desire for many a young gay man in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
Enjoy thoughts of Tarzan swinging through the rafters at Bacchus today while you sip on $5 tequila and munch on a $4 Baker + Butcher sandwich. See you soon.
Next Thursday we take a look at another Tarzan, Buster Crabbe. Unlike Weissmuller, Buster was known to have enjoyed the company of men.