The father of Louisiana’s film industry? Tarzan.
In late summer 1917, Hollywood came to Louisiana. It brought monkeys. It also brought a lion, costumes and a whole bunch of film gear. It was all for director Scott Sidney’s silent-era adventure “Tarzan of the Apes,” which shot in Morgan City, about 90 miles west of New Orleans. In the process, the film’s producers are believed to have achieved two notable firsts: “Tarzan of the Apes” was the first major Hollywood production to shoot on location outside New York or California, and it was, consequently, the first major feature film to be shot in Louisiana.
For decades after “Tarzan of the Apes,” it wasn’t uncommon for films to set up shop locally, but it was almost always only for stories that required a certain Louisiana flavor. Then, in 2002, the state Legislature passed a package of filmmaking tax incentives that would lure so many productions that by 2013, the state film industry was churning out more feature films than any location in the country — including Los Angeles. Changes made to those incentives in 2015 resulted in a production slowdown, although industry leaders are hoping recent follow-up legislation will return the state to filmmaking prominence.
- “Tarzan of the Apes” was a big success. Arriving in theaters just six years after Tarzan first appeared in print in 1912, it would become one of Hollywood’s first bona fide blockbusters, and one of the first six films in history to cross the $1 million threshold in ticket sales.
- Another first for “Tarzan of the Apes”: It was the first time Edgar Rice Burroughs’ popular character appeared on film.
- The title role was played by Elmo Lincoln, who also starred in a sequel, “The Romance of Tarzan,” a year later. Enid Markey was his Jane in both films.
- Most of the original 210-minute “Tarzan” film — and all of the sequel — have been lost to time. Several edits of the remaining 60 minutes of surviving footage of “Tarzan of the Apes” can be found online, however.
- Among the reasons why the production selected Morgan City was because it was suitably exotic, it had convenient rail access and the region boasted a high black population, making it easy to hire extras to play natives, according to Al Bohl, who made the 2012 documentary “Tarzan: Lord of the Louisiana Jungle.”
- Also appearing in the film are some 20 gymnasts from the New Orleans Athletic Club, who donned goat-skin costumes to play Tarzan’s adoptive “Mangani” family, a fictional species of advanced ape created by Burroughs for his Tarzan tales.
- Lincoln long maintained that he stabbed and killed a lion on the film’s set — although it is said to be one that was old and sedated — when it turned on him during filming. Given the contradicting reports, however, there are many who dismiss Lincoln’s story as his own attempt at myth-building.
- “Tarzan of the Apes” started something. With 2016’s “The Legend of Tarzan,” Burroughs’ character has appeared in at least 50 films.
- Burroughs himself came to Louisiana for the “Tarzan of the Apes” shoot, according to his grandson, Danton Burroughs, in a 1975 interview. “Our archives show several pictures of grandfather on the set,” he said.
In addition to making noise at the box office, “Tarzan of the Apes” spawned its own furry legend. According to local lore, when principal photography concluded, the film’s producers simply set loose their on-screen monkeys in the area around Morgan City rather shipping them back to whence they came. For decades afterward, rumors persisted of colonies of monkeys living in local swamps. As colorful as that legend is, a century later the legacy of “Tarzan of the Apes” is more than mere monkey business, as it — and its success — proved to other filmmakers that there was no reason they had to restrict themselves to Hollywood when shooting. Though it would proceed in fits and starts over the next 100 years, the Louisiana film industry was born.