Of Tarzan and Kookaburras

Laughing Kookaburra (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Laughing Kookaburra (source: Wikimedia Commons)

I apologize that The Sound and the Foley hasn’t had a regular posting for a couple months, but this post took a while. In fact, I wound up pouring over 45 hours of media into my eyeballs and earholes in order to find the answer to this one.

You may recall the prior post about the sound of the Australian Kookaburra bird, and how it somehow came to be used as a stock background noise for all jungles that had nothing to do with Australia.

In one section of that post, I note that most online sources cite Tarzan films as being a prime source of ill-placed kookaburra sounds. However, none of those sources specify which Tarzan film first contained a wayward kookaburra. There are around 90 Tarzan films listed in the Internet Movie Database, ranging from the silent film era to modern day. Obviously, if the first several films were silent, the kookaburra bird call was not always part of the Tarzan entertainment franchises. So… where did it start?

Nobody online seemed to know.

Of course, that meant I had to start watching a crapload of Tarzan films just to find out. Because that is the way I am.

Welcome to my madness.

FIRST, A CLARIFICATION

Before I launch into a description of my findings, I want to make sure I note one thing: this kookaburra search does NOT necessarily pinpoint the first time ever the kookaburra sound was used in film. This is only to find the sound’s first appearance in the Tarzan films. When launching into my research, I was curious to find if the sound’s appearance in a Tarzan film predated the other examples I found. Previous to this research, the earliest example I had found was The Wizard of Oz, which was released in 1939. It is entirely possible that a kookaburra bird call appears in some other earlier non-Tarzan film I haven’t seen yet.

THE SILENT TARZAN FILMS

Obviously, the silent Tarzan films were not going to contain an inappropriate kookaburra sound, so I excluded them from the research. There are seven silent Tarzan films that appeared between 1918 and 1928.

Frank Merrill as Tarzan

Frank Merrill as Tarzan

TARZAN THE TIGER (1929)
FORMAT: Film serial, 15 episodes
DISTRIBUTOR: Universal Pictures
TARZAN: Frank Merrill
IMDB LINK
KOOKABURRAS? None

This film serial was originally filmed silent, but as studios converted to sound almost overnight, the film was dubbed over with some sound effects and music. Therefore, it was fair game.

The serial’s sound effects were sparse indeed, meaning sound effects were only applied two or three times per 18-minute episode. Almost all were things that could easily be made in a studio at the time: running water, fake wind, a woman’s scream, a metal platter falling to the floor, etc. All dialogue was handled through silent-era title cards.

Let’s also sit back for a moment and contemplate about how the very title of this serial involves naming Tarzan after an animal that does not live in Africa.

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan

Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan

TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932)
FORMAT: Feature film
DISTRIBUTOR: MGM
TARZAN: Johnny Weissmuller
IMDB LINK
KOOKABURRAS? None

This was the first of the MGM franchise of Tarzan films, which featured the amazing duo of Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan as Tarzan and Jane. It is ground zero for many of the cliches that we now associate with Tarzan, including the Tarzan yodel, the “Me Tarzan you Jane” talk, and so on. However, there was not a single kookaburra call.

The interesting thing about the MGM franchise is that they seemed to be making an honest effort to portray Africa. Yeah, the lions and elephants were appearing in a jungle instead of a savannah, and some of the apes were actors in suits, but this particular film used a lot of on-location stock footage (originally created for Trader Horn (1931)). It was also clear that the crew was using Indian elephants onset, but the elephants were dressed in fake ears and tusks to make them look like African elephants. The sort of people who make an effort to put fake ears on an elephant are not the sort of people who arbitrarily use an Australian bird call as background noise.

By the way, the Weissmuller / O’Sullivan Tarzan films are a ton of fun. They are by far the best ones I saw during all this research. It’s easy to see why they became so popular.

James H. Pierce as Tarzan

James H. Pierce as Tarzan

TARZAN OF THE APES (1932)
FORMAT: Radio serial, 286 episodes (listened to 77)
DISTRIBUTOR: World Radio Network
TARZAN: James H. Pierce
LINK
KOOKABURRAS? Probably Not

When I learned that there were radio serials running during the early years of the Tarzan sound franchises, I knew I also had to dig into them. It was entirely possible that the kookaburra call could have been used as a sound effect on the radio first, before it moved to a film version of Tarzan.

I was only able to find 77 episodes of this serial (around 13 hours of material). I listened to every single one. While it’s possible that a kookaburra call wandered into a later episode, I find it to be very unlikely. The radio episodes used very few extra sound effects outside the actors’ voices. What sound effects they did have were clearly recorded at a zoo (and they only had a couple of those) or were clearly an actor imitating an animal. According to this serial, an ape sounds just like like a guy saying, “Yabbayabbayabba.”

Buster Crabbe as Tarzan

Buster Crabbe as Tarzan

TARZAN THE FEARLESS (1933)
FORMAT: Film serial, 12 episodes (saw feature film edit)
DISTRIBUTOR: Principal Distributing
TARZAN: Buster Crabbe
IMDB LINK
KOOKABURRAS? Probably Not

When MGM came out with their Johnny Weissmuller films, producer Sol Lesser also obtained the film rights to Tarzan, and he started cranking out this competing film serial. The serial itself is now a lost film; however, the first four episodes were edited into a feature-length film for redistribution, and this is what survives.

Since the bulk of this production is now lost to the ravages of time, I can’t say for certain that it didn’t contain a kookaburra call. However, I can definitely say that the film edit did not contain one. It did, however, contain the whitest Egyptians I’ve ever seen. Also, these guys clearly didn’t give a rip about using Indian elephants in a film supposedly set in Africa.

TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934)
FORMAT: Feature film
DISTRIBUTOR: MGM
TARZAN: Johnny Weissmuller
IMDB LINK
KOOKABURRAS? None

Once again, the MGM franchise proved resilient against the appeal of the kookaburra call. It did, however, provide an impressive look into what films were like prior to the institution of the Hays film censorship code. Not only is the viewer treated to a few grisly scenes of violence (like a corpse who has been speared in the forehead with an arrow and eaten by ants), viewers can also enjoy a four-minute scene where a completely nude Jane goes swimming with mostly-nude Tarzan. There is also a smoking chimpanzee and ostrich riding. If that doesn’t make you want to run out and rent this film pronto, I don’t know how to help you.

This film is also patient zero for Jane’s version of the famed Tarzan yodel:

Herman Brix, aka Bruce Bennett, as Tarzan

Herman Brix, aka Bruce Bennett, as Tarzan

NEW ADVENTURES OF TARZAN (1935) (the serial)
FORMAT: Film serial, 12 episodes
DISTRIBUTOR: Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises
TARZAN: Herman Brix
IMDB LINK
KOOKABURRAS? No

This serial was made in direct collaboration with Edgar Rice Burroughs. In an interesting twist, it was also filmed on location in Guatemala, where the story is set. The serial is kind of interesting in that it a) is not set in Africa, b) it feels more like an Indiana Jones movie than a Tarzan story, c) Herman Brix has an interesting and rather erudite take on the character of Tarzan, and d) the sound was mostly recorded on location. Since remote sound recording technology in 1935 was pretty rough, the sound quality in this serial is often downright terrible, but it’s at least the real deal. There are a few moments where dialogue is very obviously dubbed (and, since this was a low-budget production, it sounds like the dialogue dubbing was done in somebody’s bathroom). However, there are no kookaburras in Guatemala, and thus there aren’t any in this serial.

NEW ADVENTURES OF TARZAN (1935) (the British edit of the serial)
FORMAT: Feature film (edited from the New Adventures of Tarzan serial from 1935)
DISTRIBUTOR: Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises
TARZAN: Herman Brix
IMDB LINK
KOOKABURRAS? No

This film is a 70-minute feature film edit of the four-hour serial described in the previous section. The sound from the original footage from the serial was mostly wiped out and replaced by dialogue by British actors and dubbed-in sound effects. Curiously enough, the film opens with an apology about the quality of the sound, which blames the trials of shooting on location, even though the original on-location soundtrack of the serial is almost completely replaced here.

There is a bit of trivia on IMDB that states that the original soundtrack to this edit of the film was lost during WWII; whether that means there was another dub or that they’d originally used the serial’s sound is unknown. If the latter is the case, that would explain the apology in the credits. Also, that means I don’t really know when the actual dubbing of this film (as it is seen today) actually happened. If the IMDB trivia is true, the sound on this film originates postwar, not 1935. If there is a lost dub, there may have been kookaburras on it. However, given the credit apology, I’m going to guess that the lost soundtrack originated from the original serial, and to rescue the film, the British re-dubbed it in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

There are no kookaburras in the film as it exists today. There is no way of knowing if kookaburras existed on an intermediate dub of the film, if one existed. (There is, however, a completely inappropriate peacock cry at 30 minutes, 50 seconds into the film.)

Carlton KaDell, who is not dressed as Tarzan because he was on the radio.

Carlton KaDell, who is not dressed as Tarzan because he was on the radio.

TARZAN AND THE DIAMOND OF ASHER (1935)
FORMAT: Radio serial, 39 episodes
TARZAN: Carlton KaDell
LINK
KOOKABURRAS? No

As with the Tarzan of the Apes radio serial mentioned earlier, the sound effects in this radio series were spare and mostly limited to things that could be made inside a studio. The plot of this series involves Tarzan and a team of explorers finding a lost city containing a fabled diamond. The serial involves one of the most ridiculous Swedish accents I’ve ever heard, as well as African natives that speak like they belong in a Renaissance festival. No kookaburras, though.

TARZAN ESCAPES (1936)
FORMAT: Feature film
DISTRIBUTOR: MGM
TARZAN: Johnny Weissmuller
IMDB LINK
KOOKABURRAS? None

Still no kookaburras in the MGM franchise, but Jane has a jungle-punk monkey-mechanized house with amenities like ceiling fans and running water. Plus, fans of poorly-placed animal sound effects can take solace in a final act that involves green iguanas that growl, roar, and eat people. (As a person who worked in the pet trade for many years, I can assure you that green iguanas are vegetarians and that they do not make noise. They also don’t come from Africa.)

TARZAN AND THE FIRES OF TOHR (1936)
FORMAT: Radio serial, 39 episodes
TARZAN: Carlton KaDell
LINK
KOOKABURRAS? None

This radio serial involved many of the same people who worked on Tarzan and the Diamond of Asher, and sadly it felt like it was stretching 20 episodes worth of material out to 39 episodes. Either that, or I was getting really tired of lackluster Tarzan material by this point. In any case, this radio serial was like the others I’d heard: it contained very few sound effects, aside from a couple stock animal sounds (the exact same ones I’d heard in previous serials) and noises that could be made in the studio. There were a couple early episodes where there were faint background bird noises, but I could not pick out anything like a kookaburra.

TARZAN AND THE GREEN GODDESS (1938)
FORMAT: Feature film (edited from the New Adventures of Tarzan serial from 1935)
DISTRIBUTOR: Burroughs-Tarzan Enterprises
TARZAN: Herman Brix
IMDB LINK
KOOKABURRAS? YES!

GOOD GRAVY THERE IT IS, at 1:31.

There could be more than one kookaburra call in the film, but honestly, I stopped watching after hearing that first one. See, Tarzan and the Green Goddess was also edited from the New Adventures of Tarzan film serial, which means that watching it would have been the third time I’d watched the same story. And I am so, so tired of Tarzan right now.

CONCLUSION

So there you have it. Kookaburras almost certainly first appeared in the Tarzan films in the second film re-edit of a Herman Brix film serial.

Now if you excuse me, I’m going to not watch Tarzan movies for a while.

6 comments

  1. Wendy says:

    I am amazed by the amount of effort you put into this. Impressed, too. Surprised? No. 🙂

    • chebutykin says:

      I probably wouldn’t have complete the project if the Johnny Weissmuller films hadn’t been in the mix. The Herman Brix serial was okay, but wow… the rest of the material really tried my patience.

      If I ever hear the “tarrrr-mannn-gaaaa-NIIIIIII!” radio serial Tarzan cry ever again, the PTSD symptoms will be visible.

  2. Wendy says:

    I remember actively watching the TV Guide listings for the Weissmuller ones when I was a kid, but that’s probably the last time I saw any of them. Where did you find them?

  3. mandydax says:

    Holy crap, Cheetah, that’s a lot of effort. *Citizen Kane clap*

    I gotta say, I don’t think looking at Johnny Weissmuller could be considered a chore. Damn, that man is beautiful!

    I had no idea that there was so much Tarzan stuff, and you even stopped after finding the bird. Wow.

    • chebutykin says:

      The Weissmuller films are pretty amazing. While Weissmuller is indeed great on his own, the real secret to his Tarzan films is his chemistry with the equally amazing Maureen O’Sullivan. You believe that there is some serious sex happening between those characters offscreen. Hot damn.

      It’s boggling to think of how much Tarzan material there is. I only took in, what, nine years of material? This didn’t count the silent era films or the 20-some-odd novels or everything that came after.

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