The Dream Vaults of Opar
 
 

Elmo the Magnificent

    I suppose I first encountered Otto Elmo Linkenhelt (better known as Elmo Lincoln) in the early sixties. As I recall, Caz or some other ERB enthusiast I knew at the time was showing a chapter from Adventures of Tarzan, and I eagerly joined to watch. Memory is hazy--I seem to recall a burly Tarzan with a rope across his chest, making his way through rocky passages--and the only impression I was left with was that the film was pretty crude.
    Around the same time, I saw all or part of a version of Tarzan of the Apes--with much the same reaction. Just how much of an impression it made on me should be obvious from how poorly I recall that first viewing. Then, only two or three years ago, I finally acquired a fairly good videotape copy of Apes, which I recorded from one of the cable networks--a nice, clear print but only 43 minutes in length. (Most of you are probably aware that silent movies are usually shown at the wrong speed, since special equipment is necessary to project them at the original number of frames per second. This 43-minute version could well contain every frame of the 60-minute version, if the 60-minute version was taped at the correct speed. This problem, of course, is the cause of the jerky, speeded-up look that many silents have today, and is not at all the way they appeared when they were first shown. What a shame, when a relatively inexpensive bit of hardware could allow them to be properly shown and enjoyed!)
    Reaction to this more recent viewing of Apes? Still the same. Interesting but crude. Obviously those who spoke highly of Mr. Lincoln must have been overly influenced by childhood memories. At best the production was primitive and the acting uninspired. Or so I thought.
    Now, thanks to Dr. George Jones, I have viewed a lengthy--two hour and forty-five minute--version of the 1921 serial Adventures of Tarzan, and I finally begin to understand what my elders in Burroughs fandom found so impressive about Elmo Lincoln.
    The version I watched is less than perfect. The original fifteen-episode serial, I understand, was re-released in the late twenties in a ten-episode version; it may be from this that my tape was made. Whatever the origin, the original clearly has been abridged, and this version is no longer divided into chapters. Also, the quality of the footage is less than perfect--quite fuzzy in places, so that it’s all but impossible to distinguish much of the background scenery at times. The film is dark, and (as discussed above) projected at a speed noticeably faster than that at which it was filmed.
    Far too long and difficult to follow, the film nevertheless provides a most interesting diversion for the Burroughs student. It’s alive with jungle creatures. The jungle crawls with carnivores, most of which Tarzan dispatches easily--perhaps too easily.
    Most impressive, though, is Elmo Lincoln himself. Stocky (indeed, “beefy” or even “portly” might be more accurate if not particularly kind adjectives to apply to the man), he somehow keeps his great barrel chest thrown out in every scene. His presence is truly commanding.
    Lincoln’s Tarzan is a primitive savage with noble face and bearing. Suddenly he will stop, shoulders back, chest expanded, chin uptilted, one leg forward of the other as if interrupted in mid-stride. Slowly his head turns as he surveys his surroundings. Despite the awkward, full loincloth that covers his chest (and conceals his paunch) he’s genuinely statuesque. What magnificent presence!
    And action! This Tarzan picks up his adversaries and hurls them about like dolls (which they occasionally are). For the most part Lincoln travels through the trees by walking on limbs, but he does make use of the occasional, conveniently placed vine to swing down to the ground or climb into a tree. More complicated arboreal gymnastics apparently would have to await the arrival of Johnny Weissmuller and the MGM back lot. Tarzan carries his rope and at least once utilizes the cute trick of tossing it ahead of him so that it twists around a branch, then uses it to swing over some obstacle. (Last mailing I erroneously imputed the origin of this to Frank Merrill, who does put it to more extensive use.)
    Adventures of Tarzan is based (too strong a word, actually, since the resemblance is slight) on the concluding chapters of Return of Tarzan and parts of Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. I found the plot virtually impossible to follow. It’s tedious and confusing, with action switching back and forth between various localities that are visited again and again--Tarzan’s cabin and Opar, for instance. A group of Arabs serves as the primary villain of the piece, with Rokoff thrown in for good measure.
    George Monberg plays Rokoff and is adequate at best. Lillian Worth makes an interesting Queen La--plump and pretty, with an odd, interesting face. Louise Lorraine, who celebrated her sixteenth birthday during filming, does a respectable job as Jane (paired with the obviously aging Lincoln). The apes are of the ridiculous men-in-ape-suits variety. Jane’s father, Professor A.Q. Porter, is a major character; and if anything, he’s even more absentminded than in Tarzan of the Apes. In this outing he takes to the forest with alacrity and sets out to perfect his archery skills.
    The title credits are often outrageously ungrammatical and often destroy any possible suspense. “Sensing Jane in danger, TARZAN doubles back for the rescue,” we are told; then we get to watch Tarzan double back and rescue Jane!
    No, a classic of the silent screen it’s not--at least in the form in which it survives here. But I can’t help wondering what the original may have been like, before someone decided to make it better by abridging it. (How can one appreciate a serial without knowing where the cliffhangers originally fell?)
    --Winter, 1988
 
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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.