Again he laid his hand upon her [Jane’s] arm. Again she repulsed him. And then Tarzan of the Apes did just what his first ancestor would have done. He took his woman in his arms and carried her into the jungle.
—Edgar Rice Burroughs, in 1912’s Tarzan of the Apes
Enter John Derek, nearly 70 years later, with his own ideas about updating the sex lives of Noble Savages. When Derek announced last year that he would direct an MGM remake of 1932’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, he promised something “sensual, erotic.” Indeed, after he returned from the jungles of Sri Lanka with his $5.5 million film wrapped, the wonder was how anyone could ever expect Tarzan to confine his swinging to the trees. In Derek’s version, he is a kind of simple soul who grunts not a line in the entire film—not even a single “Me Tarzan, you Jane.” That can only be because the stunning vision parading before his eyes left him speechless. Derek’s Jane is no demure socialite (as Burroughs had envisioned) but a half-nude, sexually assertive she-woman who could be incarnated only by Bo Derek.
The movie’s peek-a-Bo style leaves little to Tarzan’s imagination, not to mention those of MGM executives who eagerly beat a path to the screening room door for early rushes. Almost inevitably, then, the full Tarzan first unreeled not at its still-scheduled July 24 release in 1,100 theaters but for a select audience in a Manhattan courthouse. The viewer who counted was U.S. District Judge Henry Werker, 61, presiding over a lawsuit brought against MGM by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., the family company and custodian of Tarzan‘s reputation. “In this movie Tarzan is nothing more than a spear carrier,” complained the family’s lawyer, Roger Zissu. “In sexual matters she is now the aggressor in a sense…The walking by Jane topless for long stretches seems pervasive.”
Zissu further cited scenes in which Jane fondles the befuddled Tarzan (he reciprocates by awkwardly pawing her breasts). The estate also objected to the “suggestions of sexuality” between Jane and her father, played by Richard Harris, and the “rubbing of Jane’s breasts” that takes place when she is “leaning on all fours” being prepared for ravishment by the grotesque Ivory King (played by Steven Strong). Worst of all, concluded the plaintiffs, there is a moment when a chimpanzee “actually kisses her breast,” and a scene at the end in which Tarzan, Jane and a frisky orangutan “are almost simulating sexual activity.”
After screening the Derek film, as well as the 1932 original with Johnny Weissmuller and a 1959 remake with Denny Miller, Judge Werker ordered cuts in four sequences. Over protests from the Dereks, who vowed “not one frame” of the film would be excised, MGM (which had the contractual right to do so) made the changes and resubmitted the film to Judge Werker, who demanded still further deletions and at one point armed himself with a grease pencil to indicate the offending frames before he was satisfied. In all, three minutes and six seconds were snipped.
The decision only confirmed the bombastic Derek’s opinion that the darkest jungles are at Hollywood & Vine. “Our film is pristine-pure,” he erupted. “Tarzan should be so lucky as to be made by us.” Derek is still outraged at MGM for complying with the court’s demands. “It’s obvious the dollar bill is the bottom line with them,” charges John. “Ninety percent of Bo’s nudity will be cut out,” he continues. “If that’s not censorship, I don’t know what is. I’m not going along with it and my darling little Bo is not going along with it.”
Bo’s particularly pouty about losing her scene with the orangutan. “I had a petticoat and panties on in that scene even though I was topless,” she says. “It was really sweet and cute.” To demonstrate her disapproval, Bo went on L.A. television news to announce that she and John were giving up their 10 percent of the gross. Instead, they promised to contribute the funds to saving gorillas presently endangered by poachers in Zaire.
Ironically, taking the steam out of the movie hasn’t appeased the Burroughs estate, which is controlled by the survivors of Edgar, who died in 1950 at 74. A Chicago-born misfit turned writer, he never set foot in Africa but nevertheless amassed a fortune from 26 Tarzan novels, 44 Tarzan films and souvenirs ranging from a Tarzan monkey to Tarzan chest wigs. Burroughs, his three children and their heirs have made the Tarzana, Calif. company one of the most successful family literary licensing businesses in history. Understandably, they’re annoyed that in 1931 MGM picked up the rights to film Tarzan, the Ape Man and any remakes for a “paltry” $20,000—without paying a penny since. The Derek venture may have also put a crimp in the family’s long-delayed deal with Warners to do an approved, $15 million adaptation. In 1980 the estate tried to block the Derek film from going into production. Judge Werker threw out the suit. In 1959 another court rejected the estate’s efforts to block the first MGM remake. Now the Burroughs family is back in court contending that it was part of the original 1931 license that all Tarzan films are meant for family entertainment and that MGM has violated the deal by allowing substantial script changes and extensive nudity.
The jungle drums started pounding for Bo and John not long after she followed her “10” breakthrough with last year’s disappointing A Change of Seasons. “I felt used,” she explains of that film. “I have nothing against nudity. I think the human body is lovely. But I don’t like my body used to tease. I felt that the producer, Marty Ransohoff, manipulated me. He insisted on filming a hot-tub scene where I would be nude. If there was a reason for it in the context of the story, I wouldn’t have minded. But he used the scene at the beginning of the film when the credits were rolling and it was just a tease. John said, ‘Well, after this we will just make our own movies and then you will never be put in that position again.’ ”
Bo turned down several million-dollar offers to work for others while she and John searched for the right property. The idea of redoing a Tarzan film suited them both. John always saw the Ape Man as a kind of second banana. So the Dereks made a deal with MGM to remake Tarzan, the Ape Man according to the dictates of the 1931 license.
Both insist they stayed faithful to the first film’s structure. Aside from taking away Tarzan’s knife and his speech, they maintain that the character is the same as Weissmuller’s (“a beautiful human being”) and note that in 1934’s Tarzan and His Mate, Weissmuller’s Jane, Maureen O’Sullivan, even took a topless swim which was eliminated from later commercial prints. “I wanted to make a blatantly commercial film that would be fun,” John argues. “The nudity belongs there; it’s not sexy. If I wanted Bo to look sexy, I would put her in revealing clothing.”
John and Bo chose remote locations like Sri Lanka and the Seychelle Islands which served effectively to keep the studio brass and the press at bay during the eight-week shooting schedule. Besides starring, Bo also decided to produce. Her first executive decision, she says, was to fire John as co-producer. “He kept falling asleep during meetings,” she jokes. Industry insiders laughed at the notion that an inexperienced 24-year-old honey was going to play boss lady. Replies Bo icily: “No one calls me honey.”
As John, 54, sees it, “Bo has proven herself. Every day, after putting in a full schedule shooting, she would go back to the office and go over the books. If costumes, hair or makeup weren’t right, it was up to her to see that everything got fixed.” When she was satisfied, John and Bo went to their hotel room and hopped into the bathtub. “It was our only form of relaxation,” says John. “We would be exhausted and climb into the tub with the water up to our necks and just soak.”
Not everyone found the filming as fulfilling. “We put in long hours with no meal breaks,” John admits. “But there was always fruit and cheese to eat. We weren’t out to have a good time. Before we left for Sri Lanka, we told everyone it would be hard work. They all agreed that was the way they liked to make movies too. Well, some really understood. Some didn’t. The ones who didn’t were sent home.”
It soon amounted to a mass exodus of a reported 17 crew members. The first to get his walking papers was Lee Canalito, the film’s original Tarzan. According to the Dereks, Canalito was fighting a losing battle with his weight. “We spent a lot of time getting Lee ready for the role,” says Bo of the former boxer who signed on to become the 15th screen Tarzan. “We sent him to a gym and encouraged him to trim the necessary pounds.” Even when Canalito injured his knee on a trampoline, Bo claims they kept rooting for him. “But later, when we saw the rushes, we realized there was just too much jiggling.”
So the search for Tarzan was on again and actors like Sam (Flash Gordon) Jones, who played Bo’s handsome hubby in “10”, started exercising again. But the role finally went to Miles O’Keeffe, 26, a 6’4″ actor formerly with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Offscreen, O’Keeffe is about as loquacious as Tarzan is in the film. Reportedly his contract—like Canalito’s—forbids him to give interviews about the film or his experience with the Dereks.
While there were many complaints about the Dereks’ slave-driving, no one accused Bo of sluffing. Richard Harris recalls Bo calling him one evening to inquire whether he used the air conditioning in his car. “I couldn’t figure out what she was getting at,” says Harris. “Finally I found out the driver of my car was using an extra two gallons of fuel every day and blaming it on the air conditioner.” Harris gives high marks to both Dereks. “John knows exactly what he wants to see on film,” praises Harris. “And Bo made sure that when John was ready to shoot a scene everything he needed was there. She’s incredible.”
John claims now that even his paternal relationship with Bo has reversed. “I’ve become totally dependent on her,” he says. “I was her training wheels; now she can ride alone.” Perhaps, but Bo chooses not to. She will model only for John. “Other photographers try to get me in sex-tease poses,” she asserts. “For John, it must be beautiful.”
For the couple, beauty is their just-purchased 31-acre spread north of Santa Barbara, which includes a two-story ranch house with a Spanish motif, a swimming pool and an empty stable for the horses they hope to raise someday. In L.A. they make do with a modest one-bedroom apartment at the Marina City Club. The Dereks won’t be finished paying off the $890,000 spread until next July, and since their combined salary was a mere $500,000 and they’ve rejected their Tarzan profit percentage, Bo is worried “we won’t be able to make it.”
Perhaps Sea Mistress, the projected $8 million pirate film the Dereks will make for CBS feature films next year, with Bo as John’s idea of “the female Douglas Fairbanks,” will take care of the payments. If it doesn’t pan out (and it won’t if there’s no Derek control), John’s not crying. “I am just sick of all this crap,” he states. “Hollywood is now and always has been a hellhole. I learned a long time ago that there is no one you can trust in this business.” John has a checklist of examples: MGM has “failed me,” the Burroughs family is “arrogant and sue-happy,” Judge Werker has “made the Constitution a joke,” the press is “out to get us.” Even his beloved Bo, who insists “I don’t need to be an actress to be happy,” doesn’t escape censure. “If it were all gone tomorrow she probably would miss it,” he grouses. Can no one match Derek’s personal standards of integrity? Apparently not. “John,” Bo beams brightly, “always wished God had taken a little more time to make the world more beautiful.”