A blood-curdling report from our man in the cinema, Bijou executive producer Ron Hall.
In 1954 I was frightened by the giant vampire bats in Tarzan Escapes. I saw them in Madison, Wisconsin on a double feature with Tarzan the Ape Man. I was eight at the time. The bat attack has stuck in my head like a nightmare that can’t be resolved because the bats are lost.
The lost footage story is told by John McElwee at Greenbrier Picture Show and at ERBzine Issue 0618. Gabe Essoe writes in “Tarzan of the Movies” (1968): “The Capture of Tarzan was finished in late 1935 and screened to preview audiences. The film terrified the children and brought outraged complaints from irate mothers. Afraid that if released in its present form, Capture would be heavily criticized and alienate more people than it would attract, studio bosses ordered all gruesome scenes cut and replaced with re-takes.”
Despite all reports, I saw the vampire bats twenty years after they were filmed. What exactly did happen? Can this mystery be solved today?? Can the bats be found???
I had never seen a Tarzan film when my mother dropped me off at the kiddie matinee. They looked exciting from the newspaper ad and were more thrilling than I had imagined. Tarzan the Ape Man ran first. The pygmies were disturbing. The giant ape that Tarzan fights in a pit was terrifying. The elephant attack was breathtaking.
Then came Tarzan Escapes. Near the end of the film today, Tarzan, Jane, her two cousins, evil Captain Fry and thirty natives enter a forbidden juju cave. The path winds through dead trees and misty swamp. Cheeta chitters at giant lizards in the bubbling muck. A native slips off the path and vanishes in quicksand. Jane also slips but is saved. Two minutes later they emerge at the other end but with only fifteen natives left alive! Tarzan forces Fry back into the cave where he dies. You can watch the scene here.
I saw more in the tunnel of terror. I saw the lost climax of the entire film! Tarzan cautions quiet as they pass through a high chamber where hordes of huge sleeping bats hang upside down. A native stumbles and makes noise. The bats wake and drop down to attack. Bang, bang, bang! Utter mayhem erupts! Rifle shots and spear jabs are useless. A bat grabs one native and flies aloft with him, flailing and screaming. A few of them are that big -- monsters! A bat lifts Jane off her feet. Tarzan saves her. Everyone slides down a muddy bank into the swamp to seek meager protection among gnarled trees. More natives succumb to quicksand. Tarzan flashes his knife in hand-to-bat combat. He kills one, but there are too many more.
A tribe of friendly pygmies arrives carrying torches, which scare away the bats. This is mentioned in the 1935 trailer, but I do not clearly remember pygmies saving them. The relief at being rescued had far less impact than the fear of abduction by bats.
Another scene that has since been cut to tone down the violence involves Tarzan killing two lions. I had seen the same fight that day in Tarzan the Ape Man, so it is not lost, and the lions could be edited back into Tarzan Escapes like this.
An advertising "bat blitz" was planned in 1936. The pressbook that went to theaters several months before the opening promised, “The attack of the giant vampire bats,” as one of the "Ten Big Thrills in Tarzan Escapes." This elaborate bat lobby display also appears in the pressbook. A sample “Herald” flyer features Tarzan battling a giant bat.
Then something else bad happened to this jinxed film. It was too good! MGM preview audiences were outraged at the excessive violence. Kids, who were now the target audience for Tarzan, screamed and ran. A censored version without the bats and lion fights was hastily and quietly sent out across the country. The Herald and lobby display were scrapped. While many newspapers mentioned the bats from the pressbook blurb, no bats appeared.
Eighteen years later MGM found an un-cut negative in their vaults and unleashed the bats! The 1954 reissue poster shown at the top depicts Tarzan fighting a bat. The newspaper ad promised “Giant vulture bats swoop from the sky in a vicious air attack!” Killer bats sounded like good clean fun in the cold-war era. No mothers objected. Of course few of them ever saw the film! The matinee audience made up of 90% young boys enjoyed one of the best Tarzan films ever made for the first, and possibly last, time. A new mystery soon settled in. Whatever became of this “director’s cut?”
In the early sixties I was watching Tarzan Escapes on TV and recall saying to my brother: “Oh, boy, here comes the good part!” when they enter the cave. I had a long wait. The bats had disappeared. While they have never shown up on TV or video, other Tarzan fans now in their sixties must have seen them in the 1954 revival. John McElwee reports: “I did ask my brother (born 1945 and nine years older than me) if he saw the two Tarzans on reissue. He did, and does remember the vampire bats. I don't think it was suggestive recall, because I barely mentioned the content of the scene before he picked up on it and described the sequence in some detail. I'm convinced he saw the bats same as you did.”
I urge that every print of Tarzan Escapes that was made before 1955 be screened. The bats might lurk on some 35mm print in a foreign archive or on a 16mm print made for the armed forces during the war. Warners/MGM archivist George Feltenstein has cheerfully taken up the quest. Knowing that the bat attack was transferred to safety film for the 1954 release has been a fresh incentive to start searching.
Like the censored scenes in King Kong that were lost for years and like the nude swiming scene in Tarzan and His Mate that was found outside the USA, the giant vampire bats from Tarzan Escapes may yet swoop down to carry off hapless victims to their bat lair while thrilling Tarzan and horror fans for the first time!
An expanded version of this article can be found on the Edgar Rice Burroughs website.