Amateur Fiction Filmmaking as a Family Bond

Robbins Barstow, Ph.D.
BTA Films and Videos
190 Stillwold Drive
Wethersfield, CT 06109

This presentation begins with a unique “ululation.” This is not a common term, but the dictionary defines it as a “howl” or “wail” -- a loud yell. The uniqueness of this particular ululation is that it was created by the Olympic champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller back in 1931 when he was selected for the starring role in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s first big “Tarzan” movie.

Weissmuller had learned to yodel, as a boy, from his Austrian parents, and when they needed a sound effect by which Tarzan could make himself known in the jungles of Africa, he came up with this. It became the distinguishing sound mark of MGM’s whole series of Tarzan movies in the 1930’s, and wherever Weissmuller went, he was never hesitant about letting loose this yell.

As pointed out by Hollywood author and film historian, Rudy Behlmer, “all the kids in America during the ‘30’s and early ‘40’s would run around yelling like Johnny Weissmuller -- or trying to yell like him -- climbing and swinging from trees and loving all that. It was big!” Well, I was one of those all-American kids in the 1930’s, trying to emulate this adventure idol, “Tarzan of the Apes.” The prolific American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs, had his first Tarzan novel published in an adventure story magazine in 1912. He called it “Tarzan of the Apes,” not “Tarzan the Apeman.” There is a big difference between a hereditary British nobleman, orphaned at birth and raised by a tribe of great apes to be one of them, and a side-show freak creature called an “Apeman.”

Burroughs’ story caught the public imagination, and he subsequently authored, during the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, more than two dozen other Tarzan novels, filled with far-out adventure and almost credible fantasy. Tarzan was the Harry Potter of his day, and I was an avid youthful reader, entranced by such imaginary tales as The Beasts of Tarzan, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, Tarzan and the Golden Lion, Tarzan the Untamed, and Tarzan and the City of Gold.”

In the wake of several early silent film versions, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer developed in the 1930’s a major Tarzan movie franchise, with full-scale productions that became immensely popular. They included Tarzan the Apeman in 1932, Tarzan and His Mate in 1934, and Tarzan Escapes, in 1936, all featuring Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as his unmarried mate, Jane. In all, there was a total of six MGM Weissmuller-O’Sullivan films, as well as many lesser imitators, with more than a dozen other actors playing Tarzan at one time or another.

I am the oldest of three brothers, and our family lived in Hartford, Connecticut, during the 1930’s and early ‘40’s. Our father was a Congregational minister who served as President of the Hartford Seminary during those years. All my life I have been a movie buff. My earliest film hero was the swashbuckling adventurer Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., with his silent versions of The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, The Thief of Bagdad, and The Black Pirate, in the 1920s.

In the 1930s, at the start of my teen years, Tarzan took over as my favorite movie, as well as book, hero. With my younger brothers, John and Paul, we would often play at Tarzan games in Hartford’s Elizabeth Park, across from our house.

And about this same time, I became intensely interested in home movies.

I secured a small, hand-cranked, Kodascope 16mm projector, and I would buy short reels of cartoons and silent comedies, and charge the neighborhood kids five cents to come and watch them projected on a sheet in our basement. Then I acquired an early Eastman movie camera, and started taking family movies of my own. I always tried to make then interesting, with little stories or incidents, and humorous tricks, involving the whole family. Watching these visual records of little pieces of our lives served as a real bonding instrument.

One of our father’s friends had a cottage out among some woods north of Hartford in the small town of Granby, Connecticut. We used to go out there for picnic excursions, and we discovered out in back of the cottage an impressive, natural gorge, with rocky sides at least fifty feet high, and a small stream running through it with several deep pools.

One time when we were out there exploring and climbing around, we suddenly got the idea of making a home movie about Tarzan, using this as a location. So we three brothers got together to dream up a story. At the age of 16, I was the oldest and tallest, so naturally I would be Tarzan.

And we decided on the simple framework of having a young adventurer go to Africa to see if he could find Tarzan in person. We called this “eminent African explorer” Paulus Rufus Barstinio, a variation of Paul Rogers Barstow, age 10, the youngest of us three brothers.

Of course we needed some kind of a villain, to provide suspense and excitement. Our middle brother, John, age 14, took quite seriously the fun challenge of playing the treacherous “Mahahatmi Slinkaround,” who would try to thwart our jungle quest.

To balance us three male characters, we persuaded three neighborhood girls to go with us on our film-making excursion, as members of Paulus’s safari.

I bought several 100-foot reels of 16mm black and white film, loaded the camera, and we all set out to spend an entire day of creative filmmaking at the rocky gorge location. We had plotted out ahead of time the general story line; but we had no script. We made things up as we went along, depending upon the varied opportunities the natural setting provided.

Looking back on it now, some 70 years later, at the age of 85, I am quite impressed at the quality of my teen-age direction and hand-held camera work.

I had to get one of the other participants to take the scenes in which I appear as Tarzan. But every one was very cooperative, and it was a super fun experience.

When the films were developed, I had the further fun of editing them into finalized form, using a small, Eastman splicing block, with brush-applied film cement. I also worked out a standard narration, which I would recite live every time we showed the film, which we titled Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge.” The resulting 12-minute, black and white, fictional home movie became a family classic, bonding us brothers literally for the rest of our lives. It was shown and reshown time and time again, with live narration and great laughter and cheers, at family gatherings, and even at outside performances, for friends and relatives. It became an integral part of all of our lives.

In fact, the covenant relationship established through the joint making of this creative film drama was so great and lasting that in 1974, thirty-eight years after the initial production, the same leading characters reassembled in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to do a remake, fictional sequel, with a new cast of supporting players. The young explorer Paulus had become a distinguished professor of drama and Director of Theatre at Wellesley College.

We three brothers had all married, and we each had at least one child, so the new production featured three wives, and three grown offspring, including the actual “son of Tarzan.” We called this new, 8-minute, color version The Return of Tarzan, and the Lost, Last Whale. So now the amateur, fiction film-making bonding experience had been extended to additional generations, and today our grandchildren love watching the classic tale, too.

In 1989, I finally switched from film making to video making, and with this technological advance, I was able to have my films, including both Tarzans, transferred to VHS video on which I could record the traditional live narrations. So now they are available for showing anyplace, including local public access television. And for this Symposium, I have even had them transferred to DVD, along with a new, 9-minute, introductory, documentary video which I have just completed, on The Making of Robbins Barstow’s 1936 ‘Tarzan’ Home Movie.

So here we have these three amateur shorts on DVD. First the new documentary, then the 1936 original epic, plus the 1974 remake sequel. Enjoy!


Do you remember in the movie Casablanca when Rick says goodbye to Ilsa at the airport? Ingrid Bergman looks up at Humphrey Bogart and asks, “What about us?” And he replies, “We’ll always have Paris.” Well, when we three Barstow brothers grew up and went our separate, independent ways, we were able to keep our familial bonds strong, even though different and apart, by reminding each other, ”We’ll always have Tarzan.” And indeed this bond has been a lifetime one. Both of my younger brothers, John and Paul, have now died, but the Tarzan film was mentioned at both of their memorial services, as I am sure it will be when my time comes. I know I speak for both of them, as well as for myself, when I express our profound gratitude to Northeast Historic Film for providing us with a further level of home movie immortality by including these films in your 2005 Summer Symposium.