“George Gipp of the Jungle”

Regarding Ronald Wilson Reagan, it is impossible not to consider his long term impact on world history. His legacy in the USA lives on, and will always spark debate. He was one of the most popular presidents of the Twentieth Century. His film career was not as illustrious as that in politics. (Both a movie and political career still seem mutually excluding, even after Schwarzenegger.) Reagan was a never a star of Clark Gable brilliance. But he was more famous than…well, than those who never came of note and thus are not recalled here. In politics, Reagan was elected President of the Screen Actors Guild, Governor of California, and, of course, President of the United States. Twice. He was also once nominated to be the Lord of the Jungle. What became a forgotten and hushed chapter of Reagan’s past, was that he was once chosen to be Tarzan.

The movie was “Tarzan and the Vanishing Diamond.” In it, our hero in stitched leather trunks seeks the title gem and foils smugglers of both minerals and animals. It was a detective story as much a jungle adventure. The plot was perhaps tailored to Reagan’s refined appearance and precise line delivery. “Tarzan as Sherlock Holmes” one film historian wrote. But swinging (no dancing) and daring-do were on hand. The climax had this Irish-descended Tarzan battle a ferocious lion. Or, as it is said to have appeared, a ferocious carpet or large, stuffed animal. No real lions were used on the set. Thus no actors were harmed during filming. Even then it became a concern if this Tarzan role would bring harm to Reagan’s career. This was typified by the issue of Tarzan’s battle cry. As Lord of the Jungle, it should be powerful. A vocal declaration of mastery over the savage world and any man who dared enter it. No sound recordings exist of Reagan’s version. However, one soundman described it as a series of long syllables cried out by someone passing a gall stone while falling off the wagon and over a cliff. There is no information as to this technicians political leanings. And, Carol Burnett. No, there is no reason to mention her here other than her famous Tarzan yell. And now that has been done.

Reagan’s first wife Jane Wyman did not play “Jane” as has been reported. Anita Drexler did. Despite being in movies, she never became President. She became pitch girl for Pepsodent and later Chesterfield cigarettes. (A brand Reagan also pitched for.) Later still, she promoted denture cream and COPD remedies. Jane, oddly blonde in “…Vanishing Diamond”, had only a few scenes with her swinging hubby. Too bad, because one of the few good things from this movie misadventure was said to be the good chemistry between Drexler and Reagan, who was also said to have a mutual affection with the elephants. The production was started and stopped during his B-movie years under contract with Warner Bros. In this period, Reagan himself said they “didn’t want them good, they wanted them Thursday.” This one they decided to pass on by Wednesday.

The film was never finished. The exposed film stock is yet to be found, if it still exists at all. Only stills were leaked out in 1976 when Reagan failed in his challenge to replace then President Ford for the GOP nomination. Those photos resurfaced in 1980 and drifted in and out of commentators and comedians gag catalogues at least until 1988. Although most now think the shots were Photoshoped. After the collapse of “…Vanishing Diamond”, it was suggested that Reagan would have more success with comedy. This was fine w/ his other Tarzan co-star, Bonzo, now free from his contract to portray Cheetah. Together this ape and man duo made several films, neither ever mentioning where and why they first met. If there was any reason to worry that Reagan’s acting career would hurt his political chances, the Bonzo series would’ve been it. But it never was. Johnny Weissmuller would come to define the role of Tarzan. Reagan would move on and redefine American politics. Even so, during Reagan’s two terms, bananas were never served at the White House. This might have been to preclude anyone slipping up and mentioning Bonzo, or, worse yet, the Tarzan film that never was. “Bedtime For Bonzo” and that series were matinee draws. Success, even in silly forms, is always more palatable than failure. Especially with voters.

BSL