Heart of Louisiana: Tarzan films in Morgan City

Updated: Feb. 27, 2018 at 7:39 PM CST
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MORGAN CITY, LA (WVUE) - It didn't take tax incentives to lure the very first Hollywood blockbuster to film in Louisiana.  The very first Tarzan film was shot in Morgan City and released to enthusiastic audiences 100 years ago.

It's the moss on the trees that looks so familiar in this 1918 silent movie "Tarzan of the Apes." Moss may not be common in the jungles of Africa, but it is mentioned in the Tarzan novels written by Edgar Rice Burrows.

One of the known filming locations in Morgan City is here in Lake End Park. It's an area that's on the waterfront, and it's full of moss-covered trees.

"That's where they shot a lot of the, uh, hut scenes, the palmetto huts, and they were actually there for a while before the film, and they built more," said Al Bohl.

Al Bohl and his daughter have produced a documentary that tells the story of this first Louisiana motion picture. It was one of the first times that Hollywood shot on location. This downtown hardware store was used as the prop shop that they used to build these costumes, and the sets and everything they needed to to produce the film," Bohl said.

Part of Morgan City's attraction was economics.

"It's a great train transportation to get to the Morgan City area where they could transport everything that they needed to get to Morgan City," said Carrie Stansbury. "Of course, it had a large black population, and they had access to that. It was the first movie where actually black people played black people, where before white people wore blackface, so that was historic."

"People were so excited about it that it was one of the first films to earn a million dollars," Bohl said. "It was in the top 10 silent films of that era."

For a century, rumors have persisted that animals were released into the Louisiana swamp when filming ended.

"They didn't really release the chimps," Bohl said. "Chimps are very dangerous."

Bohl thinks the smaller monkeys have been set free.

Another controversy, did Tarzan, portrayed by actor Elmo Lincoln, really kill a lion?  Bohl believes he did.

"It was very normal for them to take an animal that was aged or whatever and actually kill it for a film," Bohl said. "And Elmo Lincoln said he killed the lion. He had a knife. He showed his daughter."

The larger primates, the apes, were actors in costume.

"Most of them were at the New Orleans Athletic Club, and they brought in circus acrobats and they were in these outfits in August that were not breathable material," Bohl said. "So it was very difficult for them."

Morgan City is still trying to connect with its movie history past, and occasionally Tarzan fans have been known to take a swamp tour and let out a jungle yell.

There is no sign today that an early blockbuster film was shot here, but it doesn't take much for your imagination to take you to the jungle home of Tarzan.

That first Tarzan movie premiered in movies across the United States in 1918.

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