The Enduring Mystery of the Tarzan Yell

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A tale of two Tarzans: Johnny Weissmuller and Alexander Skarsgård. (Photos: Everett; Warner Bros.)

When The Legend of Tarzan opens in theaters this Friday, its differences from the many previous screen adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s novel series will be immediately clear. Alexander Skarsgård’s jungle king isn’t the campy vine-swinger of yesteryear, and that difference is no more obvious than in the updated version of the character’s primal yell. Gone is the high-pitched yodel that has become a hallmark of Tarzan, and in its place is a ferocious howl that combines Skarsgård’s voice with an opera singer’s, along with some guttural animal noises.

Listen to the classic Tarzan yodel:

That we know the underlying elements of the new Tarzan yell marks another change from years past. The origin of the iconic Tarzan yell, first heard in 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man, has been the subject of much debate over the past 84 years, as it permeated pop culture, popping up in Return of the Jedi and Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some,” among other far-out places, along with dozens of Tarzan movies and TV shows. And yet no one could say for sure how the yell originated or who was responsible for it.

Burroughs, who created the feral loincloth model in 1912, could claim little responsibly for the yell. His descriptions were opaque, describing it vaguely as the “victory cry of the bull ape.” The first actor to put it on tape — Frank Merrill in 1921’s The Adventures of Tarzan — produced a hoarse bark that sounded more basset hound than king of the jungle.

Watch the new Legend of Tarzan trailer:

Then in 1932, former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller came along in Tarzan the Ape Man and produced the battle cry we now know so well. At least, that’s how he explained it. The actor said when he read Tarzan books as a kid, he always imagined the yell sounding like a yodel, perhaps because he regularly belted out undulating falsettos of his own at German picnics in Chicago.

The studio told another story, concocted, according to Burroughs’s biographer John Taliaferro, after it realized the majesty of Weissmuller’s song. As MGM tells it, sound engineers created the battle cry by blending the actor’s voice with a “hyena’s howl played backward, a camel’s bleat, the pluck of a violin, and a soprano’s high C.” Other versions of the claim replace the hyena’s howl with a dog’s growl. All of them “fibs,” Taliaferro writes.

But Tom Held, a former MGM sound engineer, stood by this version of events. Weismuller’s yodel alone left something missing, he said, so the studio mixed in that cacophony of notes and played them at varying speeds, all in the attempt to give the shout “a more jungle-piercing, elephant-spooking, and blood-curdling effect.”

Other stories emerged over time, many of them breathlessly cataloged by ERB Zine, a website devoted to Tarzan’s creator. The opera singer Lloyd Thomas Leech said his yodel was recorded for the yell. Journalist Bill Moyers claimed it was “a recording of three men, one a baritone, one a tenor, and one a hog caller from Arkansas — all yelling at the top of their lungs.” Even Weissmuller’s story was known to shift from time to time. Though he most often insisted he was the yell’s originator, in 1939, he told the Hollywood Parade that it came from “three men with iron lungs.” Regardless of how it was created, there’s little dispute that Weissmuller eventually mastered the yell himself and often unleashed it at parties and premieres up until his death in 1984.

By that time, the Tarzan yell had cemented itself as a pop culture staple. Any movie that had a character swing on a vine had to include the yell. It became something of a stock sound effect, bellowed by Chewbacca in Return of the Jedi and James Bond in Octopussy. Neither use, it should be noted, is very well regarded. The yell is a disorienting reminder of the real world — should we be led to believe that Chewie was a fan of the Tarzan movies? — and a cornball joke better left to movies like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure.

Listen to Chewie’s Tarzan yell:

Or perhaps to a comedian like Carol Burnett, who’s second only to Weissmuller when it comes this particular ululation. (You can hear a compilation of her yells at the end of this video.) Of course, she modeled hers after his. As Burnett would explain to Larry King, she and her cousin went to a lot of movies as kids. When they got home they would role play. Burnett’s beautiful cousin got to be Jane, while she was Tarzan. “So I taught myself to do it,” she said.

When The Carol Burnett Show debuted in 1967, she borrowed an idea from former TV variety-show host Garry Moore and took questions from the audience. Inevitably, she’d get asked to perform her Tarzan yell, which became as much a trademark part of her persona as the famous ear tug. (She was once able to use it as official identification.) But unlike that sentimental gesture for her grandmother, there was something subversive about Burnett’s yodel. It was a way for her to thumb her nose at the conventions of femininity that she neither fit into nor embraced. She was Tarzan, not Jane, and she wasn’t afraid to yell about it.

More than eight decades after Weissmuller’s first Tarzan yell, there was never much chance of it fitting into the updated tale of the ape man that’s hitting theaters this week. The yodel is too famous. It’s now a reference to Tarzan the movie character, not the battle cry of an untamed man beast. That — at least according to the new movie — sounds something like this:

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