By Chris Hughes
Edgar Rice Burrough’s novel, Tarzan Of The Apes, introduced the world to its titular hero when it was published in 1912. Its story of the man raised in the jungle by apes and his mate, Jane, sparked the imagination of millions of readers leading to twenty-three sequels. A film version of the tale ensued in 1918 when Elmo Lincoln became the first in a long line of actors to play the Ape Man. Of the many that followed, Johnny Weissmuller emerged as cinemagoers favourite incarnation of Burrough’s immortal creation. He shared his popularity with the Irish actress who co-starred with him as Jane: Maureen O’Sullivan.
Maureen Paula O’Sullivan was born in 1911 in Boyle, County Roscommon, the daughter of an officer in the Connaught Rangers who served in World War I. She attended a convent school in Dublin before continuing her education in England. In 1929 she met the director, Frank Borzage in Dublin where he was filming ‘Song O’ My Heart’ starring the Irish tenor, John McCormack. Borzage encouraged her to take a screen test which resulted in her being cast in the movie. When the company left Ireland to complete the musical in Hollywood, O’Sullivan went with them. Staying in America she went on to appear in six more features for Fox Films before signing with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures in 1932.
O’Sullivan’s first assignment under contract to Hollywood’s premier studio was ‘Tarzan, The Ape Man’ which teamed her with the former Olympic swimmer, Weissmuller. It was an immediate success due in part to the on-screen chemistry between its two main players. When the pair met Edgar Rice Burroughs, she recalled: “He thought Johnny Weissmuller and I were the perfect Tarzan and Jane which is lovely.” Inevitably, further screen adaptations of the author’s novels starring the two were commissioned.
The skimpy outfit worn by O’Sullivan in the first in the series caused a sensation. She said of her character’s apparel: “It started such a furore that the letters just came in. It added up to thousands of women who were objecting to my costume. I think that was one of the things that started the Legion Of Decency.” The League, a Catholic organisation devoted to identifying what they considered unacceptable content in motion pictures, soon made their disapproval known. Subsequent Tarzan titles consequently featured a leading lady in less revealing attire.
A popular ingredient of the movies was Cheetah, the mischievous chimpanzee whose clowning delighted audiences. The much loved male primate was however referred to by O’Sullivan as “a horrible little creature.” She said that he loathed her as intensely as he adored Weissmuller, often attacking her. Years later, having discovered that the animal had been placed in a zoo, she paid him a visit. O’Sullivan found that she had not been forgotten by her erstwhile nemesis as he spat at her.
MGM assigned O’Sullivan parts in some of its most prestigious productions including ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘The Thin Man’ and the Marx Brothers comedy, ‘A Day At The Races’. Despite her contributions to such high profile projects, she continued to be identified as Jane much to her frustration. She said: “There was a period when I got so sick of all they would ask me about Tarzan, as though I had done nothing else.”
The Catholic’s first husband was the director, and writer, John Farrow to whom she was wed until his passing in 1963. The two married in 1936 after he converted to her religion. They went on to have seven children including ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ star, Mia Farrow. Her second husband was businessman, James Cushing. They married in 1983 and remained so up to her death.
‘Tarzan’s New York Adventure’ (1942) was O’ Sullivan’s sixth and final turn as Jane. She had asked to be released from her contract with MGM to enable her to care for her husband who had just left the navy after contracting typhoid. She then devoted herself to her family making occasional film and TV appearances. In 1960 she began acting on stage having been invited to do so by the Irish-American actor, Pat O’Brien. This led to stints in the plays, ‘A Roomful Of Roses’, ‘Never Too Late’ and ‘No Sex Please, We’re British’. On television, O’Sullivan hosted Irish Heritage and guest-starred in the likes of ‘Ben Casey’, ‘All My Children’ and ‘Hart To Hart’. Her later movie appearances included 1986’s ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ and Woody Allen’s film, ‘Hannah And Her Sisters’ in the same year. Her daughter, Mia, was at the time engaged in a relationship with Allen.
O’Sullivan returned to Boyle in 1988 when she was made a guest of honour for a day of events beginning with mass and culminating in a parade through the town. She said in a speech on the occasion: “My life has come full circle. Today that circle has kind of closed and I am home again where I was born and where my happiest days were spent. I have lived in a great many places but the best part of me I owe to Boyle. Its influence, Lough Key, the countryside, has given me whatever poetry is in my soul, whatever love I have of God. Whatever it is, it comes from here.”
Before she died owing to complications resulting from heart surgery in 1998, O’Sullivan had made peace with the media’s preoccupation with her most famous role. The change in her attitude came about when her son told her he was very proud that she was Tarzan’s mate. It speaks of her talent that she was not eclipsed in audiences’ consciousness by her screen partner. Fans of the jungle based adventures will always remember not only Weissmuller’s Tarzan but also her enchanting portrayal of the captivating girl who stole his heart.