“My parents were happy for me to leave Freedom, where all I could hope to be was a farmer or a “railroader.” My mother had advised me to run for my life before I got married and had to scourge for a living the hard way.” -James Pierce
There are so many ways in which a fictitious character may be brought to life. Whether it is through the written word, radio, or television, someone’s imaginings can be told in a captivating way.
James Pierce is part of a long line of actors to play Tarzan. His intriguing connection to the story’s creator, however, is something that other loincloth-clad troupers lack.
James Hubert “Babe” Pierce was born in the small 500-person town of Freedom, Indiana, in 1900. His father worked in telegraphy for the railroad industry and began to share his knowledge of telegraphy when James was eight years old. His mother operated a restaurant next door to her father’s furniture store. James began working at a grocery store for ten cents per day.
While James’ father received the equivalent of an eighth grade education, James’ mother had graduated from high school and felt that it was important for her son to do the same. When it came time for James to enroll, James attended Spencer High School in Spencer, Indiana, which was ten miles away from his native Freedom. Because his father worked for the railroad, he was able to commute to school via train. During high school, James began to play center for his school’s basketball team. When the season ended, he would spend his after-school time completing his homework at the public library until it was time to catch the 7 p.m. train.
In 1916, James enrolled in Indiana University’s pre-medical program. At the height of 6’4″ and weight of 220 lbs., James was eager to try out for the school football team. Since this was prior to the days of major athletic scholarships, James also worked at the nearby pool.
James excelled in football, and was quickly promoted to lineman on the varsity team. Unfortunately, his grades were poor, and the dean asked James to choose between football or medical school. James elected to switch to a liberal arts degree.
Soon, it was 1917 and World War I was well underway. At the end of his first semester, there was a recruiting drive occurring all over the country, including at Indiana University. Almost all of the football team and hundreds of students joined the Army.
On induction day, the recruiting officer asked if anyone had any military experience. Having been to Culver Military Academy for one summer, Pierce was the only one to raise his hand. Pierce and several others were sworn in. They were told that half of them would be sent to Fort Sheridan and half to Camp Taylor Kentucky. Fort Sheridan was an officer’s training school and Camp Taylor was training grounds for the 150th Field Artillery. Pierce drew Fort Sheridan, Illinois, near Chicago, where he became an infantry drill instructor. Although he was younger than most of the men, the military training helped him earn this position.
At Fort Sheridan, the Indiana bunch was joined by a contingent from the University of Wisconsin. The Wisconsin group included Fredric March, who later became the famous movie star (his real name was Fredric Bickel), also future Governor of Wisconsin, Philip LaFollette.
Around 1923, Pierce drove to Los Angeles to make plans to enter USC law school and find a job. Once accepted, he coached football there. One of his linemen, who was especially strong and aggressive was Marion Morrison, who would later be known as John Wayne.
Pierce also became interested in performing. He worked on a film called Temple of Venus while coaching football and attending law school.
Pierce’s plans changed in the middle of his second semester by a phone call from Tom Scully, a friend in Hollywood. He said there was going to be a big party at the Edgar Rice Burroughs Ranch, author of the Tarzan series, given by his daughter, Joan. Tom was dating a girl who was a close friend of Joan’s from their days at a private girls’ school and they had more women for the party than men. Pierce decided to accept the invitation.
This Burroughs Ranch, some 560 acres, was famous because it was first owned by General Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times. His Spanish ranch house had a ballroom, stables, and a pool, which in those days was still a novelty. It was on a hilltop overlooking the entire San Fernando Valley and extended from Ventura Boulevard to Mulholland Drive. There was no town or designation other than the Tarzan Ranch, named for Burroughs’ most famous creation. The post office was Marian, which later became Reseda. The town of Tarzana developed years later.
About two weeks after attending this party, Pierce received a phone call from the Film Booking Office (FBO) casting director. He was in search of a man to play the lead in an upcoming production of Tarzan and the Golden Lion and Mr. Burroughs thought that Pierce would be a good fit. Fifty screen tests of musclemen and all kinds of athletes had proven unsatisfactory and Mr. Burroughs then had a clause in his contracts to approve who played Tarzan.
The casting director raved about what a big picture it would be, but Pierce told him. “I have no aspirations to become a career actor. Thank you very much.” Joan called Pierce and implored him to try out for the part, as she thought he was the best person who could embody the role. Pierce relented and decided to audition.
The following Saturday, a studio car arrived to take Pierce to his screen test. The producer of this picture was Joseph P. Kennedy, head of the Kennedy clan, father of John F. and Bobby. It was to be a production with the largest budget that the studio had ever allocated.
Pierce was not a real actor and was worried about going before the cameras for such an important project. It was a silent film, so most of the focus would be on his body and the physicality of playing Tarzan. Joan and her father attended the test and were delighted at what they saw. In a few days I was told, “You have the job.” I replied, “Even though I agree to take the test, I am not absolutely sure I want to give up my law studies.”
James found himself at a crossroads once more. At this point, he had finished the requirements for his permanent teacher’s credentials, and was told that he would be hired for the next year. Two successful years and license confirmation would result in his tenure, meaning that his job would be permanent until time of retirement. Pierce had to choose between the option of continuing his teaching, getting a law degree, or abandoning both for a career in Hollywood. Upon consulting with his friends, Pierce felt that he’d be a fool not to pursue the role of Tarzan. He decided to accept the role and a massive publicity campaign for him began. During the filming, James visited Joan whenever time permitted.
One night, James’ and Joan were involved in an accident with a truck-trailer. The oncoming lights blinded him and his windshield was drenched with rain. He passed the truck, but the trailer sideswiped him, knocking his car off the narrow two-lane pavement onto a soft shoulder of the road. The car flipped over and landed wheels up. Since it was a roadster with a canvas top, Pierce was mashed into the mud with a part of the broken steering wheel stuck in his chest. He could not move and was scared the car would catch on fire, with the fumes of gasoline almost choking him.
There was no emergency hospital closer than downtown Los Angeles near the police station. James had them call Dr. Glenn English, a good friend from Indiana University, once a very prominent movie star doctor, who sent them by ambulance to the Hollywood Hospital at Sunset and Vermont. Pierce was put in the emergency care ward, and Dr. English tended to his collapsed lung.
By Monday, the studio was in a panic. The picture was too far along to cancel, so they closed it down for a few days to see what would happen to Pierce. Pierce began to recover and had no broken bones or facial lacerations, so they shot scenes that did not require his presence and included some long shots by using a double. When Pierce returned, he filmed the medium shots and close-ups. The only downfall in terms of the film’s production was that it was far over schedule.
Tarzan and the Golden Lion also co-starred Dorothy Dunbar as Jane and also included Boris Karloff in a small supporting role. The film hit a terrible market because “talkies” were coming in and this was the last silent Tarzan feature, though there were later silent serials. The studio considered dubbing in the sound-voice over the film and adding sound effects, but gave it up as too expensive. It was released in early 1927 in six reels.
Naturally, it was not a smash hit although it did well under the circumstances. The major chain houses had to turn it down as they were equipped for sound. However, many small towns and independent theaters had not yet wired up for sound, due to the great expense, and continued to screen silent films for two or three years after talkies. The picture proved to be a big hit on the B-circuit.
Joan kept up her training in both voice and acting, and had gotten several professional jobs on the stage. She joined Actors’ Equity for stage work and the Screen Actors’ Guild, and was registered as a singer for the musical movies. She got to sing in most of the musicals because of her well-trained voice, and it only took about two minutes for the director to approve her when she took a test to join the singing guild. Later, when Deanna Durbin reigned at Universal and Andrew Previn was the musical director, he liked Joan’s soprano voice and gave her a few special spots in the Durbin films, such as Spring Parade.
James became stage-door Johnnie and saw every play that Joan acted in — sometimes more than once. James proposed to Joan in his Model-T while they were parked in the driveway of the Burroughs’ home. According to ERBzine, Pierce said, “It was the happiest moment of my life. We sealed it with the longest kiss and embrace on record. We were so much in love.”
The wedding was set for Pierce birthday, 8-8-28. (Eight was incidentally his lucky number.) An engagement party followed soon, and the newspapers carried a lot of publicity about it. The human interest angle of Mr. Burroughs’ daughter marrying a movie Tarzan made it a top feature story nationally, and throughout the world.
The wedding was an outdoor, garden-type ceremony at the ranch with a tremendous crowd. A huge catering company, the Elite Catering Service, supervised what was probably the only dry wedding in the history of Hollywood.
The couple soon set out on their honeymoon, heading for Indiana first to visit Pierce’s family. It took us about ten days to drive there. The radiator boiled constantly, so they had to carry extra water and blowouts forced them to buy new tires. They even hitch-hiked to a nearby town for assistance.
Pierce’s family welcomed them home with a tremendous dinner. Not long after the couple climbed into the old-fashioned four-poster bed, the slats used instead of springs gave way and they collapsed onto the floor. It made a terrific racket and instantly my father was pounding on the door; asking “What the sam hill is going on in there?” After we put robes on and let them in to assess the situation, they all had hysterics. It took some time to make the necessary repairs, and Pierce said to my dad, “You played a dirty trick on us; a rigged deal!” The event became a standing joke.
They stayed for a week and visited relatives in nearby towns, making a trip to Indiana University and Spencer. They also went to Freedom to show Joan where James was born and to see the almost forgotten little town by-passed by the new state highway. Seven years after Pierce had left this quaint town in the hills of Indiana, he returned with my lovely bride. “It seemed shrunken and shriveled up,” recalled Pierce.
The also visited the grocery store where James had worked as a child. The building hadn’t been painted or improved in any way. On the front of it was a covered porch and the town pump. It was the same pump, with a rusty tin cup hung on a wire fastened to its belly. The same group of about ten men were sitting in the same places, dressed in bib overalls and straw hats. They were chewing, whittling, and spitting as always.
According to Pierce via ERBzine:
“When I pulled up, not a word was spoken. No one stirred. After two or three minutes, one of them spat a stream, almost hitting the car, and asked, “How’s things in Californy?” I answered, “Just great, just great!” That was it. I spoke to each one, shook his hand, and called his name or nickname. Nicknames are a common thing in that part of the country, such as liver foot, mossback, squirrely, fat, slim, or battler. These names were tied to some event in their childhood but stuck throughout their lives. Seldom was anyone called by his given name
My moniker was “Hikey Dike.” At age four, I was taken to a wagon show in the county seat that featured among other weird things, a wild man called “Hikey Dike,” supposedly shipped to this country form the wilds of Borneo. He fascinated me, and for weeks I ran around town yelling that I was “Hikey Dike.” Perhaps it was a portent of later performances as Tarzan, Thun the Lion Man, and other characters.
Finally, I introduced Joan, pointing to the car where we was sitting — bug-eyed, I might add. They all spat first and mumbled, “Howdy, ma’am.” It now struck me forcefully why my mother had said, “As soon as you can, you must run for your life from this pathetic old village that the world has passed by,” else I wind up chewing, whittling, and spitting.”
Pierce showed Joan the site where he was born (the house had since burned down), his first school, and his grandfather’s old home, which was built just after the Civil War.
Pierce remained active in Hollywood from 1924 to 1951, appearing in many films, including Wings (1927), Horse Feathers (1932) and as Prince Thun in the Flash Gordon series. He acted in small roles in several films, mostly westerns, and worked in a lucrative real estate agency in the San Fernando Valley. He was an accomplished pilot, active during World War II with the National Airmen’s Reserve, the forerunner of today’s Air National Guard.
From 1932 to 1936, James and Joan Pierce were the voices of Tarzan and Jane on national radio in Tarzan. Around this time, they had a daughter, Joanne II Anselmo née Pierce (1930–2005), and a son, James Michael Pierce (1935–1984).
Years later, Pierce wanted to view his Tarzan film again, but to no avail during his lifetime. When he started too look for the film in 1974, no known print was in existence. It was thought to have been destroyed when the studios switched from nitrate to acetate film, and nitrate film was highly volatile and inflammable. One print was thought to be deteriorating slowly in some film archive. A copy was found at The American Film Institute, J.F.K. Center, Washington, D.C.. After his death, another copy was found in a foreign archive.
Today, a few places relating to James Pierce’s legacy still remain.
First of all, Pierce’s hometown of Freedom, Indiana, is still around as a very small blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town. I happened upon it on my way back from visiting Phil Harris’ hometown of Linton, Indiana, until I noticed Pierce’s name on a welcome sign. Traveling trough Freedom is like taking an immediate step back in time. At one point, the stretch of highway I was driving on became a gravel road. Incidentally, there’s their post office, which I assume is a fitting size for their population. I saw a shed behind the post office boasting the Indiana University logo, which was Pierce’s alma mater.
As quaint as it is, this small town does seem to be aware of its native son, James. This marker is located on the highway passing through Freedom.
Pierce was stationed at Fort Sheridan, which still exists in the Lake Forest, Highwood, and Highland Park neighborhoods on Chicago’s north shore. During World War II, over 500,000 men and women were processed through military service. Many army officers who later became famous lived there, including George Patton and Jonathan Wainwright.When the main fort was officially closed by the Army on 3 May 1993, the majority of the property was sold by the Department of Defense to commercial land developers. Most of the original housing structures were then refurbished and resold as a residential community. Other buildings were given to cultural organizations like Midwest Young Artists, the largest youth music program in the Midwest. Approximately 90 acres of the southern end of the original post were retained by the Army; there the Army now operates the Sheridan Reserve Center complex.
Fort Sheridan is full of history and offers visitors a scenic walk along the lakefront.
Several former army buildings have now become private residences.
When Fort Sheridan was still in use by the United States Army, this field was used by the cavalry.
This field was once used for marches and drills. Being a drill sergeant, James Pierce would have been at work on these fields.
The water tower, originally the tallest structure in the Chicago area, was altered and shortened by 60 feet (18 m) in 1940. The row of buildings flanking the tower were troop barracks. The 110 acre (450,000 m²) Historic District, placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1984.
Moreover, the character of Tarzan is in itself immortal. Since Pierce’s incarnation of the role, several other actors have also portrayed Burroughs’ protagonist. They were often reunited for the sake of publicity.
James Pierce remained extremely proud of his portrayal of Tarzan, but was especially appreciative of the fact that this role connected him to his wife, Joan. James and Joan remained married until Joan’s death in 1972.
James and Joan are buried at Forest Hill Cemetery in Shelbyville, Indiana. There gravestones contain the epitaphs, “Jane” and “Tarzan.”
If you are ever passing through the southern half of Indiana, consider visiting this early Tarzan’s hometown.