Elmo Lincoln: The First Movie Tarzan

Elmo Lincoln (Otto Elmo Linkenheit, 1889-1952), had been an Arkansas lawman and a stevedore before D.W. Griffith spotted him and drafted him to be an extra in his films on the strength of his…well, strength. Lincoln’s muscular arms and chest were a production value, and Griffith showcased them and him to good effect in such films as The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913), Judith of Bethuliah (1913), The Birth of a Nation (1915), and Intolerance (1916). Though Lincoln was no thespian, this led to work in dozens of other films, including The Half Breed (1916) with Douglas Fairbanks and The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918).

And, his biggest claim to fame — the role of Tarzan of the Apes in the earliest screen adaptations of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ pulp classic, Tarzan of the Apes (1918), The Romance of Tarzan (1918), and the multi-part serial The Adventures of Tarzan (1921). I find it amusing that Griffith had Anglicized the actor’s Teutonic name, originally Linkinheit, given that the part of Tarzan would later be played by a man named Johnny Weismuller. At any rate, Burroughs didn’t like Lincoln as Tarzan (too bulky) and Lincoln himself hated heights, making swinging from trees problematic. Thus Lincoln and Tarzan parted ways pretty quickly. Amusingly, however, for a brief time, it was enough to be Elmo, as he starred in such films as Elmo the Mighty (1919) and Elmo the Fearless (1920). And things like The Flaming Disk (1920). Sounds like back problems!

The King of the Jungle (1927) was Lincoln’s last starring film. Sound was not conducive to Lincoln’s limitations as an actor. He worked in the scrap metal business for a while, and then returned to films for awhile as a crowd extra and bit player. Delightfully, two of the films he appeared in during this period were Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942) with Weissmuller, and Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949) with Lex Barker. Other films from this period include The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Union Pacific (1939), Black Arrow (1944), Badman’s territory (1946), and Carrie (1952), William Wyler’s adaptation of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, his last. Also in his later years, he made personal; appearances as Tarzan with the Seal Brothers Circus.

To learn more about the variety arts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.