Johnny Weissmuller made it famous. Carol Burnett made it funny. But the origin of Hollywood’s iconic jungle cry is shrouded in mystery.
Back in 1932, in movie theaters across the country, the actor Johnny Weissmuller stood high on a cliff and let fly with a savage cry, roughly translated as “Aah-eeh-ah-eeh-aaaaaah-eeh-ah-eeh-aaaaah!”
The Tarzan yell has long been one of Hollywood’s most recognizable and iconic sound bites, right up there with Rhett Butler’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” and Captain Kirk’s “Khaaaaaaannnnnn!”
But exactly how that jungle cry was produced remains a mystery. Was it really Weissmuller’s voice? Or was it something more complex?
The yell was first introduced in the pages of Tarzan of the Apes, the 1912 novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, where he described it as sounding like “the victory cry of the bull ape.” Over the next fifteen years, Tarzan swung unto the silver screen several times. But those silent films left audiences to imagine the majestic sound of the yell.
Then in 1929, an early talkie called Tarzan the Tiger featured actor Frank Merrill making the first recorded attempt at the yell. Sadly, it sounded like the wailing of a drunken sports fan:
Three years later, Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic swimmer with no acting experience, stepped into the loincloth and defined the role – and the yell - for decades to come. Weismuller later said his famous version of the Tarzan yell was inspired by the yodeling of his German neighbors, along with his own success in a yodeling contest he’d won as a boy.
But MGM, the studio that made the first Tarzan movies with Weissmuller, claimed to have enhanced the yell in post-production. Reportedly, they added and mixed the following:
1. A second track of Weismuller’s voice, amplified
2. A track of a hyena howl, played backwards
3. A note sung by a female opera soprano, with the speed varied to produce a fluttery sound
4. The growl of a dog
5. The bleat of a camel
6. The raspy note of a violin’s G-string being bowed
Another story claims that a famous operatic tenor was hired to record the yell, and the tape was then manipulated and run backwards, so that the second half of the yell was the first half in reverse.
Weissmuller denied that there was ever any sonic trickery, and in the many public appearances he did until his death in 1984, he always honored requests to perform the signature yell. If it lacked cinematic reverberation and hi-fidelity, it still sounded pretty much like what you heard on screen.
However the Tarzan yell was achieved, it was so pitch perfect in those early Weissmuller movies that the sound bite was re-used for decades. No matter which actor was playing Tarzan, when it came to the yell, they cued up Weissmuller’s original “Ah-eeh-ah . . .” As an example, here’s a scene from the 1981 Tarzan remake with Bo Derek:
Later, of course, comedienne Carol Burnett revived the yell for comic effect on her TV variety show (fast forward to 4:46).
Today, there are many YouTubers who’ve taken a crack at the yell. Here are three of the more entertaining Tarzan wannabes: