Before he wore a loincloth as Tarzan and yodeled while swinging across movie screens on a vine, Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic swimming champ.
The strapping Weissmuller — 6-foot-5, 190 pounds — power-splashed his way to five gold medals in the 1924 and ‘28 Olympic Games. Recognizing a marketable hunk when it saw one, Hollywood snapped him up.
“It was like stealing,” Weissmuller (1904-1984) once said of his Tarzan career, which included a dozen films between 1932 and ‘48. “There was swimming in it, and I didn't have much to say. How can a guy climb trees, say ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane,’ and make a million?”
I was a sucker for Weismuller’s Tarzan films — as a kid, I used to watch the scratchy prints that repeatedly aired on Saturday afternoon TV.
In fact, I’m a sucker for any film with even the dimmest connection to the Olympics. Each one offers the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, to borrow a phrase popularized by ABC’s Wide World of Sports. And there are plenty of movies to choose from.
Hollywood has long considered both the Summer and Winter Olympics as a prime hunting ground for both plots and stars. You can bet that, along with the rest of us, show business insiders will be closely watching the 2012 Games, which kick off July 27 in London.
Olympic movies (not including documentaries) fall into three categories: retellings of actual Olympic stories; fictional dramas that appropriate the Olympics as a setting; and showcases for Olympic competitors deemed pulchritudinous enough to be worthy of a shot at a screen career. Here’s a quick look at each category:
Based on a True Story
Easily the single most memorable movie in this genre is the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire (1981). The British period drama tells the true tale of runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams — a devout Christian and a Jew — who competed in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. To this day, just hearing the first few notes of Vangelis’ synthesizer-heavy score brings goose bumps. (The movie was adapted as a stage play last spring: Fire is currently packing a theater on London’s West End.)
Other worthy films that recreate real stories of Olympic glory are Miracle (2004), about the gold-winning 1980 U.S. hockey squad; Prefontaine (1997) and Without Limits (1998), two bio pics about American runner Steve Prefontaine, who was edged out for a medal in the 1972 games; and Jim Thorpe: All-American (1951), starring a brawny Burt Lancaster as the Native American who won both the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 games — only to have his medals yanked when it was ruled that an earlier payday for playing semi-pro baseball meant Thorpe didn't qualify as an amateur athlete. (Director Steven Spielberg used the hostage-taking and killing of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Olympics in Munich as the starting point for his movie Munich, which mostly focuses on the subsequent covert efforts by Israeli agents to retaliate against those who had planned and carried out the operation.)
Movies that use the Olympics merely as a backdrop for fictional stories are a more varied lot. A few are keepers, notably Million Dollar Legs (1932) starring W.C. Fields, a wacky comedy about a made-up country competing in the Olympics in Los Angeles.
Qualifying as guilty pleasures are The Cutting Edge (1992), a romantic drama about a couple (D.B. Sweeney and Moira Kelly) who fall in love when paired as a figure-skating team; Running (1979), a drama about a marathoner (Michael Douglas) hoping to win back his wife by finishing the race; and Cool Runnings (1993), an amusing comedy very loosely based on the first entry of a Jamaican team in the bobsled competition at the 1988 Winter Games.
From Champion to Movie Star
This is my favorite slot. These athlete-turned-actor films were especially popular in the 1930s and ‘40s, long before the dawn of blanket TV coverage of the Olympics. In addition to Weissmuller, Hollywood glorified Sonja Henie, who thrice won gold for Norway as a figure skater in the 1928, ‘32 and ‘36 Games before gliding through 11 fluffy films.
Others on the list include:
Buster Crabbe The Olympic swimmer won a bronze medal in '28 and gold four years later. He made a single Tarzan movie, but is best remembered as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in old-time Saturday matinee serials.
Esther Williams Her shot at Olympic glory was cut short when the 1940 Summer Games were canceled because of the outbreak of World War II. But she went on to star in numerous aquatic screen extravaganzas of the 1940s and ‘50s. (For those who always wanted to give synchronized swimming a try, we tell you how to get started here.)
Bob Mathias The two-time decathalon champion (1948 and '52) later served as a U.S. Congressman. He also played himself in The Bob Mathias Story (1954).
In recent decades, several Olympic athletes have tried for Hollywood gold, with scant success. Gymnast Mitchell Gaylord took the leap with American Anthem (1986), a gymnastics-themed turkey. Bruce Jenner, now best known as the Kardashian sisters’ put-upon stepfather, appeared in the disco disaster Can’t Stop the Music (1980) as well as various TV movies and shows. And diver Greg Louganis had a short run as a TV actor. (Read more about them here.) Never did Brad Pitt or Harrison Ford have reason to worry.
Somewhere in here there’s an excellent doctoral thesis. What does the cross-pollination between the Olympics and Hollywood really mean? How are athletes and movie stars alike? How do they differ?
I’ll leave all that for someone else to pursue. I’ll be too busy watching the Games and trying to spot the next potential Johnny Weissmuller.
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