Tarzan on the Rio Hondo! When Hollywood Invaded the Whittier Narrows

Young Tarzan with lion, Southern California, 1933 | "Dick" Whittington Photography Collection, 1924-1987, University of Southern California

It is an arresting encounter that exists only in the San Gabriel Valley. Sailing down the trapezoidal banks of the Rio Hondo from its headwaters abutting the San Gabriel Mountains, the southern horizon seems like an endless expanse of slanted concrete punctured by a sporadic automobile overpass. Yet monotony has a loose grasp on this entrenched stretch of Los Angeles County.

When the river breaches South El Monte, a green forest erupts. The geometric glide of concrete smacks into a wall of tangled foliage. Water breezes through the curtain of willows, merging with earth again, and reverts to a rollicking course. This is the northern border of the Whittier Narrows, a natural gap between the Puente and San Rafael Hills that form the southern boundary of the Valley.

Where the Rio Hondo meets the northern border of the Whittier Narrows | Photo: Daniel Medina

Today, the Narrows is a pocket countryside in a dense urban environment. It is a 1,492-acre multi-use park, complete with the 56-foot tall Whittier Narrows Dam, abundant recreational arenas, and unpaved stretches of the Rio Hondo. Before flood control mechanisms were mastered in the mid twentieth century, the Narrows was an undeveloped split of riparian woodland and wetlands. For the young film industry in Southern California, the area's rolling hills, barren swamps, and thick, jungle-like vegetation were ripe with opportunity to serve as backdrops for other parts of the world.


Before filmmakers turned to the Los Angeles River's bleak channelized backdrop for films like "Grease" and "Chinatown," the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers supported a lush environment in the Narrows that enticed location scouts. The fertile plains surrounding the rivers were introduced to the world in D.W. Griffith's 1915 "The Birth of a Nation." The controversial silent film, shot in 1914, dressed the southern Narrows as the Old South during the periods of the Civil War and Reconstruction. While becoming the highest grossing film of its time, "The Birth of a Nation" was also banned in five states and nineteen cities for its demeaning portrayal of African Americans and propagating the supremacy of the Ku Klux Klan.

Still from "The Birth of a Nation" (1915), shot in the southern Whittier Narrows | Source: listal.com

Griffith's scenes in the Narrows would be spliced into one of the first feature-length films ever made. The over three-hour film, shot in the diverse landscapes of the greater Los Angeles area, would help cement the metropolis as the center of the budding film industry. "The Birth of a Nation" demonstrated the production value of the Narrows in its proximity to Los Angeles and the ease in shaping it to stand in for diverse locations.

Filmmakers in the 1920s looked to the crowded woodlands near the Streamland Park area to double as the jungles of Africa for the film adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs wildly popular "Tarzan" novels. Burroughs himself had never been to Africa before creating the setting for his character who embodied the mythic "noble savage" concept. Since even the author had no first-hand knowledge of African terrain, it was only fitting that filmmakers could pass the plant life in the Narrows as that of a continent thousands of miles away.

Like "The Birth of a Nation," these film installments of "Tarzan" also courted controversy. The sexually suggestive wardrobe and behavior of the character Jane in 1934's "Tarzan and His Mate," played by actress Maureen O'Sullivan, proved too salacious for viewers. The film revitalized the Hays Code office, the Hollywood institution that enforced a set of rules governing decency and morality in films. According to Alex Vernon's "On Tarzan," even the chimp actors had to wear body stockings over their groins to comply with the Hay's Code that forbid "any display of any sex organs whatsoever."

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan on the set of "Tarzan and His Mate" | Source: Pinterest
Johnny Weissmuller in 1934's "Tarzan and His Mate" | Source: bfi.org.uk.com

The uproar proved only to draw more attention to the "Tarzan" films, which may have delighted no one more than El Monte's Charles and Muriel Gay. The European circus performers had moved to Los Angeles in the same year that "The Birth of a Nation" was shooting in the San Gabriel Valley. The couple had established Gay's Lion Farm in 1925 in El Monte, a public attraction exhibiting African lions that were trained as animal actors to meet to increasing demands of motion picture studios.

Lions from the nearby compound, which housed up to 200 of the African species when in operation, starred in many of the "Tarzan" productions. As films, including "Tarzan and His Mate" and 1920's "Son of Tarzan," were shot in the hills and swamps of the Narrows, the Gays capitalized on the exoticism that the region steadily represented to movie audiences. The 5-acre farm's thatched roof entrance, adorned by palm trees and flowers, suggested that a safari-adventure was to be had in the otherwise working-class community of El Monte. "Be sure to see the ones that have thrilled you in motion pictures, for it is here that the studio heads come for the Lions with which to make their realistic jungle scenes," touted one of the farm's pamphlets.

Gay's Lion Farm, coupled with the acclaim of the "Tarzan" films, delivered this corner of the San Gabriel Valley to the international spotlight. The exotic appeal of the farm and the Narrows fit well into the semitropical narrative of Southern California that early twentieth century regional promoters sold to tourists back East. Decades before the faux jungle milieu of Disneyland's Adventureland, Gay's Lion Farm was conflating the tantalizing "otherness" of African tropics with entertainment. Over two million tourists visited the farm, entranced by the dangerous stunts performed by trainers, actors, and the feline stars.

Charles Gay | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Group of children stand posed with a lion at Gay's Lion Farm, in El Monte. | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Thirteen men seated at a table, give a toast to a lion sitting at the end of their table. Crowd of onlookers watch from outside the lion's pen. | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

World War II and the booming urbanization of the San Gabriel Valley pulled the curtains down on the Farm and the production value of the Narrows. Horse meat, the daily diet for Gay's lions, became a victim of wartime rationing. The Gays could no longer feed their pride, and chose to disperse the animals to zoos around the country. The farm closed in 1942, and was demolished by the construction of Interstate 10 in the 1950s.

The unruly vegetation of the Narrows soon succumbed to multi-million dollar efforts to curb innundations of the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers. Pavement and flood control measures decimated much of the riparian growth and open space, reducing the possibilities for filmmakers to sculpt the landscape to their favor.

A crew of men are seen paving the main channel, San Gabriel's water flood control project. It is near Whittier Narrows and is part of the county's multi-million dollar effort to prevent inundations. Photo dated: November 8, 1965. | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

The heritage of this Hollwood era in the Whittier Narrows and its surroundings, however, is still recognized. Silhouette cut-outs of lions and an antique film camera greet passengers at El Monte's Metrolink station, and an original bronze statue from Gay's Lion Farm graces the auditorium entryway of El Monte High School, home of the El Monte Lions.

Of course, the Whittier Narrows' time as a "jungle" realm endures on film, an indelible reminder of the parkland's wilder days as a landscape at the whims of the cinematic imagination.

Young woman sits on the ground eating an orange, as a large lion watches her at Gay's Lion Farm. | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

About the Author

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and enjoy exploring Los Angeles and learning about its origins.
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