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Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932)



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Films based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' vine-swinging jungle hero had been made ever since 1918, with Tarzan of the Apes, but this 1932 film, the first which starred Olympic gold medalist swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, is considered definitive today. Previous Tarzan efforts had been one or two shot deals, but this one kicked off a whole franchise series that would last for twenty eight films spread out over the next thirty six years. Weissmuller would star in the first twelve of these, twice or more as many films as any other Tarzan actor.

It is curious that audiences of the Tarzan films consider this the definitive Tarzan, because no portrayal could be further from the character Edgar Rice Burroughs created with his novels. In the books, Tarzan was born and raised in the jungle, yes, but he was found and taken back to England for a time, where he was educated at Oxford University. Afterward, he came back to the jungle of his own accord, preferring to live there instead of civilization. In Tarzan's written adventures, he's an intelligent, literate man. And most of the previous cinematic Tarzans had been, too. But for MGM's new Tarzan, it was decided he should be primitive and illiterate. Audiences loved Tarzan, the Ape Man, and whether this was due to the illiterate portrayal or simply because it was a good film, the illiterate version stuck, and all but two of the Tarzan films made for the next twenty seven years (the exceptions being films Burroughs produced himself) showcased an illiterate Tarzan.

It is unfortunate that the character was done this injustice, but in doing so the films struck a nerve, manifesting something deep and primal in human nature. One of the film's best scenes is the one after Tarzan has abducted Jane and taken her back to his treetop home -- nothing at all like the elaborate human dwelling with modern conveniences that would come later, but something an animal might construct. Most of the scene occurs without words, but the characters communicate volumes: Jane is attracted and terrified in equal measure; Tarzan is bewildered and frustrated.

Faithfulness (or lack thereof) to the source material notwithstanding, Tarzan, the Ape Man is a very good film, one of the best Tarzan movies ever made. Johnny Weissmuller is the most famous of all screen Tarzans and perhaps the best. Maureen O'Sullivan played Jane and would do so up through the sixth series entry. She was unquestionably the best of all the Janes, by a considerable margin. There is psychological depth to her performance that none of her successors ever got near.

Several of the early films in the series were shot on location in the jungle, but declining budgets prohibited that for most of the subsequent films (until 1959). Consequently, lots of "stock footage" of jungle animals and action would be interlaced with the sound stage shots, with occasional uses of backscreen projection. This is fine, but a side effect is that if you were to watch the Tarzan films all in a row, much of the jungle footage would look familiar, since many shots would be reused in different films. One scene used in Tarzan and His Mate, where Weissmuller wrestles an alligator, was reused several times, sometimes in consecutive films and once (in a remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man) when someone other than Weissmuller played the character. It was therefore something of a relief when the series went to color and widescreen in Tarzan and the Lost Safari, forcing the producers to go out and get new jungle footage. At any rate, not even this first film escaped the use of stock footage -- several of the jungle scenes are outtakes of Trader Horn, an earlier film by director W. S. Van Dyke.

Series continuity was always a little shaky. In the MGM films (the first six), an attempt was made. In Tarzan's Secret Treasure, there is a reference to gold found at the bottom of the river by Tarzan's treehouse home; this is referred to in the subsequent entry. But other times, when it is inconvenient, plot continuity is ignored. In Tarzan's New York Adventure, Jane says that Boy (Tarzan and Jane's unofficially adopted son, introduced in the fourth series entry, Tarzan Finds a Son!) had never been sick before. But Boy getting sick was an important plot element in an earlier film, and a reference is made to that episode in a later film. It was worse later on in the series, after Johnny Sheffield (Boy), Maureen O'Sullivan, and O'Sullivan's successor to the Jane role Brenda Joyce, left the series. Forever after, Jane would appear and disappear from the Tarzan films at random with no explanation and almost never played by the same actress twice.

Back to Tarzan, the Ape Man: it was the first to introduce several series staples, like elephant herds saving the day and the infamous Tarzan yell. (Frank Merrill did the yell first, in 1929's Tarzan the Tiger, but Weissmuller's is what everyone recognizes.) Although the second series entry, Tarzan and His Mate, is considered superior, this is still a very fine film with lots of tense jungle action. As the series wore on (until its revitalization in 1959, anyway), the Tarzan films targeted younger audiences, and comic relief would often dilute the suspense. Not here. Of particular note is the river crossing scene early on, where a safari's makeshift rafts are besieged by hippos and alligators.

Although Tarzan, the Ape Man scarcely resembles his literary counterpart, it succeeds for the same reason the book did. It successfully portrays a glamorously carefree life in the open jungle, shows Tarzan and Jane swimming and swinging without a care in the world, yet always with a new adventure or peril to face. That kind of utopia speaks to all of us, I think.

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