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‘Tarzan the Ape Man’ (1932) (Blu-ray review)

In 1972, my very first experience with a copy machine involved Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan.

My buddy had a copy of Gabe Essoe’s book Tarzan of the Movies and I was jealous.

One day, we went to the Public Library with a few rolls of dimes and monopolized their big, hot, smelly Xerox™ machine for a couple hours running off copies of pages in the book for me.

Why? Well, because I had been a big Tarzan fan for as long as I could remember.

Until that book, the only Tarzans I ever knew were TV Tarzan Ron Ely, and the man who I considered the “real” Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller.

Weissmuller was a former Olympic swimming medal holder as well as a competitive swimmer with roughly 100 other awards.

He wasn’t the first Tarzan on film but he was the first since the coming of sound, which is a bit odd because he couldn’t really read lines at all. This is not to say that he couldn’t act, however, as he brought to Tarzan exactly what was needed.

Watching the young, lithe, mostly naked Weissmuller in 1932’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, make his way through the trees like he really had done it all his life is trippy. When I think of Johnny, my mind automatically goes to the older, bulkier Tarzan he was by the 1940s, the one I knew from all those Saturday afternoons spent with him in the 1960s.

Tarzan, The Ape Man was considered a B-movie, but even Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s B-Movies were classier than some studios’ A pictures. The prolific scenarist Cyril Hume is credited with writing the picture, based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first Tarzan story from 1912, although dialogue is credited to the celebrated English songwriter Ivor Novello. The director was W.S. Van Dyke II, best remembered today for directing The Thin Man and several of its sequels.

Since we’re talking here about a motion picture that’s more than 90 years old, I’m going to presume that anyone at all interested in Burroughs’ jungle hero has already seen it or is at least familiar enough with its storyline that I don’t have to avoid spoilers.

Young, headstrong Jane Parker (winningly played by Ronan Farrow’s grandmother, Maureen O’Sullivan) travels to darkest Africa to reunite with her aging father (C. Aubrey Smith), an explorer obsessed with finding the legendary elephant’s graveyard, in order to salvage the valuable ivory the animals leave behind.

Mr. Parker’s sidekick on his expedition, Harry Holt, (1920s leading man and future Gotham City police commissioner Neil Hamilton) takes to Jane and apparently considers her to be a present for him. He is not the most intelligent character, nor the nicest, the friendliest, nor the least violent toward the natives or the animals (but he does get to come back in the sequel).

Jane announces that she will be handling trade with the local natives going forth but as they venture out into the rear-projected stock footage of Africa, they hear a cry, like nothing ever heard by man before. They hear it again several times and finally are astonished to see the white man swinging through the trees on vines.

We’re given not the least bit of background on him or how he came to be there, uncivilized and living in the trees, swinging through the jungle on vines, and getting elephants and other animals to do what he wants by yelling his unique yell.

Having possibly never seen a human female (not remembering his mother) before, Tarzan, too, is interested—in Jane. Soon enough, he has her up in the trees with him and some of his gorilla and chimpanzee friends. Although fearful, the plucky heroine attempts to communicate with her captor. In a rather harrowing scene, it seems clear that Tarzan is planning to mate with Jane whether she agrees to it or not. Her painful crying convinces him to instead just shove her into a small hollow while he sleeps outside. Later, when Tarzan is injured in a fight with lions, Jane nurses him back to health.

The storyline itself really isn’t the highlight of Tarzan, the Ape Man, though. That would be the interactions and growing relationship between Jane and Tarzan. In real time, this would undoubtedly take longer but here we only have about 99 minutes. Before long, the delightful playfulness and flirtatiousness between the two takes over and Jane seems not only resigned to staying in the jungle with Tarzan but filled with anticipation. Cheeta, the chimp, even gets in on some of the fun with the pair.

When her father, Holt, and the natives in the expedition come searching for her, though, it’s as though her dream dies and she knows she has to return to reality. She sadly says goodbye to the Lord of the Jungle, even as she makes sure the jealous Harry doesn’t shoot him.

It’s a touching scene witnessed by a tribe of dwarfs (white Hollywood midgets in blackface and body makeup) who proceed to kidnap the white hunters, the natives, and the girl as soon as Tarzan is out of earshot. Jane spots Cheeta still hanging around on the shore as the tribesmen load them into boats to take back to their village. She keeps yelling for Cheeta to get Tarzan and the smart chimpanzee begins to run an obstacle course beset by predators to catch up to his human friend.

By the time he does, the kidnap victims are back at the dwarfs’ village about to be used as dinner meat for Crash Corrigan in his famous—but not too realistic—gorilla suit. I know, I know. Gorillas aren’t really meat eaters. In 1932, however, it hadn’t even been a century since the first gorillas had been discovered by modern man and they were still considered mysterious, scary,  and dangerous. This explains all of the movies with gorillas that popped up from the 1920s-1960s.

Tarzan, of course, as all movie heroes do, arrives just in the nick of time to save the day, bringing with him some elephants to both scare away the dwarfs and ride away the rescued white men. There’s a bittersweet ending and Jane realizes that she must now stay with the man with whom she has fallen deeply in love…at least for the first five sequels. After that, a new actress comes in.

As a pre-Code film, it’s a tad risqué here and there but nothing that couldn’t be shown to youngsters, really. What’s more bothersome is the casual racism. When the loyal natives aren’t working as hard as Parker would like, he says to Holt, “You’ve got your whip,” and he proceeds to use it! The whip is used several times throughout the film. Clearly, the imperialist white men consider themselves far above the lowly black men. This, of course, should not be surprising as that was the thinking of the western world back then. Looking at it today, though, it is cringeworthy at times, especially when you realize these are supposed to be “good guys.”

Jane casually shooting an innocent hippo is also bothersome, as is Harry gunning down a guy in an ape suit up in a tree, just because.

Ms. O’Sullivan (who would also co-star in Van Dyke’s The Thin Man two years later), though, is effervescent indeed, a pleasure to watch and a splendid young actress. She portrays Jane Parker (Jane Porter in the ERB stories) as a sharp, independent heroine at a time when that was rare in films. Her chemistry with the hunky Weissmuller is palpable.

Johnny Weissmuller looks much more exotic here than he would over time as he settled into the role. He gets so many diving and swimming scenes that one can just hear Louis B. Mayer saying, “If we’ve got a champion swimmer in this picture, he’s darn well gonna swim for us!”

Although he didn’t really do much of anything in Hollywood other than Tarzan films for years (eventually replacing him in similar, lower-budget, films as Alex Raymond’s Jungle Jim), the oft-married Weissmuller developed a playboy reputation. His sometimes public battles with Mexican Spitfire actress Lupe Velez, his second wife, were gossip column fodder all during his early years as Tarzan.

If you think about it, Tarzan, The Ape Man was remade by RKO just a year later…as King Kong. Hear me out, here. You have a bunch of privileged white guys with an agenda going where they don’t belong. A girl unexpectedly joins them. She’s captured by an ape (as opposed to an ape MAN) to be his mate. People don’t understand the ape and attack him because he’s different. IT’S THE SAME PLOT!

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan appeared together for the final time in the infamous Warner Bros./Seven Arts misfire, The Phynx, from 1970. It didn’t do anything to hurt their unique place in show business history as one of the great movie couples of the Golden Age of Hollywood, which all started with Tarzan, the Ape Man.

Extras include the full-length doc Tarzan: Silver Screen King of the Jungle, two Merrie Melodies shorts, and trailer.

Despite its outdated sensibilities, its stock footage, its unrealistic ape suits, its lack of background on its main character, and its casual racism and violence, Tarzan, the Ape Man still holds up today as an exciting adventure with a striking, mysterious hero and a heroine to match him. I want to go watch the five sequels with Weissmuller and O’Sullivan again now!

Booksteve recommends.

 

 

 

 

 

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