Director: W.S. Van Dyke
Writers: Cyril Hume, Ivor Novello, based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, Neil Hamilton, C. Aubrey Smith, Forrester Harvey, Doris Lloyd, Ivory Williams, (and uncredited cast) Jiggs (Cheetah the chimp), Ray Corrigan, Johnny Eck, Billy Curtis, Franz Balluck Eddie Buresh, Charles Becker, Joseph Herbst, Johnny Leal, Jack Leonard, Angelo Rossitto, Gus Wayne, Johnny Winters, Tanner (the lion)
Explorers James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) are leading an African safari to search for the legendary elephants’ graveyard full of valuable ivory tusks. Parker’s daughter Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) accompanies the expedition. The safari ascends a range of cliffs known as the Mutia Escarpment. Passing this boundary brings them into a remote jungle region filled with dangerous beasts. It is also home to a strange being; a savage white man called Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) living with a tribe of apes. Tarzan takes an immediate interest in the beautiful Jane Parker.
The Flashback Fanatic movie review
When Edgar Rice Burroughs had his 1912 novel Tarzan of the Apes serialized in the pages of The All-Story pulp magazine, he laid a foundation for the 20th-century superhero genre. Here was a bizarre character endowed with incredible abilities by his upbringing with apes in a jungle environment. The ongoing series of Tarzan stories would pit the jungle lord against the strange civilizations and creatures of his wild African habitat as well as dangers from modern society.
The enormous popularity of Tarzan resulted in the 1914 publication of Tarzan of the Apes in a hardcover edition. Soon other media were also making a home for the jungle man. Tarzan would be adapted for films, newspaper comic strips, radio programs, comic books, and television series. Tarzan has become one of the most famous fictional characters in the world.
Tarzan’s first motion picture appearance was in 1918’s silent film Tarzan of the Apes starring Elmo Lincoln. More silent film adaptations would follow. Once the era of the talkies began, Hollywood’s most prestigious film studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, would produce the classic take on Tarzan in the wake of their successful 1931 jungle film, Trader Horn. Tarzan the Ape Man would not only employ Trader Horn’s director (W.S. Van Dyke) and scripter (Cyril Hume), it would also use African stock footage from that previous film. It is probably the success of these two films that established jungle adventure as a popular film genre for decades.
The story of Tarzan the Ape Man takes the unusual approach of not providing any explanation for the Tarzan character. Our introduction to the hero is alongside the members of the Parker expedition. This provides a dramatically satisfying buildup to Tarzan’s first appearance. We relate to the Tarzan character with a sense of awe and mystery, as do the explorers venturing into his jungle home. Many in the audience were probably already familiar with the character’s origin as a human orphan raised by jungle apes. Tarzan’s background and presence in the African jungle is never explained or even surmised about in this film. The filmmakers may have assumed that the audience did not need that backstory rehashed.
MGM was also contractually prohibited from using many story elements found in Burroughs’ original novel. Many disgruntled Tarzan fans don’t realize that MGM had the rights to do a film with the Tarzan character and not much else. Therefore, we have MGM’s very streamlined Tarzan narrative in this film. We don’t have any reasons provided for Tarzan living in the jungle, he is never brought back to civilization and educated, and he never learns of his birthright as an English nobleman. Since Tarzan the Ape Man became a big hit, MGM was content to stick with what worked and continue with their style of story and character.
Burroughs is supposed to have been disappointed by the way Tarzan was portrayed throughout the Weissmuller films, yet MGM was not just making arbitrary, high-handed Hollywood changes; they were probably just playing it safe by the terms of the contract. Since their version worked at the box office, MGM was not about to mess with success. Hence, there was no eventual sophistication of their Tarzan character.
The Burroughs purists are always nitpicking about the interpretation of the Tarzan character in the Johnny Weissmuller-starring films. I think that this first film is actually a respectful take on the Burroughs character. This is Tarzan’s first encounter with the white race and before he was taught to speak their language. In the subsequent film series, Weissmuller’s Tarzan would learn more English, but would always remain unsophisticated. This was simply a character trait that made him unique from all other movie heroes, endeared him to the public, and became entrenched in the Weissmuller portrayal. Rather than bemoan the alteration to the Burroughs source material, I appreciate these films for their escapist thrills and the heroic counterpoint to so-called civilization that Weissmuller’s Tarzan provides.
Over the past century, the Tarzan character has been portrayed by a long succession of actors. Without a doubt, the most famous Tarzan of the movies is Johnny Weissmuller. The success of Weissmuller’s debut in MGM Pictures’ Tarzan the Ape Man led to his starring in a series of five MGM sequels and a further six-film series at RKO Radio Pictures. To the moviegoing public for 12 films over 17 years, Johnny Weissmuller was Tarzan.
Despite the fact that by Weissmuller’s own admission he was no great actor, his performance as the jungle hero is very effective. Of course, as with any Tarzan actor, the celebrated Olympic swimming champion was chosen for the role because of his physique and athleticism. But Weissmuller not only looks right, he also behaves right. His Tarzan has no self-consciousness. Weissmuller’s raw earnestness without wild gesticulation makes his Tarzan seem perfectly natural. His performances would continue to improve in future installments of the series.
This film also debuts the lovely Maureen O’Sullivan as the most endearing of all the movie mates of Tarzan. Her Jane is petite, sexy, spirited, and has the most charming giggle in cinema history. O’Sullivan would go on to co-star with Weissmuller in the rest of the MGM Tarzan films and cement her status as the Jane with the public.
In regards to the change of Jane’s surname from Porter of the novels to Parker and her nationality being changed from American to English, that is probably due to some more legal gobbledygook in the contracted adaptation rights that MGM had with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Apparently, the character was changed enough to ensure it was different from the Jane of Burroughs’ stories.
C. Aubrey Smith plays Jane’s father and trading post operator James Parker. Smith had been an English character actor with a long résumé of stage and film appearances. He has us immediately on his side as we see his affectionate and humorous interaction with Jane when they reunite before embarking on their safari.
Neil Hamilton is best known to the boob tube generation as Commissioner Gordon in the Batman television series (1966-68). As James Parker’s young partner Harry Holt, he is understandably immediately smitten with O’Sullivan’s Jane Parker. He seems like a stand-up sort of guy and shows smarts and nerve in some tense situations. One expects that Holt will be set up as a contentious plot point in a love triangle with Jane and Tarzan, but that angle is never really exploited. However, we are left to wonder if a bit of jealousy on Holt’s part results in some of his trigger-happy behavior.
The film takes its time establishing its African setting and introducing us to the characters of James Parker, Jane Parker, and Harry Holt. Once their safari begins, they encounter one danger after another while being teased by Tarzan’s presence. The jungle man’s eerie and powerful cry is first heard from a distance and eventually dispels a threat from jungle beasts. That Tarzan yell is probably the most famous movie sound effect ever. There has been much speculation (and probably plenty of disinformation) about just how that mighty yodel was created, but it is perfect.
Once Tarzan makes the scene, things stay varied and interesting. Between the bouts of ape-man action, there are playful and intimate moments between Tarzan and Jane as they get acquainted. This is all building up to sex that is proposed without dialogue; only O’Sullivan’s sensitivity and Weissmuller’s simplicity and body language are needed to tell us what happens next.
Other pre-Code highlights are of the grisly kind. There are rampaging hippos seemingly conspiring with the voracious crocodiles to make the river run red with safari-member munchies. The nightmarish climax features a hostile tribe of dwarfs lowering their captured victims one-by-one into a pit containing a huge, gorilla monster.
MGM’s Tarzan the Ape Man set a high bar for adventure films, and Tarzan films in particular. Hollywood’s grandest film studio spent plenty of money to lavish a lot of action, violence, effects, exotic animals, and expansive jungle sets on this first installment in their iconic series. Their follow-up, Tarzan and His Mate (1934), was probably the best Tarzan film ever made. It was a tough act to follow for competing Tarzan productions of the 1930s and ever since. The Weissmuller-starring Tarzan films were a major factor in the character’s lasting rank as a world-famous pop culture hero.