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TARZAN, THE APE MAN (director: W.S. Van Dyke; screenwriters: from the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs “Tarzan”/Cyril Hume; cinematographers: Clyde De Vinna/Harold Rosson; editors: Tom Held/Ben Lewis; music: George Richelavie; cast: Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan), Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane Parker), C. Aubrey Smith (James Parker), Neil Hamilton (Harry Holt), Doris Lloyd (Mrs. Cutten), Forrester Harvey (Beamish), Ivory Williams (Riano); Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving G. Thalberg; MGM; 1932)
“The first feature-length talking version of the Tarzan series, and the best in the series.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The first feature-length talking version of the Tarzan series, and the best in the series. It was directed by W.S. Van Dyke and based upon Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1914 novel Tarzan, which MGM paid him $40,000 for the rights. MGM had the stock footage on the African location from its recent Trader Horn and used them in this film. MGM was taken by complete surprise at how enormously successful their attempt at Tarzan was, never expecting this unsophisticated thriller to hit the jackpot. They hired 5-time Olympic swimming medalist Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, a part he was to play 12 times (6 for MGM and 6 for RKO’s producer Sol Lesser). Weissmuller became the definitive Tarzan, although many others before and after him also played Tarzan. The studio cast Weissmuller only as Tarzan and wouldn’t let him take any other parts. Tarzan’s signature call of the wild was heard for the first time in this film; it was created by Douglas Shearer by blending electronic methods together with Weissmuller’s shout played backwards.

James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith), the owner of a trading store in darkest Africa, and his young hunter associate Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), are surprised with the unexpected visit of Parker’s beautiful daughter Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan), from England, just as they are going on a dangerous safari to the Mutia Escarpment, the secret legendary elephants’ graveyard to secure the treasured ivory. We are told that the elephants are never found dead in the jungle because they sense when they are dying and head for this secret graveyard. Jane convinces them to take her along, after she proves she’s a crack shot. On the Escarpment they are startled to see a white savage, an ape-man in a loincloth. He abducts Jane, taking her to his tree-top residence among the apes. She learns he calls himself Tarzan and they attempt to communicate in a primitive way (they establish each other’s names by repeating Jane and Tarzan while thumping on their respective bodies). She falls for him, but when her father and his hunting party find her — Jane reluctantly returns to civilization. But when her party is captured by a savage tribe of dwarfs, Jane gets the attention of the chimpanzee Chetah, who has Tarzan come to the rescue with a following of his elephant friends. Jane’s father’s succumbs, but at least witnesses where the elephants’ graveyard is before kicking off. Jane decides to live with Tarzan in the jungle and bids Holt, her would-be suitor and a representative of civilization, goodbye, saying she’ll see him when he comes back for the ivory.

The primitively shot film had some exciting moments that included Tarzan carried around in the mouth of an elephant, Tarzan slaying a leopard and then a gorilla with a knife, and apes tossing Jane to one another until she finds Tarzan so she can treat his wound from a lion.

It’s an action-packed adventure story that wasn’t ruined like the later versions by trying to domesticate Tarzan. To see how Hollywood viewed the jungle back then (not aware of its racist attitude) and a jungle romance between an innocent savage and a sophisticated lady, proves to be irresistible fun–even in modern times the fantasy holds up.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”