1932/Director: W.S. Van Dyke / Screeplay: Edgar Rice Burroughs (novel), Cyril Hume (adaptation)
Cast: Johnny Weissmuller, Neil Hamilton, Maureen O’Sullivan, C. Aubrey Smith, Doris Lloyd, Forrester Harvey, Ivory Williams

I recently picked up all the Tarzan movies on DVD here in Beijing and have watched them all a couple times except for Tarzan’s New York Adventure which I never really liked even as a kid, but one night I will pop it in and give it a go. Tarzan the Ape Man was the 1st of the Tarzan films from MGM and Johnny Weissmulller at the time was under contract with the BVD underwear company and MGM had to do some quick bargaining to allow BVD’s spokesman to appear clad only in a loincloth. The movie only generally follows the Edgar Rice Burroughs narrative of the adventures of Lord Greystoke who is the sole infant survivor of a plane crash in the African Jungle, near the fabled Mutia Escarpment. Rather this movie takes up with the arrival of Jane Parker, played perfectly by Maureen O’Sullivan, in Africa to assist her aging father in his duties there. A safari is soon set up to go to the escarpment in search of the elephant’s graveyard, a veritable Fort Knox of ivory. Tarzan comes in to the story gradually and the direction by W.S Van Dyke in some instances is pretty good, but in others pretty shoddy. For instance in the early scenes where the characters are talking about images that are obviously being back-projected as the proportion and contrast is utterly wrong.

Johnny Weismuller plays a great Tarzan, perhaps the greatest of them all -though I felt Gordon Scott did pretty darn good later as a more muscular and articulate Tarzan- in the first three films by MGM. This went not without protest from Burroughs who objected to the dumbing down of his character and the fact there were no plans for Lord Greystoke to be anything other than a monosyllabic Adonis. And Weissmuller does look great, as does Maureen O’Sullivan. It is a great little movie that caused a stir in its day. Some interesting things to look for are the trapezes Tarzan uses for vines and the men in ape costumes that resemble in some way the costumes that Stanley Kubrick used for the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. We are also introduced the recurring “bad bawana” and “good bawana” characters. Some other cool tidbits is that in no film did Tarzan ever utter the oft quoted line: Me Tarzan. You Jane. Also, there is no such thing as an elephant’s graveyard despite the perpetually generated myth that there is. It was a concoction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and last, the famous Tarzan yell is the voice of sound man Douglas Sheaer. It is normal call that is monkeyed with electronically then played backwards. In all these movies my favorite parts are usually the elaborate sets and backgrounds that look simply surreal in black and white.


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