Music: William Axt Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, C. Aubrey Smith and Neil Hamilton
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs, about a nobleman raised in the jungle by apes. The film became a huge success for MGM and spawned numerous sequels. Tarzan the Ape Man is also the first of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, arguably the best of the many actors who would go on to essay the role in later years. The novel was first published in 1912 after the author had been inspired by the explorations of Stanley and Livingstone and Western Europe had become consumed with the idea of colonizing The Dark Continent. Burroughs was apparently pleased with Weissmuller as Tarzan, but was so disappointed by the way in which much of the original character from the novel was eliminated that he helped form a production company that would make a series more true to the book. The result was The New Adventures of Tarzan starring Bruce Bennett. For many fans, however, Weissmuller will always be the original and best Tarzan.
The story begins with an incredibly young Maureen O’Sullivan arriving in Africa. There she is met by the wonderful Doris Lloyd who chatters on with such speed that it’s difficult to make out what she’s saying. Neil Hamilton recognizes her last name, the same as the man he works for, C. Aubrey Smith, and takes O’Sullivan to meet her father and his aide Forrester Harvey. She has dropped out of civilization and plans on exploring the jungle, much to the consternation of her father. Smith is looking for an elephant graveyard so that he can harvest the ivory and make a fortune back home in England but the natives won’t tell them where it is. O’Sullivan, a crack shot Hamilton soon learns, goes along with them. It’s on the journey that they hear the mysterious cry of Tarzan, and when the group is attacked by Pygmies he grabs O’Sullivan and takes her with him. Of course she is initially terrified of Johnny Weissmuller who doesn’t speak and has taken her captive in his treetop home with the other apes, but she is more afraid of the animals than of him and so she clings to him as her protector. When Smith and Hamilton rescue her and, in the process kill one of the apes, she feels somehow it’s wrong, and Weissmuller goes after them to prove it.
The studio jungle sets are pretty good and, while the special effects are obvious, they are at least as good as those from King Kong a year later. Native tribes are shown in rear screen projection, as are all of the exteriors and the shots with animals. Matte shots provide some thrilling backgrounds as the hunting party climbs across the face of a cliff and nearly loses O’Sullivan. The people in ape suits are also obvious but, to be fair, they do a decent job of acting and there are also some real chips for close up shots. While Weissmuller has some doubles doing the acrobatics for him in the trees, he handles the swimming chores all by himself. Weissmuller was an Olympic swimmer, winning five gold medals in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics. After promoting several products as a spokesman and appearing in the film Glorifying the American Girl, he was picked up by MGM for their Tarzan series.
Director Woodbridge Van Dyke began the series but it was soon passed on to other directors while he went on to film The Thin Man series for the studio. His work here is nothing out of the ordinary, but he does have a few nice moments when the camera pulls free from its moorings and travels along while Weissmuller is swimming, or pushing in when one of the elephants is caught in a trap. Studio composer William Axt provides the opening and closing theme, but there is little other than jungle noises for the rest of the picture. It’s not a very compelling film, except for the endless associations it has. Like Dracula, Tarzan is an iconic figure that has a life of it’s own in the cultural consciousness. And once all of that comes into play this film becomes something much more. Tarzan’s communication with the elephants and apes, the battles with lions and the climactic battle with the Kong-like ape are great in spite of the deficiencies of filmmaking in the day. Tarzan the Ape Man was an adventurous film in its time and is still well worth checking out as a reference to where the phenomenon began.