Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Tarzan The Ape Man - 1932

Johnny Weissmuller replaced Herman Brix (the most ideal-looking Tarzan) in MGM's epic (sort of) telling Edgar Rice Burroughs' story about a noble white wild man. What did the screenwriters keep from the original story by ERB? Africa as a setting, a free-spirited girl named Jane, and a budding romance between her and a lost young man who lives among apes. That's pretty much it. The rest of the classic story is jettisoned. What replaces it? Here's a summary.

Jane Parker (not "Porter") (played by a ravishing Maureen O'Sullivan) joins her crusty ivory-seeking white hunter father James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and his debonair partner Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) to seek riches beyond the mythical Mutia Escarpment. Once there they encounter a mysterious white man who seems to have live most if not all his life among primitive apes (a blend of men and suits and chimps) and who seems to be the relative master of his isolated domain. Tarzan (as Jane will learn he is called) kidnaps Jane and then later she is rescued but Tarzan's "mother" is killed. He seeks vengeance killing porters in the safari, and eventually kidnaps Jane again but is wounded. Jane tends Tarzan's head wound, they fall in love, consummate their romance and then they once again encounter her forlorn father and his partner and their diminished party. But just as soon as Jane rejoins them they are captured by "dwarves" and killed off one by one by being thrown into a pit with a giant gorilla (the great Ray Corrigan). But Tarzan arrives with elephant forces to destroy the village and rescue the injured Parker, Holt and Jane. Parker then follows a wounded elephant to the legendary ivory-strewn graveyard only to immediately die himself. Jane stays with her love and Holt returns to civilization.

ERB never wrote this story, but he well could have. Tarzan's origins are never much discussed in this tale, he just is, a fully-grown forest god. Since the story is largely told from Jane's perspective this makes sense, since there is no practical way for her to know. There are no tell-tale cabins full of clues to reveal his true identity in this one. The focus is on romance.

And the romance is a fairly lustful one for this pre-Code saga. Jane arrives in Africa with trunk after trunk of necessary things, but steadily as the movie develops she is stripped of one thing after another, her civilized patina disappearing with her clothes. Eventually she falls for the Forest God, and is unapologetic for it. Radical stuff indeed for any time.

Running over ninety minutes the movie does drag a bit, especially during the climax when the filmmakers seem to think long minutes watching chimps and such ramble through the jungle is interesting. Likewise a news reel like intro to African natives at the beginning of the movie is clumsy and seems to be mere padding.

The special effects are pretty uneven. The ears on the Indian elephants are a disaster, and the trapeze set ups in the trees are too easy to spot. But by and large the battles Tarzan has with water buffaloes, lions, and apes are pretty convincing. The ape suits are sometimes effective and sometimes not.

The movie succeeds brilliantly in the area of tone. The quiet of the film is impressive. No score undermines the moments, but only a somber quiet which is likely not itself accurate of the jungle, but is surely suggestive of a natural idyllic setting. There's a leisurely nature to this movie which complements its theme.

The jungle sets work best when Tarzan and Jane are lounging around showing off their handsome shapes and promoting the devil-may-care lifestyle of the jungle. They are a handsome couple and sizzle despite Weissmuller's limited acting ability. He's still able to shoot a smokey look at his soft captive which speaks volumes.

Tarzan The Ape Man is a long movie which deserves to be sampled when one has proper time to enjoy it. A fine wine of movies, uneven but ultimately satisfying.

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  1. This movie always makes me think of the famous misquote "Me Tarzan, you Jane." Here's an article about it:

  2. The non-verbal Tarzan is a pain to watch sometimes, given the way he is in the novels, a man more than capable of subtle conversations. It does keep the focus on Jane and it also prevents any attempts to plumb his origins which seem an enigma in the movies.

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