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Grade BTarzan the Ape Man (1932)

Director: W.S. Van Dyke

Stars: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan

Release Company: MGM

MPAA Rating: NR

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Johnny Weissmuller: Tarzan

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To find the most mesmerizing film about Tarzan, you have to return to the very first sound version: W.S. Van Dyke's 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man, starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan. This is the first of six Tarzan films that Weissmuller and O'Sullivan made, establishing them as the definitive Tarzan and Jane actors. Certainly there were entertaining silent versions, but Elmo Lincoln, for example, came across as a comical figure, with his extra chunky physique that made vine swinging impractical. Not so with Weissmuller, who had just come off Olympic gold medal swimming performances.

Most amazing are the production values for the adventure film, and their elaborate nature explains why it took two to three years to create each Weissmuller film. Although the two crocodiles chasing Weissmuller across the river look like rejects for Disneyland's Jungle Cruise, Tarzan really appears to tangle with real lions and leopards, even applying a WWF "sleeper hold" on one while using his trusty knife. These scenes are filmed without obvious slow motion techniques, and the two African lion sequences are shown close enough that they can't be faked with models or human stand-ins. They have to be highly trained and are likely de-clawed, but the teeth certainly were intact. Those fight scenes provide the action highlights, but other animal sequences cut in fluidly for more thrills—hoards of hippos that don't like humans littering their river with rustic rafts, slithering crocodiles eagerly ending their sunbathing for human munchies, and kindly elephants arriving in the nick of time to rescue the wounded Tarzan. One elephant deserves a supporting award for best animal actor for his portrayal of a wounded victim of a spear.

The plot follows novelist Edgar Rice Burroughs' popular adventure, focusing on the first meeting between Tarzan and Jane. Her father, James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith), leads an African safari with his young associate Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) to find the legendary Elephant Burial Ground. Their motive is strictly commercial—the ivory would make them fabulously wealthy. The problems are formidable since the site lies beyond the mysterious and dangerous wall-like mountains called the Mutia Escarpment, and their sacred nature makes them dreaded by their native guides, not to mention how heavily guarded they will be by enemy tribes.

Early on, Jane indicates that she is ready for adventure, throwing off her civilized English upbringing. Her father wants to send her back, but she informs him that she's going to accompany him and declares, "From now on, I'm through with civilization. I'm going to be a savage, just like you." Holt instantly falls for her, but he's a proper civilized type, so sparks never develop. It's quite different from the animal magnetism Jane feels when she encounters Tarzan, and O'Sullivan does a nice job communicating her fear and attraction to the wild jungle man when he kidnaps her and introduces her to his tree habitat.

True to character, Tarzan is the strong silent type, communicating mostly through looks and lots of pokes and pushing, just like his fellow apes. The famous "Me, Tarzan—You, Jane" scene occurs in this movie, but that is a greatly simplified version of the actual words. I won't bother to accurately record the exact quotes, but you're sure to remember this scene and enjoy it along with the amazing action sequences. And the incredible Tarzan yell that has never been topped! Certainly this is dubbed in because Tarzan cries out in the midst of attacking lions and river races with blood thirsty crocodiles.

Overall, Tarzan the Ape Man is one helluva action film that contains a few interesting themes contrasting civilization with the wild and criticizing human greed without being overly preachy. Like King Kong (from the same era), the wild man falls for the beauty but isn't destroyed by her this time. Burroughs never intended that, and there are many sequels to be made. The beauty has choices herself, and Jane satisfies the audience by doing the right thing to guarantee future episodes. The studio knew what it had on its hands, and made sure that Weissmuller only appeared as Tarzan, while allowing O'Sullivan to play other roles, which doesn't seem fair to the male lead, but it does firmly establish Weissmuller as a Tarzan that has never been supplanted.
 


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