These were still running when I was growing up in Granbury, Texas. I never saw the first of the series until I watched it this week. It’s Tarzan the Ape Man from MGM in 1932 and starring Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane Parker and Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. The screen shots are from my DVD recorded off Turner Classic Movies. Details are from Wikipedia.
The setting is early 20th century, back when Darkest Africa was still darkest Africa, ruled by European colonial powers and exploited, both in goods and in people. Here we see black porters hauling ivory, harvested from killed elephants, into a village for trading.
To prepare for this review I obtained The Complete Burroughs Tarzan Collection (Illustrated) Kindle Edition and read the first story, about how Tarzan became an ape man and how Tarzan met Jane. Some elemental differences were quickly discovered. For one, in the book she is Jane Porter. In the movie she is Jane Parker. In the book Jane first encounters Tarzan when she and her scientist father are marooned by pirates on the West African Coast. In the movie her father, James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith), operates a hunting and trading post in a West African village. Jane comes to visit, bringing a car-load of trunks in order to continue her continental lifestyle in the jungle. Here she arrives by boat and is met by Mr. Parker’s associate, Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton). There is electricity in their meeting. It ends up going nowhere.
The movie introduces viewers to the wonders of West Africa, but on the cheap. It’s apparent the production company did not journey to Africa for the filming. A setting around Toluca Lake near Los Angeles was still wild and undeveloped in those days, and it stood in for the African wilderness. Scenes introducing various African tribes are apparently National Geographic stock footage with the actors standing in front of a rear-projection screen. Here Jane and James Parker take in the wonders of an inter-tribal gathering.
Then everybody is off into the wilderness to locate and exploit the elephant grave yard. As every civilized person knows, when an elephant gets ready to die it heads for the elephant grave yard, which is why you never see the African plane littered with elephant skeletons. On their way the party of European leaders and African porters encounters many obstacles and adventures. Here a porter falls to his death along a treacherous path around a cliff face. The first thing everybody is going to wonder at this point is this. If they are going to the elephant grave yard, why not follow the same route the elephants take. It’s obvious an elephant could never negotiate this narrow ledge, especially an elephant getting ready to die.
The party suffers additional attrition. Crossing a river, two more porters succumb to hippos and crocodiles. Back when this movie was made, African porters were considered expendable, and it was typical to show one or more meeting a bad end, just to keep up audience interest.
Then Tarzan the Ape Man bursts on the scene. He swings through the trees and yodels his presence. Everybody is frightened. Guns are brought out. Jane disappears. Tarzan has been attracted to the first European woman he has ever seen in his life, and he has taken her to his tree-top abode for further investigation. Here is examines and shreds items of her clothing while the chimpanzee Cheeta looks on, introduced here for the first time in the Tarzan legend.
When the hunting party spots Jane and Tarzan returning from the trees Holt immediately takes aim with his rifle and kills Tarzan’s adult ape friend (not Cheeta) before Jane can get the hostilities quelled. Tarzan takes offense, and he stalks the hunting party, silently killing two more porters. In the mean time Holt’s true character emerges has we see him employing a whip against recalcitrant black porters. This was back in the days before the African Porter Benevolent Brotherhood became unionized.
Jane is returned to her people, but soon she is back with Tarzan after he rescues her from an attack by wild animals. After a cozy swim together (Weissmuller was an Olympic champion swimmer) they become very interested in each other. Tarzan gently picks her up and carries her to his tree-top abode while the scene fades to black.
The following morning finds Jane in a much better mood, and she is returned again to the hunting party, and Tarzan departs, but not for long. Shortly the hunting party is captured by a sadistic party of pygmies, who throw black porters into a pit with wild apes for sport. By the time the pygmies get ready to toss in Jane and the other Europeans, Tarzan has been alerted by Cheeta, and he rallies his elephant friends who arrive just in the nick of time. The elephants raze the pygmy village and send the savages running for their lives. Tarzan rescues Holt and the Parkers—all the black porters are by now dead.
James Parker dies when the party finally reaches the elephant grave yard, and Holt assumes possession of the ivory while Jane goes off to live in the wilderness with Tarzan.
The low production value and obvious plot defects are what earn this movie a spot in the BMotW series. The back story is of some interest. Maureen O’Sullivan was Jane in subsequent Tarzan movies, and Weissmuller became more famous as Tarzan than as an Olympic champion. O’Sullivan married writer-director John Villiers Farrow, and they had seven children, one being Mia Farrow. She died in 1998. Weissmuller played in six Tarzan films for MGM and then in another six for RKO. Then he was Jungle Jim in 13 films for Universal Studios. He died in 1984.
I will be reviewing the first of the Tarzan novels in the next few days.