Directed By: W.S. Van Dyke
Starring: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O'Sullivan, Neil Hamilton
Tag line: "He Knew Only The Law Of The Jungle...To Seize What He Wanted"
Trivia: Clark Gable was considered for the role of Tarzan, but was deemed too much of an unknown to play the ape man
Tarzan has been a popular cinematic hero since the days of silent movies, and in my lifetime alone there have been a number of films featuring Edgar Rice Burrough’s famous jungle dweller. The year 1981 saw the release of John Derek’s Tarzan the Ape Man (starring his wife, Bo Derek, as Jane); and Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes hit theaters in 1984. Even Disney threw their hat into the ring with an exceptional 1999 animated musical/adventure, and in 2016 Alexander Skarsgård played the title role in The Legend of Tarzan.
But for those of us who love the classics, Johnny Weissmuller will always be Tarzan, and 1932’s Tarzan the Ape Man marked the first of many times he would portray this iconic character.
Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan) has made the long journey from England to Africa to visit her father James (C. Aubrey Smith), who owns a trading post that borders the jungle. But while Jane is busy taking in the rustic beauty of her new surroundings, dear old dad is trying to raise enough cash to leave Africa once and for all, and with the help of his business partner Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), he’s concocted a scheme that will net more money than he’s ever had before. In short, James and Harry are undertaking an expedition to find the fabled Elephant Graveyard, a place that, if it exists, will surely house enough ivory to make both of them extremely rich. Against the wishes of Harry and her father, Jane decides to tag along, and together the trio (as well as a handful of servants and guides) make their way deep into the jungle.
Many dangers lie ahead of them, including snakes and crocodiles, but one thing they didn’t expect to find was Tarzan (Weissmuller), who, despite his obvious European lineage, lives among the creatures of the jungle, unable to speak or understand a word of English. Swinging through the trees from vine to vine, Tarzan abducts Jane (the first white woman he’s ever seen) and carries her back to his treetop home. As James and Harry search frantically for her, Jane tries to communicate with her captor, and over time she and Tarzan develop feelings for one another, but is love enough to keep them together, or will their differences ultimately force them apart?
Tarzan the Ape Man is a top-notch adventure movie; even before the title character hits the screen, there’s excitement aplenty (while traveling down the river on makeshift rafts, Jane and her companions encounter angry hippos and hungry crocodiles; and a walk along the side of s sheer cliff nearly costs Jane her life). Once the Ape Man himself enters the picture, the action kicks into high gear, with Tarzan and his pet chimp Cheeta dodging a steady stream of ravenous jungle cats (director Van Dyke recruited a number of real animals for the film, though Tarzan’s ape “family” was mostly men in suits).
Weissmuller may not have been the most charismatic actor ever to play Tarzan, but physically he was perfect for the role (a world-class swimmer, he won gold medals at both the 1924 and 1928 Olympics), and O’Sullivan delivers a spirited performance as Jane (carrying the scenes she shares with Weissmuller on her own). But as well-realized as these two characters are, even they take a back seat to the film’s numerous action scenes, all of which are flawlessly staged (the final sequence, when Tarzan must save Jane and the others from a violent pygmy tribe, is as thrilling as it gets).
The first in what would be a long-running series (12 movies in all), Tarzan the Ape Man is arguably the best adventure film to come out of Hollywood during the pre-code era, and one of the greatest of all-time.