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TARZAN THE APE MAN was one of Irving Thalberg's 'pet' projects at MGM, an
opportunity to take an existing franchise (Edgar Rice Burroughs' jungle lord
had been a film staple since beefy Elmo Lincoln donned a loincloth, in
1918), give it 'A'-list production values and a 'name' director (W.S. Van
Dyke), introduce charismatic actors as the leads (28-year old multiple
Olympic champion Johnny Weissmuller and 21-year old Irish import Maureen
O'Sullivan), and create a 'definitive' success for the
A success? Thalberg created a legend!
Utilizing MGM's vast library of stock footage (primarily from 1931's TRADER
HORN), a primordial Africa that was more pulp fiction than reality was
created on the back lot, and veteran British character actor C. Aubrey Smith
and 20s matinee idol (and future 'Batman' regular) Neil Hamilton were
introduced, as James Parker and Harry Holt, adventurers questing after the
legendary 'Elephants' Graveyard'. The arrival of Parker's daughter, Jane
(O'Sullivan), a free-spirited, raven-haired beauty, complicates matters, but
her stubborn refusal to lease, and confidence with the natives (shown as
rear projections behind Smith and O'Sullivan) finally win the two men over,
and soon the trio, accompanied by whip-induced native labor, are on
When a dying porter points the way to the Escarpment, a massive 'taboo'
mountainous plateau protecting the Graveyard, the party has the missing
piece to the puzzle, and begin an arduous climb to the top. (How a massive
mountain range could be hidden, for so long, is not explained). After losing
a porter, and nearly Jane, on the steep climb, the summit is achieved, and
the famous Tarzan yell (a combination yodel/howl, created by MGM's sound
department), is first heard. A treacherous river crossing, featuring stock
footage of hippos and crocodiles, then costs the safari more bearers, with
another yell saving their lives.
All this leads up, of course, to Johnny Weissmuller's first appearance as
Tarzan, observing the party from the trees. He is simply
magnificent...tanned, slim, smoothly-muscled (as opposed to the brawny body
builders later cast in the role) and nearly naked. He soon kidnaps Jane (he
may be ignorant, but he's not dumb!), and the incredible chemistry between
the pair is exhibited for the first time. While initially terrified of the
savage (particularly as he pulls off her clothing parts to examine them), he
doesn't 'have his way' with her, and she realizes he is far more sensitive
than she'd assumed.
Holt kills the ape guarding Jane (one assumes it is Kala, ape 'mother' of
Tarzan, in the ERB books), and Tarzan screams in anguish at his loss.
Displaying the racism prevalent in so many 30s films, Jane tries to defend
her erstwhile kidnapper to her father ("He's WHITE!"), but the two hunters
aren't buying it, and soon wound Tarzan, himself. Jungle animals spirit the
bleeding jungle lord away...and Jane is soon at Tarzan's side, bandaging his
head, and looking lustily at the big lug! When he recovers, the pair
consummate their passion (in a scene tastefully off-camera), and are
swapping names ("Jane...Tarzan...Tarzan...Jane").
Tarzan returns Jane, and walks away, despite her pleas to return to
civilization with them. The safari is soon captured by a height-challenged
native tribe ("Are they Pygmies?" Jane asks; "They're dwarves," her father
replies...uh, whatever...), and a gruesome scene ensues of the surviving
members being lassoed and dropped into a pit with a giant gorilla (a
not-quite convincing guy in an ape suit). Holt is knocked unconscious,
Parker is mortally injured, Cheeta is tossed against a wall, and Jane swoons
in the gorilla's arms (shades of KING KONG), then Tarzan busts in, to kill
the ape and save them all. As the ever-available stampede of elephants mash
the dwarves into pulp, Tarzan leads the dying Parker, Jane, and Holt to the
'Elephants' Graveyard', where Jane's father passes away. Holt returns to
civilization (he would return in the sequel, TARZAN AND HIS MATE) and
Tarzan, Jane, and a recovering Cheeta start an exciting new life
Yes, the story is unintentionally campy, the 'apes', and animal fights,
unconvincing, and there is blatant racism throughout the film. But as sheer
entertainment, Depression-era audiences were enthralled. Weissmuller and
O'Sullivan conveyed the kind of eroticism that pre-Code Hollywood was
notorious for (and would reach even greater heights in the sequel), the
action sequences were spectacular, and a new MGM franchise was born, that
would produce six more films over the next nine years.
Thalberg had again proven why he was considered the film industry's resident
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