TARZAN THE APE MAN runs, jumps, swings, swims and yodels. He fights a leopard, two lions, breaks the neck of a wildebeest, kills a couple of porters, evades crocodiles, leads an elephant stampede on a village of sadistic dwarfs, knifes a giant gorilla and seduces a sophisticated lady from Civilization. He lives in a tree and speaks Monkey, but begins to grasp English (anything for a dame) and does it all in 100 minutes.
“I don’t think you’d better look at me like that. You’re awfully attractive. I love saying things to a man who can’t understand. You don’t even know what kisses are.” No, but he can learn on the job.
Edgar Rice Burroughs wishful fantasy swung from the pulp pages (“Tarzan of the Apes” in 1912 the first in a series of 26) to the silent screen (1918) for a number of tellings before this 1932 version brought his Manimalistic cry to Sound, ensured fame and pay stubs to Johnny (Weissmuller) & Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) and granted immortality to one truly crazypants creation. *
‘The Lord Of The Apes’ doesn’t show up until a third of the running time, as this initial saga mostly swoons from the vantage point of ‘Jane Parker’, swept off her dainty feet in every way while on a treasure hunt with her trader father (C.Aubrey Smith) and his Jane-smote, trigger-happy partner (Neil Hamilton). 21-year-old Irish import Maureen O’Sullivan is 4th-billed but she has the biggest part and most of the (terrible) dialog, churned up by Ivor Novello, off Cyril Hume’s adaptation. From Sunset to ‘da Vine, curvy colleen Maureen was busy in ’32, with eight features racked up, this one the first of six jungle tales she’d grace with Weissmuller. “Here’s Johnny”, indeed: the lithe 28-year-old Olympian isn’t required to do much more than be an action-capable oaf for this inaugural jaunt, but—ungawa!— can he ever swim! **
As to the story—what can you say? The search for “the Elephant Graveyard” and “ivory enough for the world” takes the unabashedly colonialist explorers up the “Mutia Escarpment”, chiding and whipping on their diminishing supply of native underlings. Off those matte-mocked heights plummets a hapless bearer, seconds after a blithe observation that the six-inch ledge on a 1000-foot drop is “a bit sticky“. Throughout, pros and cons over perilous decisions—like rafting across a river filled with hippos—are snap decided in two or three sentences. This is not a p.c. friendly safari (19-thirty-two? whaddaya think?) considering the way Black Africans are simplistically portrayed and callously treated. But then non-biased elemental logic and ‘wait-a-sec’ reason of all sorts go out the window in this kind of silliness: in Jane’s pithy words “It’s all a bit absurd and melodramatic.” Quite. It’s also noisy as hell, what with all the elephant trumpeting and Jane’s constant jabber and squeaking.
Things do move apace, under the waste-not/want-not direction of W.S. Van Dyke, who a year earlier captained the notoriously difficult, disease & death-stalked Trader Horn (cast & crew barely surviving Kenya, Tanzania, Sudan, Uganda and the Congo), unused footage from which is interspersed (heavy on the obvious) with the filming done in California. Much of the process-shot stuff is a chore to endure, and too-obvious stunt doubles show up in some of the animal wrestling bouts.
Five months of shooting cost $652,675—not cheap during the Depression, approximately $12,700,000 today. This vouched for such items as attaching bigger ears and fake tusks to malleable Indian elephants, recruited from zoos to pose as their more fearsome African cousins, for madly capering guys in daffy gorilla costumes and by having aerialist Alfredo Codona (of “The Flying Codonas” and literally high-strung) to do the no-way vine maneuvers. Someone (is it Ray ‘Crash’ Corrigan?) plays the over-sized ape monster that figures in perhaps the most outrageously bizarre gimmick: the tribe of homicidal dwarfs (ya gotta love it) that intend to feed the trussed white folk to said simian. This group of midget malcontents—all men, no maniac girl dwarfs in this part of Cameroon—are played by a gaggle of Caucasian dwarfs in blackface, who poke wildly with their spears, jump up and down and leer evilly, until the bellow-summoned pachyderm cavalry smash through their sick ritual, knock down their huts and smash’em. No wonder kids loved this.
And lo, the people did; with a domestic gross of $3,800,000, this was the 7th most popular picture of the year. Hoover was history and a New Deal was on the way, but in pre-Code 1932 crowds were keen for the bizarre: The Sign Of The Cross, Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde, Kongo, The Mummy, Rasputin And The Empress, The Old Dark House, Island Of Lost Souls, Blonde Venus, The Mask Of Fu Manchu, The Most Dangerous Game and Freaks. Fitting quite appropriately into that lusty horde was the echo heard round the world, the mighty Tarzan yell. Tarzan’s signature expression—either developed by sound techs or issued from Johnny’s own lungpower—is so badass it can even be done underwater (when pursued by a a large reptile).
“Tarzan, what am I doing here, alone with you? Perhaps I better not think too much about that. Just to be here, be happy, and I am happy. Not a bit afraid. Not a bit sorry. Oh, Tarzan, I wish I could make you understand. Perhaps I can, gradually. Come here.” Jane, you…
* First in the loincloth, beefy Elmo Lincoln was followed by six other Tarzanians before landing in the loincloth of the fiddle-fit Weissmuller, who played it a dozen times. JW was then succeeded by 16 muscle-buffed and progressively refined inheritors. No doubt more biceps and six-packs wait on down the vine.
** Maureen-O on Herr Weissmuller: “An amiable piece of beefcake; a likable, overgrown child.” Her Irish up, she was less fond of the biting, scratching, 3-year chimpanzee Jiggs (‘Cheeta’): “that ape son of a bitch” (the nasty little guy later attacked Dorothy Lamour as well). Johnny: “It was like stealing. There was swimming and I didn’t have to say much. How can a guy climb trees, say “Me Tarzan, you Jane” and make a million?”