and Greystoke (1983)
IMDb link 7.2/10 with 5429 user votes -- RT-link Tomatometer 100%/user rating 68% with 967 votes
Year: 1932 -- Director: W.S. Van Dyke -- Writers: Cyril Hume, Ivor Novello -- Cast: Maureen O'Sullivan, Johnny Weissmuller, C. Aubrey Smith, Neil Hamilton, Ivory Williams, Ray Corrigan, Johnny Eck -- Length: 100 min. -- B&W/Mono -- budget: $652,675 (estimated). An oddly precise estimate.
With such small numbers of votes lodged at IMDb and RottenTomatoes I cannot assume that many people outside my generation have seen this film. Perhaps some of you have watched it in order to await this review. Ha ha. Let me put any delusions aside for a moment, and get down to writing about the Tarzan film that for a few decades was the Tarzan movie.
This film veers quite close to "so bad it's good" territory every once in a while. Somehow it remains entertaining, but the whole fabric is clearly something out of another time. That is part of what makes it so much fun to watch. Most of the time it is energetic. There are a few sequences where either 1) time is being filled with whatever was available, or 2) the stock jungle footage of wild animals was too expensive to not use every frame, and the pace draaags a bit. But only for a little while.
I have read that the contract between Edgar Rice Burroughs and MGM specified that the films would use the characters from the Tarzan books, but were prohibited from using any of ERB's plots! So Cyril Hume's adaptation and Ivor Novello's dialogue grew out of avoiding Burroughs' plots as much as it did anything else.
Maureen O'Sullivan is an interesting choice for Jane Parker. She is beautiful and likeable. The part she plays is written so that her courageous core shows through her blubbering and shrieking, for the most part. It is puzzling what and who Jane is supposed to be. But this is a story about Jane Parker, not so much about Tarzan the Ape Man. He is a prop in her tale. The story is told from her point of view, not his. Our fictional journey begins with her arrival in Africa. The man (the central character of the early novels) is presented as a nearly dumb brute, clever, but unschooled in the ways of "civilized" man, and doesn't show up until a third of the way through the run time.
Johnny Weissmuller is an equally interesting casting choice for Tarzan. The prior Tarzan was a rather bulky, beefy man. This actor is an Olympic medalist, and at 28 years old is still quite slender and muscular. The leanness provides some male glamour that matches what Maureen O'Sullivan brings to the role of Jane. He shows an incredible amount of skin, which is quite certainly in line with the descriptions of the character on the pages of Burroughs' books. After the Hayes Office became powerful, Tarzan's covering would become much more modest. But this is a pre-Code movie. It is clear how Jane's presence on the screen would affect straight boys, but imagine how same-sex-oriented boys would have felt about Weissmuller's loincloth (undoubtedly a 21st-century thing to wonder about a 1932 movie!). The film must have been an eye-opener for a lot of kids.
The villains are immoral, yet Jane is amoral, and so is Tarzan. But only in a British Empirical sense; he is moral within the context of his jungle world. For early 20th century youngsters seeing the movie, the racism and sexism would not be so visible, but the inverse moral code would seem quite admirable: The lives in the jungle are just as valuable as the lives of city-dwellers, whether those lives are animal or human. And any white-skinned Imperials who venture into the jungle with any other notions in their brains deserve to...die. An interesting point that was obviously possible to hold in 1932, but somehow my egoistical point of view wrongly assumes that such high-minded notions could only have come about since I was born. If that makes any sense.
I was curious if Weissmuller's scanty attire led to bans anywhere in the US or worldwide. The only Google link to that film and the word "banned" is in an article about Nazi Germany banning the first sequel because it showed an Aryan person in brutal surroundings.
Here are some aspects of the film and whether I like them or don't care for them:
Like: The verve with which the story is told, the no holds barred sort of runaway train that the movie becomes. It is a frequent thing for late 20th and early 21st century films to go too far. But in mid-20th century films you don't get to see much of that. This film predates the Hayes Office and enforcement of the original Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America censorship code. So it is free to become too violent and grotesque. To go too far.
Like: The editing overall. There are sequences (such as one where Cheetah is evading a leopard) in which the two opposing animals are never on the screen together. Yet the cutting of the footage builds suspense, and a sense of threat, while creating the illusion that they are chaser and chased. This is skillful editing of footage!
Like: The intercutting between Weissmuller and his stunt double(s) is most often seamless. No screen credit is given for stunts, so the name of the stuntman(men) is difficult to trace. Because Weissmuller is nearly naked, his stunt actors had to be exactly his build, or it would be much more obvious than with the sometimes clumsy transitions between Robin's main actor and his stunt double in the 1943 Batman serial.
Like: Jane Parker doesn't realize that her beloved father is the co-villain alongside future Commissioner Gordon, Harry Holt (actor Neil Hamilton). Nor does she represent all that is good and kind and never violent. She expresses rather Imperial attitudes at the end of the film. But she quickly assumes Tarzan's image of the animals around him.
Don't Like: Sadly, Tarzan seems to retain Burroughs' racist attitudes toward the African natives (something that is all too apparent in the written stories).
Like: As ridiculous as some of the conceits in the film are, they are played in such a way that they don't come across as blatantly stupid. For example, Tarzan has apparently never seen a woman before. Or, maybe it is that he has never seen a Caucasian one. That isn't clear. But he is taken with Jane, and takes her as well. Imagine being a freshly adolescent boy in the audience (or a girl, too) who is just beginning to have that funny feeling toward other people. And, for most, that strangely repellent fascination for members of the opposite sex. They could relate, right!?
Like: You would expect (at least I would) that a 1932 film would show human life as much more valuable than animal life. You would also expect that a 1932 American film would show white lives as mattering more than black ones. In this film, We would be wrong about the first assumption, and sadly correct about the second one. The movie comes off as amoral on balance to 21st century eyes. I don't know whether amorality was a "thing" back in those days. I know it made an unnamed rush across the screens in the 1970s, but was quelled again by Star Wars. It is an interesting thing to see it here. Of course, when I was one fifth my age and saw this for the first time, I didn't notice at all. But it is quite obvious to my eyes at 64 years old.
Like: This is something that fetched me even as a pre-teen: there is a lot of "nature footage" in the movie. Even some odd anthropological stock footage. And this fed my nascent desire to learn about people and places that I couldn't go see for myself. I understand now that it's contrived and posed, but I still like it.
Ambivalent about: Early on, the anthropological footage of the African tribal natives is interesting, and is presented with a modicum of respect, although this is also clearly a freakshow for the white audiences who would watch the movie in theaters. That last point adds a bit of squick to watching the clips presented as they are. Kind of another case of amorality, I think; but this time on the part of the filmmakers, rather than the fictional characters in the movie. Then again, there is a certain educational aspect to the footage of humans and animals from Africa. The prejudices of the viewers would be the same whether this was stock footage in a fictional film, or a documentary film that most Tarzan viewers would have avoided. I am unfairly judging all these people with the lens of 2016, you realize.
Like: Even while being treated in what modern eyes would categorize as a sexist way, Jane slowly comes to understand that Tarzan is not her subjugator, especially when he returns her to her party of English invaders. Cleverly, Tarzan and Jane kind of "use" each other. They also rescue each other! Way ahead of what I thought would be the attitudes of 1932.
Like: It is terrific fun to do a continuous MST3K-style riff on the movie as it progresses (and holds your attention).
Like: The moviemakers understood that Johnny Weissmuller was an Olympic-class swimmer, and an athletic star, not an acting star. So his role, although the titular character, is kept to a minimum. Tarzan becomes a nearly-mute jungle enigma. This movie could easily have been the Gymkata (1985) of its day. Instead, the concept was in understanding hands. Poor Kurt Thomas. Lucky Johnny W.
Don't Like: The climactic scene has a cacophonous, supposedly diagetic soundtrack that goes on. And on. And on. For several minutes. In such an annoying way! It's as if the sound editor was afraid to let the tension flag, and in an attempt to keep the intensity going, loops and loops his loops. It gets very tiresome. And it becomes noticeable, which is almost always bad editing.
Don't Like: Jane's character seems to waver between strong woman and frightened debutante. This might have been interesting to those in the 1930s. Perhaps this was done so that the audience could self-righteously think, "Ah! not really so brave, eh, little girlie!?" Yet the sexism in the film is so often subverted that it is difficult to know whether the culture of the day is somehow oozing through the motions and words of the character and those around her.
Don't Like: Cultural robbery wasn't even a thing back then, insofar as categories go. If there was ivory around and white people could take it out of Africa, well that was entirely okay (with the white folks). The natives weren't putting it to any "good use."
Don't Like: Where does the dwarf tribe come from? There are a pair of lines tossed in by diologist Ivor Novello: "Are they pygmies?" "No. They're dwarves." Instructional for any viewers who don't know the difference. I mean, I admire someone's notion of giving dwarves screen roles, even if they are slathered in dark, full-body makeup, but remember this is the era of Freaks (1932) which paraded the unusual bodies of circus freakshow performers across the screen. And for precisely the same prurient interest in the audience that compelled people to drop their nickels and dimes in order to see such people live and in person. But, once again, this film gives with one hand and takes back with the other. At least the people were working. Even if they were playing twisted little jungle demons. I wonder how many of the dwarf-tribe players became Munchkins seven years later.
Don't Like: Gah! The ape suits. I guess the best they could do in the day?
Don't Like: The racism has a certain finesse to it that reduces its impact. There is clearly disregard for black lives. Many of the African characters are not only red-shirts, but black men in red shirts! The white overlords tie themselves together when traveling along a cliff-side pathway, but rope is too expensive for the black porters to be afforded the same safeguard? The expected downside happens to both Jane and an unnamed porter. Guess who survives the slip.
Like: I think this kind of disregard for human life comes across as wicked and immoral in the film. Maybe I'm reading that into what I see. Maybe I'm invited to do so by the movie. Not sure.
Don't Like: Animals from continents other than Africa show up in the "African" jungle. But as a kid I didn't know, and neither did most of the adults watching.
Don't Like: Too much under-cranked film.
My inability to easily pick apart the racism and sexism and non-either aspects of this movie may simply be a signal that it cannot be judged by the 21st century values that we have now. Basically, Jane is subjected to sexism, but she rises beyond and above the opinions others have of her "frail" femininity. Her companions view Tarzan as a brute, unintelligent, not even capable of feeling emotions, but she believes otherwise. Honestly, I don't think the filmmakers were experimenting with an anti-sexism movie at all. They merely wanted to get Jane and Tarz together. The erotic quality of the film is not blatant, but it is there, no doubt.
Tarzan himself is a rather strange character in this story. Where he came from, other than the obviousness of two white parents, is never explored. The question is raised in one throwaway line, and then the idea is...thrown away. Whether he knows language is not clarified. He learns a few words of English, but not many. He speaks them with an American accent. But why? I recall that as a child I didn't question the lack of any explanation. I didn't even revel in the enigmatic nature of the jungle man's existence. He simply was, and I simply watched.
It is difficult to recall precisely what I thought when I first saw the movie, because I honestly cannot remember whether it was shown on 1960s television. Its first sequel, Tarzan and His Mate (1934) was shown. I marveled at how little Maureen O'Sullivan is wearing in that film, so I recall it clearly.
I think the explanation for Tarzan's enigmatic past lies in the proscription placed on MGM when they were allowed to use characters but no plots from Burroughs' books. After all, ERB exhaustively details where Tarzan comes from in his initial novel. That was 20 years old and 20 years popular by the time the movie was made. So telling the same past would have been copying a plot (prohibited) and making up another source story would have been risking fanboy ire even before it had a name!
For the kids watching this film, Tarzan would have already existed. They would have read comics, and been familiar with where the jungle lord came from. For the adults, they might have seen the 1918 movie with Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan. It provides the background information for Tarzan's origin. There was no need for Hume and Novello to explore the past of a popular character who already "just was."
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Biography of Johnny Weissmuller. from geostan.ca. "Weissmuller often claimed that he did his own stunts. This was only partially true. It was inevitable that he should do all his own swimming. But the acrobatics of the MGM films were handled by Alfred and Tony Codona, circus aerialists. When Sol Lesser took over the production of the Tarzan films, he hired stuntmen to double for Johnny, but stated that after the stunt had been photographed, Johnny often repeated it just to prove to himself that he could do it. Again, this claim was probably made for publicity purposes. Johnny Sheffield denies it, adding that the Olympic athlete never had to prove anything to anyone. And considering the investment, it is doubtful that any producer would permit his star to do anything even remotely risky."
Tarzan and His Mate. From loftcinema.com. This is about a free showing of the second MGM Tarzan film, Tarzan and his Mate (1934): "The film banned in Nazi Germany by the National Socialist Party because it depicted Nordic man in brutal surroundings!"
Pre-Code. From DVD Beaver.com. "The Production Code was not created or enforced by federal, state or city governments. In fact, the Hollywood studios adopted the code in large part in the hopes of avoiding government censorship—preferring self-regulation to government regulation. Thus, adherence to the code was always mostly voluntary. In the mid-1950s, a few major producers began to openly challenge the Code. By the mid-1960s, Code enforcement had become virtually impossible. The Code was abandoned in 1967 and replaced, in 1968, with the MPAA film rating system."
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932 film). From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
W. S. Van Dyke. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "In 1915, Van Dyke found work as an assistant director to D. W. Griffith on the film The Birth of a Nation. The following year, he was Griffith's assistant director on Intolerance. That same year he worked as an assistant director to James Young on Unprotected (1916), The Lash (1916), and the lost film Oliver Twist, in which he also played the role of Charles Dickens."
Cyril Hume. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "He wrote for 29 films between 1924 and 1966, including Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Great Gatsby (1949), Tokyo Joe (1949) and Forbidden Planet (1956)."
Johnny Weissmuller. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "At age nine, young John Weissmüller contracted polio. At the suggestion of his doctor, he took up swimming to help battle the disease. After the family moved from western Pennsylvania to Chicago, he continued swimming and eventually earned a spot on the YMCA swim team."
Neil Hamilton (actor). From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "Hamilton was signed by Paramount Pictures in the mid-1920s and became one of their leading men. He often appeared opposite star Bebe Daniels. In 1926, he played one of Ronald Colman's brothers in Paramount's original silent version of Beau Geste."
Maureen O'Sullivan. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "In 1932, she signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. After several roles there and at other movie studios, she was chosen by Irving Thalberg to appear as Jane Parker in Tarzan the Ape Man, opposite co-star Johnny Weissmuller. She was one of the more popular ingenues at MGM throughout the 1930s and appeared in a number of other productions with various stars. In all, O'Sullivan played Jane in six features between 1932 and 1942."
Clyde De Vinna. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "De Vinna was cinematographer on over 120 film and television projects from 1916 through 1953. He graduated from the University of Arkansas and began his career began when he joined Inceville studios in 1915 as First Cameraman."
Tom Held. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. "...an Austrian born American film editor. He was nominated for 2 Academy awards. Both were for Best Film Editing as well as both were during the 11th Academy Awards. His 2 nominated films were The Great Waltz and Test Pilot."
Harold Rosson (1895–1988). From IMDb. "Rosson also was hailed for his photography on The Wizard of Oz (1939), for which he received the first of his five Academy Award nominations. When Rosson shot "Oz," he had the aid of two cameramen lent to MGM by Technicolor,..."
Ben Lewis (1894–1970). From IMDb. "Long-standing MGM editor, under contract from 1924 to 1967."
Movie posters found under old linoleum sell for more than $200,000. From The History Blog. "The newspaper preserved, Dylan and his brother Bob went on to find a poster of Tarzan the Ape Man, the 1932 movie starring five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. They texted a photo of the poster to Robert. By the time he got back home and the linoleum was all gone, Bob and Dylan had found 16 more movie posters, all in excellent condition."