Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)
Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

Genre: Adventure Running Time: 1 hr. 40 min.

Release Date: April 2nd, 1932 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: W.S. Van Dyke Actors: Johnny Weissmuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, C. Aubrey Smith, Neil Hamilton, Doris Lloyd, Forrester Harvey




e’s worked himself into a juju.” James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith), who runs a general store and trading outpost in Africa, along with business partner Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), is keen to learn about the location of an elephant burial ground, which could contain a wealth of ivory. But every native he speaks to is unable to provide him with a precise spot, which would be an invaluable piece of information. When Parker’s daughter Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) arrives, she’s unconcerned with treasure-hunting, instead intent on soaking in the region and adapting to life in this exotic new locale. “I’m through with civilization. I’m gonna get savage.”

As if a travelogue, the film uses Jane’s appearance to introduce various indigenous tribes, each with different dances and clothing and ornamentations – all shown through documentary-like footage with the actors green-screened over the top in a dated manner. But soon enough, an expedition is arranged to journey deep into the jungle to search for the secret elephant graveyard. And with Jane’s uncommon youthfulness and attractiveness (and wide-eyed naïveté), a mild romance brews with Harry, though it’s quickly interrupted by tribal conflicts over superstition-based customs.

This is all before a treacherous trek up a steep cliff, which finds the now-routine scenario of native guides falling to their deaths from precarious perches, followed by a risky raft ride across a predator-filled river. And additional nature footage shows off the wonders of the country, from hippopotamuses to crocodiles – though during a particularly amusing attack, a clearly fake reptile is used to chomp down on an unfortunate victim (later, stuntmen in simian costumes substitute for the real, unfilmable thing, along with a stuffed cheetah for a duel). Despite a small cast (boosted by plenty of unnamed extras), it still takes more than 20 minutes before one of the most famous of all howls is heard – and 30 minutes before the titular ape man Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) trapeze-swings into the frame.

Based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ enduring books, this classic adventure continues on at a fast clip, transitioning to fights with evil dwarfs, tussles with big cats, and Jane’s abduction by Tarzan – resulting in loads of crying and screaming and quotable attempts at breaking down the language barrier. “Let me go, you brute!” The sights remain as well, adding additional animals, scenery, and predicaments – primarily for Tarzan to prove that he’s not the ferocious creature he first seemed to be. Sticking to one of the primary themes of Burroughs’ series, it’s eventually evident that man is more barbarous and cruel than the untamed beasts merely surviving in the wild (and that greed drives people to doom).

Establishing a blueprint for countless adventure pictures to come (from “She” to “King Solomon’s Mines” to “The Jungle Book”), “Tarzan the Ape Man” finds the feral underdog pitted against ravenous carnivores and unsporting hunters alike, showcasing impressive interactions with real lions and tigers (and numerous stuffed ones), as gun-toting stalkers contend with similar antagonists of Mother Nature in their quest to extinguish the seemingly supernatural threat. Along the way, Jane loses more and more pieces of her outfit, steadily falling in love with her uncommunicative yet exotic ward (interactions that are effective, yet stretch out the running time). Torn between the comforts of family and her newfound savior, just as Tarzan is torn between the fair-skinned beauty and the contentment of jungle-bound freedom, Jane can’t so easily and cleanly create a suitable compromise. But in the process, the damsel encounters distress and the hero must stage an epic rescue (from a rather comical gladiatorial game, resulting in some hysterical pygmy-trampling), generating an exciting climax and cementing Weissmuller’s place as the original and most beloved of the onscreen Tarzan iterations.

– Mike Massie

  • 7/10