When one thinks of the iconic characters of Tarzan and Jane most think of Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan who starred in the early MGM Tarzan movies. Edgar Rice Burroughs himself was so enamored with Maureen O’Sullivan that he told the studio heads that Maureen should play the heroine in all movies based on his books. This is a departure from his earlier views of Hollywood’s take on his books as the he was no fan of the silent movies depicting his most famous creation. In fact it was his dislike of those movies that made him include in contracts that any future films would not be allowed to use elements from his book; just the names Tarzan and Jane, nothing else. This is why the 1932 Tarzan the Ape Man has no origin story for Tarzan, there are no lost cities, and even Jane’s nationality is changed from American to British along with a last name change from Porter to Parker. Elements from the books won’t filter into the movies for decades to come.
The movie opens with James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and his partner Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), who runs a general store and trading post in Africa, deciding on an expedition to the Mutia Escarpment in the hopes of finding the mythical elephant’s graveyard with its millions of dollars in ivory. When James’s daughter Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) shows up unexpectedly things get a bit tense as she insists that she be allowed to come along despite the dangers. Anyone who has ever laid eyes on the sacred Mutia Escarpment is hunted down and killed by witchmen of the tribe who guard the escarpment with a supernatural dread. It’s clear that Harry has romantic designs on Jane so he helps sway her father into letting Jane come along, but before they leave they give Jane a tour of the outpost via some incredibly obvious rear screen projection.
As in almost all jungle adventure movies we then get our “heroes” forming a safari and delving into the dark and dangerous jungle. Unfortunately in most cases these films choose killing off the native bearers as a way of showing just how dangerous it is. And it’s during this jungle trek that the character of Harry Holt shows that he is clearly not going to be the romantic lead who wins Jane’s heart as we see him constantly threatening to shoot the natives for being cowardly, and has them whipped to keep them pressing forward. What is interesting is he is never really treated as villainous, as if his actions are completely justified; he even tries to kill Tarzan at numerous points in the film, and yet he actually survives the picture. Not something that can be said of any of the black members of the safari.
The sequence where the safari builds a couple of rafts to cross a hippo and crocodile infested river is my favorite scene in the movie; the combination of full size puppets and footage of real hippos integrated with the actors is fantastically done and shows the real terror that these huge beasties instill in the locals.
Note: Hippos may look like large cute pigs but they kill more people annually than lions and sharks combined, and most Africans consider them to be the most violent animal in the wild.
Harry is even shown to not be a complete dick here by helping a wounded bearer back onto a raft while still in the water himself. With only a few casualties they make it across the water and soon find themselves in Tarzan territory. The first sign of the jungle man is an unholy yell that doesn’t sound like a man but is clearly not an animal. James Parker wants to turn back immediately as this is the last straw when it comes to danger for his daughter Jane. So crocodiles and killer hippos are nothing but a disembodied yell is the real threat? I don’t think they should have let Mister Parker lead this expedition. Eventually they finally encounter the owner of that unearthly yell and it is of course Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller), and when it’s clear he doesn’t understand either English, or the even the various tongues of the native bearers, James threatens to shoot the white savage if he doesn’t come down out of that tree. Apparently if you can’t talk you’re fair game.
Before any further dialogue can be attempted the group is attacked by a tribe of what look to be angry pygmies. Later, Harry informs Jane that they are not pygmies but dwarfs, and I’m really not sure why this film thought they needed to make the distinction but it provides another moment of seeing Harry not being a complete tool. Unfortunately this attack by the not-pygmies is just the distraction Tarzan needs to snatch Jane and disappear with her into the jungle. When Tarzan drags her back to his home, amongst the great apes (men in ape costumes with chimpanzees standing in for young apes), we get one of the more uncomfortable scenes in the entire series…attempted rape.
No, Tarzan doesn’t actually rape Jane in this scene, but when he pulls her into his “nest” it’s clear what his intentions are, and it’s only her constant crying and struggling that puts him off. So we at least see that Tarzan kind of understands the “no means no” code, if only a bit slow on the realization. This is a very disturbing scene and not something even remotely close to how they met in the book, the whole relationship of Jane in this movie is more like a woman succumbing to the Stockholm syndrome in record time. After getting fed up with a sobbing and screaming Jane Tarzan exits the nest to sleep alone on a tree branch, with a very disgruntled look as if she’s just ruined his entire day. In the morning he tries to win her over by getting her breakfast, but while he is out finding food, with side stops to help a baby elephant out of a pit and avoiding hungry lions, Jane’s father and company locate her. When Tarzan returns he is greeted with a volley of rifle fire and one of the apes is killed.
Needless to say this really pisses off Tarzan who proceeds to hunt down the safari, and kills off native bearers one by one. James and Harry want to kill Tarzan but Jane pleads for them to give her a chance to talk to Tarzan, but when she gets Tarzan to come out in the open Harry opens fire, and a bullet creases the ape man’s head. An injured Tarzan flees back into the jungle where, in a weakened state, he finds himself forced to fight a lioness and then her mate.
The Matai Escarpment may not have a 911 system but whenever Tarzan is in danger you can bet your bottom dollar that there will be an elephant nearby to come to the rescue or give aid of some kind. So Tarzan is picked up and carried to safety by a noble elephant. My only question is…
A group of Tarzan’s ape friend grabs Jane and bring her to take care of him, and this is when the Nightingale effect kicks in as Jane slowly falls in love with the big lunk. She bandages him up and soon he is back to being “jungle jerk” as his idea of fun is repeatedly dunking her in the river despite her frantic cries for him to stop. Somehow this treatment results in Jane going all gooey inside, “I love saying things to a man who can’t understand…who doesn’t even know what kisses are.”
Later they are having a quiet interlude in the jungle and Jane starts pondering things, “Tarzan, what am I doing here, alone, with you? Perhaps I better not think too much about that. Just be here…be happy. And I am happy. Not a bit afraid. Not a bit sorry.” It’s pretty clear what she’s not sorry about, that some time between them playing in the water to them lying down together in the trees there must have been some pretty awesome sex happening. Even in pre-code days this kind of thing would be considered rather touchy, but it’s obvious that the Tarzan as depicted here has only one thing to offer Jane that would keep her in this primitive world, and that would be the sex, earth shatteringly savage jungle sex. There is a good chance she was a virgin and this man just totally rocked her world for the first time, and now she’s willing to give up civilization to play house with a man with the apparent IQ of a high school jock with a head injury.
It will be paradise until she finds him spending too many nights playing poker with his ape buddies.
But paradise gets interrupted when once again her father and the safari approach and she realizes she can’t stay with Tarzan because she is all her father has in the world, and that she must return to him. She tearfully says goodbye to Tarzan and joins her people, but not before insuring that Holt doesn’t shoot Tarzan again. Holt is a bit upset that he can’t murder the man who has stolen his girl…twice. He doesn’t get to sulk about that too long as their party is soon ambushed by the not-pygmies. They are captured and taken back to their village where they will be sacrificed to a monstrous ape creature.
The sacrifice/sport is rather interesting as not-pygmies in the rafters drop nooses over the captured safari, and after snagging one by the neck, they lower their victim into the clutches of the giant ape located in a deep pit. All the black bearers are killed, no surprise there, before Jane herself is dropped into the pit and her certain doom. Harry heroically leaps in, closely followed by her father, but they get tossed around as if they were toys. Luckily for Jane the ape Cheeta (not yet named in this film) had spotted the safari when they were captured and went to get Tarzan for help, and when things are about to get real the only proper response is…
Tarzan arrives in the nick of time, leaps into the pit to fight the killer ape, and is actually knocked unconscious. Way to immediately fail, dude. It’s only the intervention of Cheeta that buys Tarzan time to recover and kill the beast, and then the elephants rampage through the village tossing the little people around or trampling them to death. The day is saved. Our survivors escape on the back of two elephants when James notices that the one he is riding is mortally wounded, he quickly realizes that this dying elephant will lead them to the elephant graveyard. I must say the levels of callousness here is right off the charts. Jane convinces Tarzan to go along with this plan, more sex in the future possibly clouding his judgement, and we finally arrive at the mysterious elephant graveyard. Surrounded by millions of dollars in ivory James Parker himself dies of his injuries.
With her father dead Jane has no reason to give up sex with Tarzan and so she decides to stay. Harry is a bit concerned with leaving Jane in this godforsaken country, but Jane tries to reassure him, “You’ll be coming back Harry. I can see a huge safari with you at the head, bearing ivory down to the coast. Only this time, there will be no danger because we will be there to protect you every step of the way.”
Tarzan and the Ape Man was MGM trying to capitalize on the success of the film Trader Horn, and director W. S. Van Dyke, who directed that picture, does an admirable job here. The action and plotting is well done, and the cast as a whole do excellent work here, but the stand out performer here is Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane. She manages to make what is normally just a damsel in distress character a fully fleshed out person, and she and Weissmuller do have excellent screen chemistry. Speaking of Johnny Weissmuller, as an actor he is one hell of an Olympic athlete. Seeing him fly through the water as if he has an outboard motor strapped on is truly impressive, and he does manage to pull off a little naïve charm when his character isn’t trying to commit sexual assault. Those familiar with the Adam West Batman series may recognize Neil Hamilton who played Commissioner Gordon. This film was immensely successful, and is really responsible for this franchise lasting as long as it did.