Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

Directed by W.S. Van Dyke

This is a very odd movie, as others have mentioned. Made in 1932, the first of a gazillion talking Tarzan movies, and the first featuring Johnny Weissmuller, the quintessential Tarzan, Tarzan the Ape Man is strange for being a silent movie with sound.

(Available in the Tarzan Collection – four disc set with six Tarzan movies.)

This is not intentional. It’s simply how it comes across.

Much of the movie has little or no sound (if only because Tarzan doesn’t speak English), and in the first thirty minutes of the film, where the bulk of the dialogue occurs and Tarzan doesn’t appear, we get exposition that, with some work, might have been communicated without speaking.

What we end up with, particularly from the perspective of 2004, is a film that strikes us as peculiar and sometimes a bit jarring, not for its lack of sound but for the contrast between the sequences with sound (dialogue) and those without (action).

Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller.

Part of this is the lack of a music soundtrack which we’re so accustomed to. But keep in mind two aspects of the film: it was made in 1932 and it is a B movie (meaning little or no budget).

However, given all that, even from 2004 this a good movie – not great, but good. And it’s certainly a historical curiosity.

Made in the pre-Code days of Hollywood, at times it also has a certain sensuality and flirtatiousness, particularly the scene of Tarzan and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) in the river. (This is an even stronger element in the later film, Tarzan and His Mate.)

The introduction of Tarzan is also extremely well done. As mentioned, in the first third of the film he is absent. It focuses on Jane and her father, establishing some background, and setting the story context – the search for the elephant graveyard. When we first encounter Tarzan, we don’t. It is only the famous Tarzan cry we hear (as do the characters).

Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan).

Eventually, we do see him – a loincloth-clothed, muscular man swinging through the trees. (Another jarring element, in part due to the period the film was made, is the sped up film. Possibly effective at the time, today it strikes us as awkward and disruptive to the film’s flow.)

Another element I found fascinating was the animals. Probably a mix of stock footage and second unit work, the sheer number and kinds of animals is amazing – hippos, lions, tigers, aligators, chimpanzees, elephants, zebras … it goes on. I’m pretty sure this movie couldn’t have the “no animals were hurt in the making of this film” message that today’s films have.

Because it is a low budget, B movie, a good deal of the special effect work is apparent (like matts of characters over stock footage).

But it’s not quite as ineffective as it might be today because the film is in black and white and b&w has the advantage of hiding a multitude of cinematic sins, or so it seems to my eye.

I think it may read as if I don’t like this movie, or I’m being overly critical, but this isn’t the case. I found it great fun and thoroughly enjoyable. It takes a few moments to get use to it because it is a much older film (72 years). But I think if you relax and allow yourself into its world, it can be a wonderful experience.

(Posted originally in 2004.)


  1. Minor correction: Tarzan the Ape Man wasn’t a low-budget movie or a B picture. The budget was approximately $1 million, very high for the time. (For comparison, RKO’s King Kong, released a year later, had a budget of $650,000, and it was the most expensive film RKO had released to date.) The movie does use old footage from Trader Horn and from Chang (the elephant stampede), but it also used a variety of wild animals in the studio. The animals, the extensive jungle sets, the use of A-list director W.S. Van Dyke, and the MGM brand all added up to a major, big-budget release, no matter how primitive it seems today.

  2. The Pre-Code lion cloths were much skimpier than the ones that followed after the Hollywood Code was adopted. They had to be re-designed to cover more skin.

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