Once again, I find myself enthralled by yet another campy B-movie. However, unlike most of my movie reviews of this genre, there are a couple of important aspects that differentiate this film from the others. First of all, I usually watch movies from the late 1950s to mid-1960s -- an abundance of awful cinema has come from that era -- but this one's a bit dustier: it was actually released in 1932! Secondly, I tend to enjoy supposedly horrific horror films and sci-fi monstrosities, but this is more of an action-adventure style film. Nevertheless, these factors shall not hinder me in the slightest from giving them the same critical analysis as I would any other film.
So here we are, with "Tarzan the Ape Man". Most people should easily recognize the character of Tarzan, although the younger generation probably learned everything it needed to know based solely on the 1999 Disney animated version. Of course, just like the Disney film, this 1932 edition strays somewhat from its source material: the classic novel "Tarzan of the Apes", written by Edgar Rice Burroughs and published in actual book format in 1914. However, the original story is not of particular interest at this point, but let it simply be known that the on-screen adaptation here is not exactly as the story was originally told. That's typical though. Anyway, the basic premise is as follows: two men, James Parker and Harry Holt have opted to search for an elephant graveyard in Africa, where that can net themselves tons of ivory and become so rich that they don't need to ever work again to buy new safari hats. Parker's illustrous daughter, Jane, joins them, as well as a group of... um... slaves. Yeahhh... (I'll get back to that point later... Awkward...) Eventually, while scuffling around in the jungle, the great loinclothed casanova Tarzan snatches up Jane and takes her away. Initially really freaked out, Jane later comes to love the muted monkey man and actually grows fond of him. Later, upon her return to her original party, she and the rest of the ivory hunting crew are taken hostage by a dwarven tribe who amusedly try and feed them to a giant bloodthirsty ape. Tarzan, using the aid of a pack of elephants, saves the day and rescues everyone. Okay, so Jane's father dies, but that's okay; he was too stuffy anyway. In the end, Jane chooses to remain in the jungle with Tarzan instead of returning home and dating Harry Holt. That's a good choice.
This film had an interesting cast. First and foremost is the greatest Tarzan actor to have ever lived, Johnny Weissmuller (that's right; take THAT, Elmo Lincoln and Lex Barker!). The former U.S. Olympic swimmer and later underwear model turned movie sensation gives a pretty sweet performance as Tarzan, even though he doesn't say much overall and owns a particularly well-groomed haircut. He even did many of his own stunts! Heck, he even outswam Jane. That's pretty wild. Weissmuller was accompanied by Maureen O'Sullivan, an Irish actress hired to play the coveted role of Jane. Her portrayal is... well, it's a tad annoying, to be honest. She may have quite a pretty face, but her screaming and bitching in the film is far too over-the-top. I've read that she toned it down in subsequent films, but this isn't the best way to start. Thank goodness she strips down to her silky undergarments at one point. Harry Holt is played by Neil Hamilton, whom I immediately recognized as the actor who portrayed Commissioner Gordon in the Batman television series of the late 1960s. His acting skills aren't shown too often here; he's actually somewhat dull. So are pretty much all of the other actors, with two possible exceptions: one, the magical performance of Cheeta the Chimpanzee, played by Jiggs (who is the only actor in the film to still be alive as of the writing of this review, amazingly enough), and secondly, anyone who wore an ape costume in this movie. You just can't fail when you're in a gorilla suit. Okay, I might be able to fail. No, wait, not even me.
Visually, this movie looks its own age. Special effects are infrequent and when they do appear, they are quite cheesy. They spliced in stock footage of African tribes performing rituals (or just standing around and staring at the camera), but at a certain point, three characters are placed into the scene by walking in front of a green screen. This is absolutely beyond obvious; the film quality of the people in the foreground is so much better than the fuzzier background footage, it's hard to stay focused on the acting itself. Another way to sneak around the lack of superb special effects was to dazzle the audience by employing real animals. Actual chimps, elephants, lions, and even hippopotami were used in the movie. The lions were wrestled with though (hopefully that's when a stunt lion came in) and brutally defeated in hand-to-paw combat, and the hippopotami were shot with hunting rifles. I hope this was staged and not real; animal activist groups would have their heads on pikes had this been true! Also, they used Indian elephants but attached fake ears and tusks to them in order to make them seem like African elephants. I personally can't tell the difference, but it's nice that the crew paid attention to such details.
The movie also sounds pretty decent albeit sparse in some aspects. There is barely any music in the entire film, so those in dire need of a jungle beat soundtrack will have to seek it elsewhere. The sound effects, particularly the animal roars and groans, are true to form, although I question the strange sound the elephant makes. It sounded like it just ate some rancid chili. The vocal quality also seemed fair enough, although I'm sure the quality has declined since 1932. It may also be important to note that there are stretches of film without any voices or sounds at all, which made me wonder if something was malfunctioning with the DVD, but that's just the way it was. I also should mention that this movie, since it was the first Tarzan film to feature sound, is the origin of the legendary Tarzan yell. Created by special effects using a yodel played in reverse, it has since become one of the most recognizable sounds in cinematic history.
Before I end this review, there is one thing I would like to touch upon, and that would be the strong racist undertones of the film. It is clear that it was deemed acceptable for black characters to be treated poorly and as inferior persons at the time of this film's production, and this is proven with examples of racism in the film itself. For example, the white explorers are accompanied by black slaves who are whipped regularly if they decide to slack off even for a moment; the slaves are made to carry large bags of supplies and chop wood for various functions along their travels, among other duties. Their master, Riano, is also black and has an authoritative function, but it is not as high as those of his white companions. Furthermore, some black slaves die or are killed during the trip, but no remorse is had for their deaths. However, should a white explorer suffer in the slightest, they are given immediate attention. Another example of racism is found in the portrayal of African tribesmen as mere savages who only wish death upon everyone who is not in their tribe via painful ritual sequences. Such consequences are seen particularly during the climax of the film, where a dwarf tribe (portrayed by short Hollywood actors covered in makeup to make them appear black) captures the entire traveling party and begins sacrificing each member by wrapping a noose around their neck and lowering them into a pit which contains a gorilla with a lust for blood and flesh. The black slaves are dropped in first; none of them survive. Only the white men (and woman) survive, thanks to the combat skills of Tarzan. This seems like a blatant misrepresentation of African tribal rituals and should be offensive to a large number of people. The last instance of racism that comes to mind is a surprising one. At one point, Harry Holt is about to shoot Tarzan for kidnapping Jane. Harry considers him a lowly, worthless creature and is about to fire when Jane interjects in an effort to protect him by proclaiming, "But he's white!" That speaks for itself.
Regardless of the unfortunate racial profiling found within the film, I am still going to recommend this movie to anyone who enjoys classic cinema or perhaps is an avid fan of Tarzan. Some scenes may be a bit sluggish for the average viewer or any person with a short attention span, but there is definitely some merit in watching the film. Johnny Weissmuller has been deemed the finest Tarzan ever to hit the big screen, and that just might be a fitting title; he is certainly a reason to snag this film. But the final word is this: "Tarzan the Ape Man" is a decently entertaining endeavor that captures the basic essence of Burroughs' character, and as such should not be ignored simply because of its age or its... uh... negative aspects.