Monday, February 1, 2016

Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

TARZAN THE APE MAN was not supposed to happen and the series it spawned really wasn’t supposed to happen. The film happened in part because MGM had spent a mint on shooting footage for TRADER HORN and wanted to use it anyway they could. Looking for a way to do so they grabbed Edgar Rice Burroughs hero and put together a spectacle. The film was a hit and a million “Me Tarzan You Jane” jokes were born

The funny thing is that despite all of the jokes the series is actually really good. Yes the series has some juvenile moments but early on the jokes were not for kids and the films were just for adults.

It would be a lie to say that the Tarzan craze started with TARZAN THE APEMAN, after all there had been numerous films going back to not long after publication of the first novel. However it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the series made the character white hot. It was the moment where it was pushed forever into the minds of popular culture. No one in their wildest dreams expected that this film was going to kick off a series that more or less ran for forty years, multiple studios and multiple Tarzans.

This “first” film is the origin story. It has Tarzan being shipwrecked with parents and being raised by apes. The film then jumps ahead to now as Jane, her father and Harry Holt  wade into to jungle looking for the legendary elephant burial grounds where limitless ivory could be found.  Holt, who loves Jane, tries to protect her from jungle dangers but she ends up abducted by Tarzan. Jane eventually returns to her father, however when the party is attacked by a pygmy tribe, Jane send to Tarzan for help. It ends with Jane staying with Tarzan as  Holt and the surviving party members return to civilization.

A huge jungle spectacle, TARZAN THE APE MAN supremely benefits from copious use of the location footage. While not always seamlessly woven into the film, it still manages to create the illusion of the actors being out in the wild. The dangers are real, and as the climax where the party is trapped and Tarzan has to race to the rescue plays out we’re on the edge of our seats as we wait to see who will live and die.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about this film. Part of the reason is greater minds than I have talked endlessly about the film so all I’ll end up doing is parroting what they have said. The other reason I’m not going to talk that much about the film is because I don’t have a great deal to say about it. It is a very good adventure film. It’s a very adult film with the action and violence being, as are numerous pre-code films very adult. People die badly. There is the implication of darkness off the edges of the screen. At the same time the film is really clunky. It’s stilted in the dialog and some of the situations make you cringe. This was a film that feels constructed. You may not realize it right off the bat, but watch the next film TARZAN AND HIS MATE and you’ll realize, not only how clunky this film is but also just how good the series could be. The next film feels organic, arising out of the characters, while this film feels like its following the studios whims.

I understand why this film spawned a sequel, but at the same time it was the sequel that spawned the series.

Keep in mind that my nitpicking is not because it’s a bad film, stilted or no, it’s a great adventure film, but rather what followed is frequently so much better… Remember even on its own terms it’s a film that demands to be seen, not just for its place in history, or the series but because it’s a damn good film.

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