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January Critters: Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

W.C. Fields may not have liked them, but who else doesn't like a good animal movie? This month we watch movies starring a variety of different animals.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: A fortune hunter (C. Aubrey Smith) has been toiling in the wilds of Africa looking for the legendary elephant graveyard, where elephants instinctually wander to die, in order to harvest the ivory. Just before his latest attempt to find it, his beautiful daughter (Maureen O'Sullivan) appears full of spunk and intentions to join him on the expedition. Along with partner Harry (Neil Hamilton) and an entourage of natives who know the landscape, they set out into the jungle. When they reach a forbidden zone, they hear the wild yell of a man which scares the natives, and soon his reveals himself to them. His curiosity about Jane, presumably the first woman he has ever seen, gets the best of him and he steals her away into the depths of the jungle.

I've always found the first scene in the treehouse to be intense. Tarzan carries Jane there out of curiosity; she is something new he wants to investigate in the safety and privacy of his home. She sees a bed and immediately makes assumptions. In the book, there are definite sexual associations, but whereas Jane assumes rape, Tarzan's intentions are more scientific than lurid. Her fear is assuaged when she realizes he isn't going to hurt her. His brute strength and knowledge of the jungle puts him in the menacing category, but unlike Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik, Tarzan has a childlike innocence that makes him more appealing and palatable.

RODNEY BOWCOCK:  Intense is a good word for it.  Even if you haven’t seen this film, you have some idea of what’s going to happen here, but that familiarity doesn't hamper the powerfulness of these early scenes.

SG: This is very definitely a pre-code film. Tarzan watches Jane by the water as she prepares to bathe. Her clothes gradually disintegrate through the film as the jungle claims her. She uses cloth from her dress to make bandages for Tarzan when he is wounded, creating a long loincloth. She tells him, "I love saying things to a man who doesn't understand, who doesn't even know what kisses are." It is clear she has more sexual experience than he does, in spite of his familiarity with his animal instincts, and she intends to use that to her advantage. In many ways, though, their flirtation is sweet and juvenile. Their attraction is exhibited through giggles and playing pranks on each other. However, their relationship is sealed when he holds her in his arms, looks up at the tree house, then back at her, and she barely nods her assent. Viewers versed in the subtleties of vintage movie language will know she consenting to couple with him, and in doing so she is tying herself to him. The way he carries her is the way a western man would carry a wife over the threshold. These choices are intentional to convey the seriousness of their attraction to each other. It is sexy in the way Pride and Prejudice is sexy because of palpable tension between the two and the satisfaction of the anticipation.

RB:  There was concern about how much of this they’d be able to get away with.  Director, WS Van Dyke definitely wanted to push the envelope, and notes from a story conference concerning the film noting that “It would be very nice to establish the sophistication of the English girl, even with all of her sweetness.  I don’t know, though.  This is a kids' picture”.  What eventually translated to the screen, was not a kids' picture, in spite of the fact that there was plenty to entertain kids.  Certain scenes, like those you mentioned, may have given pubescent boys in the 30’s much to ponder and almost certainly their first taste of what passed for lurid sexuality in 1932.

SG: Vast amounts of African location footage was shot for Trader Horn, an expensive but successful film released the previous year. In order to utilize some of the unused footage, which included a vast array of animals including hippopotamus, zebras, lions, wildebeest, and crocodiles, MGM purchased the rights to the story from Edgar Rice Burroughs for $20,000 and employed him to review the accuracy of the scripts for five weeks at $1000 per week. Tarzan the Ape Man used several of Trader Horn's crew including director W. S. Van Dyke, dialogue writer Cyril Hume, cinematographer Clyde de Vinna, and editor Ben Lewis. The purchase of the story rights did not include use of the ape language Burroughs invented for the book series, so Hume invented the now-famous "Umgawa" language. Outdoor scenes were shot in Toluca Lake and Lake Sherwood in California. They also used rear projection and matte paintings to bring the locations to life. Although the setting was Africa, filmmakers used smaller more manageable Asian elephants for the film and fitted them with larger ears to fake that they were African elephants. As discussed in our discussion of Captive Wild Woman and our Ape for April series, gorillas were recently discovered, mysterious creatures at the time this film was made, so their behavior is not scientific, and they're played by people in hairy suits. The idea that a shy, vegetarian gorilla would behave like a vicious Rancor in the scene in the dwarf camp is ridiculous, but audiences didn't know better at the time. Though I love a good memoir, I did not consult Me Cheeta: The Autobiography for this week's blog.

RB:  What MGM neglected to do was purchase exclusive rights to the story, which allowed Burroughs to continue to market his property to other filmmakers, including a pair of independents that swiftly got a serial starring Herman Brix into production and release (The New Adventures of Tarzan).  This sent MGM into the defense attempting to make sure that audiences didn’t get confused by the sudden glut of Tarzan related material.  John McElwee goes into this in great detail in an elaborate article about the marketing of the multiple films and copycats that followed this at his always recommended Greenbriar Picture Shows blog.

SG: Edgar Rice Burroughs is an important and endlessly entertaining author. In addition to Tarzan, which was adapted to the screen many times before and since, though none more successfully as the Weissmuller iteration, he wrote several outer space series including the one that inspired John Carter (2012). Unlike modern authors like Michael Crichton and Andy Weir who utilize real science to make their stories plausible, Burroughs makes no such effort. These pulps completely ignore reality and reason and take the reader on a thrilling ride if they're willing to suspend disbelief. The Tarzan series is one of his less fanciful stories, though it mutated into sci-fi over time.

The studio tested Clark Gable, Joel McCrea, Johnny Mack Brown, Tom Tyler, and Neil Hamilton for Tarzan, among others, but they really wanted an unknown for the part. Several Olympians were considered, including Buster Crabbe, who preferred to focus on competing to win a gold medal to the temptations of Hollywood, and Herman Brix who was a serious contender until he broke his shoulder making Touchdown (1931). When Weissmuller, a five-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, was selected, the studio had voice coach Morando work with him on controlling his voice and lowering it slightly. Robert E. Sherwood for the Richmond Times-Gazette said, "The quality that sets him apart from other stars of stage and screen is his engaging diffidence, which is so indisputably genuine that it constitutes a constant apology for his Olympian strength and agility."

Maureen O'Sullivan had recently been dropped from her Fox contract, so she was available to sign on with MGM.

RB:  O’Sullivan was not-so arguably wasted by Fox, and it’s nice to see her working within the MGM gloss here in what is probably her first truly important role.  She’s beautiful, with a sense of curiosity, sensuality and sophistication.  A performance that practically steals the whole show to me.

SG: Delight Evans for Screenland magazine wrote, "Get the whole family and go to see Tarzan. A lot of fun! It's a question who will squeal louder-- Junior or Grandma."

Mrs. G. H. John of Cincinnati told Photoplay, "Our local newspapers said that Tarzan, the Ape Man was just a lot of hokum and trick photography. But the critics did not see it as the public did — a relief from the average type of picture. It took our minds off our troubles and, for awhile, we were free as Tarzan from financial and business worries."

RB:  The film was wildly successful, even beyond the high expectations of MGM, staying in circulation for years and launching a series of films that would continue for well over the next decade (and continue to be cribbed by an additional low-budget series starring Weissmuller as comic-strip character, Jungle Jim).

SG: I've watched this movie many times and I always enjoy it. The next in the series, Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is perhaps even better. Four stars.

RB:  It’s shocking to read reviews that dismiss the love story as “inconsequential” when for me that was the true highlight of the film.  Probably because I’ll never be able to see the film with the eyes of an audience member in 1932, the thrills of stock footage that would be repeated in dozens of films over the ensuing decades holds less luster for me than it would have upon the initial release.  Still, the film is a true cultural watershed with moments well known even among those that are not classic film buffs.  Van Dyke’s direction is just as you’d expect it, economical and more than competent with rarely a wasted shot.  Casting is spot on, and the film is a delight all around. Four stars. 

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