Tarzan the Ape Man (1932)

Tarzan the Ape Man was the first of the MGM Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan (although there had been plenty of previous Tarzan movies going back as early as 1918). Tarzan the Ape Man was a major hit and spawned numerous sequels. The MGM Tarzan movies defined the character for several generations of movie-goers.

There are some crucial differences between Tarzan as played by Johnny Weissmuller and the Tarzan of the novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs (starting with Tarzan of the Apes in 1914). The Burroughs version of Tarzan is not an illiterate child of the jungle. Although raised by apes he has acquired an education from books. He belongs to both civilised society and to ape society. Someone at MGM decided that their Tarzan would be more popular if they quietly dropped the civilised side of the character. Given the enormous success enjoyed by the films it may well be that it was the right decision although it is a pity that so much of the complexity of the character is lost.

The movie begins with James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) hoping to get out of Africa, but they intend to leave the continent as rich men. Their plan is to find the legendary elephants’ graveyard where a fortune in ivory awaits them. The problem is that no-one knows the location of this graveyard and there’s no point in asking the natives since all the tribes are united on one point - anyone who knows the location must die. Parker and Holt however have quite accidentally stumbled upon a very promising lead.

They set off into the jungle with one unexpected additional member in their party. Parker’s daughter Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) has just arrived in Africa and insists on joining the expedition.


It takes a very long time for Tarzan to make his appearance in Tarzan the Ape Man. This means of course that the audience is eagerly looking forward to his entrance and when he does arrive he does so in some style.

By the time Tarzan appears the expedition has already encountered some formidable obstacles and dangers. The crossing of the river on rafts, the river being infested with hundreds of angry hippos and a few hungry crocodiles as well, is a superb action-adventure set-piece.

Tarzan and Jane meet under somewhat informal circumstances - he kidnaps her and carries her off to his treetop lair. Jane spends the rest of the movie hurtling back and forth between her old life with her father and her new life with Tarzan.


In this movie Tarzan encounters European civilisation for the first time and the encounter does not go at all smoothly. In fact it’s close to open war. Harry Holt’s hotheadedness is a major contributing factor. Harry likes to shoot things and he tends to do so without giving it a second thought. This does not endear him to Tarzan, especially on those occasions when Tarzan is the target.

Tarzan’s encounter with Jane proceeds much more satisfactorily. Tarzan can’t talk but that’s OK because Jane does enough talking for both of them. In fact she does as much talking as a dozen normal people. This girl just never stops talking, although she and Tarzan also seem to manage pretty well with certain non-verbal forms of communication.


There’s plenty of action with an endless supply of marauding lions and leopards and Tarzan getting chased (and very nearly caught) by crocodiles plus of course there are the much-feared murderous dwarves. Not pygmies, we are distinctly told that these are dwarves not pygmies. And they have some nasty plans for Jane’s father and for Harry Holt.

The director was W.S. Van Dyke, more renowned for his efficiency than his brilliance but he handles the action pretty well. There is of course a great deal of stock footage, and some process shots that are amusing in their outrageous obviousness.


This movie is available on DVD but I caught it on cable TV so I can’t tell you anything about the quality of the DVDs. The TV print I saw was in reasonably good condition.

This film is of course very very politically incorrect. It’s also plenty of fun (strange how politically incorrect movies do tend to be fun). There’s adventure and there’s romance. Tarzan and His Mate followed two years later and is even better (and it ups the eroticism very significantly).

Tarzan the Ape Man is important historically in that it established the formula for most of the countless Tarzan movies that would follow and it’[s worth seeing it for its own sake. Recommended.

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