While waiting for The Legend of Tarzan, to be released in July of juillet 2016, I just bought a 12 Tarzan movies collection of the movies starring Johnny Weissmuller from 1932 on, which left such an imprint in the audience minds that actor and character became one and only.
I hadn't seen Tarzan the Ape Man in a very long time. Few black-and-white movies are aired on tv these days. In my mind, it had been an ok movie, and nothing more. Strangely enough, I must say that I can appreciate this movie now way more than I did when I saw it while I was young!
In many ways, it's more the movie of Jane Parker (Jane Porter in the novel) than it is Tarzan's. You can feel in her a need for adventure way superior to those of her father and his attractive associate, Holt, who both confess hating an Africa that seems to lure the young woman inexorably. Jane's father is searching for the legendary cemetary of the elephants, which should be located on a remote and almost inaccessible location, where Tarzan happens to also live.
A this time period, Burroughs was so distraught by the last movie adaptations, first with a gorilla-looking Elmo Lincoln in 1918, when he thought Tarzan should be more "panther-like", that he was forbiding producers to adapt directly one of his novels. So the 1932 movie would be simply "adapted from characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs". And once more, Burroughs will be unhappy to see his hero, who learned by himself how to read in the novels, reduced to be an illiterate savage! Of his origin, we learn absolutely nothing. The viewer will have to figure out by himself what could bring a white man to be raised by apes, and how he found such a "modern"-looking hunting knife.
Next comes the question of racism. The movie is drenched with it, where Burroughs was himself way more cautious about it. The novel avoided at all cost any colonialist situations (even is for some people, the simple fact that a white man, Tarzan, shows himself as superior to the black men featured in the story is in itself enough to call it colonialist, when Tarzan is shown ALSO superior to all other white men, physically and spiritually). Mbonga's tribe was fleeing the White oppression in Congo, and that was the reason why they found themselves in touch with Tarzan. So white people were indirectly responsible for what was about to happen... The movie doesn't have any Black protagonist of note, and porters are enthusiastically whipped to move forward. The story will sacrifice all of them eventually in more or less gruesome manners. Even if it is the white Holt that kills Tarzan's ape friend, Tarzan will get revenge on two hapless black porters that were isolated from the others, and Holt eventually gets away with his evil doings.
Is it to say that viewing this movie is such a dreadful experience? Not really, there are most fortunately very good things in it. Johnny Weissmuller displays an insane amount of charisma, he's a real instantaneaous star on that level. He literaly shines on the screen in each of his scenes, even if he almost has no dialog at all. Rarely an actor would appear as immediately sympathetic to an audience. The same goes with Maureen O'Sullivan in the Jane part, which is that much more complex since she has to do the heavy lifting of the dialog. She's really the audience's surrogate, and all depends on the strength of her performance. The romance between her and Tarzan, so essential to sustain the story, is believable and sensual enough to engage the viewer. The chimp Cheetah is very well used, and is a real fully rounded character.
What is left of Burroughs'novel once "The End" appears on the screen? The jungle, infinitely hostile and full of danger once you set a foot on the ground. Cheetah, to get some help, will have to escape no less than a leopard (the Sheeta of the novels), then a lioness, and then a lion! The explorers are attacked by hippopotamus. Crocodiles eat the rest, and Tarzan will even have to out-swim two of them! Being an olympic swimmer sure help. Another Burroughs-worthy item, the indigenous tribe near Tarzan's place is composed of dwarves with black skin who feed their prisoners to a giant gorilla (those are not pygmies, that is stated in the dialogs). The elephant's charge on their village is an impressive scene, whose logistic complexity must have been staggering! The movie is fairly violent in places.
In short, far from having disappointing me, this viewing made me rediscover a movie classic, which objectively made a movie myth of Tarzan, making the "Me Tarzan You Jane" scene an icon among the best moments in Movie History.
(Below, Edgar Rice with Maureen O'Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller. Note the false ears of the elephant! At this time Asia elephants were used for filming, and they were equipped with false ears and tusks.)