Johnny Weissmuller shows off the dramatic
range that nabbed him the part of Tarzan.
To enjoy a movie made more than fifty years ago, you need to put yourself in a certain frame of mind. Movies were different back then, as you might expect, and keeping that in the back of your head can make watching such films more pleasant.
A couple of weeks ago, we happened to be watching Turner Classic Movies, and they were showing some classic silent movies. We saw the 1918 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the 1925 version of The Lost World. What struck us was how much less was required to entertain people back then. Of course, that only follows. Before TV, if you wanted to go see an exotic woman playing a guitar (an unlikely motif that shows up in both of the aforementioned silent movies) you either had to go someplace exotic where guitars were the instrument of choice, or you could go to a music hall or the like. But there's the rub.
Beyond the geographic and economic issues, a music hall, or any traditional performance venue, can only serve a certain number of people. That number would be limited by the size of the hall, the stamina of the performer and the length of the show (Could she do one show a day? Or twelve?). When you look at it this way, even in a musical-theater rich environment, it was very unlikely that any given person had seen a woman playing a guitar, let alone seen a woman play the guitar so many times that they were sick of it.
Today the situation is just the opposite. Thanks to electronic media of all kinds, we can watch a movie featuring a guitar playing woman anytime we want. We can dial up the Angry Women With Guitars channel on cable (sometimes known as VH1) and watch women play guitars until our eyeballs liquefy and ooze out of their sockets.
There's nothing like Noxzema to keep out
the harsh African elements that can be
so damaging to a girl's complexion!
The reason we bring this up is because some viewers might expect modern-style thrills from a film like Tarzan the Ape Man (1932). To modern sensibilities, Tarzan spends an ungodly amount of time showcasing stock footage of African safaris. Not only are we exposed to the full range of African savannah wildlife, but a fair number of tribespeople spanning the entire continent as well. There is also a very long sequence that chronicles the flight of Tarzan's chimpanzee friend Chetah across the jungle, pursued by various jungle cats that are never in the same shot with him. This kind of thing may have been considered cutting-edge entertainment then, but today it seems extremely old hat. Heck, we've seen an Oscar-winning ex-mayor kiss an orangutan. Compared to that, watching Chetah climb trees for five minutes is just plain goofy.
Now that we've spent nearly 500 words in explaining this film's quaint ideas about entertainment, you're probably wondering why we gave it our second-highest lava lamp rating. The answer? Charm. Despite the lengthy "this is Africa" sequences, Tarzan the Ape Man has immense amounts of charm, even to a couple of critics raised on Star Wars and the Muppets.
Tarzan the Ape Man is by no means the first version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' great novel, and it was far from the last. In case you live on Mars, the general story is that a young Englishman is orphaned by a plane crash that deposits him in the middle of the African jungle. There the boy, Lord John Greystroke, is raised by apes (in the movies, men in ape suits) where he grows up strong and agile, with the ability to order the animals around like his own personal goon squad.
Another ape movie, another
"spanking the monkey" joke.
Actually, the 1932 film doesn't really deal with much of this. The story opens with Jane Parker (the beautiful Maureen O'Sullivan) arriving in Africa to stay with her father. Jane is a tiny bit gonzo about visiting Africa, which she thinks will be fun. James and her father's assistant, Harry Holt, think that Africa is awful, and can't wait to leave. However, they are both consumed with greed, and they hope to find the Elephant's Graveyard, which is somewhere beyond the Mutia Escarpment. Jane tags along with their expedition.
It's no surprise that the expedition runs into Tarzan, who kidnaps Jane. After being held overnight (and maybe enjoying it just a little bit), Jane escapes to return to the group before meeting Tarzan once again. Of course, she has fallen in love with the surprisingly well-groomed brute, and must choose between the civilized world (and men) of England, her home, and the African jungle, which she has come to love along with Tarzan himself.
One of the things we liked best about this rendition of the Tarzan story is its refusal to focus the story entirely on the romance between Tarzan and Jane. The additional mysteries of Tarzan's presence in the jungle, the search for the elephant graveyard, and the party's capture by a native tribe keep the film alive through the more tedious sequences of stock footage. The relatively rare scenes with Tarzan and Jane alone are just enough to be titillating without introducing too much angst over their social differences.
Things we learned from watching Tarzan the Ape Man:
"I'm not really an alligator,
but I play one in the movies!"
All of Africa is one eco-system. Yep, pretty much everything that lives in Africa, including lions, zebras, hippos, elephants, leopards, chimpanzees, humans, live in the jungle. There are no grasslands, no savannahs, no swamps -- just jungles. And everything lives in them.
This a day in the life of Tarzan: Tarzan gets up and shoves around his monkey freinds for a little while. He then goes on patrol, where he runs across some elephants with fake ears. He helps the elephants rescue one of their fake-eared children. Later, Tarzan attacks and kills a wildebeast for food. On his way home, Tarzan attacks and kills a cheetah that was pretty much minding its own business. Tarzan arrives home, content in a day well spent.
Hippotami are vicious killers. They attack people on rafts every chance they get.
If you let a native witch doctor go too far into a trance, he can "work himself into a juju." We've done that ourselves, and man does it hurt! And then there's all that explaining to do the next morning.
There is a tribe in Africa whose members adorn their bodies with make-up in patterns that look like bulls-eyes. This custom was probably a bit of a detriment when it came to dealing with gun-happy Europeans.
There is another tribe in Africa that looks like the Lollipop Gang from The Wizard of Oz in blackface.
Chetah can take an amazing amount of punishment. Check out the scene where Chetah is attacked by a killer gorilla. The gorilla grabs his little chimpanzee cousin by the legs and whacks him face-first into the ground five times, then throws his inanimate body (stunt double!) into a corner, where debris from a hut falls on him. Yet one scene later, Chetah walks out of the debris, only limping a little.
Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan is more than just a guy who can yell and swing from trees. He's smart, sensitive, caring, and he loves animals. Plus, he can swim real good. (Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals in swimming.) Is it any wonder he captured Jane's heart? Is it any wonder he captured those of moviegoers for the next sixteen years? C'mon, give the big lug a chance and go rent this movie. He just wants to be your pal.