Saturday, July 23, 2011


My summer Tarzan marathon (coinciding with Turner Classic's Saturday showings) is not intended to be complete; I missed most of the Weissmuller films so I'll mostly be reviewing films from the 50s and 60s, and I'll be picking and choosing among those. But I thought I should backtrack and re-watch the very first film in the series, before Tarzan got "tamed" by the Production Code and the movies turned into kiddie matinees. In Africa, British trader Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and his younger associate Holt (Neil Hamilton) are about to head out into unexplored territory to find the fabled Elephant’s Graveyard—so they can harvest it for ivory. When Parker's lovely young daughter Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) arrives to stay, saying she's through with civilization (though she brings about a dozen trunks with her), they let her tag along. After the group gets past a dangerous cliff and a river full of hippos and crocodiles, Jane is whisked away by Tarzan, a strange man in a loincloth living alone in the jungle who travels through the treetops; he can communicate with animals just fine (partly through language, partly through his infamous echoing yell) but has problems with Jane. He lets her go but she remains fascinated by this primitive man, and when the traders' group is attacked by savage dwarfs (definitely not pygmies, we are told) and about to be thrown into a pit with a wild ape, Tarzan rescues them. They discover the graveyard, at which point old Parker dies; Holt decides to come back with a team of ivory harvesters, but Jane announces she's staying with Tarzan.

Unlike Edgar Rice Burroughs' original character, this Tarzan has no backstory (at least in this film) and speaks only in single words: "Tarzan"; "Jane"; "hurt." Weissmuller, an Olympic swimming champ, does a nice job; he doesn't have to do much acting, he has enough chemistry with O'Sullivan that we can understand why she decides to stay, and he gets to show off his athletic abilities with lots of running, jumping, swimming, swinging through trees (with a trapeze bar often visible), and fighting animals. O'Sullivan is cute and perky and likable. Smith and Hamilton aren't exactly painted as bad guys, though in future films, anyone wanting to disturb the ways of the jungle will be considered a villain. This pre-Code film is not particularly sexy (nude swimming would happen in the second film, TARZAN AND HIS MATE) though it is quite violent, especially in the climax when Tarzan kills an ape with a knife through the eye followed by throat-cutting, and an elephant stampede destroys the dwarfs’ village. Some African location footage is interspersed here and there, sometimes effectively, sometimes not (a scene in which Smith and O'Sullivan supposedly interact with a native tribe is especially badly done). This and MATE are certainly the best of the early Tarzans, partly because the formula hadn’t hardened, and they hadn’t decided to make Cheetah "cute" yet. See my review of the 1959 remake here. [DVD]

No comments: