Tarzan first appeared in print back in 1912 and by the time Burroughs passed away in 1950 he had written 24 novels about the adventures of Tarzan. Tarzan’s first big screen appearance was in 1918 in a series of silent serials. The first time Tarzan swung on a vine was in the lost 1928 silent film Tarzan the Mighty. The first sound Tarzan came in the sequel Tarzan the Tiger in 1929. MGM bought the screen rights and in 1932 released the first of what would eventually become a 28 film franchise series. Having just watched all 28 movies over the next couple Sunday Matinees I plan on highlighting some of the better entries in the series.
Starting at the beginning is the first, Tarzan the Ape Man. Released in 1932 it’s a very loose adaptation of Burroughs’ novel. Johnny Weissmuller is Tarzan but this Tarzan doesn’t speak until Jane teaches him some basics and then for the next 21 films Tarzan only speaks in pidgin speech. While Weissmuller is the star and hero of the film (Weissmuller starred in the first 12 movies), the character Jane is the focal point for the film, actually for the most part, she carried the first six films.
Jane Parker (Porter in the novels) was played by Maureen O’Sullivan for the six first films. After the first six, the series moved from MGM to RKO and Maureen O’Sullivan was a contracted to MGM so she didn’t move with the series (she was also tired of playing Jane.) Tarzan the Ape Man starts with Jane arriving in Africa to live with her father James (C. Aubrey Smith). James is an ivory hunter and he and his partner Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) are planning on finding the hidden elephant graveyard so they can load up on ivory. James believes the graveyard is deep in the jungle past a dangerous escarpment that the locals consider taboo.
James, Jane and Harry start their search, facing dangerous cliffs, attacks from vicious hippos and then stumbling across Tarzan who steals Jane. Jane is naturally freaked out and when Tarzan goes out for food, she escapes thanks to her father and Harry. Harry shoots one of the apes when he helps Jane escape and Tarzan seeks revenge, killing one of the guides and re-kidnapping Jane. This time though Jane starts falling for Tarzan, teaches him a limited amount of English and has a romantic swim with him. She then leaves Tarzan when she sees her father desperately searching for her. The group is then attacked by an evil tribe of pygmies and slowly slaughtered by getting thrown into a pit with a vicious ape beast. Naturally Tarzan comes to save the day.
Other than some of the names, very little of Burroughs actually novels are used in these films. There is no back story for Tarzan, where he came from or who he really is. He’s just a man in a loincloth hanging out in the jungle. The movie though was a huge success for MGM and they quickly put together a massive sequel to top the first film. Tarzan and His Mate was released in 1934 and while it was a hit, it caused more controversy with it’s portrayal of Jane’s sexuality. Jane wears a skimpy bikini/loincloth skirt and swims nude with Tarzan. The studio heads thought there was nothing wrong with that but conservative groups freaked out and the film had to be censored. The movie sadly helped end the pre-code era and brought in the production code that sucked all the fun out of movies till the late 1960’s.
Tarzan and His Mate is the best of the Weissmuller era and is pretty close to the best in the series period. The story picks up right where the last left off. Jane is living in the jungle with Tarzan. Harry is back in civilization trying to get another expedition together to try again for the ivory in the elephant graveyard. Harry’s also hoping to entice Jane back to civilization. Harry’s new partner is the evil Martin (Paul Cavanagh) who really needs the money and is also attracted to Jane. When they arrive at Tarzan and Jane’s jungle house Harry tries to entice Jane with a new dress and make-up. Jane turns Harry down. When Tarzan finds out that they are there for the ivory he gets mad and refuses to help them. Martin then tries to kill Tarzan (and it looks like he succeeded). When Jane is told that Tarzan is dead she agrees to help them with the ivory and to return to civilization. On the way back they are attacked by a tribe that use lions to kill the victims and the group quickly gets trapped by the lions. Fortunately Tarzan recovers in time.
The next four films start to decline. MGM started to recycle footage from the first two films. By the sixth film you have seen Tarzan fight the same crocodile at least four times. The fourth movie Tarzan Finds a Son! introduces Boy (Johnny Sheffield) as an adopted son for Jane and Tarzan. Even though they were married in the books they were never married in the movies thus living in sin, I guess adopting a son made them more wholesome. The prevailing themes of the MGM series, which would carry on with RKO is that white civilized men are evil and greedy and hunting is bad unless you’re Tarzan then there is an exception. Still they are enjoyable films.