1932 – 1942
TARZAN THE APE MAN
With this classic, Johnny Weissmuller is introduced to the world as Tarzan. Already well known as an Olympic swimming star by 1932, whilst Johnny was not the first on screen Tarzan, his has become the most famous.
Playing the role as a naive childlike action hero, king of his domain whilst being pitched as fish out of water when round westerners or “Civilized” folk, these early action movies spend no time delving into the The Ape Man’s origins, as many subsequent adaptions have.
Here, he is simply Tarzan; the athletic protector of the jungle, able to summon help from his wild allies, apes, elephants etc… as he fights white men, “savages” and any number of wild foes, including crocodiles, hippos and a selection of wild cats.
But only up until his fateful meeting with feisty Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan), a fairy tale, innocent romance blossoms which is actually portrayed in such a way, that it is genuinely heart warming as the series progresses.
TARZAN AND HIS MATE
This is the one. Notorious for it nude swimming scene and Jane’s revealing two piece number, this is the one which pushes the freedom of studios to breaking point and helped usher the Heyes code as it would be weaved into the fabric of American films for decades to come.
But this aside, this is a genuinely good sequel. More intense than the first, though as many of these films will, literally recycle action scenes from the first, the characters are developing, the story feels like it is progressing quite naturally from its predecessor and the tone is as erotic as it promises.
The kinky and untempered behavior of our leads is what the film is promising, an takes on life in the steamy jungle, away from the trappings of western life, certainly in the midst of the then, “Great Depression”. But this was where it was going to end as the studios wings were about to be clipped…
Toned down and having to open up with a new plot and antagonists, since the original fortune hunters are now all dead, this one does retread the same ground but still, it entertaining.
The costumes have become more tame, as has the overall feel, but it delivers the formula and is now becoming quite practiced at it.
TARZAN FINDS A SON!
I think that this must be the most heart warming of the lot, so far at least. Tarzan and Jane discover a boy who is the lone survivor of a plane crash. They adopt him as there own and five years pass as Tarzan and his son, which he has named “Boy” have become inseparable.
But his family, the heirs to the Greystoke estate come searching for him and Tarzan will not give him up. Though Jane, whilst heart broken, is prepared too, though unaware that the Boy is just a pawn to gain an Their inheritance.
The relationship between Tarzan and his son are played out beautifully, as is the betrayal of Jane as she must take the boy against Tarzan’s will.
Though Jane’s character is starting feel frumpy and and bit two dimensional by this point in the series, the trio still manage to play this out really well and this one does deliver more of an emotional punch than I was expecting.
This is no small part due to Jane’s death scene, which is resolved by one the most outrageous Ex-machina moments which I have ever seen, but still, after test audiences did not want Jane to die, she miraculously, well, doesn’t!
But this was clearly where the plot was heading throughout and even though the pay off is smothered in fantasy, it still packed a punch. But on a lighter note, the humour also feels better and less forced in this one.
TARZAN’S SECRET TREASURE
Well, unfortunately, Jane did survive the last one…
…and by now, this Tarzan series has become a simplistic, cynical cash cow. Delivering yet another formulaic adventure, almost beat for beat what has come before, we now find that Cheeta, the never aging chimp, has become the star of the show. No longer just a bit of comic relief, entire scenes are handed over to her and “Boy”, Tarzan and Jane’s adopted son, in favour of appealing to the child market no doubt.
This has become unabashed family entertainment, no longer speaking to its audience as it once did. No longer discussing the differences of a simple life versus a civilized one, nor tackling the constraints of civilization on things such a sexuality or freedom of expression.
Her the jungle is funny and safe, only threatened by primitive tribes and greedy westerners, all of whom will be stopped by Tarzan and his Elephants in the end. Though the action is good and the finale it one of the best so far, so cynical or not, it still works.
TARZAN’S NEW YORK ADVENTURE
This trend would continue into the final outing with MGM and the original cast as Johnny Weissmuller and John Sheffield (Boy) would continue on with RKO, but Maureen O’Sullivan, who had clearly grown tired of the role after ten years would depart. And good.
In the early films, especially the first two, Tarzan and Jane’s relationship was paramount. A romantic fairy-tale of sexual and social freedom as Jane would shed her clothes and with them, the shackles of modern civilization in order to live with Tarzan in his idyllic Eden like Jungle home. Hopping from tree to tree, diving into lakes and frolicking where they fell.
By now, they live in a Flintstones style western home with more western trappings than we have today, with Jane being nothing more than an obedient, devoted housewife whilst Tarzan is becoming more civilized and their adopted some has somehow developed and strong American accent!
Jane’s journey was a dead end, and here, as the pair travel to New York to rescue Boy from a circus, she might as well not return to her jungle tree-house at all.
But having said that, this is fun if not a silly adventure, with the fish out of water tropes played out to some comic effect. The scene with Tarzan in the shower is funny but Cheeta’s rampage through Janes suitcase is just annoying as is the fact that she needed so many make up products in the first place!
THE TARZAN SERIES
Overall, this series of films is enjoyable with the first four, especially the second and fourth entries standing out as the best. An early action franchise which clearly serves as a template for what we know today and even though the effects and camera work are very dated, if you can see past that, the action scenes can be very good, exiting and enthralling, especially the finale to the fifth film, Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941), where Tarzan chases a native tribe on boats to rescue Jane and Boy. If you went back and dubbed a modern action soundtrack over it, it would probably stand up today.
Recommended for those who enjoy blockbusters, escapism and just plain fun.