Tarzan of the Apes (1932)

September 13, 2008 § Leave a comment

The original Edgar Rice Burroughs novel by the same title (1914) must be among the worst novels I’ve ever read — a wandering plot, blatant statements about British superiority (after all, drop an infant from the British empire into the jungle and naturally they take charge, right?) and a lack of any real attention to detail. At one point Tarzan has an arm nearly completely torn off, but despite being away from any real medical attention he just… gets better. For all that, Burroughs at least explains his origins from parents marooned after a mutiny, and has Tarzan evolving in the book, learning French and then English before finally returning to England to pursue Jane Porter.

I was curious about the 1932 film with champion swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan, undoubtedly the most famous man in the role, the one who starred in a dozen films, and the creator of the famous Weissmuller yell, sometimes rumoured to be a sound effect created using a yodeler.

But first, the film gives us Jane Porter and family and friends, commenting that Africa is an “awful hole,” arranging for their servants to be whipped and plunging through the jungle to shoot whatever animals they see.  To call the film dated is something of an understatement.  Needless to say, they encounter Tarzan (who sports medium-length, well styled hair), there are some impressive scenes of a stuntman swinging around, and other stuntmen choking lions while pretending to stab them.  Somehow his buddy Cheetah can communicate complicated instructions to elephants, who are always ready to kick some butt for old Tarzan. Tarzan also seems to be able to communicate a lot with that scream of his, and rides elephants and hippos like they’re cabs in New York.  Jane screams a lot, except when she wants to blow the head off a hippo, and the film finally doesn’t offer the slightest explanation as to what Tarzan is doing there, or who he is.

Despite good production values for 1932 it’s all pretty laughable, and yet as I write this in 2008 I can’t say I live in an enlightened twenty-first century. We’re seriously lacking conservation efforts, and as both Canadians and Americans head into elections, we can’t seem to decide in favour of more progressive governments, despite a desperate need to address climate change and many other issues. Ah, Tarzan — you’re a quaint reminder of just how stupid we stilll are.

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