Contrary to advertising rhetoric then and now, Johnny Weissmuller's iconic performance as Tarzan, Lord of Greystoke and of the Jungle, was not the original: Elmo Lincoln donned the loincloth for several outings in the silent era. However, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Tarzan series has ingrained itself in the cultural consciousness as the definitive version. Weissmuller's countenance is synonymous with Tarzan. It may even be said that his version eclipses Edgar Rice Burroughs' literary version: the famous call and Tarzan's savage inability to string together a full sentence are creations of MGM.
If by some nefarious plot one was reduced to watching merely one decade of film for the rest of their life, this author would easily chose 1925 to 1935. This was truly the golden age of genre cinema, and included amongst many titles, The Lost World, Phantom of the Opera, Thief of Baghdad, Dracula, Frankenstein, King Kong, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Bride of Frankenstein. It was into this illustrious company that Tarzan the Ape Man was ushered in 1932. The film itself was a response to an epic MGM box-office success the preceding year, Trader Horn. Trader Horn was essentially a retelling of Sir H. Rider Haggard's She, Who Must Be Obeyed, in which a lost white woman is treated as a god by the natives she rules over. The public clamored for more, and MGM supplied with an advertising gimmick that seems almost unbelievable today. Where movies now may be cynically decried as copies of last year's hit, Tarzan the Ape Man was actually advertised as being "The 'Trader Horn' of 1932!"
Beyond the action and plot, the first of the Weismuller Tarzan films is a visual feast. Much of the screen time is taken up by stock footage - most of it shot for Trader Horn - featuring scenes of African savanna wildlife and native tribes. Though approached through the lens one might expect of the early 1930's, this still forms a fabulous cinematic record of a romantic time. There is plenty of action though. The story revolves around British trader James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and his right hand man Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) embarking on a risky safari to find the legendary "elephants' graveyard." African myth tells of a hidden, faraway valley where elephants go when they know they are on the verge of death. Though sacred to natives, this graveyard promises an incalculable treasure in ivory for the explorer who dares the journey.
Along on their adventure is Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan), daughter of Mr. Parker and the apple of Harry's eye. But when they reach the forbidding Mutia Escarpment, a vast plateau which the superstitious natives refuse to climb, Harry finds a new competitor for Jane's affections in the form of the mysterious Tarzan. From there, mortal combat with savage lions and crocodiles, battle with ferocious pygmies, pit-fighting with bloodthirsty apes and great elephant stampedes ensue.
Even the passing fan of Tarzan will notice that Tarzan the Ape Man has almost no relation to the book it is based on. Unlike most cases, this was actually by design: having dealt with unsatisfactory adaptations before, Edgar Rice Burroughs licensed the Tarzan characters but not the rights to the literature. The creative personalities behind the MGM films were forced to come up with a wholly original idea, purposely avoiding legally entangling similarities to the original novels!
Whether this helps or hinders the film is subject to debate since, as already noted, this rendition of the Ape Man has transcended all others, including more accurate ones. Tarzan may very well have not become the icon he is if not for Weissmuller and MGM. The film he was placed into is a near-perfect picture of that lost romantic time, won by rifle and pith helmet in an exotic and forbidding land. But for as wonderful as Tarzan the Ape Man is, it is one of those rare breeds of film where the sequel may in fact eclipse the original. Everything that makes Tarzan the Ape Man a magnificent piece of celluloid is only enhanced with 1934's Tarzan and His Mate.