Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932). 99 minutes. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. Starring Maureen O’Sullivan (as Jane Parker), Johnny Weissmuller (as Tarzan), Neil Hamilton (as Harry Holt), and C. Aubrey Smith (as James Parker). Dialogue by Ivor Novello.
Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels spawned a phenomenally successful franchise that extended into cinema, radio, television, and comic strips. Although the specifics of Tarzan’s character and his basic plot trajectory vary depending on the retelling, Burroughs’s fundamental story involves the wild man living amongst jungle apes and falling for a British female explorer. One of the best expressions of the full-on, kinky possibilities latent in this framework is the 1932 pre-Code Tarzan, the Ape Man. The movie is in some ways monolithic and crude in its colonialist rhetoric; there is a great deal of shouting, animal grunting, humans falling prey to jungle beasts, and condescending depictions of native types. But while the movie is blunt in terms of overall sentiment, it taps into complex cultural notions of sexuality and freedom that are actually rather fascinating. If you got something out of King Kong (1933), you will find even more to reflect on in Tarzan, the Ape Man.
James Parker and Henry Holt are British explorers in Africa who are hunting for a fabled elephant graveyard with tusks worth millions of pounds. James’s daughter Jane surprises him by arriving in the jungle and insisting that she accompany him on his adventures. As they embark on their trek, the explorers encounter dangerous animals and landscapes. At one point they hear a human cry, then see a strange white man swinging from tree to tree. The man abducts Jane, and she begins to fall in love with him. She then learns that the man, who cannot speak human language, nevertheless calls himself Tarzan. Jane reluctantly leaves Tarzan to return to her father and Henry, but they are soon abducted by pygmies, who plan to serve all of them to an ape monster. Tarzan and his elephants save them, and when one elephant is wounded, they follow it to the elephant graveyard. James, who has been wounded by the pygmies, dies there, and Jane elects to stay in the wild with Tarzan.
Tarzan, the Ape Man differs considerably from the Burroughs novels, where Tarzan, although a wild man raised by a race of giant apes, is nevertheless of noble British stock and well educated. Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan is in contrast hardly capable of saying anything. Weissmuller was an Olympic swimmer, and his athleticism rather than his intelligence is the focus of many of the movie’s images—either of him or his double performing acrobatics through the trees, swimming beautifully along the river, or leaning over in his loincloth. By emphasizing the physical, grunting Tarzan throughout, Tarzan, the Ape Man returns again and again to the question of what happens to basic human urges and primal inclinations without the boundaries of civilization (particularly European civilization) to contain them.
For the movie’s purposes, the gatekeepers of who and what should be considered primal entities are largely Jane’s father James and his companion Harry, who have been living in Africa for some time and serve as Jane’s guides until she encounters Tarzan. To them, the Africans who pass through camp are crude and expendable. James and Harry encourage the whipping of their African servants as they go off in search of the elephant graveyard and treat the locals as largely noisy, troublesome oddities who disturb them with their drumming. The narrative itself concurs with them at times, showing us African figures parading by the base camp in feathered finery at night—impressions filmed in darkness that make the natives seem unknowable, impersonable, and dangerous. Notably, James sees Tarzan as an extension of the African community. He tells Jane that Tarzan and his ilk are barely human—savages who are not capable of feeling. And then of course, there is the pygmy episode, which demonstrates the movie’s enthusiasm for depicting non-whites as voracious, evil sub-humans who act on the basest impulses.
James and Harry’s quest to find a bonafide elephant graveyard is an extension of their own base impulse, greed; but civilization has not dissuaded them from acting on it. The graveyard is the legendary place ailing elephants journey to in order to die, and their skeletal tusks promise tremendous wealth to the avaricious explorers. The fulfillment of the graveyard fantasy seems to encourage some of the worst of colonialist thinking both in and outside of the film, which always posits that mythological hidden wealth coexists with natives who live within the borders of the empire but do not appreciate the treasure or its phenomenal exploitability.
Given that Tarzan, the Ape Man seeks to thrill and entice us with its depiction of instincts, impulses, and desires, it also necessarily engages in a subtext about what it truly means to be basically and minimally human. This is the case even though the movie does not spend an abundance of screen time articulating that question in explicit terms, relying instead on imagery and juxtapositions to implicitly engage with this line of thought. The definition of humanity becomes especially relevant when the British characters finally accompany a dying elephant to the graveyard and discover the site’s impressive wealth. Interestingly, Jane comments that they should not be there in that solemn place, suggesting that she has some respect for the odd ceremonial comforts that sickly elephants take in their last hours; it is one of the only times that anyone in this story mentions the need to behave respectfully towards a different custom or practice.
Jane’s British companions do not share her sentiments, and James’s insistence that they follow the dying elephant even as he himself is dying makes him seem even more intent on fulfilling a colonialist need to exploit subjugated resources. But it is ironically also easiest to feel fondness for Jane’s father and to see him as most human when he topples over in the graveyard, nearly dead. He comes to resemble the elephants who also end their lives there as he collapses on the ground in a pile of skeletons. Yet oddly, he stands out himself as unusual amidst their bones, out of place both in his quest for loot and, ironically, in his humanness amongst the larger, majestic beasts. It is the movie’s boldest suggestion that the British, too, can be estranged, different, and iconoclastic—even in the empire that they have created.
Although Tarzan, the Ape Man works to make many of its characters seem foreign and different, it also suggests that people whom we may consider other are nonetheless worthy of our compassion and even love. Jane’s romance with Tarzan is a case in point. Tarzan resides in a different physical and cultural realm than Jane—although he is white and European by birth, he lives beyond the world of the English language, English behavioral customs, and English dress. The movie is more forgiving to Tarzan as an outsider than it is to anyone else who lives beyond the circumscribed world of James and Harry (presumably because Tarzan is European in origin), but his cultural inheritance does not prevent James from dehumanizing him in conversation. Tarzan is thus both an insider and an outsider, and Jane’s love for him embraces both what is recognizable and strange about him. Their relationship thus functions for her as an encounter with personas that exist tangentially both within and beyond the purview of the British empire.
Jane’s time with Tarzan is also largely an education for her in sex. She morphs from a young woman accompanied by a dozen full-sized steamer trunks to a jungle lady who lives in the revealing tatters of a single ripped-up, ripped-off dress that she does not exchange for more complete clothing even at the movie’s end. Titillation abounds in the film, whether we see Tarzan grabbing Jane or having implied consensual sex with Jane—or when we see Jane tearing off clothes to make bandages for an injured Tarzan, or a wet Jane in a vaguely see-through dress, or Tarzan’s billowing loincloth, which flashes more than a few glimpses of actor Johnny Weissmuller’s sinewy flanks. The fantasy of being yanked out of the dusty, frustrating, and parentally directed hunt for treasure by an exotic wild man who oozes sex is expressed repeatedly throughout the film as Jane is rescued, abducted, rescued, abducted, and rescued again. The fact that her father is bound up in the story as a protector and rival to the man in the trees makes for a weird family dynamic and a decidedly kinky, twisted tension between Jane, James, and Tarzan.
Tarzan’s version of sexuality is, in fact, socially radical. The word “swinging” has a sexual connotation today that it lacked in the 1930s, but the idea of a sort of swinging sexuality is perhaps not too far out of place in the context of even a movie as early as this with its emphasis on Tarzan’s jumping, oscillating, stopping, and starting as he maneuvers through the vines. Tarzan is depicted as a character free from confines—social niceties, customary dress, and regular speech—and his breezy appearance and disappearance convey a fair amount of liberality. Jane is not the first human he has seen, but she may be the first woman he has known up close. Yet he is content to walk away from the relationship when confronted by her armed father at one point, and Jane is not drawn to his attention again until the chimpanzee Cheeta summons Tarzan to rescue the British characters from the pygmies. Tarzan leads an independent and mercurial life in this movie, in other words, dropping and then picking up his romantic life with Jane in the end right where he left off with little objection from her.
I need hardly mention that when he is with Jane, his focus is entirely on her body. Even when he repeats words that she teaches him, he is usually poking or otherwise making physical contact with her. Tarzan’s curiosity is even accompanied in one scene by more brutal desire: under the cover of a canopy, he plays with Jane’s clothes, pulls forcibly at her attire, and attempts to undress her as she struggles, something that understandably upsets her. It is not clear what happens when that scene ends. Jane and Tarzan appear to have consensual sex in a later scene, and when Jane elects to stay with him at the film’s end, it is not unreasonable to think that still more sex, probably lots of it, is on the horizon for them both. Moreover, it appears that they will continue to engage in a sexual relationship without any suggestion that they will marry. The acknowledgement of healthy sexual intentions on the part of both Tarzan and Jane and the implication that they will be enjoying sex outside of the confines of marriage contributes to the movie’s pre-Code flavor.
The final image of Jane united in an embrace with Tarzan on the rocky cliff, cuddling Cheeta the chimpanzee while Tschaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” swells in the background, provides a kind of alternative family portrait, an iconic glimpse of Tarzan and Jane embarking on what will be a highly unconventional life. But although the ending seems unconventional on its surface, it actually feels rather predictable in other ways. While Tarzan, the Ape Man has tantalized us with the image of the swinging Tarzan, it seems intent on reconciling the wild man character with a more conservative ending that suggests sexuality expressed by monogamy and parenthood. That final shot of Tarzan and Jane embracing Cheeta takes the outlandish and the daring and makes it seem ordinary. Think of the other ways this movie could have ended—back in the bowers with Tarzan and Jane engaged in freewheeling play, for example, or Tarzan swinging away on his own. Tarzan, the Ape Man is only willing to offer us so much before retreating into a recognizable morality. It suggests that there are limits to even what pre-Code movies were willing to propose as an alternative to society.