Here it is—the grandaddy of Tarzan movies. Well, sort of. It’s hardly the first Tarzan picture. That honor goes to Tarzan of the Apes with Elmo Lincoln back in 1918, and there were quite a few others between then and 1932 when Tarzan the Ape Man was made. This, however, is the first Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan—and, for better or worse, Weissmuller etched in stone the cinematic notion of the jungle hero for years to come. This is the picture from which we draw the whole “Me Tarzan, you Jane” schtick. That’d be fine, except that’s not something that ever happens in the course of the film. (The dialogue involves only pointing, with only the words “Tarzan—Jane.”) It can hardly be called a great movie, but it’s still a lot of fun—and sometimes surprisingly nasty in that way that only pre-code Hollywood movies can be.
For 1932, it’s actually a rather crude movie that has all the earmarks of having been made mostly because director W.S. Van Dyke had all manner of useful African footage left over from making Trader Horn on location there in 1930. That’s also why the film is rife with process work and rear screen (check out the scene where C. Aubrey Smith and Maureeen O’Sullivan review a row of very out-of-scale tribesmen). The story itself revolves around the search for the mythical elephants’ burial ground and, of course, Jane being swept off her feet—and into a tree—by Tarzan. But, hey, you get people being torn apart by being tied to two bent trees and Tarzan fighting a gorilla (well, Ray Corrigan in an ape suit). What more do you want?