Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dir. by W.S. van Dyke

While it was not the first Tarzan movie, the 1932 film featuring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan is the definitive one.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ vision of his ape-man was a sharply defined one: he was a scion of English nobility, reared by apes and possessed of their savage ferocity, but tempered with the cunning of a high intellect. He was also a cultivated gentleman who taught himself to read with a picture dictionary and spoke English, French, and whatever native dialects the plot called for.

MGM didn’t give a bankruptcy lawyer’s butt about all that. They found the best-looking athlete they could. To avoid the obvious problem that he wasn’t really an actor they didn’t give him any lines. For Jane they got a young Irish actress who was gorgeous and let you know she could handle angry hippos, hostile pygmies, and amorous ape-man. The result wasn’t ERB’s Tarzan but it was silver-screen history.

Jane Parker (Maureen O’Sullivan)arrives in Africa to meet her father at his trading post. Along with his handsome assistant Harry (Niel Hamilton), Old Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) is about to set off to find the fabled Elephant’s Graveyard. But on the way they encounter hostile natives and a strange white man living with the apes. That white man is none other than Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) who abruptly departs with the beautiful Jane.

Jungle romance blossoms, but not until after Jane narrowly averts a Fate Worse than Death (a common problem for ERB heroines, though usually at the hands of a villain, the script here is honest enough to admit that a chap raised by apes might need a bit of sorting out in the gentlemanliness line). She is restored to her folks after the loutish Harry pots Tarzan’s step-sister (she’s an ape, but still kin).

The expedition survives some brutal attacks by Tarzan (an echo of his long war with the Gomangani depicted in Tarzan of the Apes and Jungle Tales of Tarzan). Things really get hot when the explorers are captured by pygmies (“Are they pygmies?” asks Jane. “No, they’re dwarves.” Replies the insightful Harry). Only Tarzan, who must balance his hate for the intruders against his love for Jane can save the day.

This is the stuff of a boy’s Saturday afternoon dreams. By modern standards the film is pretty much politically incorrect, but it’s a waste of time trying to sort out the irreductablility of the privileged gaze from the Center on the (re)colonized Other of the subject(ified) periphery in a discourse that privileges the, oh never mind. It’s got charging elephants! And a gorilla! And Tarzan saying, “Tarzan! Jane! Tarzan! Jane!” What more can you ask for?
-Dave Hardy

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