Jane Parke joins her explorer father (Smith) in Africa and sets off on safari in search of the fabled elephants graveyard. In the jungle, she is swept away by Tarzan, a white savage who lives with apes and has never seen a human woman.
Edgar Rice Burrough’s Lord Greystoke, aka Tarzan of the Apes, had been in silent pictures since the 1918 Tarzan of the Apes, starring Elmo Lincoln, and there were competing early talkies – but this MGM production, starring Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller as the lithe jungle man and Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane, kicked off the long-running series.
It takes character names from Burroughs, but ditches the backstory – this Tarzan just happens to be living with apes ‘beyond the Mutia Escarpment’ with no further explanation needed – and introduces a few elements (like Cheetah the chimp and the famous yell)which would become indelibly associated with the character. Incorporating African stock footage shot by director W.S. Van Dyke the year before on Trader Horne, it’s a picture of its times – with explicit sensuality (really, Tarzan is naked throughout) and bloody violence that wouldn’t have been possible after the censorship crackdown of 1934, and racist attitudes that now seem appalling (when a native bearer falls to his death, white hunter Neil Hamilton grumbles about losing the supplies that were in his pack – and later he lays about his ‘boys’ with a whip).
It comes to life in the jungle idyll with the boyish, doesn’t-know-his-own-strength Tarzan and the initially resistant, eventually adoring Jane – Weissmuller and O’Sullivan are splendid, and she carries the scenes with monologue (by Ivor Novello, no less) as Tarzan remains mostly mute. Plus: charging elephants, a tribe of evil dwarves, a giant gorilla, a hippo attack, crocodiles, lions and a million pounds’ worth of ivory.
Very of its time but the chemistry between the two leads is still electric.