Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tarzan the Ape Man (W.S. Van Dyke, 1932)

This would be a very interesting movie to study as a case of synthesis in film-making. A number of sets were made on the back lots and on location in California—some of the trees are recognizably California trees, perhaps the Eucalyptus imported from the Antipodes long ago. And then they use lots of stock footage shot in Africa, and perhaps a bit shot in zoos as well, mixed up with footage of trained (circus) animals. In the early part of the movie the actors perform in front of location shots, back-projected film of Africans in traditional costume, gathering and drumming and dancing. The actors walk around the corner of a bamboo house and stand in front of the people supposedly gathered for trading. In other scenes there is often intelligent intercutting between animal footage and live action—real alligators hurry toward the water and swim amongst real hippos, and then the editor cuts to a safe pond where mechanical crocodile backs churn across the surface in perfect coordination, like water ballet, as Johnny Weismuller swims steadily away from them his championship crawl. The mixture of actual apes (chimpanzees) and people in ape costume is perhaps the least convincing blend. The story is rather dim and missing key elements of continuity, but it doesn’t seem to matter so much, since the main point of the film is to bring Tarzan and Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) together. There’s a crusty father (C. Aubrey Smith) determined to find the elephants’ graveyard, and a stalwart colonial hero, Henry Holt (Neil Hamilton) who begins well but goes downhill as the trek through the jungle shows him to be a brute, and there are perhaps a dozen expendable black porters, killed along the way by falls from cliffs, arrows of hostile tribes, crocodile teeth, and some sort of captive gorilla-god. There aren’t any left at the end of the trip, though all the white people survive. This isn’t good. Weirdest of all is the appearance of the hostile tribe—they’re not pygmies, they’re dwarfs, as the father explains in matter-of-fact tones. Sure enough, it’s the entire stock of Hollywood small people in blackface make-up. Tarzan and the friendly elephants take care of them. What is decidedly not pleasant here is the explicit racism, the profiteering and imperialist motives, and the callousness toward African human and animal life. Even Tarzan is guilty, for he dispatches several of the porters himself after Holt has shot one of his ape-friends. Jane tries to prevent Holt from shooting Tarzan by crying out, “He’s White!” Not so much, according to the father, who deems Tarzan little more than an animal, and Holt sneers and glowers. And well he might, because he’d imagined Jane was his property. There’s the other fascinating thing about this movie: the attraction between the nearly-mute, beautiful ape-man and the nearly-always-speaking, beautiful “civilized” girl. It can’t be anything but animal magnetism, or, rather, pure sex. Weismuller spends the whole film nearly naked, and looking pretty good, and O’Sullivan indicates her potential sexiness when she changes clothes early in the film, pausing in her silky undergarments to laugh at her father’s discomfiture. By the time her clothes get torn and she goes swimming with Tarzan, her curves and general loveliness become an integral part of the story. Tarzan and Jane are fascinated by each other, and can’t stop staring. Tarzan is curious and innocent and hypnotized, and Jane passes through the obligatory stage of being frightened into an appreciation of Tarzan’s character, beauty, and sense of identity in and with the jungle, and at last into a happy ease in her own sensuality. This last development allows her to stay in Africa as Holt retreats on the back of a borrowed elephant. This is a ridiculous and offensive movie, and it is also rather wonderful. The best moment, other than O’Sullivan and Weismuller at play in the water and all wet on shore, is when Jane is bandaging the wounded Tarzan’s head and the young chimpanzee puts his arm familiarly around her shoulders.

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