Tarzan Thursday – Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

Last year the character of Tarzan celebrated his 100th year in print. A serialized version of the story first appeared in 1912. A hardcover collection of Tarzan of the Apes first appeared in 1914. Being in the middle of the Tarzan centennial period it’s an opportune time to (re)visit many of the screen renditions of the character.

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and copyright laws, the very first screen appearance of Tarzan is available to any and all who want it legally and free of charge. It’s also an interesting historical footnote as this was one of the earlier, quicker adaptations of very popular literature; appearing just six years after the character was introduced to the public.

Any film of a certain era can be referred to as dated. To me it’s a fairly weak, simplistic argument. Very few films are truly of the vanguard and ahead of their time. What needs to be taken into consideration is how does it function for the era and the kind of film it was. In silents, less titles are better; conversely if you feel you’re needing titles that too could be an issue.

This film gets by a lot of the time without needing them, but is sadly a little heavy on them. Unfortunately, there is also some hokey writing within them like a few references to his “little English brain” longing for things more akin to what a civilized white man would desire, when he never had any such frame of reference.

However, the version I saw was a little over an hour long, and though the titles helped it breeze through, it could’ve stood a bit more running time. This truncation only hurts minimally though as the story does ends up being a pretty brisk, entertaining and coherent origin.

Tarzan is played at two ages: by Gordon Griffith when he is young and Elmo Lincoln as a man. Griffith was one of the first young stars of the cinema and it’s clear why. He carries the first half of the film mostly on his own without any real scene partners. His expressiveness is, of course, influenced by screen acting conventions of the era, but exploits them to great effect. Similarly, Lincoln seems to have a great following among those who are great fans of the character, and it’s apparent why also.

Returning briefly to the concept of being dated, the only two times that became terribly apparent in ways that weren’t just about it being silent cinema were in one or two prejudiced/racist title cards and the very obvious (though not terrible) gorilla suits. Otherwise, it’s actually fairly easy to lose yourself in this story, and a perfect way to kick off this retrospective.

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