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.
If there’s one thing that’s beneficial about viewing, and in many cases revisiting, installments in the Tarzan film adaptations it’s that by viewing the Weissmuller-starring MGM-produced versions I now get a sense for that series. Before, having skipped certain installments and gone out of order, some patterns harder to pick up on, yet some traits were easy to pick up, like the sudden vanishing of Jane’s presence as a forward-thinking character when Maureen O’Sullivan was replaced.
Now, at long last, I viewed Tarzan The Ape Man and began the series properly. I must say that I am most impressed with how this series starts off. Everything that had been intimated about Jane in sequel shorthand is firmly entrenched here. Furthermore, the commitment to building character is so strong that Tarzan, the titular character, is absent from the entire first act. His signature call is heard a few times off-screen, disembodied and creates a chilling effect for an audience that does not know the story that will unfold after his introduction.
My feelings about O’Sullivan, the writing she seemingly demanded, and the performances she gives, was solidified by seeing this entry now. Tarzan’s progression towards “Noble Savage” is very slight in this film. Jane really is the conduit to the audience’s understanding about this character’s nature. We must see and feel through her eyes and that link is so well-forged and so strong in this film that it makes for a rather engaging and emotional experience.
Perhaps what’s the biggest pleasant surprise of the film is that Tarzan, and the nature of his character, becomes the focus of the story and the MacGuffin, the mission that the hunters and/or other white men embark upon truly takes a backseat. As seen through the spectrum of this film, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the films play out, if any differently.
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