Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932)

Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932)

“From now on, I’m through with civilization. I’m going to be a savage, just like you.”

While on safari in Africa, the daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) of an ivory hunter (C. Aubrey Smith) is kidnapped by an ape-raised man (Johnny Weissmuller) living in the jungle.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Africa
  • Cross-Cultural Romance
  • Jungles
  • Maureen O’Sullivan Films
  • Primates
  • Tarzan Films
  • W.S. Van Dyke Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that while this “first talkie Tarzan film” has “lots of action and adventure”, it is “foremost a very erotic love story set in the primitive jungle of Africa”, and was “directed with adults in mind by W.S. Van Dyke”. Indeed, much like two other similarly-themed films of the era — Tabu (1931) and Bird of Paradise (1932)Tarzan, the Ape Man (which “borrows elements from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first Tarzan novel… and deletes many more”, including “all references to Tarzan’s origins”) offers plenty of provocative pre-Code sensuality, in the form of both 20-year-old O’Sullivan as Jane — a “young woman who seems to be searching for excitement… and her first lover” — and buff Romanian-born “swimming champion Weissmuller”, who Peary argues “has amazing screen presence” despite the fact that he barely speaks a word. The bulk of Peary’s review focuses on an analysis of O’Sullivan’s sexual coming-of-age, as she graduates from “childish frolicking” with Tarzan to the scene in which he “lifts her and, as if she were a bride, carries her up the tree to his lair”, after which point “she acts grown up” — and their tentative romance does dominate the storyline. The climactic ending, however, shifts gears to offer plenty of action and adventure, courtesy of a scary dwarf tribe (!) and “a monster gorilla” which “anticipates King Kong.” It’s all silly but effectively harmless serial fun.

Note: This film was followed by five other Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan movies made for MGM — all of which (yes, all) are listed in Peary’s book. Stay tuned for my ongoing assessment…

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A provocative pre-Code telling of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic adventure novel

Must See?
Yes, simply for its historical importance as the most definitive of all the Tarzan movies.


  • Historically Relevant


One thought on “Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932)

  1. Like ‘Tarzan and His Mate’, this is a tentative once-must – for those who enjoy this nostalgic kind of adventure story or are fans of the Tarzan stories.

    Watching it again, a fair amount of it came back to me (more or less from childhood) – and, overall, I was wrapped up in this first entry more than I was the second one (which many seem to prefer). There’s a nicer built-in build-up (with Jane in new territory as a member of an expedition) and the unfolding of it all engaged me more.

    I also love the first time Tarzan and Jane are alone and begin the nearly-impossible task of communicating with language. Though it’s not a moment that’s meant to be funny (I don’t think), Tarzan keeps nudging Jane, then pointing to himself – back and forth, back and forth – saying both their names with each body prod until Jane is forced to cry out, “Oh, please *stop*!” (…Makes me chuckle.)

    As for the level of excitement, I would think this film has about as much of that as its sequel entry; and there appears to be virtually no difference in tone between films.

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