I’ll be honest: I had some trouble watching Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), this week’s pick for The Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series. I saw its sequel, Tarzan and His Mate, a couple years ago for a Pre-Code film class, and was entertained by the nonstop nudity, especially during the gorgeous/infamous underwater sequence featuring Maureen O’Sullivan au naturel. Tarzan the Ape Man, from Thin Man director W.S. “One-Shot” Van Dyke, has less artful nudity and more disturbing racialized violence.
It’s wall to wall with graphic human and animal deaths, including dozens of unfortunate little people clad in blackface. As you can guess, its race and gender politics are just barely to the left of Birth of a Nation’s—hell, it’s even egregious for the Tarzan series, which is essentially a white imperialist power fantasy in the first place. Aesthetically, it’s a mishmash of frenetic action (often rendered through cartoonish fast-motion and stock footage) and the slow, gentle pastoral scenes where Tarzan and Jane get to know each other.
Although those action sequences have their share of visceral thrills, it’s images like the one above that are the film’s main appeal for me. They’re chances for O’Sullivan and Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller to literally shine courtesy of Clyde De Vinna’s sparkly photography. Weissmuller may not be much of an actor, even when delivering Tarzan’s monosyllabic grunts, but he’s at his best in the water, or showcased through a lingering medium shot.
Actor or no, Weissmuller’s an Adonis and there’s a reason he was chosen to spend several films in a loincloth. (He’s also very Aryan, with all the uncomfortable racial implications that entails.) Thus, my personal favorite shot is one bringing together the jungle, Weissmuller, and the shimmering play of light upon his body.
It’s strange that a shot of chiaroscuro beauty like this can coexist with so many bizarre, confusingly staged scenes of animal-wrestling and cold-blooded murder. But then, the Tarzan movies are indisputably strange. This one climaxes with a horde of elephants stampeding a tribe of bloodthirsty pygmies. Those pygmies have a gorilla pit which, I believe, may have helped inspire Jabba the Hutt’s Rancor pit in Return of the Jedi. (Another fun movie connection: the credited writer of the film’s dialogue, Ivor Novello, was also a character in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park.)
I can’t say I strictly “liked” Tarzan the Ape Man, but it was intermittently very pretty when it wasn’t being very, very crass and violent. But that, as I suppose a Tarzan character would say, is the law of the jungle.