Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932): Van Dyke’s Version of Burroughs Novel, Starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Hara

Versatile filmmaker W. S. Van Dyke directed Tarzan, the Ape Man, a pre-Code action-adventure, which went on to become a most successful franchise of 12 films, made between 1932 and 1942.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

Tarzan the Ape Man
Tarzan the Ape Man 1932 poster.jpg

Theatrical poster

The movie features Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle hero Tarzan, starring Johnny Weissmuller, who appeared in all of the films, and Maureen O’Sullivan who played Jane in six features.

Loosely based on Burroughs’ 1912 novel, “Tarzan of the Apes,” the film is hampered by Ivor Novello’s dialogue, which is too simplistic.

James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith) and Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton), who travel in Africa, seeking the legendary elephant burial grounds and their ivory, are joined by Parker’s daughter Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan).

Attracted to Jane, Holt tries to protect her from dangers, but fails to prevent her abduction by the jungle’s guardian, the mysterious Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) and his ape allies.

Terrified at first, Jane grows to like him, “Not a bit afraid, not a bit sorry.”  She wants Tarzan to come with her to London, to be part of her world, but Tarzan returns to the jungle. When her father says, “He’s where he belongs,” she cries, “No dad, he belongs to me.”

When the expedition is captured by a tribe of aggressive dwarfs, Jane sends Cheeta (Jiggs) for help, which brings Tarzan to their rescue. During the rescue, Tarzan summons elephants and they escape from the dwarf’s stronghold, although Jane’s father dies from wounds as they reach the elephant graveyard.

Jane decides to stay in the jungle with Tarzan and in the final scene, accompanied by Tchaikovsky’s music of “Romeo and Juliet,” the happy couple hold Cheeta like a baby.

The tribe of African dwarfs, made to look like pygmies, was actually a cast of white midgets wearing blackface.

Stock footage made in Africa for Trader Horn was added to what was shot in California’s Toluca Lake.

A huge commercial hit, the film was MGM’s most popular film of 1932, earning worldwide rental of $2,540,000 upon its initial release. The movie was re-release several times in later years.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer released two remakes of Tarzan, the Ape Man in 1959 and in 1981, but each was a different adaptation.

Neil Hamilton as Harry Holt
Maureen O’Sullivan as Jane Parker
C. Aubrey Smith as James Parker
Doris Lloyd as Mrs Cutten
Forrester Harvey as Beamish
Ivory Williams as Riano
Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan
Ray Corrigan as Ape
Johnny Eck as Bird Creature


Directed by W. S. Van Dyke
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Written by Cyril Hume, based on Tarzan of the Apes, 1912 magazine by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Music by George Richelarie
Cinematography Clyde De Vinna
Edited by Tom Held, Ben Lewis
Production and distribution company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release date: March 25, 1932
Running time 99 minutes
Budget $652,675
Box-office $2.8 million (worldwide rental)


TCM showed the movie on October 10, 2020.