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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: December 12th, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1932

Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) - Warner Archive Collection

Overview -

Blu-ray Review By: David Krauss
The beloved 1932 adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic novel starring Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan swings onto Blu-ray with a new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements. Thrilling wildlife sequences, jungle romance, and that inimitable Tarzan yell highlight this action antique that still holds up more than 90 years after its premiere. Highly Recommended.

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM FROM PRESERVATION ELEMENTS (2023)
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Length:
100
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Audio Formats:
English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono
Subtitles/Captions:
Optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature
Special Features:
Documentary: ‘Tarzan: Silver Screen King of the Jungle’, Classic Cartoons: ‘I Wish I Had Wings’ and ‘Moonlight for Two’, Original Theatrical Trailer
Release Date:
December 12th, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

Say the name Tarzan and a number of actors spring to mind, but likely the first name to roll off the tongue is Johnny Weissmuller. The champion swimmer with five Olympic gold medals became an instant movie star after he signed on to portray author Edgar Rice Burroughs' jungle hero in 1932. Weissmuller would make a dozen Tarzan movies in all, even following the franchise over to RKO after MGM pulled the plug. Would Tarzan have spawned any sequels at all if another actor landed the plum part? That's tough to say, but without a doubt Weissmuller has defined the Tarzan image and Tarzan, the Ape Man is the movie that started a phenomenon that has continued well into the 21st century.

The 1932 MGM adaptation says right up front that it's merely "based on the characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs," a disclaimer that gave the studio the freedom to take the story in whatever direction it desired. Unlike other versions of the tale, Tarzan, the Ape Man doesn't depict the titular character's tragic infancy or upbringing in the simian world. When he finally appears a little more than a half hour into the film, he's a mysterious figure and he remains so until the end. We don't learn where he came from or what makes him tick, just that he's the prototype of the noble savage.

He's also a romantic fantasy...a practically naked man in a loincloth who swoops in and literally sweeps a prim and proper Englishwoman off her feet and into his primitive jungle lair. She fights off his brutish impulses, dulls his rough edges, cultivates his tender side, and falls so completely in love with her creation she forsakes the comforts of civilization for a naturalistic life in a garden of eden. How many Depression-era American women facing a bleak existence would have loved to step into her shoes?

Jane (Maureen O'Sullivan) arrives in the depths of Africa to surprise her father, James Parker (C. Aubrey Smith), who has teamed up with Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) in an effort to find the elusive elephant graveyard and mine its precious cache of ivory. Jane accompanies them on their treacherous journey that includes frightening encounters with various wildlife and skirmishes with native tribes. Tarzan swings in on his trusty vines to rescue them and takes a shine to Jane. That doesn't sit well with the gruff Harry, who hopes to marry Jane, but his bland demeanor and lack of heart leave her cold. Tarzan may be a savage, but in many ways Harry and even Jane's father, both of whom hope to pillage sacred ground, are more barbaric than the man who grew up among the apes.

Directed with customary efficiency by W.S. Van Dyke, Tarzan, the Ape Man favors thrills over plot and revels in  its wildlife sequences. Impressive images of hippos, crocodiles, zebras, tigers, chimps, elephants, lions, even wildebeests pepper the film, although the violent responses to the animals' aggression by the "civilized" white men are disturbing. Though Tarzan was completely produced on U.S. soil, it liberally employs unused footage from the previous year's Trader Horn, an African adventure also directed by Van Dyke that was partially filmed on location. That lends Tarzan a quasi-authentic feel, although a good portion of the movie is pure Hollywood hokum.

If you can get past some of its offensive aspects (largely a result of the era in which it was made), Tarzan, the Ape Man is an entertaining, action-packed film sprinkled with romance and emotion. The script by Ivor Novello, who's perhaps best known for his work as an actor in two silent Alfred Hitchcock films (he plays the creepy title role in The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog), is dated and trite, but the stars manage to rise above it. (Weissmuller is lucky his dialogue mostly consists of guttural grunts and his famous yodel-ly yell.) In the first of her six appearances as Jane, O'Sullivan adds dimension to the character, projecting an independent spirit that helps buoy the film. This is really Jane's story and O'Sullivan carries it with ease.

Hamilton, who plays a leading role in the silent Why Be Good? (also recently released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive), excels as the stiff, square-jawed Harry (it's easy to see why he was the perfect choice to play Commissioner Gordon on the 1960s Batman TV series) and the always dignified Smith embodies Jane's father...so much so it's impossible not to believe he was the model for Disney's animated version of the character for its 1999 adaptation.

Weissmuller may not say much, but he commands the screen with his imposing presence and graceful athleticism. Acting without dialogue is tougher than one might think and Weissmuller, who had no previous thespian experience, brings Tarzan to life. Many men have played Tarzan before and since, but no one inhabits the part like Weissmuller. More than 90 years later, he's still the king of the jungle.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray 
The original version of Tarzan, the Ape Man arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

A new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements yields a very pleasing 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer. Like many films from the early 1930s, grain is a bit more prevalent and the image errs slightly on the bright side, but neither element detracts from the viewing experience. Clarity and contrast are quite good, while deep blacks, well-defined whites, and varied grays produce a vibrant picture that exudes a fair amount of depth. The heightened degree of detail makes the rear projection shots early in the film look especially artificial, but that's a small price to pay for such a classy presentation. Close-ups are crisp and any nicks, marks, or scratches have been meticulously erased. This transfer lacks the wow factors that distinguish so many Warner Archive releases, but considering the film's advanced age it stands as a very impressive rendering. Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Audio Review

Ranking:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies robust sound that thrusts us into the jungle locale. Sonic accents like beating drums, rifle shots, roaring lions, and Tarzan's signature yodel blast through the speakers, while subtleties like chirping birds and the squeaking of apes supply plenty of atmosphere. A wide dynamic scale handles all the effects with ease and only a smattering of very faint surface noise can be detected during a couple of quiet moments. Dialogue, however, is a bit problematic, especially when it has to compete with other elements. I struggled to understand the exchanges during the early part of the film and finally resorted to switching on the subtitles. The primitive recording equipment is partially to blame, but the high levels seemed to muddy the clarity and make many words indistinct. Rating: 3.5/5 stars 

Special Features

Ranking:

An excellent Tarzan documentary has been ported over from the 2004 Johnny Weissmuller box set. Warner Archive also adds two vintage cartoons and the original trailer to the extras package.

  • Documentary: "Tarzan: Silver Screen King of the Jungle" (SD, 80 minutes) - The late, great author and film historian Rudy Behlmer dominates this comprehensive and absorbing 2004 documentary that begins by examining the original Tarzan novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs and continues through the various silent film adaptations beginning in 1918. We learn about the marketing of Tarzan and how MGM became interested in the project. Behlmer talks about the development of the Tarzan, the Ape Man story, addresses the casting of Weissmuller and O'Sullivan, reveals production secrets, discusses the censorship issues that plagued Tarzan and His Mate, and cycles through the other MGM Tarzan sequels. Interviews with O'Sullivan, Weissmuller's son, Weissmuller's biographer, film historian Robert Osborne, and others provide additional perspectives, trivia, and anecdotes.

  • Vintage Cartoon: I Wish I Had Wings (HD, 7 minutes) - This 1932 black-and-white Merrie Melodies cartoon looks in on a chicken coop and focuses on one hatchling's efforts to scale the fence.

  • Vintage Cartoon: Moonlight for Two (HD, 7 minutes) - Also from 1932 and shot in black-and-white, this Merrie Melodies short follows two smitten canines to a barn dance where they encounter a rowdy, shotgun-wielding interloper.

  • Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - The film's original preview touts Tarzan, the Ape Man as the "Trader Horn of 1932" and promises "the wild elephant stampede...will thrill you forever!"

Final Thoughts

Tarzan, the Ape Man shows its age, but remains both an exciting and tender tale that deftly mixes action, romance, and travelogue. Nobody does the Tarzan yell like Weissmuller and was there ever a better Jane than O'Sullivan? The primitive audio is a bit problematic, but Warner Archive's new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements enlivens this 92-year-old classic and a nice extras package sweetens the deal. Highly Recommended

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