Today, Johnny Weissmuller’s robust physique and half yodel/half shriek as the undisputed king of the jungle seem a gross cliché. But in 1932, the year MGM debuted its’ first celluloid incarnation of Edgar Rice Boroughs’ primitive fantasy he-man in Tarzan, the Ape Man the concept was not only fresh and vital to cinema goers, but it also carried more than a hint of eroticism that had the Catholic League of Decency breaking a celibate sweat, and, German Chancellor Adolph Hitler banning ye ol’ buff of the loin cloth from his country’s movie screens. Maureen Sullivan – better known as Jane – was quietly offered land and money if she would stop ‘disgracing’ herself on the screen.
All six of the original MGM films are included in The Tarzan Collection; variations on Boroughs’ intriguing novel, about a human male baby raised by animals in the deep darkest jungles of Africa after his parents have been killed. The baby grows up to be a man, but the man is void of all human intellect. Thus, when Tarzan reaches adulthood and stumbles across the shapely figure of Jane (Maureen O’Sullivan) he is moved with a visceral - yet strangely innocent - sexual appetite to possess her that arouses more than just his curiosity.
The narrative of the first three films in particular takes the old premise of 'love with a stranger' in even ‘stranger’ directions. Jane is, at first, understandably fearful of this half naked man, then perhaps just as confusingly drawn to him after being held captive in his tree house. At first, Jane's scientific mind reasons that Tarzan is a fascinating specimen for study. But shortly thereafter Jane resigns herself to the education of her man in the ways of human interaction. As the series progressed Jane’s infatuation with this nature boy shifted to romantic love – a move made problematic for the censors when ‘boy’ (Tarzan and Jane’s love child) suddenly appeared in Tarzan Finds A Son (1939).
The first four films; Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Tarzan and his Mate (1934), Tarzan Escapes (1936) and Tarzan Finds A Son (1939) are quite frank in their exploration of exotic romance and adventure. But the final two films; Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941) and Tarzan’s New York Adventure (1942) are trite and idiotic hiccups in the formula that reduce the impact of the characters to pure camp.
When MGM decided to retire the original series in 1942 it was hardly the end of Tarzan's legacy on film. In fact, as the years rolled on many men with more muscle than brain matter would don the loin cloth and resurrect the series both at MGM and elsewhere with ever more predictable results. But MGM's Tarzan remains the standard even to this day.
There's just something about the Weismueller/Sullivan chemistry that pretenders to the treetop have been unable to quantify or duplicate since. And MGM's lavish production values sold the series as high art shot on the backlot with fake trees, tamed elephants and a lovable trained chimp named Cheetah.
There is little to celebrate in this DVD collector’s set from Warner Home Video. The movies are spread across four discs but not in their chronological order. The first four films suffer from a barrage of age related artifacts – dirt, scratches, tears, et al. Image quality is excessively grainy and poorly contrasted. Blacks are faded gray. Whites are dull gray. The quality improves slightly in the last two films. However, edge enhancement, pixelization and shimmering of fine details are extremely obtrusive and everywhere. The audio is mono and exhibits hiss and pop.
Frankly, I cannot understand Warner's marketing mentality. If the film's are good enough to release on properly stamped DVDs than they ought to rank a restoration effort to make them ready for the digital format. Garbage in, garbage out. I wouldn't recommend this set to anyone except for Skeet shooting practice. That's a pity, because Warner has taken the time to give us a fantastic feature-length documentary on Weissmuller and the Tarzan phenomenon.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Tarzan, the Ape Man 3.5
Tarzan and His Mate 4
Tarzan Escapes 3.5
Tarzan Finds a Son 3
Tarzan's Secret Treasure 2
Tarzan's New York Adventure 1
Tarzan, the Ape Man 2.5
Tarzan and His Mate 2.5
Tarzan Escapes 2.5
Tarzan Finds A Son 3
Tarzan's Secret Adventure 3
Tarzan's New York Adventure 3